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Recently, I’ve begun to read at least one piece of literature from each of the countries I visit. While I’ve done this for the last several countries I’ve been to, now I’m going back to fill in the gaps from past travel.
I don’t want to be doctrinaire about the books I choose, but I’ve learned a little about what I find the most beneficial. While some people who do this insist on reading a novel from each country, I’ve been much more open to a range of forms, including: poetry, short stories, and — in a case or two — creative non-fiction. One reason I’m flexible this way is that the novel isn’t the basic unit of literature everywhere in the world. I don’t want to read a pop crime novel published by an expat that offers zero insight into culture just because that’s the only novel I can get my hands on in English. Short story collections have proven at least as insightful as novels because one sees more lead characters put into more diverse situations, and poetry can be as well — as long as it gives a sense of place and people.
I should also point out that I’ve violated almost all of these suggestions when something caught my eye — often to great effect. #5 and #1 are really the only ones upon which I insist.
5.) Offers insight into the culture of the country at hand. I don’t want to sound like a literary fiction snob. I read a lot of genre fiction and the occasional commercial fiction, but this is one area where I find literary fiction is best. In large part this is because literary fiction tends to be character-driven and that depth of character usually transmits some insight into culture. When I went to Nepal I read Samrat Upadhyay’s Mad Country [short stories] and learned a great deal about the people of Nepal from various walks of life.
4.) Authored by a national of said country and set there as well. The second part (set in the country) seems like it would be non-negotiable, but I’ve certainly violated the first part (local author) and can imagine violating the second (local setting) as well. The key is that it must do #5 (cultural insight, that’s the point after all.) To give an example of a violation of the local author proviso, for the time being at least, I’m going with George Orwell’s Burmese Days as my pick for Myanmar (Burma.) I may change that at some point, but it definitely offered insight about more than one of the items on this list.
To give an example of how one might violate the setting clause and still benefit, I’ve had Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, recommended to me for a Sri Lankan book. It features a Sri Lankan boy on a ship headed from Colombo to England and thus (as I understand it) is only briefly set in Sri Lanka. Sometimes, when a national is abroad, one gains even more cultural insight — i.e. it becomes easier to see culture through the state of contrast. (It turns out that I’m reading another novel set in Sri Lanka entitled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, which promises to offer me insight into not only Sri Lanka, but also into the craziness that is the sport of cricket.
3.) Teaches me about some historical happenings of the country in question. In some sense this is always true because even a contemporary novel deals in history by the time it’s published. However, I tend to prefer a time-frame during which something interesting was going on in the country, but not so far into the past that there is disconnect with the people I interact with in my travels. For example, for Vietnam, I recently read Novel Without A Name, which features a North Vietnamese soldier as a protagonist, and it’s set during the last days of the war with America.
2.) Exposes me to a diverse set of characters. It’s a definite plus if the book shows how more than one element of society lives. A great example of this is Gagamba, a book by F. Sionil Jose, that I read in conjunction with my trip to the Philippines. In it, one peeks into the lives of rich and poor alike, as well as seeing Filipinos who’ve been living abroad and expats living in the Philippines, all this contrast makes the shadowy shapes of culture clearer.
1.) It’s a good read. It’s as simple as that. It must be a book I’d want to read regardless of whether I was trying to check off a box on travel literature.
Here’s a list of countries I’ve been to with my selections for that country — if I have one. There are some countries (e.g. USA, Hungary, India, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom) from which I’ve read a lot, but I’ll stick to presenting one that is an exemplar vis-a-vis the criteria above.
I’d love to receive recommendations, particularly for those countries I don’t have anything for yet.
Austria: The Tobacconist (recommended to me, not yet read.)
Cambodia: First They Killed My Father (I’ve read some fiction set here, but this non-fiction is the best.)
Canada: Surfacing (not yet read)
Czech Republic: The Good Soldier Svejk
Estonia: The Man Who Spoke Snakish (In progress. An unconventional choice as it’s genre fiction, but it came highly recommended and has not disappointed.)
