Personal metamorphosis

Review of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

“Sir,” said a letter to Kafka in the last few years of his life, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your ‘Metamorphosis’ as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story.”

Having finished Kafka’s legendary story, which has “inspired countless stage adaptations and doctoral theses and scores of subsequent writers”, I can share the frustration of the cousin. This story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who one day wakes up to find he has become a giant bug, has a simple plot but is hard to make sense of without the right metaphors.

After shaking off the possibility that he is in a dream, Gregor does his best to fit in society that he was once part of. But as the story progresses, his attempts bear no fruit in a household which is finding it difficult to sustain their earlier lifestyle after losing the sole breadwinner. At the end, after enduring the growing distance from a family he still loves and feeling useless, Gregor dies of depression and self-inflicted harm.

Despite the dark plot, Kafka, through simple words and short sentences, keeps the mood cheerful almost all through, with comical interludes and many happy moments. Of the many analogies people draw to understand Gregor’s metamorphosis, this one convinces me the most:

The reasons behind Gregor’s transformation are not all that complicated. Kafka declines to spell out the specific reasons but still makes it clear that Gregor (and by extension, all the other Gregors in the world) had allowed himself to become a powerless insect long before actually physically turning into one. As someone who has selflessly sacrificed whatever independence he may have had to support his uncaring parents and their attempts to live an “upper class” life without actually having to suffer for it, Gregor has already willingly given up all the unique traits that make one a human.

The bit of the story that really gets me, though, comes right at the end, where, after the death of Gregor with whom the family still seems to have some attachment, they go on a drive and start thinking about what a “voluptuous” woman Gregor’s sister has become and how they would like to find him an upper class husband. And the fact that that end seems so out of place, forces readers to reanalyse what Kafka had in mind about Gregor’s metamorphosis.

Hat-tip to Emma Hogan, whose brilliant review of Kafka’s biography made me pick up this book.

A white man’s burden

Review of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Even though it’s less than 100 years ago, the 1930s was a very different time from today. Racial discrimination was rife in America even though it had been sometime since slavery had been banned. To Kill a Mocking Bird is a story narrated by an 8-year old of that period as she learns her way of life in Maycomb, a (fictional) sleepy town in Alabama.

From simple struggles of learning to settle in school, of not having a mother, of trying to be a girl to that of dealing with a father who fights against racial discrimination, Harper Lee does a great job of describing Jean Louis Finch’s story. Lee’s vivid story-telling endears the reader to Jean Louis’s every up and down.

Atticus Finch, Jean Louis’s father, is the central character. Although the society around him blames him for many faults, one that he definitely does not deserve is that of being a bad parent. He has a laid back attitude with his son and daughter, but one that helps them each to flourish in their own ways. He hides little from his kids and respects each of their quirks.

In an incestuous town of white folks, Atticus is made to defend a black guy who is convicted of raping a white woman. A situation in which the weaknesses of being human and the ideal goals of a justice system come head-to-head. Through the trial and Jean Louis’s everyday life, the reader meets characters of every kind. There is a brother to look up to, an over-bearing aunty, a family whose kid never leaves home, a wise old lady, nasty cousins, a motherly black woman, among others. Each of their personality has something to offer.

But there is a discomforting feeling to read how this intelligent 8-year old is able to describe and explain very complex social phenomena, but is still a naive girl who is trying to fit in society. This disconnect is more apparent to me having just read The Curious Incident of a Dog at the Night-time, where the narrator is a kid with Asperger’s syndrome and the reader sees the world “exactly” through his eyes.

Lee’s book has its slow spells, but a reader who endeavours is rewarded. As with all good books, Lee is elegant at creating strands of stories that run parallel to the main one. Though sometimes I wished that some strands were given less space than they deserved.

While it is a great story, and arguably a better piece of literature, I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book one of the greatest I’ve ever read (as many of my friends seem to suggest).

I want to be an astronaut

Review of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-time, as part of my #100bookschallenge.

During my time as a demonstrator in Oxford’s historic Dyson Perrins lab, I had the opportunity of supervising a student with Asperger’s syndrome. His name is Edward (name changed), and he is one of the smartest and weirdest student I’ve ever taught. Reading Mark Haddon’s book made me realise for the first time what was going through Edward’s mind in all those hours that we spent setting up reactions, distilling compounds and taking various measurements.

Haddon’s book is a strange but wonderful read. It draws you in by starting with a murder of a dog that is being investigated by a 15-year old, Christopher Boone, who suffers from (although it is not stated) Asperger’s syndrome. Written in first person, it gives you a deep insight into what it is to suffer from an autism spectrum disorder. The book has received rave reviews, and, from what I understand, it does a remarkably good job of portraying Christopher’s challenges.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, the storyline becomes predictable. But that is no bad thing. By that time I found myself so engrossed in Christopher’s world that I wanted to know how he experiences the rest of the story.

There are some truths about our human existence that we normal people are too scared to admit. But Christopher’s disability doesn’t stop him from seeing through them and thinking how stupid everyone can be. That constant reminder throughout the books is very humbling.

The book is also, in many ways, a really good example of science communication. Throughout the book Christopher talks about wanting to be an astronaut. For his age, he also shows a remarkable grasp of science and maths, and discusses ideas from relativity to algebra with ease and clarity.

There are many quotes from the book that I’ve marked, but one that struck me the most was: I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

PS: This was my first fiction book in a long time and it was over in a flash. I’m considering tweaking my non-fiction to fiction ration after this reading!