Friday, February 27, 2015

The Invisible

There is a whole pile of fictions that I want to read in 2015 and I have not been able to read as fast as I like. I alternate between fictions that are fun read and those novels that are insightful or soulful . Finally I got around to reading The Trial written by Franz Kafka . The copy  I have at home is translated by Douglas Scott and Chris Waller and it is decades old. After flipping  the pages and getting through the book, re-reading some pages back and forth, the book is presently looking tattered.

 After his death, Kafka bequeathed a number of manuscripts to his friend, Max Brod, with the instruction that they were to be destroyed. Brod disregarded his instruction and thus Der Prozess – translated as The Trial was published a year after he died, about ten years since it was written.

From the beginning of the story, Kafka  sets the tone of his writing in a fashion that makes you feel the bleakness and doom  particularly with regards to the legal process. The mood suggests oppression. In The Trial the representatives of the law are somehow described as functionaries who follow orders in a robotic manner and fulfil their duties without understanding or attempting to understand the Law.  It is apparent from the story that the execution of the legal process was perfunctory and inexplicable. 

Although the book was written around 1914, the parable is relevant even in the present era where we cannot guarantee that the  rule of law is understood in  the only way it must be interpreted and applied.  In the story, on his thirtieth birthday, Joseph K, the protagonist  is  arrested and it is never disclosed to him nor the readers the crime that he has committed . He is a bank clerk who is steadily achieving  success in his career path and he  comes across as confident and arrogant. However as the story progresses, he finds himself  getting distracted and his work at the bank is terribly affected. Upon hearing about his arrest, his uncle from the country insists that he seeks legal representation and introduces him to his old lawyer friend,  Herr Huld who is on sick bed when K and his uncle visits the latter. Strangely enough, the chief clerk of the court happens to be visiting Herr Huld when K and his uncle calls on him. K becomes frustrated with the lawyer  who has been conveying all the information about the tangled workings of the court and K gradually grows weary of his lawyer’s endless talk and seemingly minimal action. In the meantime, it has become common place that people come to know about K’s arrest and one of his bank clients suggests that he contacts a painter who paints portraits for the court. K takes client’s  advice and contacts Titorelli the official Court painter who provides him with more information about the Court and the painter offers to use his connections to aid K’s cause.  The painter has inherited the connection from his father and he claims that his position unassailable. He also tells K that the Court is impervious to proof that is brought before it.

Titorelli had pulled his chair up nearer the bed and went on in a subdued voice:
‘ I ought to have started by asking you what kind acquittal you want. There are three possibilities, namely actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and postponement. Actual acquittal is , naturally , the best, the only thing is I haven’t the slightest influence on that kind of verdict. In my opinion there isn’t a single person who could influence a verdict of actual acquittal. The deciding factor there is probably the innocence of the accused. As you’re innocent, it really might be possible for you to rely solely on your innocence. But then you wouldn’t need help either from me or anybody else.’
K was nonplussed at first by this neat exposition ,but then he said just as quietly as the painter :
‘ I think you ‘re contradicting yourself.’
‘How?’ Titorelli asked patiently, leaning back with a smile.

K points out to Titorelli the inconsistencies  one of which is that earlier on the latter has indicated that the judges were open to personal persuasion then he denies by saying that an actual acquittal can never be achieved by personal persuasion. In Chapter  9 entitled ‘In the Cathedral’ K meets the priest who is supposed to be the prison chaplain and is thus connected to the court.
‘ Don’t delude yourself,’ said the priest.
‘How am I supposed to be deluding myself?’ K asked.
‘You’re deluding yourself about the Court,’ the priest said. ‘ In the writings which preface the Law it says about his delusion: before the Law stands a door-keeper. A man from the country comes up to this door-keeper and begs for admission to the Law. But the door-keeper tells him that he cannot grant him admission now. The man ponders this and then asks if he will be allowed to enter later. “Possibly, “ the door-keeper says, “but not now.”

The priest tells the tale to K about the man from the country who has been denied admission to the court despite making use of everything he has, however valuable, to bribe the door-keeper who accepts it all and as he takes each thing, the door-keeper says :
I am only accepting this so that you won’t believe you have left something untried.

When he is dying, the man from the country is told by the door-keeper  that the door was intended only for him.

The door-keeper realizes that the man is nearing his end and that his hearing is fading, and in order to make himself heard he bellows at the man:
“ No one else could gain admission here, because this door was intended only for you, I shall now go and close it. 

K and the priest engage themselves in discussing several possible interpretations of the tale.

