The dystopian novel is an interesting genre. Used well it gives an author a great opportunity to criticize society. The trick is to construct an alternative society, usually somewhere in the near or distant future, that somehow resembles our own, but with certain aspects slightly exaggerated. Famous examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Anthony Burgess’ A clockwork orange and, of course, George Orwell’s 1984. More recently, Margaret Atwood has written a string of dystopian novels which many people have recommended to me. It’s good to know it’s not just British men who write these kind of books.

For Dave Eggers – a writer who has already shown many ways in which he’s criticized some of the wrongs in contemporary society – The circle is his first dystopian novel. It seems he has looked closely at 1984, since being seen and transparency are some of the most important themes in his book. The circle shows a dystopian society that is still being created, but not yet there. It is set almost entirely within the grounds of the Circle, the world’s most successful company and a fictive fusion of IT companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter. The Circle’s ideal is that everybody will need only one account, called TruYou, for all of their everyday activities; social, such as watching and sharing photos, videos, messages or emails and otherwise, such as purchasing items online, arranging insurance, health care and even placing your vote. With your Circle account you can manage your whole life.

This is such a popular concept that the Circle is expanding on a massive scale, constantly hiring new people. Mae Holland can’t believe her luck; she will be one of the many thousand Circle employees. We follow Mae during her first days at the company. She is astounded by the level of energy and creativity on the Campus. Everywhere Circlers are working hard at devising more ways for people to share information, society to become more open, to make life a little easier. For diversion, but also to stimulate more creativity, there is a constant flow of games, parties, guest lectures and concerts on the Campus. Mae is thrilled and despite some hesitation joins the Circle’s irresistible rhythm of working, playing and sharing. To be as close to their work as possible many Circlers just use a room in one of the dorms on Campus to get a few hours sleep. Like all Circlers, Mae is expected to share all her thoughts with her friends and colleagues and to comment on theirs as well. This constant messaging, smiling and frowning is considered an essential part of her work. Mae’s life quickly becomes absorbed by the Circle, while the company’s quest for full transparency takes a sinister turn.

It is exciting to read The circle and at the same time it is awful. Eggers makes you a part of this treadmill, of this unstoppable process, as people are forced to join, to share everything, and always with a smile. He makes you think, feverishly, as the story rushes on. Of course we want access to information, optimal health care, child safety, less crime, transparent politics, but at what price? Given the right framing and the right social push it seems not so unlikely we would be willing to give up on our privacy to achieve all that and that is scary. Eggers has clearly felt that fear and wrote this story to make us feel it too. He sees what we are slowly moving towards, almost inevitably, and where things might go from there. They don’t have to, but they might. The circle is set only a few years from now. Its level of realism, of overlap with society as it is now, is sometimes uncanny. People ought to read this book and think for themselves how they would like the future to be, utopia or dystopia?

4 November 2013

Alfred A. Knopf - McSweeney's Books, 2013

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Volgens mij kwam Stalin uit Georgië. Net als de voormalige spits van Ajax, Shota Arveladze. Het moet een onherbergzaam land zijn, met sympathieke mensen, stel ik mij zo voor. Het grootste deel van de 20e eeuw hoorde Georgië bij de Sovjet-Unie. In die tijd speelt dit boek. Het is 1983. Het communisme in Oost-Europa en Rusland is aan zijn laatste decennium bezig, maar op dat moment lijkt het voor de mensen nog eeuwig te duren. Een groep Georgische jongeren is het zat. Zij willen spijkerbroeken dragen, vrijuit de liefde bedrijven en goeie sigaretten roken. Hiervoor moeten ze naar het vrije Westen. Om dit doel te bereiken besluiten ze een vliegtuig te kapen, de piloten te dwingen in een niet-communistisch land te landen en van daaruit de vrijheid op te zoeken. Helaas faalt dit plan jammerlijk.
De Georgische schrijver Dato Turashvili, zelf deelnemer aan de studentenprotesten van 1989, besloot het verhaal van deze noodlottige vliegtuigkaping op te tekenen. Ik ben blij dat hij dat gedaan heeft en, bovendien, dat een Nederlandse uitgever het heeft laten vertalen. Zo kunnen wij vrije Nederlanders het verhaal lezen van deze wanhopige jongeren, idealistisch maar naïef, die iets voor ogen hadden dat ook in 1983 al voor het grijpen leek. Een korte, aangrijpende episode uit de nadagen van de USSR.

