Saturday, 18 August 2012

Words of Wisdom vol.3

My reading behavior has been beyond approach lately and I am quite tempted to excuse it with "Oh, I am an investment banker, I work such long hours". Don't even get me started on the pride with which investment bankers share the hours they work it. As if it is the greatest accomplishment in life to be in the office from 9 until infinity.

Anyways, I have been bad myself, reading a book every week (in the good weeks) and writing reviews every once in a while (when I actually feel I want to see a computer again).

This doesn't mean, however, that my so called wisdom has dried out. I am still one of those people that probably most of my friends have banned from Facebook newsfeed because once in a while I feel like sharing a deeply profound status. I am not sure what people's opinion is (frankly I don't know if I care) but I feel I need to cast some opposition to the following:

1. Annoying pictures of cute bears, babies, dogs, cats, mice, whatever
2. Pictures of coffee accompanied by "Good morning, it's Monday. Have a wonderful week everybody". Monday by far is the worst day of the week and I strongly believe it should be banned. It actually makes me sick seeing those positive people on a Monday morning when I fucking wonder why the alarm has rung only a few minutes after I went to bed.
3. Dramatic statuses (i.e you don't love me but you lose because I am... and I am strong enough and....just play Cher's Strong Enough and you get the point)
4. Endless 9gag postings - yes, I love 9gag myself, I can go there if I want, I don't need to see it constantly.
5. Pictures from the seaside - Now this is entirely personal but people I AM STUCK IN THE OFFICE PLEASE DON'T SHOW ME HOW MUCH FUN YOU ARE HAVING!

So I feel by far that my occasional "wisdom" statuses are actually doing some good. First, I avoid being overdramatic. Second, I assume it would be nice to read something profound you haven't hear (most probably) before. Third, I know I am sounding overconfident, but come on, I do have some cool statuses.

Going back (finally, this has been one annoying word vomit) to Words of Wisdom vol. 3

I am indeed a king because I know how to rule myself.
~Pietro Aretino

The worst mistakes are made by people who have no doubts.
~my Risk Management lecturer at HEC

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become forever responsible for what you have tamed."
~The Little Prince

There was only one catch and that was Catch 22, which specified that a concern for ones own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
~Catch 22 Joseph Heller

Nobody can face the world with their eyes open all the time.
Most of what matters in your life takes place in your absence.
"You be respectable sister," she said, "Me, I'll be alive."
I no longer want to be anything except what who I am. Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I've gone, which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each "I", everyone of the now six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.
Memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and wilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no same human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own.
~ Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie

-"Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever," he said. "You might want to think about that."
-"You forget some things, don't you?"
-"Yes. You forget what you want to remember and remember what you want to forget."
~The Road Cormac McCarthy

It's good that you feel pain. If it stopped hurting, you'd have something seriously wrong with you.
If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, the there's salvation in life. Even if you can't get together.
~1Q84 Haruki Murakami

...and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.
~ A Clash of Kings George R.R. Martin

Words of Wisdom vol.1
Words of Wisdom vol.2

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

World War Z - it might be closer than we think

In World War I the world fought imperialism. In World War II it opposed the Nazis. In World War Z, however, humanity is facing a somewhat more elusive enemy. How do you defeat someone, who cannot be killed because he is already dead?

World War Z is exactly what the title says - an oral history of the zombie war, a war set in the nearby future, which nearly eradicated humanity as we know it. Brooks is a journalist from the United Nations, whose role is to supplement the official 'facts and figures' report of the zombie war with a personal touch. That is, the 10-years-after account of the war lacked any human perspective;it was merely a historical representation of the war events. Brooks feels the human component is vital to the story - as already discussed human memory is fleeting and fragile. Without the personal story of the survivors, humanity will easily forget and eventually face the same problem again. Thus, the journalist goes on a global adventure to interview people from differen countries, social classes, and ages, who have fought and survived the Zombie War. The whole novel is set in the form of personal interviews and the variety of voices and characters forms a complete picture of what the world would look like if faced with an epidemic of that scale.

