Sunday, June 22, 2014

'...and then everyone will just fade away': The Man who Watched the World End

'It's obvious now that the end of man won't be signaled with mushroom clouds, an alien invasion, or a meteor, but with silence' 1

I have been on hiatus from this blog for the most part in the final year of my degree. This does not mean I haven't been reading. I have read the entire Game of Thrones series thus far (RECOMMEND), since Christmas, as well as Room by Emma Donoghue (RECOMMEND), The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (RECOMMEND), the entire Divergent series by Veronica Roth (very mediocre) as well as some graphic novels (Maus, Watchmen and Persepolis). Now, with my dissertation handed in I am back. In my dissertation I wrote about the potential for female heroism and assessed some heroic female characters in dystopian literature. So I am back to ramble a bit about a dystopian book I've just finished.

It is called the Man Who Watched the World End and is a 2013 novel by Chris Dietzel. It is bleak, not unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and tricky to read especially towards the end (both because it can feel slightly repetitive but there is also a horrifying twist). It is comprised of diary entries by an elderly man, the last of his neighbourhood who has gradually watched the world of humans and civilization fade away. This occurs not through spectacular explosions or alien invasions but a simple mis-evolution or de-evolution - with generations of babies being born with 'no significant brain activity'. They are referred to as 'Blocks' because it 'was as if their condition obstructed them from the world' (10-12). They cannot reproduce, or do anything at all, but they are alive and so the kind-hearted around them become their carers, as the narrator does for his slightly younger brother.

'So we, the fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the afflicted, took care of them and raised them as the otherwise normal people they were, all the while realising this new generation we were taking care of wouldn't be able to produce offspring. And even if they could, they wouldn't be able to raise them' 12

'These silent masses will continue to age until the last generation of regular adults gets too old to take care of them, and then everyone will just fade away.' 16

In his diary entries the man describes his day to day life, complicated by previously domestic animals becoming feral as well as the bears and wolves that populate the area already, as the final man in the neighbourhood while everyone else migrates south. He talks to and cares for his unresponsive Block brother and recalls bits of his life, the transition from normality to the dissolution of human society. There are lots of poignant reflections on the human condition, how everything that once mattered gradually stopped mattering at all and the mystery over why his previously friendly neighbours left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.

When it comes, even though it takes its time, the reveal of the mystery behind the neighbours is devastating and deeply affecting but tragically and shockingly believable - a true moment of dystopia. Although it was hard to read it gave the book much more impact and gravity, raising it from its slightly monotonous pace thus far. It's an interesting book, I think there are points you just need to plough through but for anyone interested in bleak, realist dystopia this is worth a try.


'No one could understand how a species could change itself in a way that prevented its own survival. It defied nature.' 16

'I take care of him but that doesn't define his life or my own. When you go without many people to talk to, you start forgetting what you really feel. You find yourself hoping someone else can remind you of who you used to be and who you're becoming. Maybe this diary will do that for me now.' 77

On apocalyptic movies and their underlying idealism:

'How difficult it must have been for the people writing these movies to think of a time when humans wouldn't exist at all. Even in the far corners of their creative, inspired minds, they couldn't think of a scenario where every man was wiped out, just most of them. There always had to be a survivor. Maybe this simply spoke to the optimism of the men writing those screenplays; even with an uncomfortable sci-fi plot they had to subconsciously comfort themselves by thinking that at least a hundred people would survive. Someone has to survive.' 87

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

'An Expert at Being Left Behind': Brief Reflections on The Book Thief

This won't be a long post because this book is very popular and deservedly acclaimed but I just want to add my comments and strong recommendation:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of the most beautifully written and uniquely heartbreaking books I've ever read. It is laced with metaphors and creative imagery which are not cliched but feel fresh and original and weave together like prose-poetry. 

The following passage is a supreme example, coloured with the extended motif of food/fullness/emptiness/consumption, one of various motifs used in relation to words themselves -  the reading of them, the writing of them - their mere existence: 

"Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words. You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards. Don't make me happy. Please, don't fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don't want to hope for anything any more. I don't want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner. Because the world does not deserve them." (524)

"It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors - an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really" (15)

Not-leaving: An act of trust and love, often deciphered by children. (43)

Narrated by Death, the story is that of Liesel Meminger, a young girl passed on to new parents, her relationships with those around her and the books and words she encounters during a fractious period in WW2. She develops a penchant for stealing books and this mediates her experience with the world around her and how she interacts with it. Clearly Death is fascinated by her - with an extraordinary capacity for sympathy/empathy and compassion- and the reader sees her through Death's eyes as he/she/it is kept busy in Nazi Germany. The characters closest to Liesel are all endearing, unique and often inspiring in their raw humanity and even as the ending is relayed and foreshadowed before it's even reached, their lives and interactions garner immutable meaning. 

The story is suitably heartbreaking but incredibly endearing and enriching. The narration, from the perspective of a characterised Death works so well, (despite taking a while to adjust to and not question), and it feels appropriate for the contextual/historical reality/presence of overwhelming death. I was in floods of tears at the end, not necessarily because it was a distressing subject (though it is) but because of that rare beauty in how something horrific could have been relayed so poignantly and beautifully and given meaning in unmeaning. This is how to tell a story. Even if the subject matter hadn't been so moving I would have been deeply moved by the depth and poetry of the language itself - the way each image is so carefully constructed and the strokes with which information is relayed. 

Geoffrey Rush is the perfect Hans
This is certainly a book that I would recommend to anyone whether they are interested in history, language, prose, poetry, or generally in the human condition. Zusak shows in this book that he is a master of his craft and any reader will go away feeling enriched. This is one for the ages. 

N.B. I should also add that I happened to see the film before reading the book and now feel it bore hardly any resemblance to the intricacies and affectations of the story, so much of which comes from the language and narration. It also omitted some seemingly small but crucial parts, despite the good casting and performances by the people in and behind the motion picture. 

Further quotes:

(Liesel's perspective): I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I  hope I have made them right (533)

(Death's final note): I am haunted by humans (553)