25 Juni 2013

Cossee, 2013
Oorspronkelijke titel Djinsebis taoba, 2008
Vertaald uit het Georgisch door Ingrid Degraeve




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George Orwell is a steady fixture among my favourite authors, ever since I started reading English books. Slowly, I’m working my way through his oeuvre, trying to read an Orwell every few years. The last one, Keep the aspidistra flying, an interesting novel about a bookseller, was quite some time ago already, so I started getting a little anxious. The simplest solution in this case was to pick up an old favourite once more, Animal farm, a delightful, easy book that will probably get better every time I open it. The story had sufficiently escaped my mind to be fresh to the touch; it’s been about ten years ago, no shame I’d say. The unhappy animals who throw out their human owner from the farm, their idealistic beginnings of self government, the growing influence of the pigs over the other animals, the dictatorship of the pig-leader Napoleon and his henchmen and the eventual bleak fate for the once idyllic Animal Farm; it was all still there, fascinating and depressing. All revolutions indeed turn upon themselves, a mimicry of their original ideals. To quote a famous Bob Dylan song: ‘Don't follow leaders / watch the parkin' meters'.

Additionally, whenever I write I try to think of Orwell's six rules for clear writing, from his essay 'Policitics and the English Language' in Shooting an elephant and other essays:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I'm not sure if I should put these rules on the wall over my desk, but it certainly doesn't hurt to repeat them once in a while.

21 May 2013

Penguin Books, 2003
Originally published 1945



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I live on an island, within the city of Amsterdam. In front and at the back there is water, and, when it rains, water is also on top. During a storm I sometimes imagine my house pulling free and floating away towards the North Sea, with me in it. This fantasy may also come from a childhood spent on a houseboat. Reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers triggered quite a few thoughts and memories.
In the beginning of 2006 I visited New Orleans. Katrina was half a year before and still visible everywhere. I stayed in an old house in the Garden District, on a street that seemed mostly uninhabited. In fact, the whole area was almost deserted. Only when you came to the centre of the city there was the normal level of noise; the tourists had returned, although a lot of residents hadn’t yet.
Zeitoun is an engaged book. Dave Eggers tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant to the United States and longstanding resident of New Orleans. He married an American woman, built up a successful business and raised a family. When hurricane Katrina is about to hit Zeitoun’s family flees the city, but he stays to look after their property. In the flooded city he finds a purpose rescuing people and feeding trapped animals, using a canoe to paddle through the streets. The all too present authorities – tens of thousands men and women belonging to the police, National Guard, FBI and others quickly come to the area to establish law and order among the chaos – round up Zeitoun and three others, suspecting them of looting. The fact that two of them are Syrian and Muslim immediately makes them potential terrorists from Al Qaeda.
What follows is a frustrating episode where we get a peek on the dark side of the American justice system; Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are not far away. Zeitoun gets locked up in a high-security prison, while his family doesn’t know what happened, where he is or whether he’s still alive. It all ends well finally and Zeitoun is reunited with his family. They pick up the pieces in a mostly destroyed New Orleans and manage to get their lives back on track. But the memories of this episode will forever leave them scarred.
It’s a good thing Dave Eggers wrote down their story. It’s American in an overly justified way – Zeitoun is portrayed as a hero and can’t do wrong – but it’s also honest. Eggers knows how to engage his readers and build up his book; Hollywood is looking over his shoulders. I’ve been meaning to read Eggers’ other famous book, What is the what, for some time now. This will take a little longer though, because reading that one immediately after Zeitoun seems too much.

15 April 2013

Hamish Hamilton, 2009



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If we compare literature to a landscape I feel like I’ve just climbed Mont Blanc. Not quite the Himalayan heights of Ulysses or Remembrance of things past, but a rather challenging peak nonetheless. This week I spent reading Cloud atlas and I’m still a little out of breath. Around the time the movie version entered the cinemas last year I gave the book my first try and failed. It felt too complex and uninviting and I put it away after 15 pages or so. I realized this is not a book to be taken on too lightly. Lately, I’ve read some smaller books and discarded a few others, so I felt ready to try Cloud atlas once more. I started confidently and read on in three long bursts. Find the thread and follow it; don’t let go, because if you put it away too long you lose it.
Cloud atlas consists of six stories placed in chronological order. You start in the 19thcentury, going from the 1930’s and the 1970’s to our time. The last two stories are set in the future, starting at least one hundred years from now. The book evolves like a pyramid,