The body-eating, crawling, grotesque zombies are indeed cool but don't let Brooks's novel fool you that easily. More than a post-apocalyptic horror tale, World War Z uses a zombie outbreak as a metaphor for any of the challenges we currently experience (poverty, global warming, diseases, terrorism). It starts quite naturally - in a remote village in a third world country as a virus (resembling quite closely the outbreak of AIDS for example). The developped countries' politicans act as they have always had - completely ignoring whatever is happening outside their well organized countries. Placebos start appearing while the politicans close their eyes, following a rather common but obviously unsuccessful approach - as long as we ignore the problem, it doesn't exist. As with many other contemporary challenges, the moment to theoretically control and stop the disease was long past when the men of power finally realized there was something to be done. Zombies (terrorism, aids, global warming, you name it) already spread across all continents threatening to destroy a race that fallaciously (still) believes it is superior to nature. We are born and raised with the idea that humanity cannot seize to exist since we are too clever to do so. Unfortunately, Brooks shows that with the current political, economic, and social order, we are absolutely unprepared to face any major problem with a global outreach.

So the Great Panic is a fact. From the USA to Russia and from the Nordics to Africa governments realize something must be done. The first reactions are political - the Pakistani blame the Israeli, South Korea starts feeling threatened by North Korea, and the USA and Russia feel the great urge to resume the Cold War. At times Brooks is terribly smart (and unfortunately right). Quite a long time is lost in the zombie war (as in many other conflicts) when countries point their fingers at each other instead of at the common enemy. Meanwhile, the undead are rising and slowly threatening to overwhelm the living. Surprisingly (or maybe not; totally depends on your political orientation) the rather totalitarian countries such as North Korea and Russia are the first ones to successfully start defeating the zombies. I am not advocating for any particular regime but people in that countries always had what it took to fight - a sense they were belonging to their country and a patriotic feeling, which made them proud to die in the hands of a zombie so that the great Mother Russia can survive. The individualist capitalistic society of the USA was the most severely hurt. Suddenly the smart white-collared CEOs and CFOs became redundant. What society needed was strong and skillful workers. The plumber became higher than the manager. Brooks ingeniously shows how quickly social order can be reversed in times of crisis and how the people that think themselves indispensable to the economic development of the world will be the first ones to take on the zombie skin.

As with all wars, there are winners and there are losers. Although in Brooks' world it seemed as if the whole world was the loser. Yes, indeed some nations (especially the Nordics, since zombies tend to freeze in low temperatures) did better than others (I am not saying it but I indeed point to the Americans) but overall the result was a mass anarchy and chaos, several hundreds of millions dead (or undead) and major disatisfaction and lost of faith in the ruling governments. What will happen if the world is faced ever with such a devastation? Brooks gives a similar answer to McCarthy in his apocalyptic novel The Road:WE ARE NOT PREPARED.

Falaciously we believe we can survive and beat any disaster that comes our way. Hurricanes and earthquakes have shown us mother nature is and always will be more powerful. The War on Terror has clearly proved that politicans are more concerned with their public face instead of with making the right decisions. The great talks of cooperation and help will be over instantly the moment humanity faces an unknown enemy. At that point it will be every man for himself.

Entertaining, witty, ironic, and humurous, Brooks's World War Z is a must read for anyone with a least a bit of common sense, who is not blinded by big words and fallacious promises. On the plus side, there are some great zombie moments, which made even me look with suspicion behind my back. Strongly recommended!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

After reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and realizing that this was my book form (if I ever become a book, this is what I'll be) I became determined to read everything Kundera has ever written (ok almost everything). That is why when I stepped into a bookstore on Brick Lane a couple of weeks ago I ignored the piles of books on the way and went straight to a corner, where I was told Kundera is hiding. And there it was, a shelf of 6-7 books and no way of picking. That's when I saw The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The title immediately caught my attention. I would never connect forgetting and laughter, let alone put them in the same sentence on in the same title of a book. But again, if you come to think about it, you wouldn't put 'unbearable' and 'lightness' together either.

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance. It is a book about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about angels.

That is how Kundera himself describes his novel and I doubt I could find a better way. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is comprised of seven unrelated parts, all set in 1970s Bohemia, Czech Republic, during the years of the Russian occupation. The somehow independent from one another stories combine smoothly into a general feeling of impeding doom, of a disaster waiting to happen, of a despair that suffocates. One can easily recognize there are two driving themes - laughter and forgetting. The author explores their variations in the political, philosophical, and everyday sense creating rich characters, rich stories, rich experiences.

