Overcoming fear and speaking up

Fallada Jeder stirbt

Hans Fallada: Jeder stirbt für sich allein. (English title: Every Man Dies Alone) ISBN 978-3-7466-2811-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Fear corrupts the human being more than wealth or poverty. Fear dissolves the social fabric like acid, it makes the individual feel alone and powerless, it paralyses him and perpetuates the miserable condition it propels him into. Fear can have multiple facets: the fear to lose a job, a family member, the fear to fail other people’s expectations, the fear of physical violence, of permanent surveillance, the fear to stand out or to be held responsible. Fear is a terrible thing. And the longer I observe society, the more I have to realize that many people I know or deal with are victims of some kind of fear and see not way to get rid of it.

In 1947 the German writer Hans Fallada published a novel about a couple that decided to overcome their fear of the all-powerful Nazi state and engage in a small act of resistance in Berlin during World War II. The plot was inspired by a the case  of Otto and Elise Hampel, who anonymously distributed between 1940 and 1942 post-cards with slogans calling into question the official propaganda and encouraging Germans to speak up against the war, the SS terror, the prosecution of the Jews, the lack of freedom of the press. A perilous act.

Fallada’s heroic couple are called Otto and Anna Quangel. The death of their son as a soldier during the campaign against France propels them into action. Fallada’s description of the two main characters, the evolution of their psychic condition and of the love that binds the two, is riveting. The many side-plots with very authentic secondary characters make for an entertaining read. The violent events – the arrest and death of the Quangels, the fate of some of the secondary characters – perfectly illustrate what fear can do to a society.

An extraordinary novel and an appropriate read at a time when tw types of fear seem to pervasive in Europe and the United States: the fear of uncontrolled immigration, the fear of right-extremist populists grabbing power. Fear leads to terror, terror generates new fear, and if fear isn’t countered it will destroy society. Courageous people are needed, people who dare to think and to speak their mind. Everybody’s voice counts. The Hampels didn’t wait for someone else to save Germany from the Nazis’ totalitarian state. They did what they had to do.

In Fallada’s novel, Otto Quangel is portrayed as a self-absorbed carpenter, interested only in his work. And at the beginning of the novel this is his true nature. It becomes a useful mask, once he has decided to resist. Who would suspect such an old, boring, reclusive fool? Once he has been imprisoned by the Gestapo, he meets another inmate, a conductor suspected of harbouring Communist ideas. He makes Quangel discover the music of Mozart and Beethoven. A defiant piece of music, written as an act of artistic resistance, is Beethoven’s incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 84:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

Zero K – a book I wasn’t ready for?

Don DeLillo: Zero K ISBN 978-1-501-13807-2 ⭐️ I did not understand this novel. If it has message, I did not grasp it. I appreciated DeLillo’s unique and intriguing language, which had struck me already when I read his novel “Underworld” (review here). But language alone was not sufficient to convince me. The novel deals with important issues like age, mortality, the power of science and father-son relationships. But what did DeLillo want to tell me? Perhaps I will have to read “Zero K” a second time, in a few years, when I have grown a little wiser.

I am tempted to say I might add ⭐️⭐️⭐️ after having read it a second time. It is a kind of premonition, I cannot get rid of. I am comforted by this review of “The Guardian” for the reviewer too struggled with “Zero K”. Knowing DeLillo’s oeuvre better than me, he was able to draw parallels to DeLillo’s earlier novels, and to identify those subjects, that are of primordial interest to the writer. So yes, I probably wasn’t ready for this book right now.

Reading the novel was a like a déjà-vu. I remember a piece of music written by Arnold Schönberg that I did not understand at all. I left the concert bewildered and, to some degree, horrified. It took decades for me to learn to appreciate his music, like his String Quartet No. 2 for instance:

Transcending tonality and harmony

Exposing tyranny, superstition and warmongering


François Rabelais: Gargantua Pantagruel ISBN 978-2-869-59892-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ When I was a student, the study of French literature compelled me to read and analyze a part of a famous Renaissance novel: Pantagruel, written by François Rabelais. “Gargantua Pantagruel” in its modern French version are two novels of a cycle of five satiric stories recounting the life and adventures of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. Behind the comic veneer lies a deeper meaning of course. Rabelais was an extremely learned man and did not write to entertain. He was master of the French language, fluent in Latin, a doctor of medicine and a close friend of Cardinal Jean du Bellay. And his endeavour was a dangerous one.

Rabelais was one of the few Renaissance authors who dared criticize the ruling powers: tyrannic kings and the Catholic church. Of course, he never mentioned any real names, he distorted facts and exaggerated in the grossest manner. The use of foul language, the depiction of crude scenes added even more to the ridicule, but all this just served to shield Rabelais from the criticism of being a heretic or a state enemy while he blamed the brutality of his time, the superstition of people, scholastic pedagogy, the betrayal of moral standards by the powerful. He voiced a severe criticism of tyranny and presented a blueprint for an enlightened, benign exercise of absolute power.

I knew none of all this when I was a student. No teacher ever explained this to me, no teacher ever put the novel and its strange style in context. My “Pantagruel moment” was one of those experiences that almost turned me away from French literature for ever. Nevertheless, for almost 30 years I had a feeling that, Rabelais being an eminent figure of French literature, I should read the two novels “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel”. The French editor Claude Pinganaud did an excellent job in translating the two works from Medieval French into modern French without sacrificing the substance or the richness of Rabelais’ language.

