Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A big, juicy novel, weighing in at over 1000 pages. Powerful themes, lots of melodrama and, like some of Dickens, written originally in instalments for a magazine. This latter quality is visible in the ebb and flow of  climax, description and plot.

A quick practical piece of advice: I read the Penguin version, having discarded the Oxford Classics translation as too full of typos. It seriously put me off. The Penguin translation by Robin Buss is much better.

The plot is complicated and one of the main themes is how people can change and transform themselves. I recommend paying careful attention about a quarter of the way through, when the names of those who, at the outset of the book, do the Count down, are changed as they become ennobled. This helps later on, when  Dumas uses their new titles all the time.

The book is full of drama and colour and I don't think it is pretentious to see in the Count the model for all those fictional figures we know and love, from James Bond to Jason Bourn to Sherlock Holmes, who acquire superior powers and intellect that allow them to do fantastical things. Indeed, one has to suspend one's disbelief a fair bit to enjoy the book. Characters, especially the protagonist, become protean and acceptance of disguise as a viable and practical venture is necessary. A bit like those Shakespeare plays when someone dresses up as a woman and deceives even their own family about their true identity by doing so.

The Count also has a dark side, which gives Dumas the opportunity to invoke themes of providence, fate and what the divine really means in the human setting.

The historical context is fascinating. The post-Bonaparte politics of France are well elucidated in the notes and the conflicting loyalties of the characters are very much part of the story. The France described by Dumas is on the cusp of what we can now describe as modernity; the telegraph plays a pivotal role in one sub plot and mass readership of newspapers in another. Living as we do during a financial crisis, it is also very interesting to see how Dumas paints the motivations and practices of bankers. Not flattering, as you can imagine.

All in all, this is a big, blousy, enjoyable novel. Ideal if you are going on a long journey and need some reliable diversion and entertainment.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drackulić

This is a great book for people, like me, who imagine Eastern Europe to be full of cynically wise, battle-scarred (politically) individuals who have acquired through suffering a deeper insight into the true nature of the human condition. That is an unreserved compliment to the author, who captures beautifully the diversity of the political experience under the Soviet system but also the bleakness that homogenised it.

The format of the book is a series of fables, told by animals, each about a different Eastern European, formerly Communist country. The language is subtle and humorous and it even crossed my mind to suggest my children read it. But I thought better of it. A fair amount of prior knowledge is needed to enjoy this book. The chapter on Jaruzelski does not even mention his name, for example.

But this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on a number of levels. It reminds you, not least, of some of the lunacies of the Communist era, like the Ceausescus' nutty approach to dogs. But it also digs deep into the banalities and oppressiveness of the system and reminds us that its legacy is very much with us today.