“Quo Vadis” by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Quo Vadis(Author: Henryk Sienkiewicz) + (Year: 1894) + (Goodreads)

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Review:

Technically, the rating I would give Quo Vadis is 3.5, but I feel like 4 full stars would be misleading.

I’ve been living in Poland for a year now, and Quo Vadis is certainly the most famous piece of literature that came out of this country. Despite being written in 1894, this book is as much in line with the Polish mindset, as it was 124 years ago. That is to say, Quo Vadis, in its essence is a praise to Christianity in its most basic and purest form.

Sienkiewicz is undoubtedly a great writer. The style of Quo Vadis is very sophisticated without being overly philosophical and complicated. Both the writing and the ideas of the book are easily accessible to any reader, and yet, the writing is very beautiful and poetical.

On the other hand, I see that this book would appeal to a certain type of crowd and it might not be as enthralling for others. I started reading it without knowing anything about the theme, and therefore, I did not have the opportunity to feel prejudiced or doubtful. Now, as I mentioned, Quo Vadis is a book which leans heavily on religion. It glorifies and idealizes Christianity to a point it might become burdensome to a reader who is not as engaged with religion. And the issue here is not that the book lies, or preaches fake morale, on the contrary, it spreads the original version of the New Testament Christianity – love to all, forgiveness for all, good deeds and compassion. It would be a lie if I said that Sienkiewicz urges people to do anything else, because he really does underline the importance of the goodness in people.

However, a critical mind can’t help but take not only the contents of the book, but also the reality of religion in consideration. Yes, in terms of this book, the author does not say anything of the bad things which have emerged from Christianity, and yes, maybe the world would be a better place if Christians actually followed the true pillars of their religion. But this experiment has been going on for 2000 years, and just as the followers of the Greek and Roman gods, who are greatly demonized in Quo Vadis, have done bad deeds, so have Christians. In fact, no other religion has ever been deadlier.

Therefore, I would just accept the sermons in the book without mentioning them, if the book itself was written at a time no one knew where this religion would ultimately lead. Unfortunately, Quo Vadis was written in the 19th century, and Sienkiewicz knew very well that just as Nero was torturing Christians in his book, so did Christians torture, maim and kill countless people in the times of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch hunts, even up to our times, and not to even mention issues such as molestation, abortion, and so on. And I know that it might be unjust to bring this up in terms of this particular book, but this is the context of the philosophy of the book, and no matter how much I wished it was possible to take everything out of context, because it would be so much clear, that is not the situation, and when we form an opinion about something, we need to look into the background, as well.

That set aside, I would say that Quo Vadis, as a narrative and story, was very engaging and even enticing, because one could anticipate historical events which were made part of the book. Most of all, I enjoyed the final scene of St Peter, as the historical event was beautifully interwoven within the book and as a glimpse both at the future of Nero, but also at the future of Italy and the Vatican much, much later. Actually it was St Peter that was my favourite character in the book overall. He stood aside the romantic events of Vinicius and Lygia’s lives and was the symbol of the purest form of faith that one can have. As I mentioned above, if Christians did believe, as he did, wholeheartedly and with absolute devotion, the world but be amazing, wouldn’t it?

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“Underground” by Antanas Sileika

Underground: A Novel

(Author: Antanas Sileika) + (Year: 2011) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Lithuania)


Review:

I found this book quite interesting and informative. My knowledge about the Baltic countries is rather limited, so I was eager to read a book from the region and Underground was the right thing for me.

The reason why it interested me as much as it did is because it gave a historical view of the country, as is the purpose of my Reading around the world challenge, and it told a rather engaging story at the same time.

From the point of view of the main narrative, I wasn’t sure where things were going, but I wanted to find out and that kept me turning the pages. The part of the story I found kind of scary was that the struggles of the main characters, the Lithuanian partisans, against the Soviet oppression, were set in the late 40’s and yearly 50’s, which meant for me, the reader, that they were likely to be unsuccessful and to disappear under the veil of communism. Despite that, I wanted to read on and see whether there was going to be any salvation for the characters.

What makes me realize that a book has touched upon an interesting topic is when I catch myself reading up on it on the internet once the book is over. Therefore, I would say Underground managed to interest me in the story of the Lithuanian partisans.

