Saturday, March 29, 2014

"The Last Shots" - Yury Bondarev (Russia) - 2013 "Clear Glade Prize" Winner

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

"The Last Shots", like "The Battalions are Asking for Fire", is another wonderful 'campaign novel' by renowned Russian writer, Yury Bondarev. It recounts the efforts of Captain Novikov and his subordinate officers to prevent the Germans from entering Czechoslovakia. As was the case with "The Battalions are Asking for Fire", the account of the campaign itself was excellent. I truly felt, while reading the novel, that I was an actual observer of the campaign, with mines, bullets and bombs exploding all around me. As mentioned previously, I am not a particular fan of campaign novels, but this one was written so well that I was very much captivated and engaged in the plot.

The novel's hero, Captain Novikov, was a wonderful character; very well written and someone with whom we could well identify and sympathize with. He is sketched out for us by Bondarev as a model soldier and commander, but is nonetheless, very realistic and human. We learn, throughout the novel, how Novikov had to continuously suppress many of his innate inclinations (i.e. to be kinder to the soldiers; to act his age, etc.) for the good of his battalion and in order to win the war. We were often given glimpses into Novikov's battles with conscience, and his regret for his youth, lost in the tumults of war. The following are a few excerpts from his thoughts that particularly held my attention:

"Russia", said Novikov pensively, "Only during war did I see and understand, what Russia is."

"At times, a step towards good, a striving to end the suffering of a few people right now leads to losses for which there can already be no justification."

"How many times due to the force of cruel circumstances, did he send people to places from which no one ever returned! How many times did he suffer one on one with insomnia, having learnt about the deaths of those whom he sent. But where is it; where is good in its pure form? Where? It didn't exist during war."

"He doesn't know that we sometimes think about one and the same thing, that I don't have any experience aside from military experience, that I also want to eat chocolate, stand sentry, openly boast about blown up tanks. But I can't, I don't have the right. Probably, my bravery seems to him to be some sort of bravery of the highest order. Oh, Vitka, Vitka- sometime after the war, if we're alive, I'll tell you everything."

The novel also recounts a certain tragic romance.... Although I didn't like the heroine at all, I found soldier-in-love to have been so touching, dashing and heroic...

For the brilliant and realistic account of the campaign, and for the model, yet at the same time, realistic character of Novikov, I give this book a 2/5 out of 3.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Battalions are Asking for Fire"- Yury Bondarev (Russia)- 2013 "Clear Glade Prize" Winner

Rating: 2 out of 3

Yury Bondarev was born in 1924 in the city of Orsk. He actually served as a junior lieutenant during WW2, then wrote about his experiences. Mr. Bondarev is already well-known in Russian literary circles, particularly for his novels "Hot Snow" and "Choice", however, he was very recently awarded "The Clear Glade" Modern Classic prize for two of his novellas, "The Last Volleys" and this work, "The Battalions are Asking for Fire". 

"The Battalions are Asking for Fire" was first published in 1957 and has been singled out for having been the first (and one of the best) accounts of WW2 from a lieutenant's perspective. 

The book is pretty much the story of a WW2 campaign to capture the city of Dnepro through the eyes of Capitain Ermakov, a brave young Russian officer. The campaign plan of attack, as dictated by the commanding officer, is rather simple: two battalions (including one led by Ermakov) deploy to distract the attention of the German defenses. They are later to signal HQ for back up fire (hence the very appropriate title of the novella, "The Battalions are asking for Fire). Something goes horribly wrong, however, which makes our young hero seriously question what is going on, as well as:

-the value of human life; how many human lives are equivalent to the success of 'the bigger picture'?; as well as
-the power of any one man or officer to save his or others' lives in conditions of war

This is a great book for those who like to read about military campaigns. Bondarev did an excellent job describing the environment; to the extent that you actually felt that you were right in the middle of the campaign, observing the exploding mines and gunfire; listening in on strategic briefings, etc. etc. This, I believe, is extremely hard to do. The conversations between officers and soldiers was also very realistic and not, as we sometimes find in war literature, a collection of contrived, artificial speeches written by authors imagining what an officer might likely say were he in the midst of a war. No, here we have the genuine article from someone who actually lived the experience. And it shows through in the writing. 

