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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dawn by Elie Wiesel

So, same guy as last time, but with a fiction title, as opposed to a memoir. This should be somewhat easier to critique than Night due to this, but I seem to be kind of distracted at the moment (I will be happy when Christmas prep is over); regardless, I shall make a damn good try at reviewing Dawn.

Dawn takes place in British-controlled Palestine, during the conflict between the Jewish residents and the British occupants. Elisha, the main character and narrator, is a member of the Jewish resistance movement and a survivor of the Holocaust; his faith in the movement is challenged when he is charged with killing a captive English army officer as a response to the execution of one of their comrades. For the majority of the book, Elisha is left to question whether he has it in him to kill someone in cold blood, especially in the name of someone he has never even met.
I liked Dawn primarily because the internal conflict that Elisha goes through seems very true and is great for creating sympathy for him. For me, it was an interesting dynamic, especially following on the heels of Night: in Night, it's obvious who the audience is meant to sympathise with, while Dawn takes the same sympathy and complicates it with the always complex question of terrorism and political violence. It does get a little bit odd when he starts seeing dead people, but otherwise I thought it worked really well.

Overall, a well-written, interesting examination of guilt. It's also encouraged me to do more research into the situation in that era of Palestine, especially having realised that my Grandfather would have been carrying out his compulsory military service out there at around that time. Definitely worth a look. 4.5/5

Next review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Signing off,

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Night by Elie Wiesel

This is going to be a tough one to talk about. Trying to take a critical view of an autobiography always is, seeing as obviously there is no "plot" to speak of, just life events; that Night is an autobiographical account of  life in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, that becomes even harder. But I have a little while before life catches up on me again, so I'll give it a go.

As I mentioned in the introduction there, this is author Elie Wiesel's account of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps as a teenager. It depicts the rounding up of the Jews in his small Romanian village, his separation from his mother and sisters and the gradual break-down of normal life and human dignity, until American soldiers liberated the camp. It's a sobering experience, and definitely an important text from a social aspect. I'm just not sure that it would really create the same effect as it would have done when people first started trying to deal with their collective history.
Let me explain. I am not saying that the events depicted are not horrifying or deeply damning of human nature; the events still hold a lot of significance. I just think that the impact of them may well be diluted because, well, who doesn't know about the Holocaust? Who hasn't seen at least one film dealing with the Holocaust and its consequences? I just think that, in this day and age when the atrocities carried out against the Jews and many other groups that were considered "undesirable" are well-known and taught to children across the world, it can seem perhaps too familiar. It's an odd thing to argue: on the one hand, people need to know because the day we forget the deaths of over 6 million people is the day that we reach rock bottom as a species, but on the other hand, too much exposure and we risk getting bored by it, sad as it is to say that. I think that perhaps this book has lost some of its power because many of the images are familiar to us through film and literature.
Another thing that I think goes against this book is that the Holocaust is not an experience that can be transferred to other people through mere words. Words are a seriously imperfect tool, and the Holocaust is one of those things that I don't think anyone who didn't experience it for themselves will ever understand, not anywhere near it.
Please don't misunderstand, I don't mean these points to be criticism of the book itself; these are more points of criticism for the society that it will be reaching in years to come. In the next few decades, we will most likely lose the last of the survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust; I honestly dread that day, because at that point, the only things that we will have will be records like this and the films that we have made to try and understand what happened. And admirable as they are, they will never be enough.

This review kind of went off track, and I didn't really talk about the book all that much. Probably because it is the kind of book that is beyond the realm of criticism. I would recommend that people read Night, if only so that we can see the signs when history inevitably repeats itself again. 5/5

Next review: Dawn by Elie Wiesel.

Signing off,

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Of all the Hesse novels that I have in my possession, Steppenwolf was the one that I was most looking forward to reading. It was the first novel that I ever really associated with Hesse as a figure in my mind, and for me the psychological aspect was one of the more interesting that I had heard. So the only question remaining is whether it lived up to my expectations.

Steppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a seemingly normal intellectual living in 1920s Germany. In reality he is a mess of a man, almost crippled by gout and the beginnings of old age, and alienated from the rest of bourgeois society by his personal neurosis. This neurosis takes the form, initially anyway, of the Steppenwolf, a man harbouring the souls of a man, representing higher thought and reasoning, and a wolf, representing physical urges, that are in near constant opposition. Wishing to end his life, he reluctantly begins a journey of self-discovery that promises to cause as many fresh joys and miseries as it assuages. By the end, it reaches the point where you're never quite sure what is real and what isn't.
I loved this book. As I've mentioned before, I love a good character study, and this one is probably the most in-depth, scathing and sympathetic portrait of a man that I have ever seen, if a little slow to begin with. Steppenwolf is one of those books that I would urge everyone to read at least once in their lives, as there is something there for everyone regardless of age, gender or race. For me, it strikes a chord with Harry's belief that he is destined for greater things, but the feeling that those greater things are no longer applicable in the world that he lives in; I think that everyone at some point has dreamed of being special, not just to the people you care about, but special in such a way that the whole world sits up and takes notice. At the same time, I think that everyone has had to deal with the realisation that most of the time dreams and destiny don't intermingle, and had to deal with that in their own way; Harry's problem is that he's still stuck at the stage where he's despairing for lost dreams, and so the novel is a journey for him to learn how to live in such a way that he can find satisfaction and harmony within himself. Well, that's how it seemed to me; I think if I read this again several years from now, my opinion would have altered.

By far my favourite of Hesse's work that I've read thus far. It's a book that I think should be read at least once, and I'm sure that I will read it many more times in the future. 5/5

Next review: Night by Elie Wiesel.

Signing off,