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Monday, December 21, 2015

The Roots of Heaven (1956) by Romain Gary

Book Review
The Roots of Heaven (1956)
 by Romain Gary

   The Roots of Heaven is like...if Wes Anderson made an adventure film.  Although John Houston actually did make a movie out of it only two years after it was published.  The Roots of Heaven is about rag tag group of European misfits on a quixotic quest to save the elephants in the northern part of French Equatorial Africa.  They are a mixed bag, a French partisan, a young German woman working as a bar hostess in Chad, a Danish naturalist and an American "traitor" who was disgraced by North Korean captors by being forced to denounce the United States over the radio.  Together they roam the wastes of present day Chad and Central African Republic, burning down the homesteads of people engaged in the Ivory trade.

  They combine forces with a nascent French speaking African revolutionary, late an actual member of Parliament of France under their unique system where colonies were made part of France itself.  Gary is forward thinking in his discussion of ideas like nationalism and environmentalism.  He really is quite prescient in handling questions that maintain their relevance today.

 Although the philosophizing can get a bit thick in the tradition of many philosophical novels written by French authors, the setting and terrorism angle help the lengthy discussions of environmentalism, nationalism, communism and capitalism go down easy.

Homo Faber (1959) by Max Frisch

Julie Delpy playes Elizabeth "Sabeth" Piper in the Schlondorff movie of Homo Faber by Max Frisch.
Book Review
Homo Faber (1959)
 by Max Frisch

  Homo Faber is a weird little book built around an unknowingly incestuous relationship between a Swiss-German man and his half Jewish daughter (played by Julie Delphy in the Schlondorff movie version.)   The copy I checked out from the San Diego Public Library was the movie edition of the book, and Julie Delpy's face was plastered on the cover.    I hadn't heard of the movie.  Most of Schlondorff's films are in the Criterion Collection, so the fact of the movie edition even existing gave me pause.

  With Homo Faber, the reader is in Lolita territory.  Frisch doesn't stop with incest, the first portion of the novel, prior to the incestuous relationship deals with the discovery of the suicide of the step father of Sabeth Piper by Max Faber, her father lover.  The opening portion of Homo Faber is set in the Yucatan, as Faber travels to a remote plantation to find Piper's step-father hanging by the neck, a suicide.    I thought the description of the Yucatan was spot on and surpassed other descriptions of Mexico by European/English/American authors.

  Despite the heavy subject matter, the narrator maintains a breezy, conversational tone.  Faber is an existential hero, undisturbed by events that historically drive people stark raving mad. You could read that detatchment as representing unprocessed trauma from the experiences of World War II, but Frisch hardly alludes to the War or it's aftermath.

Book Review: The Tin Drum (1959) by Gunter Grass

David Bennett memorably portrayed Oskar Matzerath, the perpetually child-like dwarf hero of The Tin Drum, in the 1979 film version of the book.
Book Review:
 The Tin Drum (1959)
by Gunter Grass

  The Tin Drum is probably the most famous work by a German author between the end of World War II and today.  Not only the book, which is the only post World War II German novel that anyone you know has ever read, if they've read a post World War II German novel at all.  The film, which is an incredibly literal rendition of the novel, won the Palme D'Or in Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1979/1980.

 Oskar is a Zelig/Forest Gump/Stewie Griffin type of character, a pale dwarf who claims that he voluntarily stopped growing at the age of 3, when he threw himself down the stairs.  Oskar lives in Danzig, now Gdansk, a German enclave in present day Poland.   He is the child of an unconventional mother, one who shares affections with a German Deli owner and a Polish post-office worker.  The dynamic between the Mother and her two lovers ends in her death.   The rest of the novel concerns Oskar's life and adventures.  He is what you call an "unreliable" narrator, and he shifts between first and third person narration within the same paragraph.

 Grass came from a heavily German populated area of present day Poland called Kashubia.  Kashubians speak a Polish dialect, and are typically considered Poles.  However, because of the heavy presence of Germans in Danzig, and Danzig's role as the economic engine of Kashubia, Kashubians were not particularly "Polish."  Grass traces the mutability of ethnic and linguistic identity over the course of The Tin Drum.

 Oskar's own experience in World War II mirrors that of the Kashubians.  They were a friendly slavic population to the Nazi regime, and to the Soviets they were oppressed Poles awaiting liberation.   They were also in a good position to inherit businesses abandoned by ethnic Germans after Danzig was captured by the Russians.  One aspect of The Tin Drum doesn't really come across unless you actually read the book/watch the movie, that's the ribaldry of Oskar's adventures.  He is perceived as an asexual dwarf, but his sexual situation is very important to his inner narrative and takes up a good deal of the 550 page plus book.

  Like many of the other plot points in the narrative, Oskar's obsession with his parentage and the parentage of other characters in the book, including a brother who he maintains is his son, mirrors the obsessions of the Nazis, with their emphasis on racial hygiene. Although The Tin Drum is but one volume of the authors Danzig trilogy, it stands on it's own as one of the most enduring narratives of World War II as experienced by Eastern Europeans.

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