There were many minor characters, as can be expected in a book about a military campaign, but they were fairly well done and realistically portrayed. I am not a military campaign buff, but Ermakov's campaign to distract the German troops was such a page-turner that I couldn't stop reading. 

In terms of minuses, I didn't really get the 'romance' between Shura and the other two officers. I thought it was unnecessary and could have been dispensed with. I was also a little disappointed with the ending, which I felt was rather weak and unable to hold up to the captivating mid-novel narrative of the Ermakov campaign. 

In sum, I give this book a 2/3. "The Battalions are asking for Fire" is an interesting enough book about the military campaign experience in WW2, and I would particularly recommend it to WW2 buffs.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

(RNL #20) "The Childhood Years of Bagrov's Grandson"- Sergey Aksakov (Russian Empire)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

This novel is a sort of continuation of the previously reviewed "Family Chronicle". It recounts the life of (you guessed it) Old Bagrov's grandson, Sergey and is narrated from Sergey's perspective. 

I would say that the novel is more-or-less a chronicle of young Sergey's life in various residences, i.e. homes in Ufa, Sergeyevo, Bagrovo, etc. etc. There is also a great deal of space dedicated to the travel to and from all of these places. Some of these 'travel descriptions' are rather repetitive and boring, however, I did gain a real appreciation for the length of time and difficulties involved in travelling in 19th century Russia that I didn't have before. 

On the whole, I thought that Aksakov did a fairly good job in the novel of relating events from a child's perspective. Sergey was a true 'child of nature', and the frequent descriptions of his natural surroundings were well-done and allowed me to visualise, rather clearly, what the environment was like. We are told (and at times re-told, and re-told) by Sergey, throughout the course of the novel, about things that are of interest to a boy born into a 19th century provincial  household (i.e. fishing, hunting, nature, caring for insects and birds, etc.) . Some of these interests, however, were not at all of interest to me. (i.e. the numerous sections about fishing and hunting and the joy the characters seemed to have in killing just about anything that moved within their range of sight). However, I braved on and did learn quite a bit about these 19th century pastimes from Sergey's narrations. If you enjoy fishing, hunting and copious descriptions of nature, there is plenty in this book to entertain you. If not, then be forewarned- this may not be the book for you.

Fresh from my re-read of "The Family Chronicle", I was also extremely disappointed that Old Bagrov, the main character of that book, was delegated such a minor role in this one. Sofya Nikolayevna, the other main character of "The Family Chronicle", was prominently featured here, but slightly less annoying. She is depicted as an extremely loving, but perhaps smothering Mother who ended up raising out of Sergey, an incredibly pampered, cowardly Mama's boy. She also frequently falls ill in this novel, hates everything that her husband enjoys (i.e. country life, fishing, hunting, the outdoors), and one can't help wondering if her husband (Sergey's Father) at all regrets, by this point, his choice of bride. 

One interesting feature about this novel is how Sergey has this innate understanding of goodness that is slowly polluted, during the course of the novel, due to adult influences.

"Children are unusually impressionable, and often, a carelessly uttered word in front of them can serve as an inducement for them to commit such manner of action as they would not have undertaken, had they not heard those encouraging words."

The novel convinces us of the fact that small things, careless words and actions can have a truly profound impact and influence on a child. Throughout the novel, we read how Sergey is severely hurt by careless jokes and/or comments from adults. Another example of adults' negative influence on Sergey relates to how firmly Sergey believed, at the beginning of the novel, that it is wrong to lie. However, by the end of the novel, he was already justifying 'white' lies, as a result of the example of surrounding adults. 

Sergey's pure childish conscience equally can not process some of the workings of the adult world, i.e.: how dishonest people can be allowed to continue running affairs at his Grandmother's estate simply because they are 'the better of two evils', and the question of serfdom, etc. 

I give this book a 1.5/3. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

(RNL #21) "The Family Chronicle" - Sergey Aksakov (Russian Empire)

Rating: 2 out of 3

(Interesting, but true...I first read this novel 10 years ago, so one could say that this is our 10th year anniversary)

Sergey Aksakov was born on October 1, 1791 in Ufa, Russia and passed away on May 12, 1859. He was a member of an ancient Russian noble family that traced their lineage back to Simon, a Varangian nephew of Haakon the Old. Young Aksakov went to university for a spell, worked in the government for a spell, enlisted in the militia for a spell, but eventually took up literature after some encouragement from none other than Nikolai Gogol. It was in fact Gogol, who encouraged Aksakov to create literature based directly on life; literature not bound to classical forms. Aksakov was known, as well, for his hunting and fishing books, but this review is of "The Family Chronicle", the novel-biography that made Aksakov famous. 