Forgetting. We all do, unfortunately. Sometimes I do pray to forget because the shame of what I did in the past obstructs my living in the present and my plans for the future. These prays are usually answered. No matter what we do, we forget. I realized it a couple of months ago when I was looking at a picture from my first school and I realized I have forgotten half of the names of my classmates. That is when it struck me and I felt a slow despair rising slowly. If i don't remember my past, where is my future?

The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.

In Kundera's world forgetting is an unescapable sin. Our existence is constantly marked and affected by forgetting. Memory is fragile and fleeting, yet memory and only memory determines the individuals we are. In the political sense, forgetting is the power of communism, memory - its worst enemy. In Russian occupied Bohemia the prime minister is the minister of forgetting. The collective memory is altered, transformed, changed, or erased to fit a new regime. Without memory, the people are fleeting in a void. Indeed:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

In a personal sense forgetting is even worse. Tamina and her husband left Prague as political enemies only for her husband to die a few months later abroad. Ever since Tamina has been submerged in her daily life as a waitress only to realize she has forgotten her past. She clinches to the only hope she has of recovering it - the diary she kept when she was happy. Without that diary, which follows with details the ups and downs,the happiness and the sorrow, the sex and the fightings, Tamina cannot see a future for herself. It seems weird to stick to the past when the future is awaiting for u. Yet, how are you to build a future if you have forgotten who you were before? The scariest thing is that we know the things we have forgotten are hidden somewhere in the brain (biology or whatever, but in fact everything we have ever seen or read is stored in the neurons) but we cannot retrieve it. In that sense is man's biggest agony.

In my life forgetting has been my agony. No matter how bad I have felt, I tend to forget and I keep making the same mistake over and over again just to feel the same emptiness, the same despair early in the morning when nothing makes sense, the same feeling it's only me who is standing, while the whole world is revolving. I have forgotten how much it hurt and I did it all the same.

And yet, as the coin has two sides (and the living is unbearably light): Kundera points out:

We must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.

That is what I will always adore about Kundera. Never a straight answer and never a magical way to eternal happiness. Life is dual, being is unbearable, the end is doomed and we have to make our peace with the imperfections of the world.

From the forgetting to the laughter. I am not really sure how to make the transition but there is a quote that has stuck in my mind:

The first time an angel heard the devil’s laughter, he was dumbfounded. That happened at a feast in a crowded room, where the devil’s laughter, which is terribly contagious, spread from one person to another. The angel clearly understood that such laughter was directed against God and against the dignity of His works. He knew that he must react swiftly somehow, but felt weak and defenseless. Unable to come up with anything of his own, he aped adversary. Opening his mouth, he emitted broken, spasmodic sounds in the higher reaches of his vocal range (a bit like the sound made on the street of a seaside town by Michelle and Gabrielle), but giving them an opposite meaning: whereas the devil’s laughter denoted the absurdity of things, the angel on the contrary meant to rejoice over how well ordered, wisely conceived, good and meaningful everything here below was.

The angel and the devil faced each other and, mouths wide open, emitted nearly the same sounds, but each one’s noises expressed the absolute opposite of the other’s. And seeing the angel laugh, the devil laughed all the more, all the harder, and all the more blatantly, because the laughing angel was infinitely comical.

Laughable laughter is disastrous. Even so, the angels have gained something from it. They have tricked us with a semantic imposture. Their imitation of laughter and (the devil’s) original laughter are both called by the same name. Nowadays, we don’t even realize that the same external display serves two absolutely opposed internal attitude. There are two laughters, and we have no word to tell one from the other.

Laughter in Kundera's world carries infinite meanings. It is the devil's creation. It is the enemy of love. It is what tears us away from the world and throws us into our own solitude. It is an escape and a protection from reality.

I just realized this review is an absolute vomit of words and ideas that don't seem to make sense. In my head they do and they represent the way I was feeling after finishing The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It took me a month to write a review and I realized, I did forget a lot. But I will laugh the devil's laugh now and end with my most favorite quote.

Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you've brought breakfast in bed you'll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.