29 February 2016

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, Tokyo 1982

Like most of Murakami's books, A Wild Sheep Chase is a roller coaster of images, words, ideas and events. It is somewhat similar to wandering through an exhibition of surrealist art, wondering all the time as to whether there is an actual meaning attached to each artwork or whether everything is centred entirely on individual emotional responses and/or ideas.

The unnamed protagonist is given the almost impossible challenge to find a sheep - not just any sheep but a very special sheep with a star on its back. If he fails to find the sheep within a set time then someone will die. Accompanying him on his search is a strange young woman with very peculiar ears. As the search progresses (and becomes more and more complicated) other characters are introduced, all of whom, in some way or another, are important to the dénouement of the novel.  

The book is amazing, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who does not mind roller coasters. There is suspense, comedy and, in the end, a quiet kind of self-realization.

Where does the line go between real and unreal, the mundane and fantasy, life and death? Is it perhaps so that the thing for which we are constantly searching is actually with us all the time?

The photo of Murakami is from The photo of sheep is from

16 February 2016

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, Russia, 1859

A fairy story, a moral fable, a farce…? If a farce entertains through exaggerated (and improbable) situations, then the novel probably should not be called a farce; nor is it pure satire, where shortcomings are pinpointed and ridiculed with the purpose of shaming specific people and/or groups into improvement. Although Oblomov is a mixture of a fable, a fairy story and a farce, in essence it is a very real observation of the process of change and how change collects both victims and victors.

The novel is well written and, in spite of its 586 pages, is easy to read. On the surface it is about a man – Oblomov, a Russian nobleman – who does not want to do anything else but sleep. Backward glimpses give the reader some idea of why Oblomov, in his early thirties at the beginning of the book, is quite content to remain tucked up in his bed for the better part of the day. He is lazy, but he also cannot see any reason for doing anything: he is not interested in social activities; he is not interested in reading; he is not interested in travelling. He has a friend Stolz, who is the complete opposite and who does all in his power to rouse Oblomov from his inactive and wasteful life.

Some could well argue that Oblomov is a depressive, and yet he seems happy doing what he is doing, that is to say, nothing.

If one chooses to regard it as a satire of the Russian ruling class, then Oblomov probably represents the laziness of people used to having everything done for them – people without any particular ambition beyond holding on to the status quo. They are unable to make active, important decisions, because there has always been someone to make such decisions for them, but as society changes it becomes obvious that they are no longer needed: they are superfluous. Life around them is waking up; there are new ideas and new opportunities. The ordinary person is beginning to see the possibility of a very different kind of life for himself, and there is a very big danger that the aristocracy will be left behind.

There are two women in the novel, Olga and Agafya: Olga symbolizes the possible, exciting – yet somewhat daunting – future, while Agafya embodies the security of the past. Oblomov wants to be able to embrace everything that Olga is promising him, but he is too securely tied to the past. He has never learnt how to take a step into the unknown, and now when he needs to he is hesitant and indecisive.

Oblomov's servant, Zahar, epitomizes the peasant class. In the same way that Oblomov has spent his life being waited upon, Zahar has spent his life doing the waiting (not always without complaint). In spite of the indications of change, neither of them is prepared to take such a step - not even Agafya is able to embrace change - however, with her woman's intuition, she knows that change will happen and that it will be a reality if not for her generation then for the generations that come after her.

However the book is read – as a satire, a fairy tale or simply as a novel about a man who did not want to do anything – it gives many interesting glimpses of Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. A small gem that provokes thought, sadness and, occasionally, humour.

The photo of Ivan Goncharov is from
The film still is from

02 February 2016

Old Filth by Jane Gardam, UK 2004

The Old Filth (Filth: Failed In London Try Hong Kong) of the book is Sir Edward Feathers, lawyer and judge, who is born in Malaysia some years after the Great War. As a very small child, he is sent back to England on his own to be fostered out and educated. His life winds through rejection, abuse, war, marriage and what is obviously a brilliant career (he definitely did not fail in London), but which, in the end, is summed up by a judge: '… difficult to say exactly what he'd done… '

Eddie's life is told in flashbacks without any chronology. Like a painting, his life is built up in layers – sometimes the author hesitates at one particular point or at one particular colour before hopping over layers and years to investigate a completely different point or a completely different colour. Strange to say, the method works, and there is no confusion or irritation. Bit by bit Sir Edward Feathers fills out and becomes a well-rounded, believable character. 
Photo of Jane Gardam is from

This is a book about a particular period in English history; it is also a book about survival. Most importantly, it is a book about our need to feel loved and to belong. Beautifully written, it is a book that should not be missed.