Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Kite Runner - There is a Way to Be Good Again

I don't even know how to start writing about Khaled Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner. Years ago I read his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I was impressed by the shaking story of two Afghan women, whose destinies intercross in the violent reality of Afghanistan. The double standard for men and women is most evident in Hosseini's second novel, and as a woman, I was deeply shocked and startled by the Muslim culture and its attitude towards the so called gentle sex.

The author is Afghan himself, but he immigrated as a child from the turbulent environment. First the communists and then the talibans, performed unimaginable terrorist acts in the country. I would not go into detail; we all watch TV. I would simply say that the story feels much more real, much more compassionate, and much more touching through the eyes of a local, who has seen the terror, escaped it, and now describes it from the point-of-view of one of the most democratic countries in the world.

While A Thousands Splendid Suns is a "women's" novel, The Kite Runner is a "men's" novel. In both, though the Afghan terror meets the American dream in stories that reveal the most extreme human characteristics. Unbelievable violence is followed by great compassion; terror is opposed to love; betrayal receives loyalty; hatred is overruled by love. Hosseini is amazing in portraying the problems of his own country and the inner contradictions of the human soul. These qualities transform him in one of the best and most influential contemporary authors I have read lately.

The Kite Runner is a novel about children and adults. It can be read as a criticism against violence in Afghanistan and as an ode for the everlasting friendship and loyalty. Amir and Hassan are raised together but their lives are completely different; Amir is a rich Pashtun, the high class in Afghanistan, who suffers from his father neglection and spends his entire childhood trying to impress him and deserve his love. Hassan is his best friend and his servant; he is a Hazzar though, which means his social status is much lower than Amir's. When the communists and subsequently the Talibans come to power, the Hazzars are subjected to persecutions, murders, violence, and extreme terror.

Amir and Hassan are more than friends; they are brothers. Their childhood is marked by Hassan's immense loyalty and Amir's regular harassments and provocations. Yet, they are inseparable; they play together, they run together, they read together, Amir participates in the kite tournament and Hassan is the best kite runner in Kabul. All is good until an act of violence against Hassan and an even more terrible act of betrayal from Amir. The political situation forces him and his father to immigrate to the USA. However, nearly 16 years later, Amir has to return to his home country and to atone his sins against his best friend. The situation has changed; Afghanistan is now more brutal and more dangerous than the young boy remembered it. But he has lived with the guilt of betraying Hassan and upon returning to his home country, Amir realizes he has to sacrifice a lot to help those that need him.

The Kite Runner is the most real, the most inspiring, the most touching novel I have read in years. I loved Hassan for his loyalty and bravery, for his friendship and protection for Amir, even though he was the one needing protection. I mostly loved him for his ability to forgive betrayal, to accept human flaws, to understand and to accept. I loved Amir, even though he was the weaker and the more afraid. The author says several times: "Fathers were rarity in Afghanistan". Indeed, Amir had a father but not a father figure. His constant struggle to feel worthy, his fear of punishment and danger, and his need of protection forced him to abandon Hassan. But should we judge him so severely? He was only a child. And in Afghanistan, there were more children but less childhood. This is Hosseini's second theme - the immerse suffering of the most innocent ones in a political regime that deprives them from their childhood, from their friends, from their families.

Mostly, though, The Kite Runner is a novel about redemption. We all make mistakes, some more terrible than others. But there is a way to be good again. It is never too late to act accordingly, to protect the ones we love, to confront our enemies, and to forgive our friends. The strongest are not the ones that don't make mistakes; the strongest are the ones that face them, accept them, and then have the courage to change them. It is never never too late to be good. Thank you Khaled Hosseini for reminding me that. Thank you for showing me the terrors of your own country. Than you for giving me hope that it takes only 1 person to change someone's destiny. Thank you for making me cry and then thank you for making me smile at the end. One smile doesn't mark the end of suffering and the beginning of happiness but it is a strong start.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Sarah's Key - Jewish Girl's Sufferings in Nazi France

When my aunt told me "I have read a book that you might like", I was very skeptical. Not to be too full of myself, but my aunt's taste doesn't in anyway resemble my own. There is nothing wrong with reading sugarcoated love stories or predictable crime novels but I have always felt this type of literature is losing my time. With the abundance of great books to read, I just don't see the point of reading these, even with the idea of relaxing. Emotional and sensitive as I am, I don't use novels or movies to escape these emotions and feelings. Instead, I take even more emotions from the literature I read that I can bear. However, my aunt insisted that I would simply love Sarah's Key and that it even made HER cry. My aunt not only read a serious novel but she was even moved by it. In addition, she told me that it was about Jews, which is one of my favorite topics, so I went for it.

