Friday, February 19, 2016

and we say goodbye to Harper Lee

The New York Times bulletin I just got in my email reports the passing of Harper Lee, here shown with Gregory Peck on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird.  My copy has been read, reread, and re-reread so many times -- I still have the original copy that I've had since I was 14, and that was some time ago.  It's pretty dog-eared, the spine is broken, and there are a lot of grimy fingerprints on it,  but that just shows how very loved it was.  As was its author.

sleep well.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Read the book and then go watch the film -- The Blue Angel, by Heinrich Mann

Howard Fertig, 2011
originally published 1905 as Professor Unrat, Oder Das Ende Eines Tyrannen
286 pp


This morning I sat down and watched the movie that was based on this book not knowing what to expect. It was made in 1930, starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, and it is seriously one of the saddest and most tragic movies I've ever seen.  I felt so sorry for Jannings' character, Professor Rath, and just sat there stunned during the last few scenes.  That wasn't so much the case after finishing the book yesterday;  I didn't know whether to pity the man (who in this particular translation is known as Mut, even though the original novel has him as Professor Unrat) or to despise him.  Since he's Mut in this version, I'll refer to him as such here.

Professor Mut  has had his fair share of teasing over the years - the first line of the novel tells us that 
"His name being Mut, the whole school, of course, called him Mud."
He can't walk through the school or the town without someone saying something about the smell of mud, or that there seems to be "mud about the place," and over the twenty-six years he's been teaching, he's taken mental note of both the insult and the person delivering it. He knows that his students hate him, and since he's been in the same town and same school for so long, he also realizes that "sometimes the hatred was a family legacy."  He is known as "Old Mud," and it is not uncommon for the epithet to be used in his presence among most of the people in the town, which was still full of his former students, "boys whom he had caught or had not caught yelling his nickname." For Dr. Mut,
"The schoolgrounds did not the encircling walls; they extended to the houses round about and included all classes of inhabitants." 
Inside the classroom, he doesn't understand that boys will be boys:
"laziness was equivalent to the worthless of a ne'er-do-well and disrespectful laughing at a master was a revolt against authority and law, while a boy letting off a squib was perpetrating an act of revolution, and an attempt to cheat meant a ruined future." 
The one boy he despises most is Lohmann, aged 17; for one thing Lohmann refuses to respond to Mut's tyrannical rages; instead, looking at Mut with "quiet contempt, and even a spice of pity ... in his disgust."  However, reading closely, it seems as if he feels Lohmann looks down on him -- Mut  notes early on that it felt as if Lohmann "were laughing at him," and he was "determined to show the rascal that he was the better man of the two."   Mut cannot abide even the slightest hint of insubordination -- he is the perfect authoritarian.

When he discovers that a group of his students that includes Lohmann has become interested in  a woman named Rosa Frölich, he decides to try to find her, to "interfere."   Wandering the streets of the town, though, just brings out his rage, his hatred and a persecution mania. He passes by a cafe where the proprietor is a former student. Shops are filled with "rebellious students,"  there are places with signs bearing names of old students,  all of whom he feels are challenging him, defying him, -- "on every side enemies."  He even turns his eyes away at the nameplate of a colleague who knew that Mut's son had taken up with a "woman of doubtful character," and had told people about it.  He feels "as if a class of some fifty thousand mutinous scholars was shouting round him."   All of these feelings get mixed up with his attitude toward Rosa Frölich, whom he finally finds at the Blue Angel, an old house now repurposed as a club. Taking his seat in the concert hall along with the rest of the audience, he listens to her sing, and despite himself, finds that he is applauding her along with all of the others. But when he meets her and tells her to "leave this town," he quickly discovers that his authority and hard-handedness has no effect, in fact, she's rather indifferent to him.  He realizes that
"... this was no naughty schoolboy, disobedient and meet for punishment, as were to him the inhabitants of the little town. No, this was something new." 
What started out as the intention of getting rid of her corruptive influence on his pupils (and in his mind, on the morals of society in general),  leads to him actually spending more time with her, as he becomes not only fascinated by Rosa, but actually obsessed with her. His obsession, although he doesn't know it yet, will fuel his fires of long-desired revenge for those who have "dared to defy his authority,"  and set him  on a path from which there may be no return.

Seeing the movie is not at all reading the novel.  The movie, while just amazingly good, is incredibly tragic, but takes the professor in an entirely different direction from Mann's novel, and doesn't really capture the true essence of the book.  In the novel we watch a tyrannical figure who has always been "zealous for all forms of authority," a man who has a "narrow code of ethics,"  ultimately "call on the mob to set fire to the palace,"  becoming a person who "lets loose anarchy," out of his desire for what he feels is just, right, and what he's owed.  Here the very seeds of his own fate are sown in his obsessions.   At the same time, it seems to me that this may also be a commentary on the kind of society that allows what happens in this story to happen.

