Saturday, March 7, 2009

Abel Sanchez and Other Stories - Miguel de Unamuno (Spanish)
In the title novella Unamuno concentrates on two emotions: Envy and Hate. Terrible emotions, diseases of the mind. Unamuno varies the action and the ways in which he approaches Joaquin’s mania, so the book never becomes stagnant. He also makes Abel, the object of Joaquin’s lifelong hatred, a complex and ambiguous figure (not merely a pure, innocent victim). This is a psychological novel, and a wonderful one. The ending, when a dying Joaquin tells his wife that he never loved her – that he could have been saved if he had – is a wrenching perception. As for the two stories, “The Madness of Doctor Montarco” didn’t amount to much, but “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr” was quite interesting. It too is distilled to its essentials. It’s about religious faith, about believe in God and an afterlife. Manuel, a priest, doesn’t have faith. But he knows the desolation and despair of non-believing, so he does all he can to make the villagers believe with all their hearts. He also teaches them, mostly by example, to work hard, to be kind and generous, to avoid gossip. Thus, he is a saint. Unamuno was one of those rare philosophers who can express their ideas in fiction; he goes deep into a subject, gets his point across, and he does so with clarity and simplicity. *

The Late Mattia Pascal - Luigi Pirandello (Italian)
Another philosopher full of ideas but unable to integrate them into an effective narrative. I liked the book initially – the premise was interesting (a man being granted, out of the blue, his freedom from a depressing everyday existence) and the voice was good – but a long swath in the middle is weak. To keep matters moving along (though sluggishly) Pirandello introduces a host of implausible story elements. All the while the hero is having existential fits (the book is filled with exclamation marks). Things pick up again at the end, when Mattia returns to a world that the reader can relate to. Though Pirandello had something to say about freedom and its perils, the enterprise as a whole was inconclusive and a bit silly.

Time for a Tiger - Anthony Burgess
Tiger is a brand of beer, and beer (or booze of any kind) is what Nabby Adams single-mindedly craves. As a portrayal of an alcoholic, Nabby seems overdone, though he’s a lovable hoot (and never has anybody been blessed – or cursed – by a more adoring dog). The main character of the book, Victor Crabbe, is lacking in some vague way; I say “vague” because I can’t put my finger on what Burgess is withholding. Others fare better. His wife, Fenella, is appealing; there’s a core of sadness in her that I responded to. Alladad Khan is a wonderful comic figure. These four, and many other well-drawn minor characters, carry on in Malaya, which is depicted as an exotic and fascinating potpourri of nationalities and languages and views of life, all in conflict. The mood Burgess creates is teeming, threatening, colorful, oppressive. It’s a pleasure to be in the hands of an intelligent writer who’s trying to entertain. I don’t believe in magic potions, but the effects of one on Victor and Fenella is done so well that I gladly accepted it. I liked the ending and was happy that it wasn’t the ending. This is the first volume of a trilogy. I’ll take another visit to Malaya. And maybe I’ll wind up understanding Victor.

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