Monday, 7 February 2011

Cat's Cradle. By Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

Published by Penguin Books, 2009. First published 1963.

       A kind of SF novel. Rather than being a story, the book serves as a vehicle for Vonnegut's expression of his complex thoughts about war, science, bombs, and so on, all things dear to what we would call neo-cons today.  The story, such as it is, is about a journalist trying to write a book about the father of the atom bomb, who's a 'mad scientist' stereotype called Felix Hoenikker (echoing, maybe not deliberately, the name of the East German dictator, who got thrown out in about 1989).  Hoenikker also invents something called ice-nine which, if it came into contact with any water in any form or mixture, including blood, sea water, slush, etc., would act as a seed crystal and instantly crystallize all of it, such that re-liquefying would require 119 degrees C of heat. The only few samples of this material, which could end all life on the planet, end up on the island of San Lorenzo - modeled on Haiti - and ruled by a crazy dictator called 'Papa' Monzano - modeled on Papa Doc Duvalier. The island is populated by a few tens of thousands of black 'freed' slaves who practice a banned (on the pain of death) religion called Bokononism, which is modeled vaguely on Vodoo. (There are some parts of the book that remind me of 'The Comedians' by Graham Greene.) Bokononism has as its scripture 'the Books of Bokonon'  which are collection of 'Foma' or 'harmless untruths'. Several examples of these are given through the book, and I quote below some of them.

'Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy'

This is how the Books define a 'karass': 'Man created the checkerboard. God created the karass'. A karass is a group of people whose unifying factor is some object or purpose called a 'wampeter'. Otherwise there would be nothing at all common to them: 'Oh, a sleeping drunkard up in Central Park, and a lion hunter in the jungle dark, and a Chinese dentist and the British queen  all fit together in the same machine.  Nice, nice, very nice, nice nice very nice, nice, nice, very nice - so many different people in the same device.'

A 'granfallon' on the other hand is group of people united by some obvious but really meaningless (according to Bokonon) concept such as nationality or the same school etc.: 'If you wish to study a granfalloon, take the skin off a toy ballon' 

Actually though, these foma are less foma-like that the sayings of Sathya Sai Baba (Love all, serve all, for example) or the advice of people like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Bokonon lives! and Bokononism is perhaps the most widespread religion in the world, though of course it goes by hundreds of different names.  

So what is the book all about? It's difficult to summarize, there's no one idea, but a lot of ideas that would today be called 'liberal', all expressed savagely. Worth reading many times, if only to understand and recall the foma.

The Cider House Rules. By John Irving

The Cider House Rules

John Irving

Published 1985 by Ballantine Books

   This time Irving writes mainly about the process of birth, abortion, conception, contraception and so on. I suspect that he was writing at the time the 'Pro choice' v/s 'Pro life' debate was going on in the United States. Irving clearly is on the side of 'Pro choice' and presents the many of the well known arguments for his position, including rape, incest, accident, etc. as events that would lead to  pregnancies that it would be morally OK to terminate. He even describes one conception that happens due to a deliberately and maliciously introduced pinhole in the condom. In India of course, there is no debate on this, at least not in the law. MTP (medical termination of pregnancy) is legal, and offered in most hospitals, only up to a particular stage of the pregnancy of course.   
   Like many (if not all) of Irving's books the story is set in New England - Maine in this case. But a rural, backward undeveloped Maine in the first half of the 20th century. The book is full of a great many likeable characters (Homer, Larch, the nurses, all three of them, Wally, Candy...) and a few bad ones. But even those, redeem themselves somehow towards the end of the book. 
   This is a good book by John Irving, though I like 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' better.