Sunday, September 2, 2007

Il Conformista + Silk + The Fourth Bear

Reviews of novels I read in the past month ...

1. "Il Conformista" ("The Conformist") by Alberto Moravia

Set in Italy during the Fascist era, the novel focuses on three crucial
points in the central character's life: when he was about 13 years old,
when he was 30 years old, and when he was 36 years old.

Marcello Clerici is the only child of a well-to-do family.  As a child
his parents have little time for him as they lead their busy lives.  In
fact, Marcello seemed to spend more time talking to the maid and the
cook.  A slightly effeminate boy, he was teased at school.  Perhaps
this lead him to overcompensate, for example he is obsessed with guns
and cruelly kills lizards he found in his backyard.  When reflecting
on the latter, he fears that he may not be "normal".  He tries to get
reassurance from the kid next door that the idea hunting for and killing
lizards is acceptable, but Roberto is appalled.  His fascination with
guns leads to an unfortunate accident where he shoots a man (Lino) who
had offered him a revolver in return for his company.

Fast forward to when Marcello is 30.  Having believed for 17 years that
he killed the man, Marcello resolves to become a "normal" person.  He
thinks that this will be achieved by conforming to society's norms.  He
will get married to his girlfriend, Giulia.  They will buy a grand house
and fill it with fine things, and eventually start a family.  He will
work hard to get his career on track, no matter what it takes.

Marcello works for the Secret Service of the Fascist government, and he
is asked to betray his former professor who is suspected of agitating
against the regime.  He sees this as a normal thing to do, since it is
for the greater good of the society into which he so desperately wants
to fit.  The bulk of the story revolves around his mission, which takes
place while he is on his honeymoon in Paris.  Marcello experiences more
concerns about being "abnormal", especially when he compares his
behaviour to that of his wife.  Repressed feelings, doubts about the
mission and his futile attraction to the beautiful young wife of his
former professor (Lina) combine to torment him further.

The final part of the story takes place just as the Fascist regime is
overthrown.  Marcello feels he has backed the wrong horse.  He is
worried his past will be exposed and fears he and his family (now
including a baby daughter) will pay the ultimate price.  He heads off
with his family to lay low in the country. There's a major twist which
makes Marcello question his choices and actions.

A deep and fascinating story about a man struggling to be a "normal"
person in the world, whatever that is.  By confusing conformity with
normality, the outcomes may be very different to those desired.  And
society's current norms may not always be acceptable or normal.

2. "Silk" by Alessandro Baricco

This is a short but satisfying novel.  It's set in 19th Century France.
The local supply of silkworms has become infected, so Hervé Joncour is
asked to make a dangerous voyage to Japan ("the end of the world") to
buy healthy silkworms to supply the silk factories in the town.

After the first successful mission, he repeats the voyage each year.
Each time he finds himself falling further in love with a companion of
the local ruler.  However the "affair" only occurs in their respective
minds, and in fact he never even hears her say a word.

A lot happens in this book, but the writing style is simple and
economical.  If it weren't for a rather racy bit towards the end of
the book, involving the translation of a love letter, this would be
a story for young and old to enjoy.

3. "The Fourth Bear" by Jasper Fforde

The second in the Jack Spratt/Nursery Crimes series by Jasper Fforde.
If you're a fan of Fforde's work you'll probably enjoy this too.

The plot revolves around the death of Goldilocks, of "Goldilocks and
the Three Bears" fame.  She's an investigative reporter who has stumbled
upon the link between mysterious explosions around the world.

I found it slightly more enjoyable than "The Big Over Easy", perhaps
because it wasn't quite as twee.  The usual plot twists and clever
characters are present as Jack Spratt and the Nursery Crime Division try
to solve the case.  A couple of things that stood out for me in this
book.  Jack bought an unusual car from a "Dorian Gray", which came with
a framed picture of the car.  The damage from any accidents the car was
involved in would be fixed magically, and mysteriously become visible
on the car depicted in the painting.

There's also a rather plausible rationalisation of why, if they were
supposedly prepared at the same time, Papa Bear's porridge was too hot,
Mama Bear's was too cold, yet Baby Bear's was just right.  The
explanation, along with the explanations of other events that occur in
the Goldilocks story, ties in well with the plot.