Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Stranger + Keep the Aspidistra Flying + An Iliad

Three more book reviews...

1. "The Stranger" (or "The Outsider") by Albert Camus

Set in Algeria before World War II, the narrator, a Frenchman named
Meursault, tells how he came to kill another man, go to trial and get
sentenced to death.

The story starts with Meursault being informed of his mother's death.
He attends the funeral, but shows no outward sign of grief.  In fact,
the next day he keeps a date with his girlfriend to go see a comedy.
Later, he gets embroiled in the affairs of a "friend" (a local pimp),
resulting in the murder of an Arab.  He is arrested and held in custody.
At his trial, Meursault's response to his mother's death are used by the
prosecutor to paint a damning picture of the accused.

This novel is considered a classic of existentialism writing.  According
to the author (Albert Camus), it's about a man who is condemned because
he doesn't "play the game".  By that he means that Meursault refuses to
hide his feelings and society thus feels threatened.  Meursault is an
outsider or stranger, by his own will.  He willingly remains detached
from others, including his own mother and girlfriend.  This detachment
reminded me a little of Dino in "Boredom" (by Alberto Moravia).  But
Meursault has become so detached that, after having killed someone, he
didn't feel regret, but rather he felt "annoyed" that it happened.  Had
Meursault shown some remorse, his lawyer could have possibly argued that
it was as an act of self-defence.  On the other hand, Meursault could've
avoided the situation entirely - it was not his quarrel.

Like "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this story looks into
the reactions of a person who has committed a crime.  In "Crime and
Punishment" I felt some compassion for Raskolnikov, even though his
crime was obviously premeditated.  At least he appeared to feel some
remorse, and tried to redeem himself by helping a family in need.  In
this book, the crime may not have been premeditated, but the killer is
completely unrepentant and disinterested in seeking any redemption.
It's impossible to like the character.  His detachment is so extreme
that he is almost like a zombie.  Meursault's philosophy seems to be
that life, death and love are meaningless.  He rejects religion and any
type of morality.  Fortunately, not everyone shares this view.

Overall, it's a thought-provoking novel, but beware that there's not a
lot of joy in it.  It made me feel uneasy from the beginning to the end.
Fortunately, at a little over 100 pages, it's not a long novel.

Trivia: Apparently, The Cure's song "Killing an Arab" was inspired by
this novel.

2. "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" by George Orwell

This is one of the earlier, lesser-known works of George Orwell, author
of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "Animal Farm".  Unlike those overtly
political classics, this story comes across as rather more down-to-

Set in London in the 1930s, it's the story of Gordon Comstock, a wannabe
poet who has deliberately passed up opportunities of secure, good-paying
work to concentrate on his poetry.  He'd rather earn a subsistence wage
working in a bookshop rather than sell out his principles.  Like
Meursault in "The Stranger", he doesn't want to play the game.  In this
case, it's the game of being a model economic citizen.  He's declared
war on the "money god".

It seems he wants to struggle for his art.  The problem is, his art
seems to be struggling more than the artist.  A well-to-do editor of a
Socialist magazine tries to prop Gordon up by publishing his meagre
work.  Pride prevents Gordon from accepting more obvious financial help
(from the editor).  However pride does not get in the way of Gordon
occasionally sponging off his even more desperate, but hard-working,

Gordon has a girlfriend (Rosemary), who is more interested in his
financial well-being than he is himself.  But when Rosemary gets
pregnant, Gordon is faced with a major decision: should he take up a
job offer with an advertising firm to help support Rosemary and their
child, or should he abandon them, stick to his principles and continue
his seemingly futile efforts as a poet?

Although the plot doesn't suggest it, this is actually quite an
amusing novel.  It's almost like a semi-autobiographical parody of
Orwell's own struggles as an emerging author.

By the way, an aspidistra is a type of plant, apparently popular among
the middle-class households in London at the time.  For Gordon it
represents a symbol of normalcy and respectability, concepts he

3. "An Iliad: A Story of War" by Alessandro Baricco

This novel is by the author of some books I've enjoyed, including
"Ocean Sea" and "Silk".  Based on Homer's ancient epic poem the "Iliad",
this is an abbreviated, modernised version, written in prose.  I haven't
read the original, but I'm familiar with many of the stories within it:
the abduction of Helen by Paris from her Greek husband, the Trojan War,
the heroes (Achilles, Odysseus, Hector and so on), and the rival kings
(Agamemnon and Priam).  All these elements are present in this version,
along with the Trojan Horse and the end of the war.  These later events
were not in Homer's original "Iliad", but they were mentioned during a
flashback in the sequel, the "Odyssey".  Including them help bring this
version to a more self-contained conclusion.

This version was motivated by a need for a shortened adaptation suitable
for a public reading.  The author achieved this by removing some
repetition, and de-emphasising the discussions and intrusions of the
Olympic gods into the story.  However it's more faithful to the original
than the recent movie epic "Troy".

How successful the author has been will always be a matter for debate.
Not having read the original, I cannot say how many nuances have been
lost.  I found some of the battle scenes a bit tedious, basically being
a list of who killed who.  But overall it was quite satisfying, and easy
to read.

It should also be noted that I read the English translation of Baricco's
Italian adaptation, which in turn was based on a complete Italian prose
translation of the Homer's ancient Greek poem.