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

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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

It’s 5 to 12 – About war, peace and betrayal

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Robert Harris: München (English title: Munich) ISBN 978-3-453-27143-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It seems paradoxical, but the world has never been closer to a devastating war in Asia than today. True, the Singapore summit of US president Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Kong Un has been a brilliant photo opportunity for both politicians. Unfortunately it has raised utterly unrealistic hopes, since there is no consensus on the core issues that lie at the heart of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program. The pledges made are vague and thus irrelevant.

Without these weapons, the regime in Pyongyang while falter, and that’s why it will not give them up. It has spent years and billions developing them while North Koreans starved, and that’s why it will not give them up. As charming as Trump appeared, the North Korean regime trusts nobody. And that’s why it will not give those weapons up. It may make concessions to ease the present sanctions – and it will try to cheat as it has done on similar occasions in the past. Just like Saddam Hussein in Irak, just like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Dictators cheat, and at some point Trump will find out. And he will throw a tantrum. An angry tweet screaming betrayal – the emotional reaction of the president is predictable. It will be the start of the war. Male mammals’ reaction to betrayal is an uncontrollable eruption of violence.

The world has seen a similar constellation before. 1938. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler meet in Munich. Chamberlain entertains the hope that by asking for a guarantee that Nazi Germany will resolve territorial and political disputes peacefully war over the future of Czechoslovakia can be averted. “Appeasement” – the name of this approach was coined later, but Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler by accepting that certain regions of Czechoslovakia become part of Germany while the rest remains independent. He betrayed the Czechs, but he gained a year that helped the British Empire to rearm. It did not save what was left of Czechoslovakia – Germany annexed it in 1939 – and it did not save peace: From 1939 on, Hitler would declare war to Poland, France, Great Britain, Russia and finally the United States.

In his brilliant novel “Munich” Robert Harris describes the climate in Munich while Chamberlain and Hitler discuss the issues at hand. The novel paints Chamberlain’s initiative in a benign light – and I will have to read up in a history book what his real legacy was – and at the same time it puts two other characters on the center stage. A German diplomat with links to a resistance group, Paul von Hartmann, and one of Chamberlain’s Private Secretaries, Hugh Legat. Both have met before, as students in Oxford, they were friends until k they lost sight of eachother again. In 1938 von Hartmann tries to convince Legat and ultimately Chamberlain of the true nature of the Nazi regime: born out of violence, bound to use violence. Violence against other countries, violence against its Jewish citizen, violence anyone deemed an enemy. Classified information changes hands, the SS is breathing down the neck of von Hartmann. The endeavour fails. Chamberlain is being betrayed by Hitler and his political opponent Winston Churchill will fight the war Chamberlain wanted to avoid.

The German translation by Wolfgang Müller is 426 pages long, it took me less than two evenings to read it. A real page-turner. I loved it. I also love a piece of music that has been written during that time, marked by political tension and the fear of betrayal, Bohuslav Martinu’s Double Concerto:

“Looking for hope that did not come”