Book Report - 2004 Edition: Building Temples, Cheering and Getting to the Final Sentence [2004 Week]

I was tempted to write about music this week because the albums from this year were so important to me. But then I thought again about the books from 2004 and I wondered if I will ever have a year with at least three books that really mean a lot to me and that have something to say that fits here. So, welcome to the 2004 Book Report!

We start with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a novel that is famous for its structure of different stories from different times and characters and how it moves forward and then backward again through time. You have to read it to experience it, so I’ll stop explaining. In one of the chapters there is the composer Robert Frobisher in 1931 who is supposed to help the old and dying composer Vyvyan Ayrs with his masterpiece. The chapter is written in letter-form and in one of them he talks about Ayrs’ ideas:

Been thinking of my grandfather, whose wayward brilliance skipped my father’s generation. Once, he showed me an aquatint of a certain Siamese temple. […]  When the temple finally equals its counterpart in the Pure Land, so the story goes, that day humanity shall have fulfilled its purpose, and Time itself shall come to an end.

To men like Ayrs, it occurs to me, this temple is civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants, and foot soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists, and most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are civilization’s architects, masons, and priests. Ayrs sees our role is to make civilization ever more resplendent. My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, “Look, there is Vyvyan Ayrs!”

How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.

That is an excellent description of how many people saw and see our culture, civilization, and how they are trying to give it purpose. But the purpose almost always boils down to gaining more fame, power, wealth, no matter what, as long as it is more, more, more, getting higher and higher. I like the inclusion of ignorance and civilization itself. We don’t talk about that word so often anymore, but we’re still building that temple. There is more about civilization in that book, but that’s only one reason to read the book.

Juli Zeh’s Spieltrieb is such a good book, almost too good, whatever that means. It is intelligent, mean funny and dark. There isn’t a book which I more regret that it’s too long to read in school. At one point, the main character, a girl named Ada, thinks about school shootings and how no one ever talks about them afterwards, but only to say how shocking this is and how sorry everyone feels and the government surely will do something. Instead, she says:

So blieb die Wahrheit ungehört. Es blieb ungesagt, dass die Nation Grund zur Freude hatte. Dass es Anlass gab für republikweiten Jubel und die Einrichtung eines Nationalfeiertags, weil sich Amokläufer wie jener aus Erfurt nicht viel häufiger durch die Welt frästen. Trotz der Rattenenge, in der man in diesem Land zu vegetieren hatte, trotz PH-neutraler Pädagogen, die selbst keinen der Werte in sich bewahrten, die zu vermitteln einst ihr Auftrag gewesen war, trotz des ewigen Missverständnisses zwischen Liberalismus und Indifferenz, trotz einer Bevölkerung, deren Hauptanliegen darin bestand, sich selbst auf die Nerven zu gehen, lebte man tagein, tagaus in relativem Frieden zusammen. Niemand bedankte sich dafür.

This way the truth remained unheard. It remained unsaid, that nation had a reason to cheer. That there was a reason for joy throughout the republic and for establishing a national holiday, because school shooters like the one from Erfurt didn’t mill through the world more often. Despite the rat’s narrowness, in which you have to vegetate in this country, despite pH-neutral pedagogues, who don’t have any values themselves anymore, which they were once supposed to teach, despite the constant misunderstanding between liberalism and indifference, despite a population, whose main interest is to annoy itself, you lived day in, day out in relative peace. No one said thanks for that.

(I apologize for my crude translation, her language is too good for my English)

There is so much unspoken truth in these words, truth we really would never talk about and never do talk about after school shootings. I covered some of that in my (unfortunately only two) Kids With Guns articles, but I wholeheartedly agree. With the pressure we put on young people in our culture and the pretense we practice to not talk about real problems, it’s a miracle not more people start shooting at each other or authorities. Not that they should, but if you look closely enough, it’s not hard to see how living in this culture might drive you crazy (in the figurative meaning, not actually crazy). Here, too: this is just one instance of a part I really like, but the book offers so much more.

My last example is maybe unusual or off-putting for some, but it is so close to my heart: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Yes, it seems like fantasy and yes, it’s Stephen King, but he has been a major, major influence in my life and these books are really, really good. I’m not quoting this time and I’m trying not to spoil, but King managed with these books, besides great storytelling, amazing character work and intricate world building, to put meta-fiction on a different level by using it as a tool that seems natural, common, obvious. I don’t want to go into too much detail because of spoilers, but the way he uses his own works and ultimately himself to enhance these stories is simply breathtaking and takes a lot of courage. Again, that last sentence, that fucking last sentence. Reading it after all those books in all those years really blew my mind. Am I saying you should read seven books to see what I’m talking about? Yes, I definitely do.

And that’s it for 2004. It was fun, it was hot. See you in another year from the past in the future.

The future was a difficult business: If something didn’t happen, then something else would happen instead.

- Juli Zeh, Spieltrieb