Welcome back to the Monthly Reviews series, where I chronologically list last months reads, along with a short reflexion and opinion regarding each book.
The four books I read in February were all quite interesting in their own way and none of them really left a bad impression. There also seems to be a certain topic these novels have in common. Let’s have a look:
Imre Kertesz: Fatelessness (1975)
Kertesz‘ novel could be dismissed as another one of those concentration camp survival memoire type stories – and in regards to the content that’s what it is – but it’s a very intelligent reflexion on the human condition and being an insignificant speck of dust on the windshield of the Universe Train.
Constant recognition of one’s life being pointless, fateless, meaningless, gives Kertesz‘ protagonist the freedom and the strength to continue, and that is good advice for any hardship in life, be it as nihilistic as it is. This philosophy gives him the ability to describe a place even as desperate as a concentration camp as beautiful and full of good memories.
What a strange way to look at things.
Fatelessness is a silent but forceful book, leaving its subtle but strong mark on the reader without them even noticing, until much later after having finished the story.
J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)
This novel doesn’t lead with its main topic: fear of losing control over one’s life in old age and the general inevitability of one not being able to control the way life goes.
No, it actually leads with sex and attracts the reader with the moral dilemma of a teacher-student affair. The cliché-story evolves into a reflexion on morals, intellectually raising the novels potential by miles.
However, from there, it only gets worse. Coetzees novel is supposed to be a deeply philosophical reflexion on the humans helplessness from getting ripped apart by the sharp teeth that are reality.
Unfortunately, the execution of it all lacks grit, and thus the story as a whole is not as gripping as planned. Single points of execution which work on their own fail to latch onto each other and while the ideas are interesting, they fail to come together as a successful novel. This essayist (because that is what Coetzee mainly wrote) is much better in executing his familiar essay format, and this novel failed to impress in the end.
A. H. Tammsaare: Põrgupõhja uus Vanapagan (1939)
A novel from one of the best known Estonian authors on the topic of the Great Farmers‘ Plight. This one is about that as well, but only on the surface. In this one, the Devil is mixed with humanfolk, and shenanigans ensue only to show how morals and ethics are sometimes rather a grey area for all. It’s a philosophical, suspenseful read, showing the expectantly worst character in, surprisingly, the best possible light.
Tammsaare manages to reach more existential and moral grounds with his slightly newer novel and transcends the farmlands by several notches. Phantastical occurrences transcend their phantasy because the philosophical point still prevails. This perspective is highly interesting and borders on magical realism – very impressive even for Tammmsaare, who is impressive on his own anyway.
On top of the philosophical subtext, the reader also finds quite hands-on reflections about one humans insignificance and the overall necessity of laughing over one’s problems, since none of them matter in any case. Take it from the Devil himself – if you don’t succeed at first, try try try again.
This is a must-read for any Estonia Enthusiast.
Martin Algus: Midagi tõelist (2018)
The story of two men of whom one has lost the connection to the passion in his life, and the other is looking for someone to realize that passion with, and the tragic crime that brings them together.
While focusing on the darkest kind of thoughts a man can have, Algus shows the pure intention behind it, shattering many a moral compass on the way. This way of seeing and writing about human behaviour is quite unique, especially for Estonian literature.
I also strongly hope this novel gets translated, because Algus has a remarkable way of composing events and weaving sentences into one another so that the story becomes organic, dense and colourful. The search for meaning and for a connection and the randomness of it all brings us back to the nihilism of all the abovementioned novels.
While I don’t care to settle on a favourite (it’s a tie between Kertesz and Algus, but that’s just not the point of these reflexions), it is much more interesting to go further on the common topic, because novels in the 20th century are all in a certain way talking about losing a connection or losing purpose in life. It is rather the question if the possibility to turn the effort of the search into something positive exists or if eternal nihilism should prevail eternally.
20th century modern literature is rather sceptical about the destiny of the human, while I believe the struggle has found a second wind in the 21st century. Algus‘ novel has something of a resistance to the eternal pointlessness of existance, while still being nerve-wrecking and very suspenseful.
Am I just looking for this motive at the moment because it reflects my own feelings, or did I just find a cultural phenomenon others have been describing for a very long time in many a form? Feel free to leave your opinion in the comments.
I’d also love to know your most remarkable recent reads, if you’re up to it.