Monday, August 20, 2018

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris


I have been interested in the Dreyfus Affair ever since I read Zola's J'Accuse! about two years ago. Then lately Michael Rosen's The Disappearance of Émile Zola let my interest sparked again. Yet, these two books only cover the affair from Zola's point of view; or rather, Zola's fight and struggle during Dreyfus Affair; they do not touch its core. It is in this field has Robert Harris done a terrific job to spotlight one of the biggest political scandals in 19th century which has torn and humiliated France as a nation, by weaving every aspect of it into this riveting historical novel.

In September 1894 a suspicious note has been found by a French espionage agent who worked at the German Embassy in Paris (a cleaning woman who was recruited by the French). The note (or borderau) was addressed to German military attaché: Max von Schwartzkoppen, containing some secret information on French artillery. It's not the first leakage of military secret, and the press and public have been putting big pressure to the Ministry of War to solve it. To save his face, the Minister (General Mercier) put a thorough investigation inside the General Staff. A young major named Alfred Dreyfus seems to be a perfect culprit, since he is a Jewish officer with Alsatian origin (Alsace has been annexed by Germany after France's defeat at Franco-Prussian war). Dreyfus was soon imprisoned and tortured to confess, yet he kept insisting of his innocence. To fill in the 'gap' at preliminary enquiry in court, the Statistical Section staffs then manipulated the borderau to frame Dreyfus up.

Alfred Dreyfus
Now, Dreyfus is a 'loner' Jewish; he is wealthy, proud, cold, and arrogant towards others. He is not a favorite among his friends, and often annoys his chiefs. Bingo! They have found the perfect victim. He's 'only a regular Jew' anyway... ; and this was when the anti-semitic sentiment played its role. The verdict was inevitable: Dreyfus was guilty and must be exiled to Devil's Island. To this point everyone (excepted Dreyfus' relatives and the Jewish) believed that Dreyfus was guilty. But then, a young officer, Georges Picquart, was appointed the new Chief of Statistical Section, and became the youngest Colonel ever in French Military history. It was Picquart who first suspected that a Major Esterhazy was actually the real writer of the infamous borderau. Through Picquart's conscience and heroic action (against military law), the conspiracy was began to be revealed, and finally made public by Zola's J'Accuse!

Georges Picquart
I was really furious by this Dreyfus business. Two aspects in particular have really disgusted me: first, that the real (original) borderau actually consisted of ridiculously trivial information. The fact that Schwartzkoppen (the German attaché) has even torn it to six pieces and thrown it to his garbage bin, should have made one questioning its value. It's true that an internal spy has divulged the information, but punishing the culprit to that extent (Dreyfus was humiliated in front of the army, and was solitary confined and tortured in Devil's Island) is ridiculous! Was there nobody ever wondered why the government put so much effort (not mentioning costs) to guard a prisoner from such minor crime? But again, it's the anti-semitic sentiment: he's only a regular Jew...

The second is how almost all rank of the army—excepted Picquart—kept defending the ugly lies and injustice piles by the chiefs. It's more than anti-semitism here, it's the military 'code of honor', which instantly reminded me of the movie A Few Good Men. They have the wrong illusion that defending the honor of the army and nation is higher than humanity—the 'for the greater good' stuff. I am still amazed at how these military men could have such a blind notion! France was lucky to have Georges Picquart and Émile Zola who have risked their career and personal life, and unselfishly followed their conscience to pursue truth and justice.

Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

At the end, what was the source of all this abominable business? It’s Ambition and greediness of General Mercier and the racism of the staff. Defending the nation, eh? In reality they have almost triggered a civil war! And how much sorrows have they inflicted to the Dreyfusards and their families?

Once again, Robert Harris didn't disappoint his readers. Almost all of the events and characters in this book are real. Harris only filled in the gaps with his imagination to weave it into an enjoyable novel, which is narrated by Georges Picquart. If you want to learn more about Dreyfus Affair, and/or more about Georges Picquart, this book will satisfy you.

5/5 is my final verdict.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Siege by Helen Dunmore


You could never really know what the word "starving" means if you have never been deprived of the food SOURCE. This novel by Helen Dumnore taught you to always be grateful for every single day of your life.

The Siege depicted the historical siege of Leningrad by German (Nazy) Army in World War II; the biggest prolonged siege in the history. The novel particularly focused on the most extreme part of the siege, i.e. the winter of September 1941 to February 1942. Food ration was down to only 125 grams bread per person per DAY. Can you imagine that? 125 grams for 24 hours! And when the temperature was down to -30 degree (Celsius); many people died from combination of starvation, malnutrition, and freeze. Food and fuel suddenly valued like gold, while money became worthless (you couldn't eat money no matter how rich you were!). The siege was prolonged until January 1944 (900 days in total), but at least a new access was available after the severe winter had passed, that food supply was gradually back to normal--food ration was still on, but at least they didn't have to starve.