What is so interesting about this book is that it is a sort of 19th century 'tell-all'. In fact the book even met with 'censorship difficulties' because some of the characters in the novel were still alive and did not take kindly to having their dirty linen washed in public. (As a compromise, Aksakov refrained from narrating some events in detail and changed the names of some characters.) 

The book is divided into several excerpts (chapters) in the Bagrov family's life. The first chapter is about Old Bagrov's (the family patriarch, and the novel's main character) relocation of his entire family to the unspoiled (at least until he and the other Russians showed up!) lands in Russia's east. It was interesting to read about how wealthy Russians acquired massive tracts of land for peanuts from the Bashkir people and just how much abundance there was before nature was plundered as a result of man's greed. 

The entire novel provides us with an ample character study of old Bagrov; a man who is good, honest, hard-working, dedicated to his family and- very-very bad tempered :). Its nice that Aksakov tries to provide us with as fair and balanced a portrait as possible of Old Bagrov and the other characters. We are provided with ample description of their good qualities, but Aksakov does balance this praise with sober description of their not-so-wonderful traits.

Moving along, there is an interesting account of the life and fiendish doings of Mikhaila Kurolesov. Much of the narrative is also dedicated to the second main character in the novel, Sofiya Nikolayevna. We learn about her Cinderella-esque childhood, her ascent to provincial glory, and of her mismatched romance with Bagrov junior. Here too, we are provided with a rather extensive character study of Sofiya Nikolayevna. Unlike Old Bagrov, who generally comes off as a fairly good, old-fashioned man with a few odd (though forgivable) traits, Sofiya Nikolayevna, as a character, becomes progressively irritating to the reader. Towards the end of the novel, I began to view her more and more as a snobbish, selfish, self-centred, over-emotional harpy. Again, kudos to Aksakov for providing such a balanced portrait of Sofiya Nikolayevna, which could have been difficult to do, given that the characters in this novel were based on real people. 

Also interesting was the constant scheming by Old Bagrov's daughters aimed at annoying, despiriting and discrediting Sofya Nikolayevna. The visit to Aleksandra's house was of particular interest here. 

In short, this is not a book with any deep philosophical message, nor does it contain very deep probing into the characters' psyche and motivations. However, it is a good, solid and enjoyable read. This was my third time reading the novel and I still did not get bored. The book is also an interesting window into 18th century Russian life. It is interesting and heartening to see how much respect youth of the time accorded to their elders, and the place that faith, religion and family held in society.

I give "The Family Chronicle" a 2/3 for being an enjoyable read with interesting historical background on provincial Russia, with extra kudos to Aksakov for being brave enough to write a biography based on flesh and blood people of higher society.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"Thief, Spy and Murderer" by Yury Bouida (Russia) - 2013 "Big Book Prize" 3rd Place Winner

Rating: 1 out of 3

(This Book was a finalist for the 2013 "Big Book Prize")

"When I confessed to her that I wanted to become a writer, she said: "That's the art of thieves, spies and murderers. A writer spies, eavesdrops, steals the character traits and words of others, then transfers it all onto paper...he murders the living for beauty's sake.
" - from "Thief, Spy and Murderer"

This book is Russian author Yury Buida's biography in novel form. Mr. Bouida was born in 1954 in the Kaliningrad region of Russia (previously Konigsberg). In this novel, he recounts to us scenes from his childhood and adult life (from 1954 till about 1991). For me, reading "Thief, Spy and Murderer" was like leafing through a very dirty, unattractive photo album. Most of the album's contents are unappealing, yet...there are a few rare snapshots that catch your attention for a few fleeting moments.

In "Thief, Spy and Murderer", these 'snapshots',to me, were a number of quotes and ruminations scattered within the book's contents, ex/:

"In our country, no one should erect a monument out of bronze - only out of clay."

"You are freedom. Never forget this, and the fact that you are also your own prison."

