The White Book – Han Kang

The early hours of the morning and the city is cloaked in fog.
The border between sky and earth has been scrubbed out. The only view my window offers is the blurred suggestion of two poplars, ink-wash contours wavering four or five metres up from where the street lies hidden; all else is white. But can we really call it white? That vast, soundless undulation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness.

Like Flights, The White Book was picked from the Man Booker Prize International long list, and I’m pretty sure my first South Korean author.

The White Book is, from my simple understanding, a meditation of grief and loss explored through the colour white. Much like Fitzcarraldo Editions books that I am enjoying (Compass, Flights, and currently Zone), Portobello Books have produced a beautiful book that compliments Kang’s strong stark prose. Although I’m not even sure it’s completely prose. With pages made up of a few sentences or a paragraph, and nothing longer than three pages of text, The White Book could almost be poetry.

Reading an interview with Kang, she describes writing The White Book like a small ritual, like a prayer every day and that the transformation hoped for in the first chapter was achieved at the end. The salving balm to a wound, the death of a newborn sister before Kang was born, this book was triggered by a line from one of her own novels that she realised had come from her mum.

In The White Book Kang explores the birth, small life and sad death of her unknown sister, while on a writers residency in Warsaw. Starting with a list of white items, Kang commits to paper the circumstances of the life and death, of the impact it had on her parents, and her mum in particular, and both directly and indirectly, on her own life. The prose is stark and beautiful, rendered more so by the black print on the white paper, and the short paragraphs giving way to the expanse of white page.

It felt to me that this structure and style, while writing about a universal theme, death and grief, seeming otherworldly on the page, gave me a glimpse into the South Korean view of life, which I’m guessing is fundamentally different from mine.

White allows things to be covered over, made fresh, or to start again with a blank canvas, or maybe it allows you to throw into it anything you like and it absorbs it without stain, like sinking into the mist and maybe Kang was trying to make fresh as much as cover over, or perhaps I’m thinking to much. I won’t complain, I barely thought at all reading Flights, but all that white space on the page, it allows you room to think, and appreciate what is there. And that is a graceful reflection on grief. And don’t forget the colour white.

A congregation of white gulls on the winter shore. Around twenty perhaps? The birds were sitting facing out to sea, where the sun was creeping down to the horizon. As though observing some kind of silent ceremony, holding themselves perfectly still in the sub-zero cold as they witnessed the days decline. She stopped walking and let her gaze follows theirs, to that pallid source of light which was about to flush crimson. Though the cold was so severe it seemed to sink it’s teeth right down to her bones, it was precisely the heat from that light, she knew, that kept her body from freezing.

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Deptford

After a bit of a hiatus I enjoyed the sunshine by doing another one of the excellent walks by Robert Wright that I started many years ago. Today was Deptford, following the beat of an old bobby in 1899.

Deptford

Not a lot of pics but the walk was fascinating and took me back onto the Thames path briefly which I have followed previously when training for the Walk for Life.
Unfortunately Robert Wright’s websites are no longer working so I can’t link to them.

Flights – Olga Tokarzcuk

Nothing happens – the march of darkness halts at the door to the house, and all the clamour of fading falls silent, makes a thick skin like on hot milk cooling. The contours of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky stretch out into infinity, slowly lose their sharp angles, corners edges. The dimming light takes the air with it – there’s nothing left to breathe Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snails eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park.

Flights, and the next book, The White Book by Han Kang, dropped into my view from the Man Book Prize International long list, feted on a couple of podcasts I listen to, so having finally run out of new books on my shelves, I bought two that I thought looked the most interesting.

Flights was the first pick, ‘a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy’, a random combination but I was already interested for the travel, the human anatomy piqued my interest further.
There are numerous stories, from a missing mother and child on a small Croatian island, the old man lecturing on a cruise ship among the Greek Islands, the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen and his attempts to understand phantom feelings from his amputated leg, and these stories are broken up with small anecdotes and musings by the narrator, interjecting her own story in between the others. Both of these elements are beautifully written and translated by Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft respectively.

