Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Chosen. By Chaim Potok

The Chosen

Chaim Potok

First published 1967 by The Random House Publishing Group

Maybe I have read another book by Chaim Potok. It was in 1990, I was temporarily in the guest house at the Department of Botany, I think, of the Louis Pasteur University, Strasbourg, waiting for more permanent accommodation. One of the earlier guests had left behind a book about hasidic Jews in New York. I only vaguely remember it, but the description of their habits and traditions now seems to me like what I just read in 'The Chosen'. One thing I do remember clearly from that long forgotten book is how the hasidim discuss whether turning on the electric switch on Sabbath constitutes a violation of the religious law, which requires a hasid to do no work at all on that day, but only study the Talmud. 'The Chosen' was Potok's first novel, and the title seems somewhat ironical, but maybe I've just layered my own feelings on it. For, the book takes itself seriously enough, describing an encounter between an extreme view of Judaism and a slightly less extreme one, but representing the two as diametrically opposite. The hasidic family is represented by a Rabbi and his brilliant son Danny, who is being trained in a harsh and unforgiving manner to take over from his father as the next Rabbi. The slightly less extreme tradition, Zionist, is represented by a teacher of the Talmud at a Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) and his son Reuven, also brilliant, also being instructed by his father in the Talmud, but less harshly. The training, in both cases consists of endless scholasticism regarding the Talmud and its interpretation. The story takes place in New York at about the time World War II was coming to an end, and Israel was being created. The book is well written, good to read, and opens a few mental windows, but is very insular. The messages and attitudes it conveys cannot really translate into the world outside the Jewish culture. I dislike the way the author assumes that it was right to displace an entire population (the Arabs) simply because, after Hitler and all the centuries of persecution, the European Jews desperately needed a homeland of their own. Wouldn't it have made more sense to carve out such a homeland in Europe itself, or, failing that, in the vast underpopulated regions of the New World (America and/or Australia). The British (and now, the Americans) did what they did (and continue to do it) because they can - not because it is right. I remember the argument (actually shouting match) I had with Osnat Herzberg on this topic when she was in Bangalore for a conference. I think I was stupid then, not for what I said, but how I said it. Anyway, these politics forms a vague background to the story, which is really about how to bring up your children, in particular contrasting a very traditional and harsh way with a more liberal (but only slightly more so) method. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Uncle Dynamite. By P.G. Wodehouse

Uncle Dynamite

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1948 by Herbert Jenkins Ltd.

It must be about 15 years since I last read this book - with the result the story, was new to me, as were many of his 'nifties'. Uncle Fred (Lord Ickenham) is in his usual springtime form, and at the receiving end, besides Pongo Twistleton, are, Sir Alymer Bostock, Bill Oakshott, Constable Potter and Major Brabazon-Plank. The story is the standard complicated one of couples falling apart and reuniting, country houses, odd doings in the night, bonny baby contests, etc. The following memorable joke occurs in it, and is one which I have often used in class to describe the major and minor grooves of DNA, and how they change size in the different forms of the double helix.   
"Lord Ickhenham laughed amusedly.
"Just a slip of the tongue, such as so often occurs. He meant Brabazon-Plank, major. As opposed to my brother, who, being younger than me, is, of course, Brabazon-Plank, minor. I can understand you being confused", said Lord Ickhenham......"And what renders it all the more complex is that as I myself am a mining engineer by profession [and my brother is an army officer], anyone who wants to get straight on the Brabazon-Plank situation has got to keep steadily before him the fact that the minor is a major and the major a miner. I have known strong men to break down on realizing this" 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The People's Train. By Thomas Keneally

The People’s Train

Thomas Keneally

Published in 2009 by Sceptre (Hodder and Stoughton)

Keneally’s best known book is ‘Schindler’s Ark’, but I have also read and liked ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’, about the establishment of the first English colonies in Australia, and ‘Towards Asmara’, about the Eritrean struggle. ‘The People’s Train’ is named for a monorail designed by a Russian exile in Brisbane, Australia, in the first decade of the 20th century, but the title also refers to the Russian communist revolution which forms the main backdrop of the novel. The book follows the revolutionary activities of Artem Samsurov. The story starts in Australia, before moving to Russia. But in chronological order, Samsurov is a worker in Tsarist Russia, a comrade of Vladimir Illich Lenin. He tries to organize the workers in Russia and is sent to a Siberian prison for his pains. After a year or so in prison camp, he escapes, via China and Japan, to Australia, where he takes up work as a labourer in a meat warehouse (reminiscent of Conrad Hensley, the character in Tom Wolfe’s ‘A Man in Full’). Here he organizes the labour, and along with fellow Russian exiles, other ‘English’ Australian workers, and lead by Australian socialist politicos, journalists and lawyers, takes part in a general strike. But the war (WW I) puts paid to his efforts at internationalism – nationalism trumps everything, and it becomes more important to defeat Germany than the capitalist bosses. In the meantime, Artem has a love affair with his lawyer Hope Mockridge. When on a picinic with Hope and other friends, a Russsian blackleg and police informer shoots himself. Artem and couple of others are arrested for murder, but with the help of Hope’s cuckolded lawyer husband and some journalists sympathetic to the cause, Artem and the others are set free. Artem then goes back to Russia, where the revolution is heating up. He takes his Australian journalist friend Paddy Dykes along. The revolution is going through the expected chaotic and confusing stage. The Tsar has been overthrown, but the new administration is not in place. Lenin (and Stalin – who has a ‘walk-on’ role) along with Trotsky and others are organising for the Bolsheviks come to power. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, with an important role, at least in this novel, for Artem. The novel ends inconclusively, the revolution is not as yet over, but clearly the future belongs to the Bolsheviks.

Keneally is always good to read. Like the other books mentioned above, he has based this novel on the true story of a Russian exile, though the true information he has is apparently mainly to do with the Australian part, the part narrated in the first person by Artem. The Russian part is supposed to be written by Paddy, and, maybe deliberately, it’s an outsider’s view. Perhaps because of that, it’s somewhat less convincing. The writing, as on critic on the blurb says is ‘remarkably uninformed by hindsight’, meaning, probably, that though the novel  was written in 2009, there is no criticism even implied of communism, Soviet Russia, Lenin and, of course, Stalin. The critic may have meant to snidely disparage Keneally, but the novel is as honest as possible and as neutral as possible, though, of course, any fair-minded reader of history would have to support the Bolsheviks at that point of time in Russia. Keneally, to his great credit, doesn’t try to establish his neutrality by going the other way to point out to the futility of what happened, but he doesn’t overdo the idealism, either. On the whole a very good book, though it drags a bit towards the end. I must read more books by Keneally.