Friday, October 24, 2008

Book 20 – The Chrysalids

By John Wyndham

I’ve had this sweet 1965 Penguin paperback edition for years and years. And for some unfathomable reason, I never bothered to read this 1955 sci fi classic… until now.

I guess I’ve always been a bit picky about which books I want to read. But I think being part of the 50-Books blog-circle the past 3 years has really opened my mind to exploring books I’ve always been curious about, but never felt a strong enough compulsion to indulge. Recent examples have been Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Watchmen, and Animal Farm. And hey, I already broke last year's record of reading 19 books!

But out of all of these golden oldies, The Chrysalids is my favourite so far, mostly because the confluence of elements that make an excellent novel are all there: a simple yet effective story, first-rate narration, well-developed characters, formidable foes, oodles of tension, conflict, loss and sacrifice, powerfully enduring and relevant themes, and a satisfying resolution. There is a timelessness to The Chrysalids that does not feel dated for the most part, even when dealing with male-female relationships or ideas about the future. Not bad for a novel that was written in the 1950s, and this is a real tribute to Wyndham’s writing talents.

I believe most of you are familiar with the premise of The Chrysalids. It’s a classic post-apocalyptic tale about the survival of the human race after the planet is devastated by nuclear holocaust. Thousands of years later, where the land hasn’t been scorched black, vegetation and wildlife return (and reproduce to some degree of normalcy), and human civilization starts anew. Although genetic mutations run less rampant, they still exist, and the fear of deviations among these frontier societies proliferates into an institutionalized fanaticism to keep strains of livestock and agriculture “pure” like they were in times before the “Tribulation”. Any plant or animal species that deviates from the norm are called “Offences”, and thus promptly destroyed.

Nowhere is this practiced more zealously than in the farming villages of Labrador (yeah, Canada!), where the culture seems to be modeled after orthodox Christian communities of the 19th century. And human deviations, known as “Blasphemies”, are feared the most (what is done to these Blasphemers are not revealed until later in the novel ;-) Although it is easy enough to spot a physical deformity, like an extra finger or toe, unbeknownst to the villagers of Waknuk, a small group of young people soon discover they have the ability to silently communicate with one another across distances with their minds…

There is so much more going on, however, that I’d rather not ruin with summarizing. In any case, there are already many things written online about The Chrysalids. As it’s a compact novel, you’re better off just reading this for yourself (or re-reading if it’s been a long time, as in the case for Olman).

What I also appreciate about The Chrysalids are Wyndham’s Darwinist ideas ("But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature") and his uncompromising stance against fundamentalist religious views, ie. Christianity, which are almost always based on fear of change and/or fear of the unknown. Wyndham does a bang-up job portraying the stranglehold of frightful oppressiveness that surrounds the village of Waknuk, and the constant vigilance the invisible minority of mutants must maintain on a daily basis in order to protect themselves. The panel inscriptions that decorate the God-fearing home of the Strorm family are priceless in themselves:


Change is what’s needed most for the most dominant and self-delusional species on Earth. Wyndham seems to be saying that human beings are, not just tragically flawed, but totally fucked, and if we don't end up destroying ourselves and our environment, the only hope we have is the remote possibility of evolving into something better.


In the end, the discovery of a telepathically-evolved race of human beings and their advanced society in faraway Sealand (yeah, New Zealand!) gives hope to the persecuted mutants of Labrador.


Another good thing about reading John Wyndham for the first time is the pleasure of looking forward to reading his other classics. Yay!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book 19 – Max & The Cats

By Moacyr Scliar

Although Moacyr Scliar is a distinguished Brazilian author, his compact novella is perhaps more famous as being the inspiration for Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning, Life of Pi. Since I haven’t read Martel’s book, and Scliar’s being quite a bit slimmer, I figured this would be a quick, light read. I had the original impression that Max & The Cats was a story for young adults, with the magic realist premise of a boy adrift at sea with a wild jaguar.

It’s actually an allegorical tale for grown-ups (there is adultery and violence) which spans the life of Max: from his boyhood in Berlin in the 1920’s to his death in Brazil in 1977. Max grows up working at his father’s fur shop, The Bengal Tiger, named after the prominently displayed stuffed tiger that Max's father had shot in India. Although fearful of the watchful gaze of this immobilized animal, Max is afraid of his father even more. During this period, Germany is in the grip of political instability, but Max is too caught up in his own life as a university student and his ongoing affair with a married woman to really pay attention. He even ingratiates himself to Professor Kunz, famous for his research on animal psychology, but who eventually starts experimenting on gypsies! Professor Kunz’s work also involves studying the behaviour of cats in situations involving conflict: He would place the animals in huge labyrinths, where they are subjected to constant dilemmas, such as choosing between two paths – one leading to a saucer with milk, the other to a fierce bulldog. (yep, foreshadowing)

Eventually Max incurs the wrath of a high-ranking Nazi officer and is forced to flee Germany. He finds passage to Brazil on a ship full of animals, unaware that the shady captain plans to sink the ship and flee with the insurance. This is where we find Max held captive in a little dinghy with a menacing jaguar, adrift in the middle of the ocean. Another uneasy relationship with a feline develops, as Max tries to appease the big cat with fish that he has caught. The jaguar inadvertently saves his life by striking at a shark that was attempting to make a meal out of the both of them. This is probably the most adventurous part of the tale.

Max miraculously makes it over to Brazil and starts a new life as a farmer. As a German he faces some difficulties when Brazil declares war on Germany in 1942, but on the whole manages reasonably well. After the war he visits his homeland, but finds nothing there he can really return to. Back in Brazil, a newly arrived German neighbour builds a palacial mansion overlooking his modest farm, and Max recognizes him as the former Nazi officer. This third variation of the feline-theme is a different yet equally threatening one, but Max confronts this one head-on, without a few consequences.