"In Rus' (old Russia), heroes were always respected, but only righteous men were loved. A hero can undertake a great feat today; for example, save his comrades from death; defend his native land; but then came home - beat up his wife, and thieve, lie and commit despicable deeds to boot. Heroes are one-offers. The world is upheld by righteous men, not by heroes."

"If you had hot water in your pipes and a heated lavatory, would you really go and die for your country?"

On the whole, however, I found the book smutty and unappealing. The first chapters, in particular, contain gratuitous and (in my opinion) utterly unwarranted descriptions of pedophilia, murder, dissipation, child abuse, etc. etc. Mr. Bouida may disagree with me, however, I feel that artists have a social responsibility. In my opinion, such disgusting material should only be used in a novel if it serves a higher objective (i.e. Adamovich's descriptions of the atrocities committed by German officers in Belarus in order to show us the heights of monstrosity humanity can be led to commit). 

I'm also not sure if Mr. Bouida really is a lot like the person whom he represents himself to be in "Thief, Spy and Murderer". Whatever the case may be, I really disliked the Mr. Bouida of "Thief, Spy and Murderer". I found him to have a real superiority complex. Mr. Bouida seemed to consider himself an astoundingly erudite person and talented writer, compared to the brainless human 'livestock' surrounding him. In fact, he seemed to have a very poor opinion of Russian people in general- describing, with great relish, the extent of their degeneration and dissipation. Throughout the novel, Mr. Bouida made very obvious his journalistic background, by his almost always describing only the most disgusting and sensationalist details of the persons in his biography. Come on, Mr. Bouida- not everyone living in Kaliningrad at the time was a pedophile and hard-core alcoholic? Maybe it was just the people you associated with? Mr. Bouida was very good at pointing fingers, throughout the novel, at the dissipated behavior of everyone else, yet he also, by his own admission, overindulged in alcohol, women, thievery, hypocrisy, etc. etc.

I learnt a bit about the history of Konigsburg-Kalingrad, thanks to this novel; what the city looked like; the fact that almost all of the Germans were evacuated post-war, etc. I also liked a few quotes/ruminations from the novel; some of which I have posted above. 

This isn't, however, a book that I would recommend. Its not a particularly interesting biography, and it doesn't really seem to serve much purpose except perhaps, as a compilation of some of Mr. Bouida's thoughts and judgements. I'm giving it a 1/3.

NOTE: since writing this review, I learnt that in Buida's own words, this is a 'fantastical biography' and that it isn't a completely realistic account of his life. This new fact, doesn't, however, change my opinion of the book.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Jamilia" by Chingiz Aitmatov (Kyrghizstan)

Rating: 3 out of 3

This review is an emotional farewell to my favourite 20th century writer; a writer who has captivated me with the emotion, spirit and fairytale-like quality of his literature. There is no one else whose work I have read who is quite like Chingiz Aitmatov. He is in a category of his own; truly one of the greatest authors that ever lived in modern times. 

Before plunging into the review of "Jamalia", I'll begin with a short biographical sketch of its author: 

Chingiz Aitmatov was born on December 12, 1928 in the village of Sheker in Kyrghizstan. His Father was arrested and shot in 1938. This tragic event likely influenced a great deal of Aitmatov's work (I'm reminded particularly of the Kuttubayev subplot in "A Day Lasts Longer than a 100 Years). Interestingly enough, Aitmatov worked briefly as a veterinarian before devoting himself completely to the written word. The first work of Aitmatov that brought him great fame and popularity was the story that I'm about to review..."Jamalia". Wikipedia advises us that "Jamilia" remains the most popular work by Chingiz Aitmatov. Aitmatov later wrote many other works, in both the Kyrghyz language and Russian. I have reviewed many of his other major pieces of literature in previous posts. From about 1990 onwards, Aitmatov served as a Russian/Soviet Ambassador in various countries. He passed away in 2008 and was buried in the historical memorial complex "Ata Beiit" in Kyrghyzstan. 

Returning to "Jamalia"...well, "Jamalia" has been referred to by a number of reviewers as 'the greatest love story ever told'. And I would agree that it is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read; in spirit, somewhat similar to Maksim Gorky's "Makar Chudra" (a story that I read numerous times in my teenage years). This is a very simple story with only four main characters: the two lovers, the vast and beautiful countryside of Kyrgyzstan and a young boy who is the witness to it all. Such a deep, sweeping, soulful love as that shared between the two lovers in this story, I believe, could only bloom in the broad sweeping expanses of the Kyrgyz mountains and steppelands. Perhaps for this reason, my favourite love stories have always been set in the steppes. 