What confused me as I read, was the seeming lack of cohesion, the stories seemed to bear no relation in terms of narrative, except that they were seemingly about the body, travel and loss. When I was about half way through I read an interview with Tokarczuk where she described Flights as a ‘constellation’ novel, in that, in a similar way to astronomers looking at the stars and drawing connections between them to form coherent shapes, the reader can look at the elements of the novel and form their own constellation. I thought about what I had read so far, and I can honestly say I feel it’s something I utterly failed to do. Why the themes of anatomy and travel run throughout the book, I just couldn’t conceive the whole as a novel in my head. I can honestly say though that that didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

The stories are delicately crafted, and I sensed that reading a novel with a traditional narrative by Tokarczuk would be a joy to read. It always seemed a jolt when one ended and the narrator stepped in. But then the narrator is wonderfully confidant and perceptive, and the little observations are interesting to read, in that despite seeming so ordinary, are not so easy to do in real life. My favourite was the lady she perceives is listening out of politeness until she can talk, so the narrator graciously concedes the conversation to allow the other to talk, a simple gesture but one that requires a mix of perception, awareness and interest, qualities that generally make a great traveller.

And that was what I felt in the end. I failed to draw a novel out of Flights, but what I did draw out is almost perfect travel book. If a traveller, wrote about where they were (although in this case it’s mostly anatomy museums surrounded by anatomical oddities), as well as throw in stories they hear, or even create while there, while interjecting thoughts and observations the same way Tokarczuk does here, it seems to me, after finishing, exactly what a travel book should be.
In fact Kapka Kassbova, writing in the Guardian, sums it up much more eloquently than me, so it seems a good idea to end with this:
‘Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.’

Flight from Irkust to Moscow. It takes off at 8 a.m. and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, whih means the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself. So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it.

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Skylight – Jose Saramago

They always left the thermos full, ready for their return home. The five minutes devoted to that small late-night feast made them feel rather special, as if they had suddenly left the mediocrity of their lives behind them and risen a few rungs on the economic ladder. The kitchen disappeared and gave way to an intimate little living room with expensive furniture and paintings on the wall and a piano in one corner. Rosalia no longer had high albumin levels, and Maria Claudia was wearing a dress in the latest fashion. Only Anselmo didn’t change. He was always the same tall, distinguished, decorative gentleman, bald and slightly stooped, and storking his small moustache. His face was fixed and inexpressive, the product of years spent repressing all emotion as a way of guaranteeing respectability.

Oh Saramago, is this finally the end? Or dare I hope for more of your pen, lying hidden or unpublished?
Written and dispatched to a publishers, who never responded, Saramago refused to let Skylight be published in his lifetime, and while having the man still here and writing would be the obvious choice, it was a joy discover Skylight existed and had been translated.

Skylight is probably Saramago’s most straight novel, in terms of structure. If the omnipresent narrator is the same as his later novels, they have yet to find their voice or opinion, but I don’t think it is. Looking at the inhabitants of a single apartment building in Lisbon, the characters are touching on cliche, the old couple who have long ago settled into contentment with their lot and one another, the straight laced businessman, his wife and soon to be rebelling teenage daughter. The couple still together only because barely concealed contempt and tolerance is easier and less scandalous than separation. The mother, her two daughters and sister eking out a living. The failed salesman, his highly strung wife and young boy and the kept woman, her lifestyle seduced from a local business man keeping the whole block teetering on the edge of a scandal.

Yet while they touch they never fully fall. The introduction of Abel into Sivlestre and Mariana’s apartment provokes intimate and strong conversations between the two men, who despite becoming friends, or perhaps because of becoming friends, see each other more clearly and share their painfully observations of the other. The story of Emilio and Carmen, the crazy wife from Spain, who both long to be apart but can see no way out until Carmen is invited to visit her parents back home in Vigo, and both see in their own minds a glimmer of hope, is possibly the most plain of all the stories told here. Emilio’s emotions on the day of Carmen’s departure belie the difficulty in making that break work, even as she dreams of her cousin in the train.

For me the most interesting stories are Caetano and Justina, and Claudinha. Caetano, the most brutal of Saramago’s creations, from whom nothing good comes as he duels with his wife to see who can hate the other more and also who’s pettiness causes scandal later. Claudinha, despite her sheltered upbringing under the stern but doting Rosalia and the hilariously pompous Anselmo, quickly learns to read how her life could turn out, as she unwittingly takes on Dona Lidia, who she has always admired, and realises that although initially out of her depth, she could eventually take her place.

