Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada
Each sentence of this book made me what to scream, owing to how aware reading each of them made me of the brute fact that I too, someday, would die never to return. The time that I spent reading this self-important book denied me even the possibility of being educated in something nominally more unpleasant by way of real pain. Instead, being obligated to read each page, I was made to experience the profound nullification of my agency. Which is to say that every second I spent reading it was like somehow being aware of what it would be to already be dead. When we do these lists, I often have to find the book again to remind myself of what I read. But in the case of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, I can’t do that because it went straight to the second-hand shelf the second we’d finished the podcast. I needed it out of my life so badly that even now, just remembering it causes me to feel the withering once again.
The tale of three, successively less anthropomorphic, generations of polar bears living over the latter half of the 20th century, the novel is an impressionistic depiction of the injustices of the world (immigration, discrimination, exploitation and climate change) where so much beauty and love are possible. Its defenders would say that it creates a hunger to combat these wrongs. But really the kind of naïve confusion with which it responds to these complex issues can only produce a kind of pearl-clutching “oh dearism” that is to politics as cops at the door are to a party. There may be those that defend the book by instituting a false separation between its ostensible politics and its aesthetic achievements (which is to say, people who shouldn’t be listened to anyway). They may point to the craft in the prose and the blurry reality of magical realism that creates a sensuous world of the non-human in the human. To which I would respond that they don’t. The prose devices that illustrate the polar bears epistemology and the worldbuilding are so patchy that all I can read in this book is the arrogance of literary writers (and critics) when it comes to anything as crass as taking a reader with you into a new reality (something my recent reading of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando revealed to me need not be the case). For readers of my entry on my best read of the year; this is what I fear Nobel prize-winning books to be like.
But on the positive side, the second part of the book is kinda ok.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
If, unlike me, you are looking for a book that will create its own fantastic universe that will be almost like the world we know it and yet slightly and uncannily different, and then use it as a metaphorical vehicle to ask “important questions” about the world we know and our place in it (primarily, it seems, What is love?, What is it to be human?), while and at the very same refusing to actually engage in this very world of ours, then Never Let Me Go may be a book for you. If, unlike me, you are looking of a novel with a plot so well conceived and crafted that it feels its structure was designed in a lab with a help of supercomputers and perhaps half a dozen petri dishes, then Never Let Me Go may be a book for you. If, unlike me, you like this peculiar clinical touch to literature, a suspense created chiefly through a timed and deliberate resolution of clues that are dropped in earlier in an equally timed and deliberate way, then Never Let Me Go may be a book for you. However, if, like me, you feel that such characteristics and devices are not necessary what you are looking for in books, then you may as well just let Never Let Me Go go.
Haru by Flavia Company
The following rant about this book is more of a personal rant unless you speak Catalan or Spanish, because (thankfully) this book hasn’t been translated into other languages.
Haru explains, in 300-ish pages (double space, big margins, a couple of blank pages between chapters), the story of, yes, Haru. Haru is a Japanese girl who, after losing her mother, is sent to an archery school, where she is supposed to learn both the art of archery and of life. The book follows her life and her supposed development as a first hurt, then bad, and then good person, all wrapped up in this kind of supposed meditational, natural environment that rural Japan is supposed to be? I guess? The thing gets even worse when paying attention to the boring and simple narrative, short chapters that I guess are supposed to appear as glimpses of Haru’s life but that end up building more like characters with no depth, no consistent personality, no interest whatsoever. But if I have to pick, I think the worst part of it all are the final sentences of the chapters, written in some kind of prose haiku, trying to create an image charged with some kind of unclear morals or life lessons.
Summarising, the book is a cliché of itself. I am deeply saddened that energy has been combusted in order to fly this book from Barcelona to Denmark, and I feel guilty for that. If you ever find yourself wanting to read contemporary Catalan literature, please DON’T read this book.
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
Imagine a car chase scene. Speeding, guns, cool jumps, flips, whatever. Now imagine a car chase scene which is the entire movie. Now imagine that you really don’t care for any of the main characters in that car chase scene which is the entire movie, because no one could be bothered to flesh them out because there are too many things about the car chase scene which is the movie, that require attention. Explosions. Secret agents. Enemies around every corner. Quantum gadgets.
That is Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. His previous books, most notably the Red Mars Trilogy, as those are the only ones I’ve read, are incredibly expansive and detailed. Complex characters. Complex plot. Complex science. Exciting premise. Earth is trashed. Terraform mars. Complex philosophical and political problems. Great stuff. Even a few car chase’ish scenes. Read that instead.
Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
This is kind of an unfair inclusion. First of all, I’ve enjoyed reading this book and it is profoundly insightful, as one would or should expect from one of the greatest and most influential philosophers of the 20th century. However, I am still not able to shake the thought, that maybe Wittgenstein is thought of this way for all the wrong reasons. The main notion developed through Philosophical Investigations, is the importance of language games. My background is in continental philosophy, and many of the ideas of Wittgenstein coalesce with other contemporary thinkers, like Heidegger. Language games is a way of describing what is actually in the world, and how the world is reflected in the praxis of language and sociality. Quite like Heidegger, it is a step away from metaphysics, towards ontology. But where Wittgenstein mainly deconstructs (yes, pre-Derridian-deconstruction) philosophical positions, varying from his own earlier works, Russel, Aquinas, Plato and Descartes (I am certain I’m forgetting someone now), the affirmative part of his philosophy is just not as strong as that of Heidegger. They both insist of the importance of praxis, but Wittgenstein never manages to go any further than this. We all know when to call a given amount of houses a city, so nitpicking over definitions of a city is not a question we should seek to answer, but rather realize we should never ask in the first place. This idea is a very strong one, but I cannot shake the disappointment, when I compare it to other philosophers that have similar or familiar ideas, Wittgenstein is never able to actually show what his philosophy can do, other than render metaphysical questions obsolete. Just because the impossibility of answering certain questions are inherent to the way we perceive and live inside the praxis of language, does not mean that those questions can not still amount to relevant discussions.