I loved the simplicity of this novel; the raw emotion; the uniqueness of the love story. The couple came together in such a pure, soulful and beautiful way; so unlike any of the crude romantic scenes that you find all too often in literature. Its the sort of love that enriches us all just to read about it; a love for one's homeland and natural surroundings that is channeled through to the object of one's love. It is the sort of love that inspires and begs to be captured in art. 

In short, I can't say enough good things about this little novel, which is fully deserving of a three star review. 

And now, when you love an author so much... he becomes a part of your life; a part of your family, and parting from him is as difficult as parting with a close friend. I really feel as if I formed some sort of spiritual bond with Aitmatov through his written words and he will always remain a part of my life. 

And of course, whenever I see a white bird overhead, I will always think "Donenbai"....

Sunday, March 9, 2014

(RNL #19) "The Scarlet Flower" by Sergey Aksakov (Russian Empire)

Rating: 3 out of 3

As much as I love Russian realist authors, I was happy to take a break from heavy, depressing (albeit very good!) realist literature and dive into something more lighthearted with *goodness me* a happy ending for once! 

The Scarlet Flower is a Russian retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" by the 19th century author, Sergey Aksakov (more on him in my upcoming review of "A Family Chronicle"). Aksakov's version differs slightly from some of the other versions of "Beauty and the Beast" that I have read. Having never read the original, French version, I can't say if his "Scarlet Flower" is very similar or different. 

"The Scarlet Flower" is a fun quick read, written in the traditional Russian fairy-tale style of prose. It turns out that in this version, all of the three sisters are very demanding of their beloved (and extremely rich!) merchant Father. When asked what gift they would like to receive from him on his return home from overseas business, all of the girls (including the heroine!) come up with outrageous demands. The most amusing is the request by the middle daughter for:a mirror that is kept in a stone tower on a stony mountain, behind seven iron doors, behind seven German locks. Three thousand steps lead up to the tower and on each step - (hee-hee) stands a Persian soldier - and the keys to all of the doors are kept by a Persian princess around her waist. Miraculously enough, the merchant manages to get this treasure without great effort. 

The youngest daughter (the heroine) asks for a scarlet flower unsurpassed in beauty... and of course this is the request that gets the merchant Father in a horrendous amount of trouble with a certain monster...

The monster in this, Russian version seems to be an extremely decent sort of fellow. He takes extremely good care of the merchant Father; feeding him, providing him luxurious (though perhaps rather gaudy) accommodation. (Some of the locales in the monster's palace are so seemingly gaudy, that they are very amusing to read about... ex/ there is a room in the palace with one wall made out of mirrors, one wall made out of gold, one wall made out of silver, and one wall made out of elephant and mammoth bone.)

The poor creature is an excellent host, and only snaps when that ungrateful old merchant snatches up his prized, heritage scarlet flower... and then, the only thing that will do to save the old man from being torn apart by the monster and his minions is for the youngest daughter to come and live forever in the castle.

The portion of the story that recounts the monster and the youngest daughter's life together is excellent. The development of feelings between them - step by step - is well told and very believable.

Even though I knew exactly how the story would end, it was very interesting nonetheless. This truly is a classic, and well-deserving of 3 stars.

(RNL #18) "The Mark of Cassandra" by Chingiz Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This was one of Atimatov's last novels. It was published in 1996, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and departs somewhat from the previous works by Aitmatov that I have read, i.e.: 

-This book doesn't feature Central Asian characters or legends, something that is more or less a trademark of a Chingiz Aitmatov work of fiction
-the book also doesn't feature Chingiz Aitmatov's signature plot-within-a-plot-within-a-plot a la nesting doll format. Its fairly linear, for an Aitmatov novel

However, the book does contain, as many of his other works did, an animal main character; in this case, a 'mausoleum owl'. 