          6          
        5   5        
      4       4      
    3           3    
  2               2  
1                   1

so it’s always clear in which story and time you are. The stories are related, but in rather subtle ways. Mitchell gives you only a few easy-to-overlook clues.
A brilliant and challenging aspect of Cloud atlas is the language. Mitchell fits the language of each story to its time. Thus, not only do you have to get into a new story six times, you also have to adjust to a new style of language. The first, 19th century story takes some getting used to, the 20th century stories allow you some breathing space, but especially the fifth and sixth story are mindboggling at first. Compare it to coming first into the world of A clockwork orange. A strange setting, words that seem familiar in a way, but require you to give them meaning, not the other way around. The sixth story, the top of the pyramid so to say, may be about 80 pages, but I took almost a day to get through it. Once you get through there it starts going downhill again as you revisit the stories you discovered before.
Perhaps at this point I should also emphasize I enjoyed reading Cloud atlas a lot. The bigger the struggle, the bigger the reward, as I derived huge satisfaction from solving all the puzzles in this book. In the first part of the book all of the stories end with a cliff-hanger, so you can imagine the pleasurable sense of closure you get when you can finally continue these stories after a few hundred pages. As I mentioned already, there is a deeply buried thread connecting everything; rediscovering it again after having plodded along unwittingly for some time feels good.
David Mitchell has a lot of faith in his readers, because he doesn’t make anything easy. This is exactly what I like about him. He sets you to work, sharpens your mind and constantly provides exactly the right amount of plot tension. I cannot even begin imagining writing such a book. Mitchell holds up many balls in the air and pulls it off, seemingly without effort. Every page is necessary, there are no redundant passages; for a 500+ page book it actually seems condensed. Reading such brilliant books makes you wonder why you would ever waste your time on anything of lesser value. On the other hand, I suppose you can’t go on reading masterpieces all the time.
Just to give a small taste of Mitchell’s writing I’ll write down a few quotes from the book, each from the beginning of a story:

p. 3
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cindery sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away.
~The book’s first sentence. Notice the immediate focus on time, with the footprints. A reference to Robinson Crusoe as well.

p. 44
Labouring types surrounded me with bad teeth, parrot voices and unfounded optimism. Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat can alter a man’s social standing so irreversibly. Those shopworkers, cabbies and tradesmen had more ½ crowns and threepenny bits squirrelled away in their sour Stepney mattresses than I, Son of an Ecclesiastical somebody, can claim. Had a view of an alley: downtrodden scriveners hurtling by like demisemiquavers in a Beethovian allegro. Afrain of ‘em? No, I’m afraid of being one.
~A bit of James Joyce, a bit of T.S. Eliot´s The wasteland. Bleakness from the Lost Generation, after the First World War.

p. 90
´My guru, Luisaaa, my guru! He´s on his last reincarnation before—’ Richard’s fingers go pufff! Nirvanawards. ‘Come to an audience. His waiting-list normally takes, like, for ever, but jade-ankh disciples get personal audiences on the same afternoon. Like, why go through college and shit when Maharajah Aja can, like, teach you everything about . . . It.’
~Hippie-speak seems already slightly over the hill and wannabe cool. Must be the Seventies.

p. 153
Knuckle sandwich was actually a well-written gutsy fictional memoir. Culture-vultures discussed its socio-political subtexts first on late-night shows, then on breakfast TV. Neo-Nazis bought it for its generous lashings of violence. Worcestershire housewives bought it because it was a damn fine read. Homosexuals bought it out of tribal loyalty. It shifted ninety thousand, yes, ninety thousand copies in four months, and yes, I am still talking hardcover.
~Nice satire on a crappy memoir turning into a bestseller. Not hard to picture that happening right about our time.

p. 187
It was a sealed dome about eighty metres across, a dinery owned by Papa Song Corp. Servers spend twelve working years without venturing outside this space, ever. The décor is starred and striped in reds, yellows and the rising sun. Its celcius is adjusted to Outside; warmer in winter, cooler in summer. Our dinery was on the minus ninth floor under Chongmye Plaza. Instead of windows, AdVs decorated the walls. Set into the eastern wall was the dinery elevator; the sole entrance and exit. North was the Seer’s office; west, his Aides’ room; south, the servers’ dormroom. Consumers’ hygieners were ingressed at north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west. The Hub sat in the centre.
~The world of science fiction and dystopia, like Orwell’s 1984. Emotionless, functional language gives a good sense of the empty atmosphere.

p. 249
Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart-axle in draggly clothesies. Evenin’ catched us up early so we tented on the southly bank o’ Sloosha’s Crossin’, ’cos Waipio river was furyin’ with days o’ hard rain an’ swollen by a spring tide. Sloosha’s was friendsome ground tho’ marshy, no’un lived in the Waipio Valley ‘cept for a mil’yun birds, that’s why we didn’t camo our tent or pull-cart or nothin’. Pa sent me huntin’ for tinder’n’firewood while he’n’Adam tented up.
~‘Clothesies’ immediately brings to mind Gollum. Set furthest in the future, this language sounds more like American frontier around 1850 or so, Huckleberry Finn style. A little bit like The road too.

