Friday, December 30, 2022

After dark - Murakami Haruki

I try, I always do, I swear. I really try not to buy another book by this author when, while walking past the bookstore section dedicated to him, a novel that I still haven’t read catches my eye. The first thought that comes to mind is: “Come on, your reading list is so long and varied, and you’ve already read quite a few of Harukis’s books recently, no need to buy another one so soon!” Famous (and useless) last words, I think, while I walk out of the shop intrigued by the synopsis that I’m reading on the last page of the paperback I’ve just purchased.
“After dark” is a short novel that can be read in few hours. It does not feature the usual surreal and outwardly set of characters and bizarre situations of all of the Murakami’s novels - but one - that I have read: “The wind-up bird chronicle”, “1Q84”, “Killing commendatore” and “Kafka on the shore”, just to name a few. And it’s not hyperrealistic and nihilistically dramatic like “Norwegian wood” - his first major hit - either.
The story unfolds over the course of one night and deals with the lives of a bunch of Tokyo residents who seem to have little in common and whose stories, nevertheless, intersect and interact for a reason or another. As usual Murakami might be using the events narrated in the book to dig into the meaning of life coincidences, destiny, purpose, relations and fate. Or he could just be telling a story for the sake of it.
It’s up to you to decide how you want to interpret and enjoy the book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Prague cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga) - Umberto Eco

It happened a few times while I was abroad. I said that I was from Italy and the person with whom I was speaking suddenly informed me that their favorite author was also Italian. Once they even asked me to guess who it was. Dante? I thought. No, too old. Montale? Too obscure. Volo? Come on! I give up, who is it? But of course, Umberto Eco! That was their answer. Eco? Wow, I’m surprised, I said. But why was I surprised, then? I have read my first Eco’s novel when I was a kid (if you guessed “The name of the rose”, well, you guessed right) and I have read every novel by him I came across ever since. I loved each and every one of them. There was no reason to be surprised at all.
I hadn’t read “The Prague cemetery” yet, being one of his most recent works. And of course I’m glad I did finally read it. His usual brilliantly orchestrated complexity, his enormous vocabulary and knowledge of language technicalities, his history expertise - European middle age in particular - with all its corollary of mason lodges, monastic orders, political scheming, military affairs and conspiracy theories: I find it all so fascinating.
This is not only a great novel, it’s also a treaty on counterfeiting, plotting, spying, betraying and lying. The main character does it all by himself, but he might represent a whole section of a secret service, a revolutionary cell, a terrorist organisation, a religious sect, you name it.
I’m so sad that Umberto Eco passed away. I will be forever expecting his next new novel.
Original title: Il cimitero di Praga.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The emperor of all maladies - Siddhartha Mukerjee

I’ve already introduced Siddhartha Mukherjee when I reviewed “The gene”. What I said about Oliver Sacks is true for Mukherjee as well: a great scientist with outstanding literary skills.
He studied biology - that’s why he wrote a book about genetics - and works as a haematologist and oncologist, hence this work about cancer. A great book about a terrible subject, some might say.
Mukherjee decided to write about cancer because, when asked questions by his patients about their illness, he couldn’t find any good source of information for the layman to point them to.
Mukerjee likes to call his work a “biography of cancer”, referring to the fact that cancer leverages many mechanisms that our bodies use to keep us alive, such as cell division, biological pathways, mobility, vascularization.
The book tells the story of those who played a part in the battle against the disease (which is actually many diseases that have uncontrolled cellular proliferation in common): surgeons, oncologists, biologists, chemists, pharmacologists, but also philanthropists, activists and of course patients and their relatives.
Intentionally informative, frequently heartbreaking, engaging throughout. A masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Thus bad begins (Así empieza lo malo) - Javier Marías

In this novel Javier Marías makes use of a literary technique that has been employed in the past by some very famous colleagues of him: Francis Scott Fitzgerald (The great Gatsby) and Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's), just to name a few.
The main character, with whom the readers become very acquainted as the story unfolds, is actually just a proxy through which the author tells his story: he acts as a mere narrator and has little or no impact on the plot, besides observing and relaying, of course. On top of that the plot itself is not particularly engaging or original. Why did you read the book then? Or why are you recommending it? You’ll be asking. Because the plot is not necessarily what makes a book a good book.
Marías is very skilled at digging, analyzing and explaining human nature: its pitfalls, its contradictions and its weaknesses in particular. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’s famous overture comes to mind: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Thus bad begins” (a title borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is the story of a family which is indeed unhappy in its own way. And the author's pen gradually uncovers the reasons behind this social failure.
The book’s slowness and verbosity could be a nuisance to some readers: I’m not a fan of long sentences myself but in this case it took me very few paragraphs to adjust to the author’s style and I found that his baroque-ish prose often helps creating a well structured suspense. Plus he can also be very philosophical in his digressions and examples.
As a bonus, reading this book we get a lot of insights about the Spanish civil war and what life in Spain could be like for those who were on the losing side of the conflict.
My only regret is that I read it in Italian. Although I can read common Spanish I was afraid that my level was not high enough to cope with good literature. Despite the fact that the Italian translations (and I suppose the English ones) are very good, I still feel I should try to tackle the original version next time I come across one of Marías’ books.
Original title: Así empieza lo malo.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The scent of India (L'odore dell'India) - Pierpaolo Pasolini

In 1961, Pierpaolo Pasolini - Italian poet, novelist, journalist and film director - joined colleague authors Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante on a month-long trip to India.
The entries in this travel diary mostly reflect the author’s reactions to the situations he’s experiencing in terms of feelings and sensations - and some cultural/religious interpretation - rather than being cool headed rational, sociological and political explanations of them. India comes out as a barren, dirty and bad smelling pile of shaky buildings, open-air sewers, busy roads and temples, populated by a vast majority of multi-religious, ragged, placid, kind and sweet people, and a still new, stunned and unprepared well-off minority, whose only human strengths are their webs of family ties.
Yet some features of this traditional society - whose stratifications survived the waves of foreign invasions and occupations by gradually degenerating, but are still similar to the ones that characterize poor peasants all over the planet (including some areas in the Europe of those years) - could actually serve as an example to a western world where the recent wave of bourgeois conformism is totally disconnected from the issues and needs that humanity has had to face for thousands of years.
In order to understand some of the passages, the reader has to keep in mind that at the time of writing, western society was still anchored to some ideological axioms that would later be shaken by the major geopolitical events of the following decades.
An interesting read offering the point of view of a very refined European intellectual traveling to India sixty years ago.
Original title: L’odore dell’India.