Tag Archives: recent European history

“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller – the book and the play

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I saw Catch 22 last night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. I read the book 50 years ago. This should explain any incoherence in my comments.

The setting is the European theatre of World War II. The characters are members of the Allied military stationed in Italy, and local residents they meet.

Joseph Heller, a WWII Air Force bombardier, published the book in 1962 and the theatrical adaptation in 1971. Catch 22 (either way) is black satire – funny but tragic. It deals with war as hell without actually showing the battlefield, while vividly showing the human toll.

The program note reads “This theatrical adaptation distills a non-linear 450-page book with over 60 characters…down to a mere 89 pages” with 35 characters. And it was performed with SIX actors! Character changes were signaled in many ways, not just through costume but through accents, posture, etc. All the skills of an accomplished actor. Casting ran across gender lines. (Is this becoming a norm?)

Catch 22 struck a chord with my generation as we wrestled with the Vietnam “conflict”, the first of our undeclared wars. World War II was fought by a military that relied on draftees, as was Vietnam. The difference is that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam, after which the United States shifted to an “all volunteer” military.

World War II is widely featured in fiction. I’ve read some post-Vietnam fiction, but only non-fiction from the more recent wars fought in the Middle East. Every war finds its way into literature.

Enough history for now! I was excited and impressed by the Curio Theatre Company. They perform in a renovated church in West Philadelphia, part of a localist movement that goes right down to the street level. (“Localism” is a word. I checked.) The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is a sponsor. The performance space is small and the audience sits on three sides of the stage. Lighting, sets and costumes are entirely professional. It’s an amazing accomplishment!

Catch 22 runs until May 19. You can see it! Tickets are available on line.

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“The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

This very recent (2013) book is about civil war and the ways people respond to violence within their communities. It’s one of those books that makes me ask “why fiction”? Why not tell the truth, as completely as possible? Is the reading public burnt out on truth from war zones? Minor quibble…

Forna begins by creating her protagonist, an inscrutable man named Duro. He is educated and sophisticated beyond his chosen status in life, that of a small town “day laborer” who supplements his income by hunting. He lives alone with two hunting dogs, and is intensely tuned in to the hilly landscape around him. He is also intensely tuned in to the past, to memories and long ago decisions. He describes the past as being like a child imprisoned behind the walls of a room. Sometimes the child stirs and calls out…

I’m not familiar with the recent history of Yugoslavia, so sometimes I found the plot of The Hired Man disorienting. Forna does not specify people’s ethnic identities. I’m willing to assume she wanted the story to seem “universal”. Reading reviews on Amazon, I learned that plainly many readers disliked this approach.

Duro becomes hired man and tour guide to an English family (mother and two teenagers) who move into the empty “blue house” (which is practically a character) for a summer holiday. Interesting choice of family… The teenagers are unformed, in perpetual change, compared to their slightly stuffy, vaguely clueless mother, whose name is Laura.

Duro keeps all information about the recent (16 years previous?) civil war from the family, claiming his father and sister died in “an accident” and the fighting happened somewhere else. He begins to play dangerous games, using the family to stir painful local memories. For instance, he fixes an old car and encourages Laura to drive it. It reminds the village residents of the former owners, who disappeared during the conflict. Laura has no idea why people sometimes treat her with strange hostility.

I attended a discussion of The Hired Man with a local book club. One line of interpretation had to do with “tribalism”. This was defined as ethnic identification based on very, very long term tenure on land, hence, something possible in Europe or Africa, but not in North America except among indigenous people. An attempt to analyze racial tensions in the United States didn’t go very far. I felt like I was hearing an assertion of “it can’t happen here” which made me feel uncomfortable.

The name of Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel, who died in early July, was mentioned. How did he “come to terms” with what he witnessed during World War II? How did he become a leader and a “hero of human rights”? I was reminded of this quotation from Aeschylus:

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Wiesel transcended the Holocaust. He became wise.

I don’t think Duro was headed for transcendence. I think his fate was to be locked between vengeance and reconciliation, his life suspended and painfully incomplete.

But that’s just me, projecting into Forna’s astonishing novel. Some of us wondered if there may be a sequel. It’s hard to let go of the characters.

“The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt

The problem with this book is that it must be read through two totally different lenses. First, it is the memoir of a dying man. Judt suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, one of the cruelest neurodegenerative maladies. ALS leaves the mind trapped in a paralyzed, helpless body. Judt died two years after he was diagnosed. His original symptoms were those of a mild stroke.

Judt’s work must also be judged in light of his (high) academic standing and status as a “public intellectual”. I’m no judge of academics and have little knowledge of “public intellectuals”, though I’m inclined to think we need more of them, or perhaps should pay better attention to those we have. (Judt solves one of my problems by telling me where to FIND public intellectuals – The New York Review of Books.)

So what about The Memory Chalet? It’s a charming book. The “chalet” is Judt’s alternative to The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (by JD Spence). Suffering through torturous nights in his quadriplegic condition, Judt needed a mental “device”, a mnemonic, to remember the essays he “wrote” in his head. He remembered a chalet in Switzerland where his family used to vacation. It was a humble, 12 room hostel he recalled in comprehensive detail and which had, for him, a wonderfully positive ambience. Moving through it in his mind allowed him to organize his ideas and recall them later for dictation to an assistant.

What did he write? A great deal was about his childhood and education. He loved trains, hated school, became aware of his Jewish identity… The picture he paints of post war England is detailed. It’s hard for us, looking back, to understand what “austerity” meant. Judt fills in the details, and also elucidates the sense of solidarity, of unity, that England experienced after WW II (and has since lost).

Judt became interested in politics very young (14?) and embraced Zionism and socialism to the extent of spending extensive holidays on a Kibbutz. His parents were displeased when he spoke of moving to Israel permanently. Of these experiences, he says “Before even turning twenty I had become, been and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” To the relief of his family, he enrolled at Cambridge and studied history.

What about Judt the “public intellectual”? He taught at various universities and wrote extensively. His original field was criticism of French historians (hope I got that right). He says his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2006) secured “public intellectual” status for him. He tried to overcome the Western European habit of ignoring important events in Eastern Europe. He describes his decision to learn the Czech language as a turning point in his intellectual evolution.

Judt described himself as a “universalist social democrat”. It’s going to take me a while to parse that. In the meantime, I think it would make a good mantra.

I might read Postwar, but more likely will look at Thinking the Twentieth Century (published posthumously, coauthored by T Snyder) first. Written in dialogue format, it is sounds accessible to non-historians like me.