There are three main characters in the novel: Robert Bork, an elderly American futurologist, Anthony Yunger, a younger, up-and-coming American go-getter/intellectual/political aide, and Andrey, the mysterious 'Cosmic Russian monk' orbiting the world on an international space station (yes that's exactly what he's called in the novel). These are three kindred souls whose fortunes are inextricably woven together by the force of a discovery made by the Cosmic Russian monk. This discovery, The Mark of Cassandra, is the novel's centerpiece. 

In brief, the Cosmic Russian monk (also an accomplished scientist) discovered that fetuses in the womb can project a small mark onto their mothers' foreheads signalling the fact that they do not want to be born. After having made this discovery, the Cosmic Russian monk began beaming non-harmful rays, from space, to make this mark more obvious to expecting mothers. He also revealed his discovery to the world in a press article sent to an American news-publisher along with his belief that the ever increasing prevalence of the marks was a sign that more and more evil was being genetically transferred from generation to generation as a result of the growing amount of misdeeds committed by man and that if the humanity did not stop and fundamentally change its course, it could face extinction. 

This revelation is fully supported by only two individuals (Mr. Yunger and Mr. Bork), while feared, lambasted and demonized by almost everyone else. The most brilliant portion of the book, in my opinion, was how Mr. Orduk, presidential candidate and 'close personal friend' to Mr. Bork, reacted to the Cassandra Mark. I also liked how Aitmatov (as he has often done in his literature), highlighted seemingly insignificant details about Mr. Orduk (e.g. Orduk means devil in Hungarian, and, he had the uncanny knack of remembering every single telephone conversation that he had ever had) that we later found to have much greater importance. 

I liked how Aitmatov described the Mark of Cassandra issue as something that affected the entire world, even animal life like 'the mausoleum owl' and whales- highlighting once again, our interconnectedness on a deep, spiritual level. I had read some reviews of this novel that contended that this book was too dry- more a philosophical tract then a novel. But I disagree. It is a heavier read than what we have come to expect from Aitmatov, but there was certainly an interesting and well-thought out narrative. The only piece that I felt could have been omitted was the Epilogue Biography of the Cosmic Monk. I felt that the metamorphosis of the Cosmic Monk from apathetic scientist to someone all-of-a-sudden imbued with love and social conscience due to one chance meeting of 5 minutes wasn't believable and didn't work. As well, I felt that the story would have been richer had the life story of the Cosmic Monk not been so fleshed out; if he could have been left as more of a mystery...

I give this book a 2/3.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

(RNL #17) "The Scaffold" by Chingiz Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan)

Rating: 3 out of 3

"The Scaffold", by Chingiz Aitmatov, was published in 1986. Like "A Day Lasts Longer than 100 Years", it is a complex layering of stories and legends from different points in time and, from different perspectives. While "A Day Lasts Longer than 100 Years" began from the perspective of a steppe fox, "The Scaffold" begins with the story of a wolf family; a story told from the she-wolf's eyes. We understand, by reading the wolf's thoughts and perspective, the great and sad truth; that animals, no matter how much they try, have no escape from the cruel fate prepared for them by mankind. We readers return to the she-wolf and her family's tragic fortunes at different points throughout the novel. The wolf family's story, a pivotal plot line, is intertwined with several other sub-plots in the novel, e.g.:

1) The story of former seminarist Avdiy, who is, coincidentally, the first ethnic Russian main character I have come across in Aitmatov's work. Avdiy is a young, detrimentally idealistic young man who naively strives to be a modern-day Jesus. His ambition in life is to convince corrupted young people to repent their sins and change their ways. This, as can be expected, and that Aitmatov himself forewarns us of at the very beginning of his narrative, results in a horrendous turn of events...

We learn of Avdiy's upbringing, of his spiritual beliefs that led to him being chased out of the seminary for heresy (for. among other things, insisting that orthodox Christianity is no longer relevant to the times, and that our understanding of Christianity must be refashioned and rejuvenated, and - if I understood it correctly- that we can become Gods by living the word of God) 

We then follow Avdiy on the ill-fated trail of Central Asian drug runners. This subplot is very interesting, in and of itself, for the information we are provided on how young criminals harvested and transported drugs throughout the Soviet Union. The mysterious criminal gang leader, known for most of the sub-plot as "He Himself", is also very interestingly fleshed out for us by Aitmatov. During the drug running excursion, Avdiy tries to work as an undercover agent in order to gain the criminal group's trust so as to then convince them to repent their sins and accept God into their lives. Needless to say, everyone (except Avdiy), anticipates how horribly wrong events turn out. 