To be honest, I expected a little bit more from Tatiana De Rosnay's Sarah's Key. The idea is good - a little Jewish girl, taken together with her family by the French police and moved to a stadium, where the conditions are terrible. The Jews are left without food, shelter, water, and toilet waiting to be transferred to one of the hundreds concentration camps, where most of them find their death. Sarah, wanting to protect her little brother, leaves him in the secret wardrobe of their apartment, promising to return and unlock him. Hence, Sarah's key. Unfortunately, Nazi occupied France doesn't offer this sense of security and planning. The little girl is unable to save her brother or her family; a disastrous guilt that hunts her down all of her life, leaving her scared and unable to feel happy.

This one of the story lines. The other one, 60 years after the tragic events at the Parisian stadium, involves a 45-old American journalist living in France. Julia receives the task of writing an article about these Jews and starts digging in the story of Sarah and of the other children. Dealing with problems with her beautiful but unfaithful husband, her pretentious French family-in-law, her unfortunate pregnancy, and her obsession with the little girl, Julia discovers a secret about her husband's family that has been hidden for more than 60 years. The stories of two women from totally different generations and time periods entangles in a novel about loyalty, love, compassion, suffering, and forgiveness.

Even though the story is indeed tragic and emotional, I didn't cry. I just couldn't feel it from Rosnay. The plot has the potential of becoming something truly incredible and touching but at times I felt as if the author herself was not feeling it. The story, of course is made up; only the background events are real. Still, Rosnay's fiction is not enough to grasp the brutality and terror of separating a family, the pain and suffering of leaving your brother to die, the compulsive feeling of guilt that it was you that survived and not someone else. I felt sad because I kept imagining the events in my own head. But reading about them, I just felt a little touch of sadness and depression. I expected a lot more because the story itself is great. The way it was told by the author - not so much.

I would by far recommend the other two Jewish stories I read this year - The Diary of Anne Frank and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Both are about the sufferings of little girls in Nazi occupied countries. Both present a compelling story of how the most innocent accept and fight the terror inflicted upon them. One has a unfortunate ending, the other one - a more happy one. Even though the story of the little Anne locked in a secret house in Netherlands is very different from Liesel's destiny, told from the perspective of Death itself, both novels are examples of what good literature about this period should look like. Compared with them, Sarah's Key doesn't have the same influence or effect on the reader. Not that you mustn't read it; it is just a bit overrated for what it truly offers.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Should We Read the Classics?

This question didn't just pop into my mind in the middle of the night. I have been thinking about it greatly in the last few months. Partially by outside influence and partially by the fact that books are my recreational drugs, I deliberately abandoned the classics of world literature for quite a while and I dived in modernity. I bought contemporary French, American, English, Turkish, Bulgarian, younameit authors, and I was passionately reading and reviewing them.

The benefit of these novels is that they are closer to us. Indeed, they talk about the problems, issues, conflicts, and confrontations of the world now and today, and not in the 19th century. It is far more easier for a reader to identify with Lora, Cassia, Julia, August Brick, Amelie, Hannah, etc. These characters have our problems. They search for love in our way too complicated computerized world, they attempt to balance between jobs and personal life, they fight loneliness and family loss, they struggle with eating disorder, they try to survive the difficult teenage years. It is far more useful to read contemporary specialized non-fiction about your field of studies (economics, finance), which changes daily and thus every book older than a year or two is irrelevant already.

What about classics? How are we supposed to identify with the issues of 19th century women, who have to marry for the man their family chooses, and if they are extremely lucky, they will learn to love him? We cannot imagine separating from someone just because he has less money, social position, power, influence, etc than us. How are we to understand the sufferings of Mme Renald, when she cheats on her husband with the bright, but socially unequal Julien? How are we to really grasp the rebellion of Lady Chatterley and her lover? And what about the struggles and metaphysical questions of the Big Russians - the epic novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi, the little problems of the peasants in Chekhov's world, the unrequited and painful love of Pushkin? Can we really grasp them? And should we read them? And if so, why lately more and more young people turn towards modern books and abandon the classics? Have they read them, have they left them for more mature years, or have they simply ignored them in favor of new and more applicable pieces of literature?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Triple times "Yes" we should read the classics. I wouldn't try to invent hot water in this post, nor criticize other people's personal choices of literature. I would simply point out things we know. The classics are great novels. Not because someone important said so. I wouldn't care even if God himself came down to me to tell me "This book is great. You must read it". I care about time. These novels are great because they have survived the most difficult thing. They have passed the longest distance between two places. They have conquered the one thing we people cannot still even get close to conquering. They have won over time. Years, generations, world wars, disasters, calamities have passed and we still read Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Orwell, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pasternak, The Bronte Sisters, Poe, Lawrence, Marquez, Kerouac, Clavell, Rand, Bradbury, Hugo, Stendhal etc. And safe to say, we will still. There is something to it, isn't there?

