Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Erich Maria Remarque takes us through A Time to Love and a Time to Die in Nazi Germany

Recently I read an article about the topics you should avoid when speaking to a foreigner, depending on his country of origin. Unsurprisingly, the most popular topic one should never mention in front of a German is World War II. Germans are quite sensitive about Hitler, the concentration camps, and the Jews and they don't like discussing it or even mentioning it. However, this is the single most violent event of the 20th century and I barely know a person who has no or little opinion on it. After all, Bulgaria has spend 500 years under the Turkish yoke, but I still don't mind talking about racial issues and confrontations. Despite this German peculiarity (along with their many many other peculiarities, which I simply don't get) one of the authors who talks most exhaustively about World War II is exactly German. I present you Erich Maria Remarque.

A few weeks back a friend of mine, whose literary opinion I greatly admire, asked me an interesting question: "Is there a single author, whose complete works you have read?" I thought about it for a long time, and although I have read quite a few novels from Dostoyevsky, I cannot actually say I read it all. I don't even believe it is possible to read it all. Then she suggested I read all (or most of what) Erich Maria Remarque has written. I was ashamed to say that I hadn't read anything and I haven't even the slightest idea what, how, and why he writes. She immediately corrected my mistake and gave me quite a few books. The result is that a new era is about to hit Read with Style. Starting from today, I am going to read solely Remarque for the following months. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to bore you or to present you with only one side of literature. I believe my blog has been quite diverse so far, so I feel it is time for me to focus on a particular subject, or on a particular author. I start with A Time to Love and a Time to Die, not one of Remarque's most famous novels but certainly a very good first impression for the German-born author.

War is heroic, war is noble, war is protecting the superior Arian race. At least that is what gestapo was trying to promote to the common people during World War II and especially close to Germany's defeat. It is difficult (or almost) impossible to believe so when you are bombarded almost every other day, when you lose your house and your family, when your son/husband/father is fighting and dying on the front. Set through the eyes of a simple soldier, Ernst Graeber, the novel explores the cruelty of the war, the hypocrisy of the leaders, and the disillusionment of the people. Soldiers have no other choice but to go and fight for the cause. No one asks them whether they want to or whether they believe in it. No one gives them a choice. Some of them are born and raised under the Nazi rule. They believe in the postulates of the Party, they believe of the superiority of the Arian race, and they foolishly obey any order given to them. They are cruel, stupid, and ignorant. Yet they drive the Party and they cherish its development. Others, like Graeber, they think. They analyze what they have been told, they compare to the reality on the front and they realize the fatuity of the war, the hopelessness of the situation, and the unbelievable cruelty of the Party officials. Graeber attempts to stay patriotic even when he returns for a deserved leave after two years spend on the front. However, when he sees the damages the war has done to his closest people, when he falls in love with a girl, whose father suffers in a concentration camp, when he meets his old teacher hiding or his friends dying in the hospitals, he begins to question the purpose of it all.

There is a time to die but there is also a time to love. Unfortunately, soldiers are not given that choice. They are not given a choice at all. The hardest thing is to realize that what you are doing is cruel, purposeless, and doomed but yet to continue doing it because you have no other choice. The hardest thing is to know that you only have a couple of weeks to fall in love, to get married, to experience this love, and to separate. The hardest thing is to be completely unaware of the state of your parents and relatives. The hardest part is seeing your friends die and being unable to help them. The hardest thing is witnessing foolish and ignorant bootlickers, who have memorized Mein Kampf without understanding it, climb easily the stairs of power and influence. The hardest thing is seeing injustice and being absolutely helpless to change it. Yet, this was life for Graeber and for many others like him. War was not fair and it never will be. War doesn't ask you whether it is time to love or to die. War doesn't care whether you believe in it or not. And war doesn't care about what is fair or not. It is just war and it is a time to die.

Needless to repeat myself, my favorite subject is indeed World War II. The previous three novels I reviewed here, Sarah's Key, The Book Thief, and The Diary of Anne Frank focused on the personal sufferings of three children in different Nazi occupied countries. However, Remarque enriched me with a totally different perspective - the sufferings and the inner conflicts of the soldier, the main driver of the war. A driver that sometimes doesn't understand the war, doesn't believe in the war, even hates the war. A soldier that wants to love but it is actually his time to die.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A Brief History of Time - Where are we coming from and where are we going to?

I feel stressed when I don't have a plan about where I am going to. I care about the future and I worry about tomorrow every hour of the day but I barely think about the past. I don't wonder where I came from and how I got here and most importantly, I do not use this knowledge or experience to get more easily to where I am going. And even if sometimes I decide to crave on where I came from, I read philosophical non-fiction. I never thought I would actually read a book that combines physics, religion, and philosophy to arrive at a comprehensive understanding to all the theories about our origin. The famous scientist Sir Stephen Hawking (whom some compare to Einstein) presents a comprehensible picture of the way human beings thought about the beginning of the world and how they think now. Going from the Greeks, passing through Newton and Einstein, and arriving at the most contemporary theories, Hawking successfully transforms the largely misunderstood subject of quantum physics into something every non-specialist might understand.

A Brief History of Time is really brief. I don't know how, but Hawking manages to encompass all stages of the development of human thinking, to summarize them understandably in 200 pages, and to even make this readable and enjoyable. For those of you who hate physics (as I do) or simply don't get it (again as I do) there are no equations but Einstein's famous E=mc^2. Instead, the famous scientist and Cambridge professor includes numerous graphs, which help understand the complicated features of the uncertainty principle, quantum physics, light cones, time, etc. Most interestingly, though, unlike a typical scientist, Hawking doesn't exclude philosophy or religion from his reflections. He doesn't exclude the possibility that God created the world but of course he asks the relevant question "Why did he created it this way?" Did he want us to understand the complexities of the surrounding world and if not, why did he create it in such organized fashion? From philosophical point of view, Hawking implies that maybe if the universe had been different, we would not be here. In other words, only in a few universes would the conditions be right for complicated organisms to develop; and only these organisms will be able to ask themselves the question "Why is the universe the way we see it?" The argument goes round in a circle but Hawking manages to comprehensively read the leader to the conclusion.

Newton, Einstein, Kant, and the other great minds are no longer incomprehensible but rather clear and easy to grasp. Hawking departs from his mind of a great scientist and comes closer to the ordinary reader in his attempt to enlighten the masses on the history of time, on its current developments, and on its future endeavors to develop a complete theory about the origin of the world. One of the most impressive theories on time and on the concept of its three arrows explains why we remember the past and not the future, why we move forward and not backward, and why the universe expands instead of contracting. The thermodynamic arrow (direction of time in which disorder increases), the cosmological arrow (direction of time in which the universe expands), and the psychological arrow (direction of time in which we remember the past but not the future) coexist in harmony because if they didn't, we wouldn't be here to even ask these questions.

I am not a believer but I appreciate that the author doesn't exclude God from his equation. He admits his possible role and he even ends the book with an expression I liked very much: "If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God."

I fervently recommend A Brief History of Time. I was determined to like it because it was a present from a very important person but I say with certainty that my desire to like it didn't in anyway affect my judgement. Indeed, it is a brief, comprehensive investigation of the deep and dark fields of physics, which, if it wasn't for one of the most cherished scientists of our century, I wouldn't have ever touched to. The fact that I still managed to extract philosophical conclusions about myself and my life from this book, speaks enough for me. I loved it. I just hope I really understood it since at times I was partially confused. Re-reading it is definitely in my short-term plans.