Fiasco - Stanislaw Lem (Polish)
An unusual reading experience. A third of the book was completely beyond my understanding, a third I partially understood, a third was fully intelligible. I didn’t object to the incomprehensible parts because the novel takes place in the distant future, and I have insufficient knowledge of science to grasp advanced technology. What grounded things for me was that the characters think and act like people of today (one of the points Lem makes is that human nature remains the same). Taken as a suspenseful space adventure, the book works. We send a spaceship to another solar system; our goal is to make contact with the planet Quinta, which gives strong indications of supporting a form of intelligent life. This is a reverse of the novels/movies in which Earthlings are visited by aliens (usually bent on harming us). To the mysterious Quintans we’re the feared invaders. And, as it turns out, we fully fit that role. The climax, when Earthling meets Quintans, needed impact, but I was left confused and disappointed. I don’t think Lem could bring a credible resolution to the conundrum he had created, nor do I think this bothered him. The reason to read this erratic and eccentric book is to engage with the author’s mind. It’s not outer space that Lem explores but the nature of man and his future. His conclusions are thought-provoking and ominous.
The Devastating Boys - Elizabeth Taylor
“Flesh” is the standout success in this quality collection. After I read three stories (good ones) about women who are unhappy, insecure and timid, along comes brassy Phyl; her first words, to the barman at the resort hotel where she’s spending a post-hysterectomy vacation, are “Evening, George. How’s tricks?” She makes friends with a lonely widower who’s reinvigorated by her easy acceptance of life. Though Phyl is satisfied with her husband in London, she decides to have a one-night fling with Stanley. What harm will it do? Her husband will never know, and it will give Stanley pleasure. Infidelity as an act of kindness, and Phyl is definitely kindhearted. An attack of gout derails their plans; Stanley is mortified. In answer to his question, “How can you forgive me?”, Phyl says, “Let’s worry about you, eh? Not me. That sort of thing doesn’t matter much to me nowadays. I only really do it to be matey.” Though Taylor often writes about people leading muted lives, her range is impressive. The little girl who bustles “In and Out the Houses” isn’t as innocent as she initially seems; on her daily rounds she cunningly drops bits of gossip meant to create dissent and jealousy. And in the aptly-titled “The Fly-Paper” the reader is led into a trap; the ending is a shocker. The other stories stay at the level of good or pretty good; some are too slight, others trail off inconclusively. Yet in all of them Taylor establishes an intimacy between her characters and the reader. This was her gift.
The Bachelor of Arts - R. K. Narayan
Chandran, the main character of Narayan’s second novel, is a university student. He comes across as a likeable boy, nothing unusual about him. After he graduates he dawdles through life, without purpose or direction. Then he sees a girl on the beach and romanticizes about her to the point where he must have her as his wife. His feelings are perplexing to the western reader because the two never speak a single word to one another. Yet he’s madly in love. When her family turns down his marriage offer, Chandran is in such despair that he flees to the city of Madras and becomes a sanyasi (a holy man who renounces the world). With a shaved head and dressed in a cheap loin clothe and an upper covering dyed in ochre, he wanders about accepting coins or food or a place to stay for the night. Often he goes hungry and sleeps in the open. My reaction to this plot twist was “Oh, no.” The Chandran I knew – the person Narayan had created – would never act in such a way. Without much ado Chandran recovers his senses, returns to Malgudi, gets a job, meets a new girl he cares for; all seems to be going smoothly. Then comes an ending so inconclusive that I searched for traces of a few missing pages. (I did a bit of research and found that events are carried forward in the next novel.) Despite these two glaring missteps, Narayan has a benevolence that’s appealing; neither his characters nor his humor come with barbs, and his prose is easeful. Still, there isn’t whole lot to this book. I found it most interesting when it deals with the cultural beliefs surrounding marriage. In Hindu India (circa 1930s), besides not getting to know one another, the horoscopes of the two prospective mates must match up; the amount of dowry offered by the girl’s parents plays a big role, as does each family’s prestige; people are judged by their skin color (a dark complexion is a drawback). Also, by age sixteen a girl is considered to be over the hill. Fourteen and fifteen are the proper marriageable ages.