Friday, November 21, 2008

The Stranger


I once again have to apologize. I would've finished this book way earlier, but lately, on the train I've been spending more time with my iPod and at home have been spending more time with Family Guy and nanowrimo. It's a very thin novel, smaller than "Veronica Decides to Die". It's not as interesting or colorful (I don't know really know why I'm comparing the two), but it is still a good novel. It is considered a classic existentialist, absurdist
tracttreatise although Albert Camus himself said that he was not an existentialist. Themes of the value of life and it's meaning play very important roles, although I don't think I agree with what Camus says about life through those themes.

Meursault is an ordinary man with a job, a woman (or sexual partner, really), neighbors and a friend that he lives with and encounters on the daily basis. In the beginning of the book, his mother passes away, and he attends the funeral. The majority of the narrative after this is a contemplation on Meursault as a completely indifferent person to a world that just seems to drift by. This is until, one day, on an Algerian beach, Meursault confronts a nameless Arab, an enemy of his friend Raymond, and shoots him dead. From here on, through a trial of his murder, an examination of Meursault's character and his attitude towards morality is examined.

I had a passage that I was going to put up here, but it's at the end of the book and I thought it perhaps be better saved for the personal reading experience. But it basically summed up Meursault's view of life, a view in which nothing mattered since we would all, at one point in time meet our deaths no matter what we did. On a literary level, the feel and writing style of the book accurately portrays this view, as the story progresses and feels almost like a blur of characters and events that pass by. It almost becomes irrelevant as to whether Meursault engages with them or not, because it always just feels like he is the objective observer to life shifting and grappling with itself, even when it involves him.

Most of the problems I had with the book were not actually with the story itself but with what Camus was trying to say about fate and what matters, so this post wouldn't really be considered a review of the book. Meursault talks about how nothing really matters, not his mother's death, or the shooting of the Arab or anything. Because in the end, nothing is what we become. Back into the grave, perhaps a temporary life in memory, and then complete disintegration. In prison, a chaplain comes to him and tries to tell him to turn to God, but Meursault refuses, saying that he only had a little bit of time left in his life, and he didn't want to waste it on God.

Meursault eventually realizes that he had a hand in where he's ended up, and that fate was not control solely by some outside force alone. In him believing that there is no real, definable truth, only perspective, is also true. But with that said, he can no longer argue that nothing matters. Because what does matter depends on your own views or your personal aspirations. Had Meursault chose to accept God in his life, a new system of values and beliefs would've been introduced, and there'd be a world beyond earth to consider in his actions. Life seemed like a blur because he made the personal choice to deaden himself to it. An intellectual pursuit in the activity, attitudes, atmosphere, or spiritual life of the world around him would've awaken something in him at some point. Or so I believe.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veronika Decides To Die

I had finished this book much earlier than today, but I became busy with nanowrimo, some meetings, work and tiredness.

At any rate, I had signed up at meetup.com to go to a Reader's meeting of some sort and this was the book picked for the meeting. The meeting was only a week and a half away, and I've read thick books in shorter time than that, so I went to pick it up. "Veronica Decides to Die" by Paulo Coelho was only 210 pgs., with considerable gaps in between sentences and chapters that are only 1-2 1/2 pgs. long, so needless to say I finished it no time. But I will also venture to say that those circumstances are only a small percentage of the reason why I finished the book so fast, it was mainly because the writing, story, characters and thin plot combine to become an absolutely astonishing literary feat.

As the title of the book plainly states, the story starts with Veronica, a young girl in the "famously unknown" country of Ljubljana, Slovenia, wanting to end her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills 1) because she is at the end of her youth and from that point on everyday will just be a repeat of the last one and 2) everything was wrong in the world and there was nothing Veronica could do to turn it right, which made her feel powerless. After taking the pills and passing out, she wakes up in a mental hospital. A particular Dr. Igor, head of the hospital "because he thinks a lot before making a decision", explains to Veronica that she has done terrible, irreversible damage to her heart and only has a few days to live. It's from this point in her small fraction of living time that Veronica begins to explore the characters, feelings (emotional and physical) and events that make her question and doubt her own death wish.

Of course, being in a mental hospital, the theme of what it means to be insane/crazy is discussed from beginning to end. Theories about it's validity are put forth and Coelho intelligently interweaves the word into the context of various characters pasts, and shows what it means to them as well as what it will end up meaning to Veronica. The theme of "Impossible Love" is discussed: Preseren, a famous poet that has a statue created after him, had fallen in love with a little girl named Julia and only wrote poems to express his adoration for her. But never got her. Zedka, one of the patients in the hospital, had in the past gave up everything (including her own husband) to pursue a very unlikely relationship on the other side of the world with a man who was entirely too busy with his own life to take her seriously. This theme implied the feeling of despair, which also matched Veronika's situation.

The themes of transcendence, Slovenian independence, the financial perspective of the hospital, and the cause of insanity are also discussed in this remarkable narrative with intelligence and a certain accessible quality that is sometimes difficult to find in literary. They are all used to show a unique perspective of life at the brink of death.

" ' Then last night, I too asked myself what I was doing in this hospital.
And I thought how very interesting to be down in the square, at the Three
Bridges, in the marketplace opposite the theater, buying apples and talking
about the weather. Obviously, I'd be struggling with a lot of other
long-forgotten things, like unpaid bills, problems with neighbors, the ironic
looks of people who don't understand me, solitude, my children's complaining.
But all that is just part of life, I think; and the price you pay for having to
deal with those minor problems is far less than the price you pay for not
recognizing they're yours.' " (pg. 151)