The central characters of this historical novel are the working class family: Anna Mikhailovna, a young woman who lives with her father and her little brother Kolya. Then Marina Petrovna, a former actress and a friend of Anna's father, came to stay with them just before the city was besieged. Another important character was Andrei, a medical student who helped Mikhail (Anna's father) in war, and so he and Anna met and soon lived each other. These four adults and a little boy was a portrayal of how the city heroically held on and refused to surrender to the Nazi (Hitler's plan was to raze the city to the ground--another method of genocide?).

And so, amidst the famine, struggle of life, bombardment, and cannibalism (yes, there were some cases of starving people ate human flesh!), there grew love and hope, which I believe were two important keys of survival. From their heroic acts, I see humanity at its highest and strongest state, which no one could dream to destroy.

Two thumbs up for Dunmore for writing so vivid and compelling story of war and humanity.

Final verdict: 5 / 5


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco


To sum up this unique book in one short sentence is nearly impossible; but if I must, I would say that this book is about everything and nothing. Confused? So will you be, if I have interested you, by this review, to read it. By everything, I meant that this book covers wide and various (read: complex) topics around 14th century. I'm not actually familiar with this era, and must grope throughout the book to try to understand the historical background. Italy during the Middle Age seemed to be full of power struggle between the state and the Church; disputes between various orders inside Catholic Church; heresy, mystics, and thirst of theological study.

Our protagonists are William of Baskerville—a Franciscan friar and an inquisitor, and Adso of Melk—a Benedictine novice who helps William as his secretary. They came as guests at a Benedictine monastery, where, in a week, a theological disputation between the Pope and Friars Minor who was suspected of heresy, was going to be held. Unfortunately, a monk has been mysteriously found dead, and the abbot asked William's help to investigate the case, which seemed to be related to the monastery's library—a magnificent one with ancient manuscripts, with a labyrinth inside, but was full of dark mysteries. Within the seven days of unfolding the mystery, five more monks were dead—murdered—and many layers, signs, and paths began unfolding but leading, apparently, to nowhere. With it, the book also speaks about many heavy topics which seemed unrelated, confusing, and finally ended nowhere. This was what I meant earlier by 'everything but nothing'.

The magnificent (probably the biggest in the whole country) monastery owns a large collection of manuscripts from scientists and theologians from around the world (let alone important relics and valuable treasures hidden inside their vault). It should have been the centre of the civilization; but it mysteriously guarded from anyone, restricted, even from the monks, by some complicated designs and a dangerous labyrinth. They were scholar-monks, but forbidden to access of certain books. **spoiler alert** - In the end, it was burned down by the villain—library and the whole monastery; nothing survived. Everything, then nothing. **spoiler ends**

In this book, too, there were debates around poverty in the Catholic Church—whether or not Jesus disciples and monks were allowed to have personal possessions, etc. (without final conclusion and not related to the murder). They were also debating whether or not monks were allowed to laugh or joke. The later finally led to Aristotle's missing second book: Poetics, which spoke about tragedies and comedies. This book seemed to be the main cause of the murders; however, just as William and Adso seemed to have solved the mystery and found the murderer, we found out that the suspect did not do the murders, and some of the cases were not really murders. Again, everything, but means nothing.

In short, this book contains some chaotic ideas—some are true but the rest are false, and Eco let us readers to have our own opinion and perspective, and finally make our own conclusion. I am personally interested in two aspects. First, that knowledge should be opened to the world. Instead of banning (dangerous) books, the authority (country, school, parents, etc.) should have given us freedom to read, but with proper education. That way we are trained to sort the good from the bad from our readings. Second, the correlation of the heresy issue with the cause of the murders. Both are so relevant to the modern terrorism which is mostly rooted from religious people. Piety and heresy are divided only by a very thin line; sometimes a pious man and a murderer both love God, but the one humbly seeks and follows God's will, while the other only focus on his own will (arrogantly thinks it correspond with God’s). After finishing this book, I remembered Pontius Pilate's 'what is truth’? This book answered it beautifully; that love needs humility in order to be true, without that, it can lead to evil, destruction, and death.

Final verdict: 4 to 5



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff


Cleopatra is probably one name of which no one would ever claim he never hears. It has never occurred to me before that a woman has ever made that distinction in the world where men's domination is strong. After 2000 years—Cleopatra died only one generation before Christ—her name is still many times repeated by poets, historians; in literature, in movies, and I think in many other aspects. She is the Queen of Egypt. But after her, many queens have also reigned. What made her so enigmatic? When she died, Cleopatra ruled over so many lands and nations—the widest a queen has ever ruled. That made her so powerful. But I believe, the fact that we never know much about her, has also raised her values. Cleopatra is a myth, legend. At this point, Stacy Schiff tries to break the myths, and bring us the real person in this book.
                                             
I have put high expectation on this book when I bought it. I wanted to know the real character and qualities of Cleopatra, other than what was depicting by Elisabeth Taylor in the movie or in Shakespeare's plays. But somehow, I was quite disappointed. It's not entirely Ms. Schiff's fault, maybe. Apparently, there were not much facts about Cleopatra's deeds on which one could base upon. Many historians have written about her, of course. She was the mother of Julius Caesar's and Marc Antony's children! No foreigners have ever set so important role in Ancient Rome when it was a dominant ruling nation like Cleopatra. We are talking about the Western world! However, most of what Plutarch or Livy or Dellius wrote were either bias or only suggestions. I believe the misogynistic culture of Rome was the culprit here. Hence, there was almost not accurate account of Cleopatra's real .... in her world.