The priest explains,
……First and foremost, a free man is superior to one who is bound. Now the man from the country is actually free, he can go wherever he wants, it is  only entry to the Law that is forbidden him, and then only by one individual, the door-keeper. If he sits on a stool beside the door and stays there for the rest of his life, this is a voluntary action ,the story says nothing about compulsion. The door- keeper, on the other hand is duty-bound to stay at his post, he may not go out into the country, nor apparently is he allowed to go into the interior of the Law, even if he wanted to. What is more, he is, it’s true, in the service of the Law, yet he serves only this entrance, and therefore only this man, for whom alone this entrance is intended. For this reason, too,he is subordinate to the man. ……

When K says that he does not agree with the priest’s  point of view as he does not think everything the door-keeper says is true.

“No” the priest replied,’ one doesn’t have to accept everything as true, one only has to accept it as necessary’
“ What a gloomy point of view, “ K said. “The lie has become the order of the world.”

While The Trial is full of symbolisms and surrealism, there is the ring of truth about the relationship between the citizen and the Law and definitely about  human conditions in general that suggests corruption, vileness and misuse of power.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Look who's honking

One Saturday morning, I spotted a piece of article lying on top of the car that just pulled up in front of my car. As I followed behind the car, I pressed my car horn to get the attention of the driver but the driver kept on going and seemed to have picked up some speed . Then just as I had hoped for, the traffic lights turned red and the car had to come a halt at the junction. The driver completely ignored my honking. When I tried to get into the lane besides the car, the driver made way for me. It was apparent that the driver might have mistaken me as some aggressive driver who was just trying to get ahead. Finally I pulled up beside the driver who turned out to be a lady and reluctantly she turned to look at me when I wound down my car window. I could not bear the thought that the article might drop off her car along the way and the person would be wondering what had happened to the article. Perhaps the person deserved to lose the thing but since I was so close to getting across the message, I was not going to give up. I was just simply amazed that the person could be so intimidated by my honking without even looking to see who and why I had been honking.

When we recall about the occasions  how we  have been forgetful and careless, these incidents are hilarious with hindsight. As one gets older, one experiences memory lapses and it is probably due to aging. There are also times when we misplace things because we are pre-occupied and not paying attention. Sometimes I find it burdensome to keep unhappy memories so I try to master the art of forgetting certain unpleasant incidences. It  is not easy to forget and move on as these unhappy memories have a tendency to cling on like leeches. We choose to remember what we want to remember but  when one cannot remember what he or she wants to remember, memory loss becomes a grave concern. Alzheimer disease accounts for one of the major causes for  dementia and  since memories form an integral part of a person, it is definitely tragic when one suffers memory loss.

At BAFTA this year Julian Moore won the best actress award for her role in Still Alice. When Dr Alice Howland , an ambitious linguistic professor  finds herself  having memory lapses such as losing words in the middle of her lectures and losing  bearing when she goes jogging, she visits a neurologist. When she is diagnosed with the early onset of the dreadful Alzheimer disease, she is devastated and Julian Moore has given the character another one of her best performances.

Boyhood won the best picture at BAFTA this year. Boyhood is interesting in  that the plot is a work in progress and the film has taken literally 12 years to make as the child actors grew into teenagers. All the actors participated in the writing process while the director keeps the general plot intact. The central theme of  Boyhood is  about  coming of age and though the theme is not novel, the plot is compelling indeed.

Both Still Alice and Boyhood are good films that deal with issues in real life and subjects that are realistic.

Monday, February 16, 2015

About Reading

Doris Lessing was conferred the 2001 Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. The  speech given by her  is amongst the collection of essays and writings in Time Bites  by  Doris Lessing

There is a new kind of educated person, who may be at school and university for twenty, twenty-five years, who knows everything about a speciality, computers, the law , economics, politics, but know about nothing else, no literature, art, history, and may be heard enquiring, “But what was the Renaissance then?” “ What was the French Revolution?"

Even 50 years ago this person would have been seen as a barbarian. To have acquired an education with nothing of the old humaist background-impossible. To call oneself educated without a background of reading – impossible.

Reading , books, the literary culture, was respected, desired, for centuries.’ – Time Bites Chapter 7

I love reading fictions and through reading fictions, I see humanity for what it is and  reading enables us to connect with other minds across time and space. A novelist can provide a vivid description of a situation and the psyches of various characters so that his or her readers can possibly relate to the story and empathize with the characters, some ordinary, some quirky.  Of course not all the readers connect with a story  in the same manner  or like the same kind of writings. Reading is a pleasure only if the writing is good. Great writings engage our emotions and sometimes, when we immerse ourselves in a story and reach the end of it, we wish that the story would not end.

Julian Barnes wrote in his essay entitled :“ George Orwell and the Fucking Elephant” published in Through the Window :
Most writing comes from an inchoate process; ideas may indeed propose words, but sometimes words propose ideas (both transactions occur within the same sentence) . As E. M. Forster, a frequent target of Orwell’s put it (or rather, quoted).in Aspects of the Novel : ‘ Now do I tell what I think till I see what I say?