The Blue Angel is a wonderful book that I'm adding to the list of those novels that are just unputdownable -- again, it won't be for everyone but it is one of those books that  will float in my head for a long time. The same is true for the film -- but read the book first.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón, by Carlos Gamerro

And Other Stories, 2015
345 pp
originally published as La aventura de los bustos de Eva, 2004
translated by Ian Barnett


"all of us have our 17th October in our lives, and his was knocking on the door."

There aren't many books where this happens, but I didn't even make it to the end of page one before I realized that this novel and I were going to get along just fine.  The Adventures of  the Busts of Eva Perón has everything I want in a book -- intelligence, history, and of course there's the black humor that kept me laughing most of the way through it.  There's nothing like sitting at your vet's office in a crowded lobby and laughing out loud while everyone's staring at you, but I couldn't help myself.  It may not be a book to everyone's taste, but I absolutely loved it.

The novel begins when Ernesto Marroné, the "financial manager of the most powerful construction and real estate conglomerate in Argentina," returns home from an afternoon of playing golf and discovers a poster of Che Guevara hanging on his son's bedroom wall.  As he "unknotted the laces of his Jack Nicklaus golf shoes," he realizes that it may be time to reveal his own "guerrilla past" to his son. After all, "there's no escaping the past" --
"No matter how far you run, sooner or later it catches up with you -- with all of us. Because far from being an exception, Marroné's story was emblematic of a whole generation -- a generation now striving to erase the traces of a shameful past with the same diligence it had once devoted to building a utopian future."
He makes up his mind to tell his story the next day; and that night he laid back, unable to sleep, watching "the film of his rebellious past from beginning to end..."  The novel consists of Ernesto's look back --  it is all at once a wicked satire on politics and history,  a look at the mythology of Eva Perón, and a story about one man's personal journey.  And, as is obvious from all of the tabs on the page sides, I thought it was really, really, REALLY good.

His account begins with the kidnapping of his boss, Sr. Tamerlán,  the owner of the factory where Ernesto works as head of procurement. Tamerlán had been at the factory since he was ten, arriving on 17 October 1945, which, incidentally,  is a date in Argentine history that continues to resonate as a turning point in the country's history.  In a nutshell, on that day, there was a huge rally by the working classes in front of the presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo to demand the release of then Secretary of Labor Juan Perón, who had been arrested and imprisoned. The workers' demands were met, and their success launched Perón's political career and his marriage to Eva Duarte, the "Evita" of popular myth.

The kidnappers have sent one of Tamerlán's fingers, but they've also made a bizarre ransom demand: they want a bust of Eva Peron placed in every office.  Marroné, who decides that this could be a great opportunity for much-desired advancement, takes on the task of acquiring the 92 busts.  In his mind, aided by his reading of several books written for managers who want to get ahead in their careers (The Corporate Samurai, The Socratic Pitch, How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking, Don Quixote: The Executive Errant, etc.) he realizes that he is at a turning point, one where after all was said and done, he'd be a hero:
"And that night, of all nights, on the eve of his new life - a life of adventure, a life in which his dreams would begin to come true - it had called out to him, to pass on its message of encouragement, and his hand had reached for it. This was what he had been waiting for, he saw it clearly now. Tomorrow, when dawn broke, Ernesto Marroné would go out into the world. Who knows who would come back?"
The next morning he heads off to the Sansimón Plasterworks to make the order.  But he's in for a huge surprise -- on that day the workers have decided to occupy the factory -- it seems that his order for the busts, needed in a hurry, had caused the "comrades in the workshop" to do the job piecemeal, forcing them to "bring the occupation forward."

What happens next takes the reader deep into the surrealistic zone, as a gradually-despairing Ernesto finds himself trying to get things under control at the factory so that his order can be filled and he can be the hero who saves Tamerlán's life. He  steps into the shoes of Don Quixote, becoming a regular knight-errant based on what he's memorized from his management self-help books. His mission, as he sees it, is to
"... carry the spirit of Eva, embodied in her busts, to the very heart of the corporation." 
He sees himself as "neither us nor them...the chosen one, predestined, belonging to both worlds.  Like Eva, he was a bridge."   His adventure doesn't end with the factory though; as he's wandering through the shanties of Buenos Aires, he stumbles into a place where Eva truly lives on and has the power to fulfill any fantasy desired.

After I finished this book, a saying of Marx's popped into my head, something along the lines of history repeating itself first as tragedy then as farce, and there may be something to that here in this most excellent novel.  I can't possibly describe everything here;  it's a book a person must absolutely experience on his or her own. I will say that knowing a bit about Argentina's 20th-century history would be beneficial and things might make much more sense (especially in terms of the Peronists, still active and still a big, ongoing part of the political scene today). Otherwise, this is a book I absolutely loved -- aside from its silliness, it is a story with an incredible amount of depth, highly intelligent, and one I hated putting down for any reason.  Most highly recommended.