From what I read, I could gather that Cleopatra:
  • was the last Ptolemaic clan, which was full of incest and mayhem.
    Cleopatra in coin (the most accurate
    picture of her)
  • was really a Greek-Macedonian, not originally an Egyptian.
  • loved pearls, used to wear it abundantly, even also on her hair.
  • was not very pretty woman (far from Elizabeth Taylor!), but she possessed a charisma; she was attractive in her high intelligence, her ambition, her enthusiastic speech, and self-possessing manner.
  • was great in politics and governing a nation. She brought Egypt to be a great nation before it was finally annexed to Rome after her defeat and death.
  • took care of people's, and that's why was loved by them.
  • ruled by herself (a woman at that era!) and played great role in Western world. She was more than capable in military stuffs, leading a great army, controlling currency, and was great in diplomacy. She was really Caesar's equal.


While people portray Julius Caesar as warrior or mighty King, we tend to see Cleopatra as an exotic woman who used her sexual appeal as weapon. While we take Caesar's conquest over Western world as great, people believe that Cleopatra became Queen of Egypt through cunning and seduction. This was how men--Octavian most of all, and the Roman historians—has misled us. Worst of all, those papyruses in the magnificent Alexandria—which might have kept facts about Cleopatra's deeds—had been destroyed. So, now all we have about her is just myths—most of all the wrong ones.

This book would have been interesting. However, Schiff seems to be drifting too much to Rome's histories and chief actors in it. I understand that it might be because there were poor materials to build the life of Cleopatra, but still… She also put suggestions in rather disproportionate amount (compared to facts) to my taste. Add that with rather bad Indonesian translation, which made my reading quite tedious. I was really glad when it's over!

My rating: 3/5


Friday, April 20, 2018

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon


I am never a movie person. But among the short list of movies I have ever watched (most of them are book-turns-to-movies or movies starred by Matt Damon--yes I'm his fan!), there are even shorter list of movies which I often rewatch. One of them are Anna and the King, starring Jodi Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. I loved its cultural background of 19th century Siam. I also loved the silent and respectable romance of an English woman and the King of Siam, as well as the perfect chemistry of Jodi and Yun-Fat. I learned later that it was based on the diary of a real Anna Leonowens--an English Governess hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his children (later on, his harem too). When searching for this diary, I stumbled upon this historical novel by Margaret Landon. She re-wrote Leonowens' diary into a more flowing story (cutting a lot of tedious geographical and antropological entries of the original diary).

If you have watch the movie, imagine the much savage, violent, selfish, and distrustful King, in oppose to Yun-Fat's charismatic and charming version; then increase by ten folds the wretched condition of the slave of a rich lady, of whom Anna has helped to buy the freedom. Imagine also how the revengeful King would react when his favorite concubine, Tuptim, was running away with her lover; that instead of regretting his impotence in intervening the court verdict and heartbrokenly but secretly crying for Tuptim's unfair death penalty like Yun-Fat's version, the real King was ten times more cruel and revengeful in his terrible rage. And lastly, the real King, while quite often granting Anna's request, he was also harsh, unfair, and deceitful towards Anna--and certainly very far away from having any sparks of romance! There... if you combine those aspects, you'll get the rough idea of the book.

When starting it, I have prepared myself to not expecting any romanticism of the movie. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised to learn the terrors Anna and her household must have endured during her stay at Siam. And my admiration grew for her. If this was truly Anna Leonowens' account of her real life in Siam, then she must have probably been one of the most brave women ever lived in 19th century. How terrible and dangerous her life and work was, and all for a vague hope that the crown prince Chulalongkorn might bring justice and brighter future to Siam when he succeeded his father!

The only time I did not hate King Mongkut, was near the end, in his thank you letter to Anna, where he said: "...All that [Chulalongkorn] ever learned of good in his life, you taught him." I think that was one thing teachers would always like to hear.

Finally, while the movie ends with emotional separation (the dance always makes me cry!), the historical novel ends with a slightly hopeful future, though not as emotional as when Yun-Fat embracing Jodie in their last dance: "It was through the principles laid down in her teaching that he had formed the plans by which he had transformed his kingdom."

4/5 - for this tremendous story of an English woman.