Finland: The Year of the Hare (not yet read)
Guatemala: The President (not yet read)
Hungary: Cold Days
India: The Guide
Japan: Narrow Road to the Interior
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat
Mexico: Selected Poems of Octavio Paz
Mongolia: The Blue Sky
Myanmar (Burma): Burmese Days
Nepal: Mad Country
Peru: Death in the Andes
Singapore: Inheritance (in progress; another odd choice as the family that this novel presents is Punjabi, though they live in Singapore. and their lives are shaped by that locale. Some places, like Singapore and the UAE, have a lot of immigrants and it’s only fair to consider them through that lens.)
Slovenia: I Saw Her That Night (not yet read)
Sri Lanka: Chinaman (in progress)
UAE: Temporary People (not yet read)
United Kingdom: A Christmas Carol
United States: Blood Meridian
Vietnam: Novel Without a Name
This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.
First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.
A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.
The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.
1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.
2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.
3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.
4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.
5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.
6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.
7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.
8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.
9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)
10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?
11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.
12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?
13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]
14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?
15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?
16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.
17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.
18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.
19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.
20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.
This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.
This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.
Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.
I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.
Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.
I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.
Lila Says is the tale of a star-crossed odd couple. The lead, Chimo, is an unemployed, 19-year-old, Arab man living in a Parisian government housing complex. Chimo’s life revolves around writing stories and getting by however he can. A fair amount of the book is about living a life of poverty in the ghettos of one of the world’s most expensive cities, but the core of it is about Chimo’s relationship with Lila.
While Chimo is awkward with girls and uncomfortable in sexual matters, Lila is an exhibitionist and – it seems at first – a nymphomaniac. She is a pretty blonde girl being raised by a Catholic aunt. Over the course of the novel, it becomes less clear that Lila is a nymphomaniac, and it’s possible that she just gets excited by causing arousal in others – particularly Chimo. In other words, it’s not so clear to what degree she is having sex, versus telling erotic tall tales. At any rate, the interplay between Chimo’s repressed nature and Lila’s unrestrained nature is at the center of the story. It soon becomes clear that part of the reason Lila has chosen Chimo is because he’s simultaneously safe and interested. That is, he can control his libido but doesn’t reject Lila’s flirtations. Chimo is surprised to find that Lila doesn’t talk to any of his friends the way she does to him, and – in fact – she doesn’t talk to them much at all.
This book is hard to rate. It’s definitely rough around the edges. However, as it’s presented as the journal of a young, unemployed man with minimal education that roughness contributes to an authentic feel. I have no idea whether it’s really a case like Go Ask Alice. (Go Ask Alice was presented as an anonymous manuscript written by a teen-aged girl whose life fell apart due to drug use, but it turned out to be written by a middle-aged woman whose life experience was nothing akin to Alice’s – though she was a therapist and youth counselor and thus had access to stories of those like Alice.) However, the text feels like it could have been hand-scrawled in the ruins of an abandoned building by candle light as described. (That is, if one discounts the British slang which takes one away from the “Arab man in a Parisian housing project,” but the book was originally published in French and so the English edition translation was made to invoke the same class level in its readership.) There are even a few footnotes about the state of the pre-edited manuscript that sell the meta-story of the book.
It’s also a great oversimplification to classify the book as erotica. It’s true that there is a great deal of sexual content in the book, and most of what Lila says, except toward the book’s end, is intended to be titillating. However, the book is also about living in poverty, selling blood to get grocery money and such. Furthermore, the book’s end ventures away from eroticism and into the realm of tragedy.
I found this book to be incredibly and surprisingly engaging. I might say I liked it warts and all, but I think it’s truer to say its warts contributed to making it more engrossing. I would highly recommend it for readers who don’t mind adult themes and who aren’t attached to happy endings (no pun intended.) I don’t mean to give anything away or to beat a dead horse. It’s just that if one picks the book up thinking of it as romance or erotica, one might feel betrayed. Better to think of it as a gritty work of fiction.
