24.8.09

Helga Schneider - The Bonfire of Berlin


Rating 5.8

The climax of this book is basically built on a single peak moment: the young protagonist meeting Adolf Hitler in the Reich Chancellery bunker during the dark days of the so called Battle of Berlin.
One may say that, by writing this, I'm underrating the importance of The Bonfire of Berlin, but actually I do think this "hello-Adolf" moment is the main reason which led editors to publish this book.

Don't take me wrong. I was really interested in this story and particularly happy when I found it midprice. Then I literally devoured the 240 pages wrote by Helga Schneider. Yet sometimes quickness in reading is not to take as a good signal. I guess how most of the times people devour bestsellers, rather than brilliant and insightful books just to read what happens next. As for me, I read the "Da Vinci Code" in a single afternoon but I do think it's crap. Personally a slow reading is more involving and makes me wonder more about story, plot, characters and the message behind a book.

What disappointed me in this novel / memoir has very much to do with both: the writing style used by Helga Schneider and her attempt to write a self-biographical book largely based on her childhood experiences.

Chapter One: style.
I didn't understand why Schneider switches from present to a literary past tense (at least in the Italian edition) from chapter to chapter and even inside the same chapter without a logic. I mean it's not about flashbacks or reminiscences of the young Helga, it's just random.
Moreover, my impression is that the whole book was written in a rush, without caring that much of a re-reading process. I reckon how this aspect may be a quality, looking like a spontaneous impulse to tell a story long time kept by the author, but I didn't appreciated it as someone else did.
Schneider's language is very direct but oozes too much with victimism: basically young Helga was the only good and honest person to be found the collapsing Berlin, while everyone else behave like a beast, being selfish, arrogant, spoilt (i.e. her little brother, portrayed as a blond little creep) or double-dealing. And I found this vision somehow disturbing.

Chapter Two: autobiography.
One may wonder how is possible that fifty years later, Schneider is able to recall what she felt as a seven years old girl, reconstructing whole dialogues and situations with such accuracy. She never mentions about having a diary while living that awful experience and even if she tries to explain this precision with frequent references towards the end of the book to the importance of "looking around for remembering it all" I have some doubts about it. But I guess how this "power of memory" is a common problem while talking about autobiographic novels.

Given this, there are still many good reasons for reading this book, especially if you're interested in a different account of the final days of Germany in World War II seen (and felt) from the side of the defenceless population. But The Bonfire of Berlin is still very far from perfection and delivers a cold-hearted message: everyone deserved to be burned in the German bonfire apart from the innocent, abused narrator who found her way out of the flames.

18.8.09

Ilf & Petrov - American Road Trip


Rating 8.0

Serendipity happens. And this book looks like the perfect example for such an interesting phenomenon. I was randomly investigating on the shelves of a second hand bookstore while my eyes were caught by something named "Il paese di Dio" (God's country)*.

At first I thought it had something to do with theology or whatever else connected with Watchtower or Scientology. With a sarcastic smile painting my face I turned the book on its back I read some magnificent expressions such as: "journalistic account","russian","comic novelists", "road trip", "1935". It was enough. I immediately started salivating just like a Pavlov's dog and I hold the book in my sweated hands caressing it like a cat.

Then for the next three months the book flirted with dust in my room.
But I couldn't forget it. Thus, in a rainy Sunday afternoon, I blew away the dust from his frontpage intoxicating my flatmate and begin to read the Ilf & Petrov's adventures in US.

This book is astonishing. It's not only about its uniqueness. It's about its unresistable humour, its wit, its elegant style, its extremely careful way of observing something that doesn't exist anymore. The two Soviet writers visit the US a few years after the Great Depression without even naming it but making a portrait of a country where everything works, where people are helpful and talkative without being arrogant, where social welfare is making miracles.

At the same time they're extremely realist to show an America where virtues rhymes with vices. This has very much to do with the total lack of curiosity for what is outside the US borders or for the boring similarity of thousands of small towns where you can always choose among three kind of breakfasts, sleeping in the same furnished "camps" (motels have to come), watching the same brainless movies at the cinema.

But you can't miss this book for many other reasons too. Historical ones, for instance. Travelling coast to coast from NYC to Los Angeles and then backwards on their old "noble grey mouse colored" car. the two Russian writers meet Ernest Hemingway and Henry Ford, Bette Davis and Upton Sinclair. They visit General Electric factory and Carlsbad caves, they are introduced to Navahos and walk on the suspended gigantic wires of a still under construction Golden Gate Bridge. They picture an exhilarating description of a football match in San Francisco and are disgusted by a corrida in Juarez, Mexico. And at the same time Ilf & Petrov make an extremely accurate social and economic account of the US, being able to foretell the clockwork mechanism that recently leads to the subprime crisis.

Moreover, I'm sure you will never forget such interesting chaperons like Mr & Mrs Adams who drove the car through the US and represent very well with their way of speaking and behaving the compendium of Ilf & Petrov humouristic side. A sense of humour masterfully built without any trivial aspect but based on cultural influences, interest for everything and a touch of Jerome K. Jerome.

*Don't ask me why in 1947 the Italian translators chose this title. Ilf & Petrov, indeed, talk about US like "God's country" in one of the chapters, but that's not enough to justify this weird choice.

15.8.09

Thor Heyerdahl - Kon-Tiki


Rating 7.0

What are six Norwegian men doing on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

This question may sound as the beginning of a funny joke or as a riddle, but in fact is the story behind the Kon-Tiki travel. Thor Heyerdahl was certainly a dreamer, but not a stupid. He surrounded himself of practical and tough men for his "suicidal expedition" with the aim of proving his own theory about colonization of a bunch of the most isolated islands of this world.

The book turned out to be less scientific and didactical than I thought and is the kind of story I would have loved to have for bedtime when I was a child.
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft looks like a very relaxed and even ironic account of 96 days spent navigating all the way through ocean with a balsa wood made raft. The six men enjoy quietness and isolation, symphatizing with fish and living the ocean like a friendly place.

I would like to underline an important aspect: when they did it.
It was 1947. No gps for orientation. No internet for communication. No possibilities of being rescued by helicopters. No technology at all, except for a primitive radio system. When the Kon-Tiki men did this trip their knowledge of the same Pacific Ocean was really fragmentary. Yet they were excited and very much confident about that "crazy flight".

I appreciated their approach to the whole expedition and enjoyed the narration without focusing on literary style that much. Heyerdahl was an explorer and not a novelist and he never tried to pretend to be a writer. He simply tells us what those Six Norwegian Men were doing on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And that story is interesting enough.