We later follow Avdiy's mind through some interesting flashbacks: i) his romance with 'the girl from Uchkuduk'. (Yes, this book gets quadruple points for having some of the plot set in Uchkuduk!! For anyone who knows anything about '80's Soviet pop music, a certain tune by Yalla will instantly sound in mind at the very mention of Uchkuduk!! Here's a link to it, for nostalgia's sake: )
ii) the sentencing of Jesus Christ, whom Avdiy feels is his teacher and, whom I suppose he attempts to personify in the present, so as to keep Christ's teachings alive 
iii) a very interesting story set in Georgia about a Red spy and a rebel counter-revolutionary band that you will never forget 

We finally follow Avdiy on his last adventure; this time, on antelope culling fields, with a gang of morally depraved drunkards. Here Avdiy makes the final sacrifice, following the example of his teacher. But, as was the case 1000 of years before, was there a point to the sacrifice? Have people gotten any better since? Doesn't evil continue to prevail over good? These are the weighty questions posed to us by Aitmatov.

2) The Story of Boston, the Shepherd

The story of Boston the shepherd emphasizes a beloved theme of Aitmatov; that hardworking, good-natured people are always prevailed over by evil. This sub-plot was very well-written; particularly the pieces about the tragic death of Boston's best friend and helper. The story's ending is particularly haunting, classic Aitmatov.

Which brings me to my final thoughts and conclusions. What is Aitmatov trying to communicate to us through all of these intertwining narratives? There's so much interwoven within this plot that I'm sure I didn't catch many of the messages within, but here is what I found myself pondering over:

-As mentioned above, the question of whether good will ever prevail over evil. Do people simply prefer to be oppressed and/or to oppress, when they have the chance? Even if there are promise of a heaven or better times for those who do good- who is prepared to wait or to hope for it? 
-what is the point of life? People no longer believe in God, people no longer believe in hard work.... this question tormented and led to the despair of both Boston and Avdiy. 

This is a great book, well worth reading. It is unfortunate that the book has not been translated into English. If there is any 21st century author who deserves to be translated into English, it is Aitmatov. 3/3, all the way.

UPDATE: It seems that this book may have been translated into English, under a different name, "The Place of the Skull (Golgotha)".  

Saturday, March 1, 2014

(RNL #12) "The Complete Robot"- Isaac Asimov (USA)

Rating: 1 out of 3

You may have wondered, what happens when you ask a scientist to write works of literature? Well, I suppose you get something like this compilation of short stories by Isaac Asimov. Mr. Asimov was, during his lifetime, a well respected scientist and this is evident from a reading of "The Complete Robot". The stories in this compilation are a showcase for his famous three laws of Robotics, which he is proud to inform us, have had a significant and lasting influence in the fields of robotics and science fiction. The laws are as follows:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Each story in this compendium more or less exists to prove or disprove one, or all of the laws. This may be very fascinating reading for the more scientifically-inclined. For me, however, it was less captivating.

Most, but not all, of the stories followed the rise and fortunes of the US Robots Corporation, one of the world's future pioneers in robot technology. We are regularly introduced, and re-introduced to key employees of US Robots Corporation at various points in their lifetimes. This is quite nice, as it provides an overall arc and connection between each individual story that is much needed to hold interest. Unfortunately, however, almost all of the characters we are presented are bland and unmemorable, save perhaps Susan Calvin, the US Robots robo-pyschologist made of steel who, many suspect 'loved robots more than humans'.Ms. Calvin, though memorable, was not very complex or well-drawn out, as compared to characters from other works of literature.

I must admit, however, that Asimov's stories did get better with time; the later stories in the compendium being more interesting than the earlier stories. I also thought that the conflict between humanity and robots described in the last few stories was rather interesting, particularly the suggestion that humans might reject robots, despite their ability to bring great advancements into society, given humans' fear of robots harboring a threat to mankind. One of the most interesting stories in the compendium, "Thou art Mindful of Him", illustrates how extremely advanced robots did, in fact, have the potential to overthrow their humanoid masters.

I would have rated this book as a 0.5 out of 3, however, the last few stories push the rating up to a 1 out of 3. I would read this book in a dentist's office were there no other more interesting material at hand.