I’ve recently started reading at least one work of literature from each country I visit, and I picked this book up in Nepal as a first take on that country through the lens of literature. I couldn’t be happier with my selection. This book provided exactly what I was looking for in such a book, and more. What I want from such a book is insight into culture, lifestyle, and politico-historical context that can be difficult to witness through travel. Traveling a new country is like dating a new person; one doesn’t see the rough edges for some time. (Usually the relationship – in either case — is over before one sees into the murky depths.)
Over the course of eight stories, Upadhyay not only gives one insight into the nature of life for a variety of Nepalis (e.g. rich, poor, and middle class as well as young / progressive v.) older / conservative), he also shows the life of a hippie ex-pat gone native as well as presenting the worldview of a Nepali abroad (i.e. in America for college.) Where this book exceeded my expectations was in the skilfulness of tension-building employed in the stories. Often a book that achieves the aforementioned objectives does so in a way that is flat on story because it takes the character-centric orientation common in literary fiction. These stories are gripping as well as insightful, and don’t abandon story for character. It dances a beautiful line in that regard.
The first of eight stories tells of the trials and tribulations of an editor of a hard-hitting journalistic magazine, and the dual challenges she faces in taking on a corrupt regime while at the same time she has a friend who is going through a messy breakup. However the editor juggles these competing demands, we know she won’t escape some guilt of failing someone important to her.
The second story is about a rich boy whose life is tormented by the fact that his mother abandoned him and his father and moved on to form a new family. The boy takes to impersonating a beggar, secretly hoping his mother will see him and will be shocked into change. The story is also about the young man’s wake up call to the fact that he’ll never have the killer instincts bred by necessity into those less fortunate that are arrayed against him.
The third story is about “the Sharmas,” a dysfunctional Nepali nuclear family in which the mother is pure shrew, the father is trying fumblingly to have an affair, the son is a dim-wit, and the daughter is dating a young man who everybody seems to think is out of her league.
The fourth story is about a girl in the early 1980’s Kathmandu who goes from the drug-addled life of a Freak Street hippie to going full native. Here we see what draws the foreigner to Nepal and to Nepalese people, as well as how attempts to escape into another culture can be as troubled as attempts to escape into drug-induced euphoria.
The fifth story is by far the longest and might be classed as a novella. It’s about a young man who becomes obsessed with an African girl that he rescues in Kathmandu. The piece has a very dream-like quality to it, and through much of the story one is left unclear as to what is real and what is the product of the lead’s mind. In fact, the title “Dreaming of Ghana” suggests this imagined state of affairs.
The sixth story is the shortest, and – as its title suggests – it’s about an “Affair before the Earthquake.” The story evokes the emotion of world events that cleanly bisect our lives.
The eponymously titled penultimate chapter follows a wealthy and powerful woman who is “disappeared” by a corrupt authoritarian regime when she tries to look into the similar disappearance of her son. It’s a fascinating tale about a prominent real estate developer who is disabused of the notion that she is too powerful to be man-handled by the State. We see her transformation as a prisoner as the wind is taken out of her sails until one wonders whether she would ever be able to cope in her old life after being cowed by prison life.
The last story, like the fourth, turns things upside-down a bit. In it we find a Nepali student abroad who finds himself out in the cold because of his strong views on race. He discovers he’s at odds with the other foreign students because he thinks they should be more outraged about the bias displayed against them. He identifies with the plight of blacks, but they don’t see him as one of them.
This is an intense little collection of stories and I’d highly recommend it. The stories are well-crafted and keep the reader intrigued.
This novel intersperses two story lines, the connection between which only becomes clear near the book’s end. The first story arc is set in a realistic world in which a few futuristic and bizarre science fiction elements intrude on an otherwise ordinary Tokyo scenescape. Let’s face it, Tokyo is one of those cities that it’s easy to believe hides some unexpected truths inside its gargantuan sprawl.