31 March 2013

Sceptre, 2004














Comments (1)

How to tell a story without words? A good storyteller knows he should be as universal as possible, while telling a specific story. Of course each story is unique, but it helps if it contains an element of basic human experience.
With The Arrival Shaun Tan beautifully captured the ancient theme of the traveller. A man leaves his wife and daughter behind and travels to a foreign country. The alienation he feels in this new place – language, customs, surroundings are all unknown to him – make him long for the familiarity of home. With a nicely surreal style Tan makes you see all those strange things through the man’s eyes and through his daughter’s who misses him. A funny creature befriends the man and shows him around. Through this creature he meets other travellers. They tell the man their stories of arrival in this foreign land. It turns out many people used to have their home elsewhere. Feelings of alienation are normal, but together they can help each other make a new home.
The arrival tells a universal story; it is a book you should pick up occasionally, just to see how such a story should be told. And to look at all the pictures of course.

4 January 2013

Querido, 2008
Originally published 2007






Comments (2)

When I'm in a foreign place I like to visit bookshops and ask a bookseller what he or she would recommend to me. A little based on my preferences (I like many things anyway) but mostly based on the bookseller's. In Cluj-Napoca I came upon a science fiction fan. A young guy, probably a student in that city, who spoke good english. After checking out some of their literary fiction we quickly ended up in front of their science fiction section. I wanted a stand-alone book, so Frank Herbert's Dune series was discarded (although that would, in other circumstances, have been a candidate). In the end, a tie between Philip K. Dick's Ubik and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. Both philosophical science fiction novels; more about ideas than stereotypical plots. Ubik's first page was unreadable so Solaris it had to be (also because in doubt I go for Eastern European). The bookseller was pretty enthusiastic about Solaris. An intellectual puzzle ánd the basis for a cult movie by Andrei Tarkovsky. Perhaps that movie is better. Perhaps Solaris was too different after The art of fielding. Perhaps George Clooney on the cover doesn't help (he stars in the Steven Soderbergh movie version, not the Tarkovsky one). I certainly devoted many hours to reading it. Maybe not as many as reading the Art, but it felt as much; and that for a 200 page book. But I didn't get it, I didn't get it at all. Some online reviews mentioned that the English translation I read is a secondary one, first Polish to French, then French to English. That could explain why it read so hard. Despite the translation, almost half of the book is unreadable scientific talk about past research on the enigmatic planet Solaris. I liked some of the bits about the main character (I kept seeing George Clooney in my head), stuck in the research center on the planet. His two fellow scientists are already mostly crazy and he's quickly losing his mind too. Solarisplays with people's minds. That's interesting enough. Just the lack of a driving plot, the boring scientific passages; it didn't seem to go anywhere. Perhaps this is one of those books I should put away without finishing, spend my time on a book I actually like. But then again, I almost never do.

5 October 2012

Faber and Faber, 2003
Original title Solaris, 1961
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox



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Een aanrader van M. en F. van Linnaeus. Het leek me zelf ook al boeiend, gezien het leuke omslag en de goede besprekingen. Terrin getuigt van talent in de boeiende thematiek, de bondige stijl en de beklemmende sfeer. Allemaal pluspunten en toch kon het boek me tijdens het lezen niet boeien; ik wilde het vooral wegleggen. Hoe komt dat dan? Weinig stuwende kracht in de vertelling wellicht. Misschien wat meer verhaal en iets minder vorm was ook goed geweest, hoewel het zo in elk geval een uniek boek was.

21 Januari 2010

Arbeiderspers, 2009

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A science fiction classic, recommended to me by L. It's a funny mix between Harry Potter and Star Wars in that it's mostly a 'school' novel, but then in a space context. The style is pretty simple and helps to drag you into it right away, even though you can't follow everything straight away. I found the ending surprising; it's nice to see how Card wraps the plot up in a very short space and makes you think about some things too. Scratch one on the SF canon.

26 July 2009

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A quirky science fiction novel, or rather a philosophical novel disguised as science fiction. A man suddenly finds himself on another planet and meets a number of human-like creatures that all represent some idea or other. During the man's quest for answers most of these creatures die, until finally he too dies and becomes someone else. Unlike anything I've read before, certainly. I kind of enjoyed it though; it's weird, written in a clunky style and with a vague ending, but it's some intriguing food for thought.

12 May 2009

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