I am far from claiming I have read all the classics that I should have. I would go further, I will say I will never read them. I am only 22 and I have read a tiny fraction of what world literature has to offer. And as I love to say "I am afraid this life will not be enough for me to read all that I want to". Yes, it won't be but I will try my best to read as much as I possibly can. And from my modest experience with both classics and contemporary literature I would say it with a plain sentence - Classic literature tells me things I know in a way that makes me stare and admire the talent, the choice of words, the writing style, the intimation, the feeling of greatness you knew existed but you never even imagined it to be so great.

Lastly, where do you think contemporary literature came from? It didn't just magically appear to fill in the bookshelves or to empty our pockets. It was inspired by the classics. And there is NOTHING wrong with it. I hate when people judge an author simply because he took his inspiration from someone great before him. Well, of course he will. Literature is like any other art, and any other profession for that matter. You see something amazing, something revolutionary, something contradictory, something deep and influential. Of course you will use it. You will add something to it from yourself, of course, but you will get the base. That's why we shouldn't be repelled by a novel, which seems to copy an idea already developed by another. We should be actually more impatient to read it. Because we know the author has read the classics, because we realize he is aware of their work, and because we are certain he has filtered the good from the bad and has used the first as the foundation for his work. The result largely now depends on this contemporary author's talent, motivation, and inspiration. But he has used the help given to him in the face of the great ones.

If I have offended someone with this post, I am not sorry. I don't judge contemporary literature; on the contrary, I adore it. Examples such as Zafon, Sagan, Nothomb, Pancol, Gounelle, Larsson, Giordano, etc make me optimistic about the future of great novels in general. But the past of great novels must not be disregarded or ignored. Before you judge contemporary literature, before you impose your opinion on others, before you take the great responsibility of recommending them what to read, be sure you have the basis to do so.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a Huge Disappointment.

After being seriously impressed by Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl, I was more than intrigued to read more from the Noble prize winner. Quite a long time passed, during which I was filling in my gaps in classic literature but upon entering a bookstore and wondering between Llosa and a Bulgarian author, I decided to go for his most famous novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This novel will not be soon forgotten for the mere reason that it is the novel I read for the longest time from War and Peace until now. Not because I didn't have time but simply because this is definitely NOT my thing. Once more, I have proven to be quite a diverse reader, who can hate one piece of literature and simply love another one by the same author. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first example. I simply couldn't stand his magical realism in 100 Years of Solitude and I chose to abandon it. But then, Love in the Times of Cholera is one of the greatest love stories. Mario Vargas Llosa (another South American author) joins the honorable list of authors, whom I both adore and hate.

I praised The Bad Girl a lot. The story of an obsessed man in love and a promiscuous woman, who ruins his life was brilliantly written and deeply psychological. Combined with the typical atmosphere of Peru, which now as I see it is present in both his novels, this piece of literature stands amongst my most favorite this year. You can imagine my surprise when I was totally repelled by Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

The latter is largely biographical. The main character, Marito, wants to be a writer and works in a radio in Lima, similarly to Llosa. He falls in love with his aunt Julia (not really related to him, relax!) and despite his family's opposition, marries her. Llosa also married his aunt. So far quite a trivial story, which doesn't get any better as you keep reading. We understand Marito loves the aunt but we don't see why or how. I simply didn't feel the passion, the connection, the intense pain that you cannot live without another human being. The love story was banal and boring so I was quite tempted to skip parts of it.

What is original about the novel, though, is that it is split between Marito's narrative about his unfortunate love affair, and Pedro Kamacho's stories. Kamacho is a brilliant Bolivian series writer, whose radio series exalt thousands of people. His relationship to Marito is explored quite superficial but we manage to grasp that Marito admires the writer. In Kamacho's story line, Llosa explores the drama of the artist and the genius, who slowly loses his mind. At the beginning the Bolivian produces quite popular and admirable series, but the tension and the fatigue play their role. He starts mixing people, places, characters, and story lines. His destiny of a great artist and a great talent is unfortunately to be admired when capable and to be abandoned when crazy.