In the first story (i.e. the odd-numbered chapters), a Calcutec (i.e. the narrator) is hired by a mysterious elderly scientist who’s running an independent laboratory. Calcutecs are individuals who’ve been trained to use their subconscious for data encryption and storage. As the offense / defense of data encryption has become a contact sport in this world, the narrator isn’t initially surprised when he gains some unwanted attention from nefarious types, but gradually he comes to discover that nothing is as it seems.
The second story arc plays out in a surreal dream world. In this world, the lead (also a “narrator”) is a dream reader who spends his nights taking in old dreams from the skulls of the beasts who reside in the countryside nearby and which die off in massive numbers each winter. All and all, this narrators life is relatively calm and tranquil, though he does suffer some anxiety over the fact that he’s been separated from his shadow, and that said shadow seems to be dying off.
For a story that plays out in the surreal imagery of the subconscious mind and which hinges on the esoteric world of the brain, it’s incredibly readable and easily followed. This is trippy reading, but it’s not difficult to follow. If you enjoy movies like “Inception,” “Source Code,” “Memento,” or “The Machinist,” this book will be right up your alley.
I’d highly recommend this book for those who enjoy mind-bending fiction.
This book begins with a family being murdered by Jack, a cold-hearted killer – a family all save the infant. It’s readily apparent that this isn’t a random violent crime. For one thing, the fiend is far more concerned with finding the baby so as to complete his treacherous task than he is with absconding with loot or reveling in carnage. We don’t know why the family is killed or how a baby could possibly be a worthy target for an assassin, but it’s a mystery that will play out over the course of the book. What we do know is that the boy, Bod – short for Nobody [Owens] – crawled from his crib, out of the house, and into a graveyard that night and that he was taken in by the dead [and a vampiric guardian named Silas] and granted free access to the graveyard.
While the plot is about a killer on the loose intent on murdering Bod, a lot of the book deals with the boy’s challenges as the one living human among a community of the dead. Silas and his adoptive – if deceased – parents, the Owenses, are reluctant to let the boy out of the graveyard because they know he is in danger and they can protect him there were a different set of rules apply, but he has a desire to experience the world. An abortive experiment with going to school fails because Bod sticks up for bullied kids and can’t help but employ some of the skills he’s acquired as a denizen of the graveyard. In the graveyard, he is a living person among the dead, but he is no less the outsider among the living.
This is written for a young audience, and is therefore highly readable while avoiding all the gore that one might expect of a book that begins in murder. Gaiman masterfully creates the ghoulishness and suspense without being horror, per se. I’d recommend this book for readers of low (intrusion) fantasy works.
This lesser-known Hesse work adopts a theme common throughout the author’s books in that it’s philosophical man-versus-himself fiction. The book’s protagonist, H.H., is a member of a secretive league [called “The League”] with whom he is undertaking a journey of self-discovery. H.H. fails to complete the expedition, and that fact haunts him into old age. Ultimately, H.H. finds Leo, a servant who’d been on the journey with him, with whom H.H. had a great affinity, and whose disappearance (along with some loot) led to H.H.’s abandonment of the trip. In the process, the lead discovers that nothing was what it seemed.The book examines how vulnerable people are to disillusionment and how quickly they can lose their passion, and it urges the reader to consider from what source one draws one’s strength.
This novella is a little under a hundred pages, and is told in five chapters. The first couple of chapters describe the ill-fated journey. The third chapter is a pivot in which H.H. is considering his inadequate attempt to chronicle events, and is advised to get closure by tracking down Leo. In the last two chapters, H.H. does find Leo, receives the man’s wisdom, and ultimately finds out what really happened.
I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and simple read, but is extremely thought-provoking. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to think about life’s big questions.
