Sunday, August 31, 2008

Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett (1949)

A play that can be interpreted at many levels, I've always favoured the existentialist interpretation which deals with the meaning of human existence and the onus of each man to carry his own burden and make of his life what he can, however difficult it might be...
An excerpt I once knew by heart and could recite at the drop of a hat and to me, perhaps the most important part of the text...
VLADIMIR: But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come–
POZZO: Help!
VLADIMIR: Or for night to fall.
(Pause.) We have kept our appointment and that's an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?
ESTRAGON: Billions.
VLADIMIR: You think so?
ESTRAGON: I don't know.
VLADIMIR: You may be right.
POZZO: Help!
VLADIMIR: All I know is
that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which —how shall I say— which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit. You may say it is to prevent our reason from foundering. No doubt. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abysmal depths? That's what I sometimes wonder. You follow my reasoning?
ESTRAGON: (aphoristic for once). We are all born mad. Some remain so.
POZZO: Help! I'll pay you!
ESTRAGON: How much?
POZZO: One hundred francs!
ESTRAGON: It's not enough.
VLADIMIR: I wouldn't go so far as that.
ESTRAGON: You think it's enough?
VLADIMIR: No, I mean so far as to assert that I was weak in the head when I came into the world. But that is not the question.
POZZO: Two hundred!
VLADIMIR: We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let's get to work! (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tanguy - Michel del Castillo (1957)

An autobiographical work by
Michel del Castillo, a Spanish born writer who writes in French, Tanguy is a powerfully moving novel highly reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank (due mainly to the child's point of view as opposed to that of the adult). Narrating in first person, the story of a young Spanish boy, Tanguy, the novel is set against the backdrop of the war.

The novel starts in Spain in 1939, during the Spanish civil war, when Tanguy is forced to flee the country with his mother because of her political affiliations. They find themselves in France, which is no less hostile. Forsaken by his father, Tanguy and his mother are arrested by the police and sent off to a camp for political refugees where life is difficult and they face many a hardship and insult. Finally able to escape, Tanguy's mother now decides to flee to London. In order to escape unnoticed from France, they must travel separately and Tanguy is thus separated from his mother. Discovered by the German troops he is packed off to a concentration camp where he endures a life of hunger, cold and forced physical labour that break his body and spirit, the only respite being in a young German pianist who befriends him and reminds him time and again not to hate for hatred breeds nothing but hatred.

After the war, Tanguy is sent back to Spain, Barcelona where he learns that his grand mother has recently passed away and there is no one else to take care of him. He is sent to a reformation school for juvenile delinquents and orphans, run by priests who are no less cruel and sadist than the Nazi "kapos." Bitter, Tanguy believes they are worse than the Nazis because these priests hide their sadism behind the facade of religion and confession, but that makes their sin no less. He succeeds in escaping along with a companion, but is forced to separate from his as well. This time around, he finds himself in a school run by a group of priests but unlike the reformation school, here, Tanguy is able to grow, learn and live comfortably. It is here, that he truly flourishes and finds friends and solace. But he is still not completely at peace and sets off again in search of the parents who had abandoned and forsaken him to such a bitter destiny. He does find them eventually, but only to realise that the years of hardship and horror experienced by him have built an impenetrable barrier between them.

An extremely poignant novel, Tanguy made me relive the horrors of the World War, the holocaust and the aftermath which was no less difficult but few talk about. On a more personal note, this is one of the very rare French novels that I've read completely and I think the rhythm, fluidity of prose and style of narration helped me just as much as the subject being dealt with...for me, the most noteworthy aspect of the novel was the poignancy of Tanguy's situation nuanced by his frantic efforts to lead as normal a childhood as possible in his circumstances and his hunger for human relationships, be those with the parents who cared naught for him, or the friends he makes on each step of his journey but is forced to leave behind and move on in his quest for answers and peace. A depressing read indeed, but an extremely moving one that I strongly recommend.

PS The novel in its English translation goes by the title of Child of our Time. I have simulataneously published a review in French on Accros de Fran├žais.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell (1956)

I like animals. I understand their importance in our ecological system. I even admire and appreciate certain species. But I wouldn't go as far as calling myself a generic animal lover, because frankly there are some whose existence is quite beyond my grasp. Lizards for example, or snakes, or crocodiles...basically the entire gamut of animals that are categorised as reptiles. And thus when I spotted a lizard in class one day I turned into an embarassingly nervous skittish foal who quickly hopped over to the other side of the class and ended up providing much more entertainment than usual to my students...and the very next day I was given a copy of Gerald Durrell's autobiographical My Family and Other Animals.

Skeptical at first, I started reading it not quite sure if I'd like it or even finish it. I did finish it, just a few days later, after having spent a few nights laughing and chuckling in bed at the anecdotes narrated by Durrell about his sejour in the Greek island of Corfu from 1935 - 1939, his colourful family and extended group of friends and above all, his adventures and experiences with animals. Gerald Durrell (younger brother of the far more famous Lawrence Durrell) spent several years in Corfu with his family, where he roamed at liberty in the countryside observing, absorbing, collecting, learning...often appalled and outraged with the latest animal he had decided to adopt, his family mostly supported his love for animals. The novel is full of interesting, entertaining and educating anecdotes that made me view animals in a whole new light. For instance, I would have never thought of a fight between a mantis and a gecko as anything worth watching, but Durrell presents it like a heroic episode between two mighty warriors and I must admit that despite my complete horror and skirmish disgust at the excruciating details provided I was impressed. His presentation of the turtles and their mating ritual tickled me pink, as did his descriptions of the rather aggressive bird they adopted.

My reading informs me that Gerald Durrell who later went on to become a very famous naturalist and is responsible for having recognised and saved some endangered species, apart from setting up the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust for his animals, wrote mainly because his brother urged him to do so. Lawrence Durrell, the established writer urged him to pen down his experiences as a naturalist and narrate the anecdotes as a means of financing his expeditions and sharing the knowledge he had gathered over the years. Had I not known this, I would have pegged the younger Durrell as just as talented a writer as his famous elder brother. I wish I had discovered Gerald Durrell earlier, but then as they say in my mother tongue (tongue-in-cheek) der sahi, andher nahin. Having enjoyed this one throughly, I do believe I am going to try and hunt down more of his fictional writing.

PS The customary excerpt is missing because I returned the book immediately after finishing reading it and am posting this nearly three weeks after...