The story of Isaura and Adriana is tender and sad, and Amelia’s desire to find and fix the cause of the inexplicable rift between the two causes her more pain than either of the girls.

By the end though everyone’s life has changed, and it’s fair to say has changed for the worse. While there is the taste of the dry humour that would flow in his later works, Skylight seems considerably bleak for a Saramago novel, although no less enjoyable.

And yet, I couldn’t help thinking, after I finished, that Abel, who at the end of the novel, realises he has to find he’s own way of being useful, becomes the narrator in Saramago’s later novels. It’s an absurd thought, but one that I can’t quite dismiss.

Isaura and Adriana smiled. This argument was merely the latest of many they had heard between those two poor old ladies, entirely restricted now to the domestic sphere, a long way from the days when they had broader, livelier interests, when their economic state allowed for such interests! There they were, lined and bent, grey and increasingly frail, their flickering fire throwing out its final sparks, resisting the accumulating ashes. Isaura and Adriana looked at each other and smiled again. In comparison to that crumbling old age, they felt young and vibrant, like a taut piano string.

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Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.

Where to next for humans? I pushed Sapiens onto the shelf, and picked up Homo Deus. Harari opens with this incredible fact, which becomes less incredible the more you read. As with One River, I have definitely felt this books impact more after finishing it rather than while immersed, and looking up the extracts I noted for this blog post, it sent thoughts spinning off in every direction.

Now that mankind is slowly reining in it’s timeless enemies of famine, plague and war, which are now mostly human inflicted rather than forgone conclusions, what will the species set it’s not inconsiderable intelligence and drive to next?

This is the central theme running through Homo Deus, and like Sapiens, Harari delivers it in his plain rolling prose, including contemporary references and thought/ire provoking arguments. I can’t help but feeling his clinical dismissal of god and religion are a taunt that he is begging to be picked up, although I am in full agreement with him.

The Pursuit of happiness is one area that Sapiens could look into. There are biological factors to why happiness is fleeting, could these be re-engineered, or done away with? One way is to constantly deliver the happiness hit (in one way the capitalist approach, keep buying to get that hit, is the hit becoming less or getting dull? By different! Buy Bigger! Keep Buying!). Harari juxtaposes this with Buddhism, and it’s objective to move us beyond all craving, so that our happiness is not dependent on our urges and desires.

What will determine these topics and areas. Although there are a number of elements from Sapiens that are repeated here, Homo Deus expands on them to look forward. The Humanist approach to life, and it’s desire to eliminate death and live forever, combined with the biological assumption that life is run by algorithms, even for biological creatures, not just invented technology. However this invented technology could become more and more intelligent, creating and running even more intelligent algorithms, and then what need for humans? If you’ve read my review for Sapiens, now would be a good time for Neo to appear. He’s not here though.

We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one. If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further it’s own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite it’s superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs.

My brother has tried to get me to watch endless programs about animals in the food chain, all of which I’ve had zero interest in. Reading Homo Deus however is the closest I have come to considering becoming a vegetarian. But that still seems wrong. Animals do kill other animals to eat, and there is not reason why humans should not also do this, particularly as humans also have the ability (and should use it) to not just eat the animal, but use every part of it for other uses. What humans should not be doing, is caging, modifying, selectively breeding other animals purely for the purpose of eating. The problem with that however, is that there would not be enough ‘wild’ animals to sustain the human population. Nature has it’s own solution to that problem, but humans are a step ahead of nature, and manipulate her to sustain it’s ever expanding population. Even this point is only part of the point Harari was making in the paragraph above, but it’s an example of the thoughts bouncing around your head while you read and long after you close the cover.

Suppose you were given a choice between the following two vacation packages:
Stone Age package: On day one we will hike for ten hours in a pristine forest, setting camp for the night in a clearing by a river. On day two we will canoe down the river for ten hours, camping on the shores of a small lake. On day three we will learn from the native people how to fish in the lake and how to find mushrooms in the nearby woods.

Modern proletarian package: On day on we will work for ten hours in a polluted textile factory, passing the night in a cramped apartment block. On day two we will work for ten hours as cashiers in the local department store, going back to sleep in the same apartment block. On day three we will learn from the the native people how to open a bank account and fill out mortgage forms.
Which package would you choose?