It was also intriguing to be able to once again compare someone else’s version of communism to the one that existed in my country. In this case it made me appreciate the positive sides of Bulgaria’s geographical location, and think about the differences in the values of the people. While the partisans in Underground were fighting for national freedom, the Bulgarian partisans (one of the longest standing partisan movements behind the Iron curtain), were small landowners who didn’t want their land to be taken by the communist government. Food for thought, huh?

From the character point of view, I would say that the people in the books were to some extent colliding ways of life and ideas, rather than personal points of view. By this I mean that their main goals in life more or less defined their place in the book and the purpose they had to play in the scheme of the author’s philosophy. I found it harder to connect to them because of this, but I nevertheless appreciate that they were the tool of the author’s beliefs.

“Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

Far from the Madding Crowd(Author: Thomas Hardy) + (Year: 1874) + (Goodreads)


Review:

I borrowed this book from a friend who is a great admirer of Victorian literature. As we shared a liking for similar books from the period, I assumed that I will also like Far From the Madding Crowd.

Unlike the books from the Victorian era that I do like, however, Far From the Madding Crowd sorely lacked in the field of characters. Generally, for me, at least, in this particular time period, books rely most of all on their characters. The stories are rather similar, with poor and rich falling in and out of love with each other and fighting against their judgmental society for their love, gullible girls getting tricked by wicked men, stubborn, beautiful women refusing to obey to the rules that their family and society enforce on them, young, brave heroes fighting for the love of fair maidens, etc. etc. So, in short, it’s all about love and romance and the tragedy of forbidden or unrequited love.

Right! Therefore, what would differentiate a good book from a bad one? Why, the characters, of course. Everyone has rooted for Lizzie and Mr. Darcy or felt conflicted about Cathy and Heathcliff. And then there were Bathsheba, Gabriel, Mr. Boldwood and Sgt. Troy. Count those again if you want.

To say that I disliked Bathsheba would be a great understatement. I felt that she was quite probably the most overrated female character in Victorian literature ever. She was described as unbelievably beautiful, but also very smart, stubborn, brave and strong. Out of those last four adjectives, only stubborn would apply to her, and I would use it in a negative, rather than positive way (as it is in the book). Bathsheba has next to no reason to do almost anything she does. Every single time she does something and the author offers us a glimpse into her thought-process, she just sits around wondering how to make people like her more, deciding not to be a bitch and then being one anyway. And I would also remark that her mood swings, which Hardy thinks are a way to show us her personality, are really not that. She is extremely inconsistent, selfish and at times, for the lack of a more gentle way to put it, plain dumb. There are about 20 moments that I can think of on the top of my mind in which she makes the most stupid decisions and Hardy somehow makes it seem to the reader and all of the other characters like her decision is actually reasonable. For example: Bathsheba rejects every man who proposes to her and is a normal guy, because… uh, one of them is poor, and the other one is rich, and something something… And then comes along a handsome jerk that everyone tells her to stay away from and boom, she’s ready. In all honesty, it is a thing which happens in real life, however usually the bad guy is really not that open about his promiscuity or his wickedness. Then she decides to break up with him, makes a rash decision to go in the middle of the night to another city altogether, as she is in a hurry to break things off, and comes back married to him. It might seem like there would be a reason for that marriage which would later be revealed, right? Well, there is – because she is a silly little girl and he tells her he already likes other women, so she decides that that is not a reason to dump him, but rather, one to marry him.

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Many make it seem like Bathsheba is a victim in everything that follows in the book, but I would strongly disagree. Her choices put her in a horrible situation and there’s literally no one else to blame, because in this particular case the actions of everyone around her which cause her pain could have been prevented by her.

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Both Sgt. Troy and Mr. Boldwood were terrible people, as well. Troy was vile and greedy and Boldwood was quite possibly a rapist-to-be. In one particular scene at the end of the book I personally felt suffocated by the forcefulness of his desire for Bathsheba.

Gabriel Oak was the one character that I did felt sympathy for, as he was the only person in the entire book who actually possessed common sense. His loyalty, however, was greatly misplaced in the hands of Bathsheba and for that I felt a tad annoyed as well.

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“The Trial” by Franz Kafka

The Trial(Author: Franz Kafka) + (Year: 1925) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Czech Republic)


Review:

For me “classic” literature goes in one of two ways: I either find a certain book absolutely amazing; or I dislike it profoundly. Unfortunately, The Trial was the latter.