One of my favourite past times is to visit a local bookstore. Whenever I have to go to Kuala Lumpur for work,  nothing thrills me more than the idea of stepping into Kinokuniya at Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC). I have to resist the temptation to purchase too many books as  carrying them back in my overnight bag may be a challenge.

In his essay entitled “ Wharton’s The Reef”. Julian Barnes wrote :
“NOVELS CONSIST OF words, evenly and democratically spaced; though some may acquire higher social rank by italicisation or capitalism. In most novels,this democracy spreads wider: every word is as important as every other word. In better novels, certain words have higher specific gravity than other words. This is something the better novelist does not draw attention to, but lets the better reader discover.

Every word and every sentence in a novel are crafted by the author to tell a story. Every reader has his or her own preferences for the kind of fictions he or she reads. Reading is  a  solitary act. Nothing pleases me more than being able to pick up a novel and plunge into  the act of reading with undivided attention.

FICTION IS THE MOST  fundamental human art. Fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves. Fiction is also conservative and conventional, because the structure of its market is relatively democratic ( novelists make a living one copy at a time, bringing pleasure to large audiences) , and because a novel asks for ten or twenty hours of solitary attentiveness from each member of its audience. You can walk past a painting fifty times before you begin to appreciate it. You can drift in and out of a Bartok sonata until its structures dawn on you. But a difficult novel just sits there on your shelf unread-unless you happen to be a student, in which case you’re forced to turn the pages of Woolf and Beckett.'  -  How to be alone by Jonathan Franzen

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


I have been going to the same hairdresser for years. Some of his clients find him weird as he likes to propound his views which can come across righteous or strange. I enjoy having a conversation with him though I may not necessarily agree with all the things he puts forward. During my recent visit, he told me that two of his  friends said they had been feeling depressed after having a sudden  epiphany about humanity. Apparently, it had dawned on one of them that she had been a very mean, cunning  and terrible person all these years while it had dawned on the other woman that people generally are mean, cunning  and terrible. I had to agree with him when he said that all of us had this mean streak lurking in us. He then said something he had said before, “I cannot even trust myself, how can anyone trust me? How can anyone trust anyone? ”

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that  there are always traces of vanity and cruelty in our characters. Often we do good deeds, make donations and contribute to some social or charity causes to make ourselves feel better. If we  examine our true intentions, we will note that we might be doing things for ourselves even when we are being thoughtful and generous. I get disappointed time and time again whenever I neglect to follow my instincts about certain preferences or somehow make decisions to my detriments in the name of diplomacy, I feel unwise.

I try to do things sensibly and act justly. Perhaps when I was a child, my response might have been more spontaneous but as I grow older, I find that I must have been so conditioned to acting  politically correct  that I am inclined to act appropriately. I often question my true intentions. I feel bad if I do not act kindly or  behave badly or omit to act sensibly. Just like everything else, you are who you are, doesn’t that sound familiar? 
I  watched Birdman this afternoon.  These days, I dread going to the cinema due to various reasons. You have to be mentally prepared to go to a crowded place . I do not mind so much in a foreign land. Perhaps it is because in a foreign place, the chances of bumping into someone you know is slim. I never know what to say when I bump into an acquaintance . Having said that, I did meet a couple of friends from home when I was queuing up for Monmouth coffee in Covent Garden.

Birdman is one of the main contenders at the Oscars 2015. It is superb. There are times when you  read about certain films and their rave reviews, you are in for a disappointment. This time, I am not disappointed.   I love the alternative title : The Unexpected Virtue of Igorance. I was so glad that I got up from my butt and head to the cinema and caught the film  on the wide screen. Great screenplay, acting and dialogues. I was moved to tears when Sam, Riggan’s daughter, said to  Riggan Thomson:  "That means something to who? You had a career, dad, before the third comic book movie, before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You are doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is going to be where they have their cake and coffee when it's over. Nobody gives a s*** but you! And let's face it, dad, you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day and you act like it doesn't exist. This are happening in a place that you ignore, a place that, by the way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the f*** are you? You hate bloggers. You mock Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter and, you know what, you're right. You don't! It's not important, okay? You're not important! Get used to it."

 Birdman is about Riggan Thomson, a washed-up  actor who once played an iconic superhero in blockbuster movies and he has to battle with his ego as he is about to launch the Broadway play which he directs and acts in. Riggan hopes to reinvent his career  by writing, directing  and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. He meets influential critic, Tabitha Dikinson, who tells him that she  hates Hollywood celebrities who pretend to be actors and she intends o kill his play by giving a poor review.