This is book #25 in Penguin’s “Modern” series. These short books (less than 100 pages) feature short works (poems, short stories, essays, speeches, and even a novella or two) from 20th century luminaries. In this case, the book consists of six short stories by the Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, who’s most famous for his novel “Naked Lunch” and for his affinity for heroin. I mention the latter not to besmirch Burroughs’ character, but because drug use (and the vices that sometimes travel hand-in-hand) is a fixture in Burroughs’ writing, and this collection is no exception.
Many, if not all, of these stories are in the same fictional universe, as suggested by repeated characters and locations — most notably the junky William Lee of “Naked Lunch” fame. [These stories were previously published in a collection entitled, “Interzone,” and the titular piece had an even earlier first publication in the book, “Early Routines.”] However, the stories are all stand-alone pieces and a couple of them show no evidence of being related. The one’s that do share common features don’t tell an overarching tale.
The six stories are:
1.) “The Finger”: An addict, Lee, cuts off his own finger (just the top joint) and is surprised by the reaction it incurs.
2.) “Driving Lesson”: An individual with no experience driving is asked to take the wheel, and given some bad advice to boot.
3.) “The Junky’s Christmas”: The spirit of Christmas overcomes an addict’s yearnings.
4.) “Lee and the Boys”: Lee and his various [non-sexual] interactions with young male prostitutes.
5.) “In the Café Central”: This isn’t so much a story as sketches of the various meetups simultaneously transpiring at a café. There is a table with: a.) a guide and a tourist, b.) a German expat and the annoying gossip who he uniquely tolerates, c.) a beautiful woman with bad teeth who is a wee bit sensitive about them.
6.) “Dream of the Penal Colony”: This hazy, little story is part a dream of being in a penal colony and part slurry of reality and the hallucinations of drug-addled drifter.
I enjoyed this little collection and would recommend it for someone who wants to sample Burroughs before diving into one of his novels. While the first story may have gotten the title role by virtue of its bizarre subject matter, I’d argue that “The Junky’s Christmas” is narratively the strongest. It’s not too hard to follow these pieces despite the fact that the stories virtually all feature unreliable narration by virtue of being told through the eyes of someone in the grips of substance abuse. Burroughs presents that mix of reality and drug-distorted world-view vividly and intelligibly. That said, if you’re expecting the world through sober eyes, you’re in the wrong place.
The blurb offers readers the gist of the story. In a nutshell: an American soldier, Andrew Bower, experiences some horrific happenings during the Second World War and the subsequent liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. Nearing being sent home at the end of the European campaign, he’s severely wounded. In his wound- and drug-induced stupor, a dream world story unfolds. He imagines he’s fled to a tiny, neutral country that’s been unaffected by the war. Bowers’s deathbed dream mixes insights into the absurdity and insecurity of war with a fantasy about the adult family life it looks as though he will be denied.
The dream world story explores an interesting theme, particularly involving the notion that to be human means to be a mixed bag of drives and desires and not a mechanistic unified actor. Andrew wants to flee to a place untouched by the war, but even there he (and the people who populate his mind space) finds he can’t escape the anxiety. To be in an unaffected country means only to be in the looming shadow of war. It doesn’t mean one will feel safe. Bowers thus faces the dilemma of whether to go back to war or to stay in war’s shadow. This split is commonly seen in the real world. Soldiers despise being in a war, but are often drawn to it in part because they feel they owe it to their peers, in part because of guilt, and in part because acting is better than sitting around stewing in one’s fear and torment.
The surrealism of the dream sequence gradually unfolded. By this I mean one doesn’t sense an immediate shift in tone and imagery from the real to the metaphysical. This may have been on purpose, and some portion of readers will like it that way, but I suspect another portion of readership would like a clearer / cleaner shift in the feel. There does come a point at which there is a weirdness going on that one can’t reconcile with the real world, but that comes fairly well into the part of the story that isn’t rooted in the real world. It’s a hard line to capture that mental world surrealism without becoming distracting. Adding to the challenge in this case, there’s meant to be a haziness in which real world elements intrude into the mental world.
I found this book to be entertaining and insightful, and would recommend it for readers of war fiction.