Thursday, October 20, 2011

Beatrice and Virgil

I have a habit of reading books without reading the reviews or summaries, and often I have no idea what I am getting into. As a result, I end up reading horrific tales of war and violence, themes I would normally attempt to avoid. For example, lately I recently read Murakami's Wind Up Bird Chronicles and Yan Martel's Beatrice and Virgil and Life of Pi.

In the Murakami novel a Japanese soldier is skinned alive by Mongolian and Russian soldiers. In the Martel novel, Life of Pi, Martel uses animal killings as a metaphor for human violence. A hyena eat a a zebra, slowly, ick, and, well, let's just say it's very reminiscent of the Murakami scene.

InBeatrice and Virgil I realized, only in the second half of the novel, that one of the main characters is a Nazi war criminal, seeking forgiveness. I also learned that this book was not nearly as well liked as Pi, but I really liked it. I think it has many of the appealing aspects of a Murakami novel-- it is deeply imagined and moves on many levels. In the end, the book reminded me (ever so slightly) of that movie, The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara talks for hours about his role in World War II and Vietnam, as if he is needing to explain, to apologize, to redeem himself, even as he confesses.


TC said...

The subject of animal killings is a "hot" one today. The 42 exotic wild animals killed near Zanesville, including 17 Bengal Tigers... some perverse need for purgation drove "one" to search out the photos. Truly appalling, it all seemed in that moment. To be human, that is.

There's got to have been a better way.

But maybe the applicable word is not purgation but expiation. Certainly that McNamara film has to be one of the most telling of recorded expositions of guilt, of the need for forgiveness, and of the impossibility of re-balancing the eternal scales, once tipped.

It is the document of a civilization looking into itself, repelled by what it finds, and then writhing much like an animal caught in a trap, ready even to gnaw into its own bone in the intensity of compulsion to escape its certain fate.

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, it was so amazing--so much of it, like the talking about fire-bombing all these Japanese cities--
"If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

Strange how he seemed to be asking the audience for approval . . .

And yes, the animal killing in Zanesville really reminded me of the books. There was a scene in the Murakami book about a soldier who is ordered to kill all the zoo animal in a Chinese town as well. And of course Pi is at sea with the tiger for ages . . .

Lyle Daggett said...

The Fog of War was a good one. The discussion here (your post, and the comments) makes me think of that brief scene in Apocalypse Now where the men get off the gunboat somewhere in the deep jungle, and a couple of them go off into the trees on some unlikely errand, and they suddenly encounter a tiger, and go running breakneck back to the boat. Such an exquisite compact metaphor for the whole Vietnam war catastrophe.

The notion of reading novels with no real idea beforehand of what they're about, or what goes on in them, is fascinating to me. For the heck of it, here are a few novels I've enjoyed. (I read novels just occasionally -- they have to really grab me for me to stay with them.)

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

From A to X by John Berger

Njal's Saga, unknown medieval Icelandic author. (I like the translation by Magnusson and Paalson rather than the more recent one published in the past few years.)

Luisa in Realityland by Claribel Alegria. (Curbstone Press, years ago, may be out of print.)

Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday (a kind of sequel to Cannery Row), both by John Steinbeck.

Going Down Fast by Marge Piercy

Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright (a collection of a few longish short stories).

Nin Andrews said...

Thanks for the book list!