Without the Kamacho story line the novel would have been a complete disaster. Indeed, the place of the artist is ingeniously explored but as for the aunt Julia story, I would say it is a complete failure. Trivial, shallow, and superficial, Marito and his aunt's love affair does nothing to provoke any feeling or impression in me. In conclusion, I am glad I finally finished this novel and I would need a lot of time before I turn again to Llosa. I have quite a bad taste in my mouth right now.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Love, Despair, Separation, Deceit, Hope, and Forgiveness in The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles is special for me. For the first time since I have a notebook with sentences from books I have read, I wanted to rewrite almost every single sentence. The simple story of love, despair, separation, deceit, hope, and forgiveness in the contemporary French society is full of ideas about life, originally expressed, which I need to stick in my head. Of course, I limited myself to only several sentences, but still, it is worth mentioning that I took so much from that novel that I cannot be thankful enough to Katherine Pancol for writing it and to my doctor for recommending it to me.

What is the worst thing that you fear might happen to you? Your husband (boyfriend) leaving you for another (younger) woman and travelling with her to Kenya to take care of crocodiles? Your teenage daughter hating you for being so submissive, ugly, afraid, unorganized, and pathetic? Your sister using you as her shadow writer, giving you all the money for the book but than taking all the fame, respect, and adoration? Your ex-husband taking a loan from your common savings, which you then have to repay? Struggling with money matters and being unable to provide everything for your family as a single mother? Do you think you can survive this and find the strength within yourself to continue, to survive and to be happy? Well, all of this happens to Josephine, the extremely aimable and lovable heroine of The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles.

I thought I had many problems. I seriously did. And every time I encountered one, I chose the easy way around - I stuck my head in the sand and I waited for the storm to pass above me. I didn't attempt to fight because I was afraid I would fail. I was afraid I will not have the courage and the strength. I was afraid of others judging me, of my family not loving me, of that boy abandoning me, of not passing my exams, of turning into a complete failure despite all of the hopes put in me. When I read Jo's story, I saw in fact the woman I want to be someday. My friend told me "You are not like your parents. You can choose the person you want to be and be that person". "But I am afraid," said I. Jo is afraid as well but she did it.

At the beginning when her husband leaves her, her teenage daughters accuse her, her family despises her, Jo for the first time takes a look at what her life has become lately. She had stopped taking care of herself, life had been passing her slowly, and she was merely the audience and not the actor in whatever happened to her. At the beginning she was afraid to change something. At the beginning she was the Jo everyone felt sorry for, everyone ridiculed, everyone secretly feared of becoming one day. Pathetic, lonely, afraid, unattractive. Change doesn't happen overnight but it does happen indeed.

This is a novel about so many things. It's about Josephine's friendship with Shirley, her grounded in reality positive best friend. It's about Josephine's book about 12th century, which she writes so that her spoiled but beautiful sister can experience some fame and excitement in her life. It's about the end of a marriage and the feeling that you will never love or be happy again. It is about hope and the butterflies in your stomach, that signify that love is again around the corner. It is about the difficult relationships between generations; the clash between the teenager and the mother, the growing girl and the adult woman, the old and the new. It is about learning. From your friends, from your family, from your children even. It is about being patient. It is about facing your fears and realizing what you are really afraid of; then confronting them. It is about life in all of its forms. It is about dancing with life, falling, getting up, but never ceasing to love it. Mostly, it is a book that teaches you how to love yourself, how to embrace yourself when there is no one around, how to slowly build up your future. It doesn't matter who you used to be. There is always time to become who you think you must be.

There are of course other characters, despite Jo, who fight. There is Jo's stepfather, who has spend an unhappily married life to her mother, a manipulative mercantile egoist. His quest for happiness leads him to his much younger secretary, who, however, loves him and is willing to give him the child he always dreamt of. There is Jo's sister, Iris. Always the more beautiful, the more admired, the more successful, she feels empty in her marriage to the successful Philippe. Searching for something to fill in the void in her heart, she uses her sister's talent to achieve fame and admiration. This fleeting happiness doesn't fill the emptiness of her failed marriage, her lost talent, her dysfunctional relationship with her son, her unrequited young love. The swan suffers while the ugly duckling flourishes. There is also Jo's ex-husband Antoine, a successful businessman, who after being fired, falls into depression. In search for excitement, he even travels to Kenya with a much younger woman, but his impatience, his lack of initiative, his boredom with life, his ignorance of his own characters, doesn't allow him to find peace.

I recognize myself in all of these characters but I mostly loved Jo, and I doubt there will be anyone who will not love her. For what she was, for how she fought, for who she became. Because beauty, success, and love is only part of it. Most importantly, Jo became a person, who loves herself. Something, which should be our highest purpose. Beyond fame, admiration, money, and success, there is the love for that special you that keeps you going.

Unfortunately, the sequels of this amazing journey are not translated and my French is still poor to read them in original. But if there is one thing this novel taught me, that is to be patient. I will be. For Pancol's following books. And for other things, which I have been waiting for for a long time.