Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Banned Books and all that

For Banned Books Week this year Monkey and I each decided on a book which we read and then swapped, for a double dose of banned literature. Monkey already had on her TBR pile 'We' by Yevgeny Zamyatin which we had found in Waterstones quite some time ago. It is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a world after a 200 year war, where perfect happiness has been achieved by everyone having absolute equality (or rather sameness, a distinction that sometimes eludes people). The 'wild' outside world is kept at bay by a huge glass wall, and everyone's lives are under constant observation because everything else is made of this same glass, including the houses. Our hero D-503 (there is not much individuality) comes into contact with a strange unconventional woman and finds himself drawn into a subversive underground movement bent on disrupting the Benefactor's plans. George Orwell credits the book as inspiration for Big Brother and 1984. It was written in the 1920s and, denied publication in the Soviet Union, the book first appeared in translation in the West. This caused him some problems at home and he eventually wrote to Stalin and asked to be allowed to leave the country. He  was duly given permission and he lived out the rest of his relatively short life in Paris. The introduction to the book gives the publication saga in detail and was quite fascinating. 
I have a couple of quotes that allow the reader to understand the thinking behind the society:

"I'll be completely honest with you: Even we haven't yet solves the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day - from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 - the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you'll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe - let them call me idealist and dreamer - but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we'll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 86,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours." (p.13)

and the participants willingness to participate (and an explanation of the title):

"Look here - suppose you let a drop fall on the idea of 'rights.' Even among the ancients the more grown-up knew that the source of right is power, that right is a function of power. So, take some scales and put on one side a gram, on the other a ton; on one side 'I' and on the other 'We,' OneState. It's clear, isn't it? - to assert that 'I' has certain 'rights' with respect to the State is exactly the same as asserting that a gram weighs the same as a ton. That explains the way things are divided up: To the ton go the rights, to the gram the duties. And the natural path from nullity to greatness is this: Forget that you're a gram and feel yourself a millionth part of a ton." (p.111)

And this lovely little critique of democracy (contrasting it with their 'Day of Unanimity'):

"It goes without saying that this bears no resemblance to the disorderly, unorganised elections in ancient times, when - it's hard to say this with a straight face - they couldn't even tell before the election how it would come out. To establish a state on the basis of absolutely unpredictable randomness, blindly - could there be anything more idiotic? Still, it looks like centuries had to pass before this was understood." (p.132)

The second book could not be more of a contrast: 'The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up' by Jacob M Appel. According to the Wikipedia list of books banned by governments it was banned by Qatar in 2014 for its depiction of Islam, leaving the reader a little bemused since there is a passing mention of 9/11 and not much else. It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 but failed to find a publisher in the US until 2012, admitted by several publishers to be because of its political content. Predating but foreshadowing the national anthem protests the book tells the story of Arnold Brinkmann who refuses to stand at a baseball match for the singing of 'God Bless America'. What was a spontaneous action spirals out of control after the press run with his story and protestors begin to gather outside his house. Arnold sticks to his guns and refuses to back down. A young woman with journalistic ambitions climbs over the back wall and it turns out that a long standing employee is not what he appears. Then all hell breaks loose and after that Arnold's life is never going to be the same again. The book was written as a critique of the unpleasant jingoistic patriotic conformity that sometimes characterises American politics and life, it gets quite surreal in places, even silly ... but I won't spoil the plot for you because it was an excellent, entertaining read. I give you Arnold's thoughts while he listens to the people around him in the crowd:

"This was the amazing thing about democracy, thought Arnold - everybody felt entitled to their own pet theory: That Lyndon Johnson had orchestrated the Kennedy assassination, or that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare's plays, or that Glenn Miller had survived World War II in a Soviet gulag and formed a marching band for prisoners with Raoul Wallenberg. Judith had a colleague at school, an eighth grade teacher in his forties, who taught his classes that Amelia Earhart had been shot down and tortured by the Japanese. If history judged nations by their pet theories, no one could ever doubt that Americans were creative." (p.7)

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