 The film reminds me once again why I enjoy black comedies-dramas.It is not just actors and celebrities who want to stay relevant after their prime days and have tendencies to be ego-centric , ordinary people are the same too. I suppose ultimately it is ourselves that we have to be accountable to. We remain prisoners to ourselves so it is ourselves that we have to break free from. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Like or Unlike

 It seems to be a common trend that former  school friends tend to look up each other with the hope to re-connect with one other several decades after leaving school. It can be nice to see some of these friends particularly those with whom you were once  close to  and  have since drifted apart as we became  caught up with each of  our own lives. But quite often I find that such connections can be contrived as it is doubtful if we can ever take our friendships from where we left as if all those years had not passed us by. While these friends endeavour to show that friendships that we forge during school days can withstand the test of time, I have my reservations.

Like’ written by Ali Smith took much longer than the time it normally takes for me to finish reading a book. The writing is very good but it is a little heavy going particularly when I cannot  relate to the characters though the theme is familiar in that it is about two childhood friends whose stories are told in two separate parts of the book. The book begins  with describing Amy Shone , a single mother with a seven year old daughter, Kate Shone and they live a nomadic life. Amy seems to have lost her ability to read and write and from reading the second part of the story told through Ashling McCarthy as she reminisces, we know that Amy has a glamour past and was a Cambridge scholar in her young days.  The story leaves many questions unanswered but the author’s prose is fabulous. Smith writes,

‘Amy Shone. A surname like that will haunt your life. Everything becomes something you did better then, before, in the shining days. But not if you don’t let it .’

Snow is a good idea. Snow will cover everything, that’s its grace. Lie quietly everywhere, quieten everything, cool everything to a standstill, blow into the barky crevices of trees, fill the spaces between the light low blades of the grasses, bend and hold them down, settle without question over anything cold enough left in the open. Good dry snow will fall without sound and leave everything white. Up here it can cling for days to the sides of houses and along the tops of walls and fences, depending on the direction of the wind.’

After reading Smith’s debut novel, I resumed reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It was a light read and the characters are endearing. Then I moved on to reading Amstersdam by Ian McEwan, the book that won the Booker Prize for him in 1998.

Amsterdam is about two friends whose friendship was tested at the time when they should really need each other. Both of them had high regards for their own aptitudes  and commitments in the  work they had respectively made a career in. Vernon Halliday was a newspaper editor while Clive Linley was a musician. Both Clive and Vernon were two old friends who shared some similar attributes and common interests, one of which was that their former love, Molly Lane had died after losing her mental faculty and they  felt that the feisty  girl they once had an intimate relationship  with would have killed herself rather than ended up perishing in that manner.

  Brain –dead and in George’s clutches,” Clive said.

After witnessing the unceremonious death of their former lover, Clive and Vernon became weary of their own deteriorating health and made a pact between themselves that they would assist one another in their euthanasia should they suffer the same fate as Molly.  That raises the morality issues about euthanasia that is made legal in Amsterdam.  Both friends somehow turned to  hating each other when they could not agree on some other morality questions. What happened was that Vernon had been given some pictures by  Molly’s husband, George Lane. Those pictures were taken by Molly of one Julian Garmony,  the foreign secretary who was about to challenge the prime minister at the next election.  Julian happened to be one of  Molly’s lovers too. These pictures might just ruin  Julian Garmony’s chances of winning at the next election. Vernon planned to publish them although Clive had objected strongly as he had felt that it was definitely not right for Vernon to violate the private arrangement between Garmony and Molly. Clive argued that printing these pictures would simply carry out what George wanted and it was an act of betrayal for Molly. After the row, Clive regretted.

Perhaps he had been too hard on Vernon,who was only trying to save his newspaper and protect the country from Garmony’s harsh policies. He would telephone Vernon this evening. Their friendship was too important to be lost to one isolated dispute. They could surely agree to differ and continue to be friends.’

It also dawned on Clive that  there had always been some kind of imbalance between him and Vernon.
Put most crudely, what did he, Clive, really derive from this friendship? He had given, but what had he ever received? What bound them? They had Molly in common, there were the accumulated years and the habits of friendship, but there was really nothing at its centre, nothing for Clive. A generous explanation for the imbalance might have evoked Vernon’s passivity and self –absorption. Now, after last night, Clive was inclined to see these as merely elements of a larger fact – Vernon’s lack of principle.’

Both friends are absolutely egocentric and petty. Although I do not find the plot convincing and the characters likeable, the writing is superb and the description of the characters credible as  some men can be self- absorbed,vindictive and calculative and that such men have a tendency to put the blame of their failures on others  and  are inclined to adopt a no holds barred approach when they are vengeful. Amsterdam poses the reality question about friendships between two long time friends and the story leaves you cold and feeling bleak about how reliable friends can be.