This paragraph, and the final one of the post, for me, are the most important in both of Harari’s books, and demonstrate exactly what a wonderful achievement these books are in realising what you think is actually just a perception. While we have undoubtedly achieved great things, overcome every obstacle to become the most advanced species on the planet, when you take a slightly different look at our progress, it seems less clear that we have actually advanced at all.

Harari points out at the end that although steps have been taken down some of the routes he has explained, they are only possibilities of what Sapiens may achieve in the future. Yet while reading about dataism in the book I listened to the Guardian Science Weekly podcast with Stephen Pinker which touched on certain points. This was the same time that the Cambridge Analytica story broke, and how it used harvested data from Facebook to influence people in the US election. It suddenly seems that the time of using algorithms to not only predict, but influence human behaviour has already arrived, whether the AI algorithms will be beneficial remains to be seen, better get that happiness hit in now.

We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

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Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power – but so did chimpanzees, baboons and elephants. There was nothing special about humans.

We are already in the Matrix, Harari says it right there on page 35. Except we’re not batteries for an external system, we’ve just created a reality for ourselves that is completely fictional, ‘imagined realities’. They are not lies, as Harari points out, monkeys can lie, but they are common beliefs that all humans’ share that make them a reality.  A very powerful reality. While things like Lions, Trees and Rivers are real physical entities, Limited Liability Companies, Nations, Money, are all inventions of the human imagination.

I found Sapiens absolutely fascinating, Harari slices through fiction, spin, history and belief with a sharp blade, revealing the truth about our species with a bold, unflinching glare. I learnt what a Diprotodon was, I learnt that humans were domesticated by wheat, not the other way round. Foragers were more successful with a wider diet, if they could not find something, there would be something else to eat instead. The Agricultural Revolution separated us from nature and gave us the future. We ate less variety of food, and were susceptible to droughts and bad harvests.

Giving a brief history from the first peoples to what do we want as a species today, Sapiens tackles some big subjects but Harari keeps the tone light and informative and littered with contemporary cultural references. }
But in the beginning I felt I was learning about myself as much as Sapiens.
When I reviewed One River by Wade Davis I was moaning about the many technical terms for the fauna he was describing and how I initially found them a barrier. At the beginning of Sapiens I found it too easy to read and understand, and the statements he made and references were merely there to shock or provoke a reaction. It triggered a thought process in my head, that I had become a snob, that a book had to be slightly difficult to read to be worthwhile or valid. I argued against myself that this was an important subject and that writing it in a way to make it accessible to as many people as possible was exactly how it should be written. Then I thought, despite the copious amount of references sign posted, that somehow this was like fake news, the very manner of Harari’s writing sometimes felt like he was portraying everything as fact, as this is the way it is, but in fact it was just his interpretation.

As I disappeared further into the book though my thinking changed (or perhaps I stopped thinking). It is precisely Harari’s style that makes the impact by the end. At one point he explains how the state and the free market has replaced the family and community in an individuals life, carefully explaining how this happened and it’s evolution. It’s not sensationalised, a tabloid scream out from the page, despite being explained over several pages, it feels considered and understated. Harari doesn’t judge, the theory is put down on the page for you to read and think about.

Religion is a good example of this. Sapiens flatly rejects any notion of God, in any format or number. It looks into the evolution of religion and the roles it has played, and again, Harari follows his arguments through to interesting conclusions.

So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

When I finished thinking, or indeed started thinking again, my conclusion was that the human race can be compared to Voldemort, We have done great things. Terrible, yes, but great things. Sapiens explains how as a species we have exponentially confounded all previous notions of the speed and impact of revolution. How we are becoming a global hegemony based on our collective belief in things that do not exist, yet we have absolute faith in. Aha! God you say. Money Harari says, Nations. These have replaced God.

The fact that people all over the world know what these are and for the most part feel strongly about one or both of them, and values them over actual physical objects such as the natural world, shows how far we are inside our the matrix.

Where is Neo?

Perhaps in Homo Deus. I’ll let you know.

If we combine the mass extinction in Australia and America, and add the smaller-scale extinctions that took place as Homo Sapiens spread over Afro-Asia – such as the extinctions that occurred when ancient foragers settled remote islands such as Cuba, the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. Hardest hit were the large furry creatures. At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over fifty kilograms. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained. Homo Sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planets big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing or iron tools.

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