This said, the book remained a challenging read for me. I am glad I read it, but I won’t read it a second time. Renaissance music however, that’s a different story. I can listen to Emilio di Cavalieri’s monumental work “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo” over and over again:

Searching for the salvation of the soul

Mendel Singer facing life and God’s trial

Joseph Roth: Hiob. (English title: Job) ISBN 978-3-423-13020-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Mendel Singer is an ordinary Jew in an ordinary Russian hamlet. Singer fears God and can recite for every situation in life an appropriate passage of the Torah. He has a wife, Deborah, whom he loves despite her occasional furors, two sons, Jonas and Schemarjah, and a daughter, Mirjam. A fourth child is underway, and shortly after its birth, it becomes clear that Menuchim is unlike the others. He doesn’t grow properly, he doesn’t talk properly. He seem condemned to remain an idiot with occasional epileptic fits.

It is the first of Mendel’s trials by God and more are to follow. A specific destiny seems to be reserved to each member of the family and in the end Mendel loses his faith both in God and mankind. “God is cruel and the more one obeys him, the more severe he becomes” – that’s Mendel’s conclusion. He wants to burn his book of prayers, his prayer shawl, the tallit, and his tefillin, the leather box with passages from the Torah coiled inside. But Mendel’s hands refuse to obey Mendel’s anger against God’s apparent lack of justice.

For God’s ways are inscrutable and a miracle concludes this very moving novel, published in 1930. Roth was an exceptionally gifted narrator and the way he explores the mystery of faith, the tension between religion, tradition and the modern, secular society is in the tradition of the best German writers. Until recently I didn’t know nothing about this author and I am truly glad to have discovered his writing.

The possibility of faith is a recurrent subject in classical music and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has written a “Te Deum” in which I hear the magnitude of the question:

Light and darkness, faith and doubt

Mother Nature’s genius and her fight for survival

Pino Cacucci: The Whales Know. A Journey through Mexican California. ISBN 978-1-907973-88-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book was given to me as a gift by a fellow blogger. Lucky me. Books (and chocolate) are my favourite gifts, and I would never ever have bought this book myself as I would never ever have discovered it on my own. Usually I do not read traveller stories, and perhaps that is a mistake, because I found this small book both interesting and entertaining.

As the title suggests, Pietro Cacucci takes us on a tour through the Mexican part of the Californian peninsula to discover things you and me probably did not know before: The Baja California is nowadays a sanctuary for whales while in the past it was the killing ground of European whale hunters. The whales fared better than natives. Under the rule of Spain they were exploited in the pearl fishing and mining industry as cheap slaves or killed when they tried to revolt against their merciless Christian rulers. Pirates set up their base camps in the 17th century along the coast and engaged in early democratic experiments long before the French stormed the Bastille. Today the region remains a favourite spot of treasure hunters, Hollywood stars and Americans to young to buy alcohol in the US.

While the many scientific details on the region’s wildlife and history that Cacucci has researched, make the book an interesting read, his observations on local wisdom and the social interaction in Mexican California make it a truly entertaining. In Ciudad Constitucion Cacucci earns the praise of a landlady when he puts green chili into his tacos and avoids being treated (and judged) as a gringo. Which reminds me of a bunch of Vietnamese men watching me with the keenest possible interest when I had a super hot Pho Bo as breakfast in the Mekong Delta.

Man has to adjust to his environment to survive and vice versa. Adjustment and survival of both Man and environment is one of the themes of the book. Nature and climate are harsh in certain parts of Mexican California: arid deserts, coasts battered by tropical storms. The Jesuits tried to cultivate the land and to turn the natives into farmers. They failed on the latter point, but succeeded in laying the foundation for a wine industry.

Other challenges are man-made. US fruit companies set up huge and vulnerable banana mono-cultures, leading to the extinction of local banana varieties. Cacucci quotes a scientific journalist predicting the extinction of the banana as such in the near future, and indeed, I saw a piece of news in the “Guardian” recently confirming that a fungus is destroying banana plants in Asia and Africa and threatens now the Caribbean. Varied sorts would have put up a better defence. And one wonders whether the musical improvisations of male humpback whales turned into jazz musicians also fits into such a survival strategy and whether they can charm us sufficiently with their songs to make us change our environmental policies?

What struck me, is Cacucci’s matter-of-fact language. He makes no judgments, he observes and simply tells what he sees and hears and lets the reader develop his own opinion. The one exception to the rule is when it comes to environmental protection. He makes some valid points about Man’s irresponsible behaviour. Above all, this book is a love declaration to Mexican California and its astonishing sea life. There is hardly a page where Cacucci does not get ecstatic about some sort of creature. The author’s passionate feelings for Mother Nature’s genius permeates the book, and, being a nature lover myself, I subscribe to any of his appeals to stop Man on his destructive path.

As for the music, it would appear Jim Morrison of The Doors has been around the place as a student, inspiring him to the song “Ensenada, the dead seal”, Ensenada being a Mexican city on the Pacific coast some 100 km south of the US border. But while reading the book and seeing those humpback whales before my inner eye, I had to think about a wonderful dreamy piece of music evoking gently rolling waves, Maurice Ravel’s composition “Une barque sur l’océan” (A boat on the ocean):

Impressions or a souvenir from the sea