Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankel

The Man from BeijingThe Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell is a book that takes some interesting political positions. In the struggle between the followers of Mao Tse Tung and the followers of Deng Xiaoping, it is the Mao disciples who are fighting ruthless corruption in China. Capitalism is not producing positive results for the masses and Mao even gets a pass on the cultural revolution. The heroine of the novel, a Swedish judge, had admired China's red guard during her college years, so the admiration for the old style red communism is not limited to the boundaries of the People's Republic. Combine that perspective with a view on Robert Mugabe that emphasizes the positive and this book presents a perspective I'm not used to hearing.

... Robert Mugabe was a man who in many ways deserved her admiration and respect. Even if not everything he did was good, he was basically convinced that the roots of colonialism grew very deep and needed to be cut away not just once but many times. Not least of the reasons she respected him was she had read how he was constantly and brutally attacked in the Western media.

The Man from Beijing is an action thriller and a good one. I was pleased with the unique story, but disappointed with the ending, which I felt left too many loose ends and was too dependent on information found in diaries. Overall the book was exciting and the characters were well drawn: flawed and real. My wife disagrees with my assessment of the ending. We'll be discussing this book in our next book club meeting, so it will be interesting to hear other people's opinions on this.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tea Party, Occupy Movement, and what we can learn from Tolstoy

As I've mentioned in other blog posts, one of the most interesting aspects of reading literature from another era is the way it gives us a window into the thought of a time with knowledge of what eventually occurred. Anna Karenina was published in serial form from 1873 to 1877. The October revolution in Russia took place in 1917, forty-four years later. Yet in the text of Tolstoy's novel communism is mentioned a few times. It's thought of as a radical, but logical approach to the problems of economic injustice.

Konstantin Levin is the character with a conscience and a tendency toward philosophical thought that Tolstoy uses to present the impressions of what was then a new political philosophy.

Then, too, his brother's talk of communism, which he had treated so lightly at the time, now made him think. He considered a revolution in economic conditions nonsense. But he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite in the right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury.

Later Konstantin Levin needs to defend his ideas to his brother Nikolay.

“You've simply borrowed an idea that's not your own, but you've distorted it, and are trying to apply it where it's not applicable.”

“But I tell you it's nothing to do with it. They deny the justice of property, of capital, of inheritance, while I do not deny this chief stimulus.”

I can see parallels with our own time, as our politics becomes more polarized with each election. The trickle down philosophy of the Tea Party and the justice for all philosophy of the Occupy movement both have their points. But just as the communists of Tolstoy's era eventually became the Stalinists of latter years, our right and left wing radicals could lead us down a dangerous path if we're not careful to remain rational.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Hearts and Minds of Tolstoy's Characters

As I make my way through Anna Karenina I am once again amazed at the ability of Tolstoy to understand what's in the hearts and minds of his characters. I've passed the section in the novel where Anna reveals to her husband that she is having an affair. She's been pushed into this admission because she's pregnant. She attributes to herself a love of truth, but that truth was not so important before she was forced to face it.

Despite the fact that the affair occurred because of a mutual attraction between Anna and Vronsky that led to Vronsky pursuing her until she submitted, Anna sees her husband as being at fault. She admits to her own flaws, but passes them over quickly in her mind and concentrates on what annoys her about her husband.

“I'm a wicked woman, a lost woman,” she thought; “but I don't like lying, I can't endure a falsehood, while as for him (her husband) it's the breath of his life—falsehood. He knows all about it, he sees it all; what does he care if he can talk so calmly? If he were to kill me, if he were to kill Vronsky, I might respect him. No, all he wants is falsehood and propriety,” Anna said to herself, not considering exactly what it was she wanted of her husband, and how she would have liked to see him behave. She did not understand either that Alexey Alexandrovitch's peculiar loquacity that day, so exasperating to her, was merely the expression of his inward distress and uneasiness.

As a reader I sympathize with Anna because I see her humanity. I also sympathize with her husband and her lover, because I can understand what they're going through as well. This novel concentrates on what the characters feel rather than what the author feels better than either Resurrection or War and Peace. That's why I consider this the best of the three I've included in my reading list.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tolstoy mini marathon continues with Anna Karenina

I saved Anna Karenina for the last book in my mini Tolstoy marathon, because I've read it before and, although it was too long ago to remember many details, I do remember that it was a wonderful read. I'm about a fifth of the way through it and it is even better than my memory of it.

I wonder if the readers of War and Peace told Tolstoy that his handling of relationships in that work was great and that he should write another book that focused exclusively on the characters rather than covering history and dwelling on conjecture about the reasons populations follow leaders. If so, they pointed him in the right direction.

Tolstoy's brilliance comes from his observation of human behavior and his ability to put the tiniest details into his writing without ever losing the attention of his readers. The next section is a good example of this. It is written from the point of view of Count Vronsky when he first sees Anna.

With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady's appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. He begged pardon, and was getting into the carriage, but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him there was something peculiarly caressing and soft. As he looked around, she too turned her head. Her shining gray eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention on his face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone. In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.

I believe I could build an entire writing class on the study of that single paragaph.