The story is structured into 3 distinct phases, each representing a different aspect of Max’s – I don’t know how else to say it – psychic development, which is represented by his attitude and relationship with his various “cat encounters”. The first phase of his life is based around fear, the second is one of resignation and/or complacency and the final phase is one of self-actualization. If you’re thinking this sounds a little on the Freudian side, well, it is! Later in the story, a doctor living in Brazil tells Max that he likes to share his story to the indigenous people about a craftsman named Ego, his nemesis named Id and an authoritarian figure named Super Ego. You get the drift.

Max & The Cats has been called everything from brilliant, to appealing yet unfulfilling. I would side with the latter. The tone of the narrative is rather allegorical, and it was told in a detached and removed style, so there wasn’t much in the way of substance for me (not much to identify with). I think that the novel would have hit the mark better if it was aimed at young adults as the ideas were interesting, but the symbolism was a little too trite and obvious for my liking. So really, more unfulfilling than appealing, overall!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book 18 – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

By Mordecai Richler

Spending the past several years on the Plateau Montreal has definitely been a privilege, but living in such close proximity to St Urbain St and having never read any Mordecai Richler the whole time is almost a crime. So if I’m going to start things off right, I figure the best intro would be none other than Duddy Kravitz. Indeed, the titular character’s old stomping grounds are now my own, the only major difference being what was once a working-class Jewish neighbourhood is now a gentrified and coveted area to reside in. Reading about Duddy’s boyhood on the Plateau evokes a mixed sense of loss for a bygone era and awe at how many things manage to remain unchanged since, say, WWII.

To the middle-class stranger, it’s true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here’s a prized plot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there. But, as the boys knew, each street between St Dominique and Park Avenue represented subtle differences in income. No two cold-water flats were alike… No two stores were the same, either. Best Fruit gypped on the scales, but Smiley’s didn’t give credit.

The beginning of the novel is splendid, with teenaged Duddy Kravitz and his gang of Warriors pretty much ruling over Fletcher Fields High School, tormenting their pathetic teacher, Mr MacPherson, and getting into tussles with the CPS, a kind of civil defense organization during the war. Kravitz is a born troublemaker, but this doesn’t mean he’s lacking in ambition and drive. His biggest dream of all is to someday own his own land. As his Grandpa Simcha would constantly drive it home to Duddy, “A man without land is nobody”.

At night, lying exhausted on his cot, Duddy realized how little money he had in big business terms and he dreamed about his future. He knew what he wanted, and that was to own his own land and to be rich, a somebody, but he was not sure of the smartest way to go about it. He was confident. But there had been other comers before him. South America, for instance, could no longer be discovered. It had been found. Toni Home Permanent had been invented. Another guy had already thought up Kleenex. But there was something out there, like let’s say the atom bomb formula before it had been discovered, and Duddy dreamed that he would find it and make his fortune.

The last sentence is telling, implying that Duddy is willing to resort to rather unscrupulous methods if it means he can get that much closer to achieving his dream. That turns out to be a bit of an understatement. The rest of the novel is pretty much about Duddy’s various ill-conceived yet audacious enterprises, the business men he comes across who are varying shades of shady and legit, the friends and lovers he meets and eventually screws over. The stuff about Duddy’s half-baked schemes, like his stint as a socalled movie producer who hires a washed-up alcoholic filmmaker to shoot bar mitzvahs and weddings in and around Westmount, can be down-right hilarious.

Before all the scheming and manipulating, Duddy starts off humbly and honestly working as a waiter at a summer resort in Ste Agathe. This section is also fun to read since I stayed at a friend’s summer cottage out there, and could almost visualize how it must’ve been like back in the day:

Some sixty miles from Montreal, set high in the Laurentian hills on the shore of a splendid blue lake, Ste Agathe des Monts had been made the middle-class Jewish community’s own resort town many years ago. Here, as they prospered, the Jews came from Outremont to build summer cottages and hotels and children’s camps. … There were still some pockets of Gentile resistance, it’s true … For even as they played croquet and sipped their gin and tonics behind protecting pines they could not miss the loud, swarthy parade outside. The short husbands with their outrageously patterned sports shirts arm in arm with purring wives too obviously full for slacks… The lake was out of the question. Sailboats and canoes had no chance against speedboats, spilling over with relatives and leaving behind a wash of empty Pepsi bottles.

What really makes this coming-of-age story rather unorthodox and memorable, if not always likable, is the dark and ugly side of Duddy Kravitz. This would imply that there could also be a good and appealing side, which does on occasion surface when it involves Duddy’s immediate family. Other than that, Duddy is pretty much pure ambition and mostly driven by his obsession to come out on top. TAoDK is a brutally honest and unsympathetic portrayal of a protagonist that sinks to despicable lows, and ends up getting what he wants in the end... at a cost. There is no disguising that Duddy Kravitz represents the epitome of the Jewish nightmare. In this sense, Richler’s novel kind of plays out as a morality tale. The ending is ambiguous in that it lacks any kind of satisfying reconciliation -- Duddy never learns his lesson and ends up alienating everyone around him. What’s certain is that Duddy will always be driven to make money and will never change his ways.

I want some land, Uncle Benjy. I’m going to own my own place one day. King of the castle, that’s me. And there won’t be any superior drecks there to laugh at me or run me off. That’s just about the size of it.


The 1974 film version by Ted Kotcheff, which stars the young Richard Dreyfuss as the titular character, is considered a Canadian landmark. I saw it long ago in film school, and will likely revisit the film again now that I finally read Richler’s book many years later!