I believe the popularity of this book is based on the symbolism, rather than the writing itself. While I do admit the general notion of the book is one I fully support – that of the pointless and even vile system of the Law, – I could not be bothered caring about the book itself.

What the book represents:

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One of the things that everyone would agree is absolutely terrible is bureaucracy. We all hate it. It’s not only tiresome and ridiculous, but it is also like a machine that actually does damage, rather than just lose time. The law, the courts, the lawyers, the bureaucrats, they are a giant, horrifying monster which never shows mercy and destroys life after life. The Trial is a story which shows this very plainly. The main character, Josef K., is swallowed by the monster called the Law and put to a trial for a crime which is never explained to him.

Every person he meets tries to convince him that he has to give in to the Court, accept the crime as his own, and embark on a journey in which he has to prove not that he is not guilty, but that his guilt is yet to be proven – the purpose of that being that he will continue living free until the court’s final decision, which can take decades. Josef K., realizing that this can hardly be called freedom, decides to fight this flawed system and insist that he is not guilty. Under the heavy wheels of the court, his trial ends tragically, as has the heavy trial of bureaucracy and the machine of communism. The sensational part of this is that The Trial, Kafka’s almost prophetic novel, was written without his ever coming face to face with the communism, which would only appear almost a decade after he wrote his book.

How the book actually was:

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Boring. That’s how it was. The general feel of the book was very dreary and uncomfortable, up to a point I would get frustrated every time I had to start reading (that being early every morning, on the tram commute to work). I kind of expected I would like Kafka’s writing, but this book did not do it for me.

The personality of Josef K., a selfish, pretentious prick, was very infuriating, as were his internal struggles which never really made anything of consequence. By that I mean that the character would always make a decision which would take page after page of explanation, and the moment he met another person, that entire, endlessly too long list of future actions would be completely wiped out and he would start a new plan of action against the Court.

I fully realize that there is a reason for the actions of the Court to be unpleasant to read, but the dread for me went beyond the intentional one. I just couldn’t take any more of the characters, each and every one completely smitten with their own selves, the bragging, the nagging, the way everyone was sure everyone else was a moron and they, themselves, a god.

The dialogues were equally as suffocating and I couldn’t wait for every dialogue to just end. The words of each character just rang hollow and fake and the emotions expressed didn’t really manage to affect me in any way.

I am still planning on reading The Metamorphosis, but definitely not any time soon.

“Kuyruklu Yıldız Altında Bir İzdivaç” by Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar

Kuyruklu Yıldız Altında Bir Evlenme(Author: Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar) + (Year: 1912) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Turkey)


Review:

The title of this book translates as “a marriage under a comet”, the comet in question being the Halley comet. The story follows the lives of several people, who are preparing for the coming of the Halley comet, some of them terrified of the end of the world, and some, taken by the fire of love.

I was rather curious about the book, as it is considered one of the classics of Turkish literature, with the author being one of the people who are still studied in school and university. I can imagine how this book was progressive and unexpected for its time, however, in our age, it seems very grotesquely simplistic in terms of interpersonal relations. The relationship between the main characters develops in a very absurd, intentionally or not so, way, with the main character falling in love with the girl by the end of her first letter to him.

For the life of me, I could not do anything but strongly dislike Irfan Galip, who was the epitome of a daft male who thinks himself intelligent and progressive, while at the same time acting like he is so much better than everyone else, women most of all. His dismissive attitude toward the woman’s desires to be treated as an equally intelligent individual frustrated me so much. Even today I have received that attitude from men and I couldn’t help but hate seeing it in this book, too: “I believe that women are just as smart as men, but please shut up when I speak and leave the men to fix this.” It’s the same thing that I’ve seen with people in highly religious countries who say “I’m atheist, but it would be highly immoral for my sister to be a waitress because it goes against the foundations of society.” IT DOES? Or does it, perhaps, go against the religious beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in you that you don’t even realize that you are abiding by them?

One thing I did approve of however, was the depiction of the woman who, despite everything, was trying to be emancipated and well-read. At the time this book was written, the place of the woman in the Ottoman empire was not in the university or the library, so I can only imagine how shocking it was that the author challenged that position of the woman in his world.