Zhang Xianliang - Grass Soup

Rating 7.8

Grass Soup is an extraordinary little book dealing with the infamous Chinese "labour camps" during the worst years of the Communist regime, when the horrors of Bejing rhymed with the ones of Pyongyang.

At that time, Zhang Xianliang was barely 23 years old but already labelled as a right-wing extremist and an enemy of the Chinese people. Zhang was an "intellectual", a pernicious, disgusting semi-human sub-specie created by the evil influence of the American imperialism in the socialist Chinese motherland.

And yet, due to his status of a potentially "useful intellectual" being only mildly corrupted by the Western enticements and having an undeniable skill for writing sharp tazebao and elegiac poems to the Great Helmsman, Zhang only needed to be "re-educated".
A strict and extended diet of green grass and red ideology under the blue skies of China would have healed comrade Xianliang, just in case he managed to pull himself together and keep himself alive.

And Zhang Xianliang got by. Despite all odds and difficulties he survived to his re-education and, years later, wrote a book out of the dry notes he took during the long hard months he spent at the labour camp. Zhang wrote no diary. The tiredness of his body and the fear of the recoils he could have experienced has his notes being read by the authorities (as they eventually did), forced Zhang not to leave a written trace of his daily torments.

Zhang was no Primo Levi and no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He wrote Grass Soup as a free man and when his own mind had cooled off, but his goal was not to reveal the horrors of the Chinese re-education scheme or show the existence of a labour camps archipelago in China, but rather to look back at himself in those days.

"What I was thinking to when I wrote down those dry monotonous notes and what lies beyond their apparent repetitiveness? And how much the impact of hunger into my stomach and brainwashing into my mind annihilated the intellectual betrayed by his brain making a self-preservation instinct driven man out of me?".

Zhang Xianliang never poses these two straight questions to himself here, but both are implicitly stressed out all through the pages of this book.
The wonder of Grass Soup is that is a heartbraking story, the account of a small personal victory into a wider national defeat, but there is humour and even fun here. Mr Xianliang chose a style which combines miracolously well unforgettable scenes of death and human abjection with equally memorable moments of temporary peace of mind through laughters, one's fill and moral resistance.

The author spending a whole afternoon just eating kilos and kilos of melons and pissing in a grove or the vain pursuit up and down the river bank of a cow with her tempting udders full of milk, are comic highlights. But then again these "Life is Beautiful-like" moments were brought by hunger and desperation.
The fact that Mr Xianliang survived to his re-education was due to his ability of not giving up in the darkest times, behaving with well-chosen impulsiveness and with the awareness that the thin line separating the saved from the drowned was partly luck but, above all, a matter of self-discipline.


George Orwell - Inside the Whale

Rating 7.3

Back in 1996 I jotted down "Nel ventre della balena - Orwell", the Italian title of Inside the Whale in my yearly reading list (a habit I took from my Prussian-like, overprecise dad).
"November - two stars and a half". That was the rest of my entry.

However, honestly speaking, I hardly doubt I had read this book when I was 14 years old. What I certainly did was moving this collection of essays and articles by George Orwell from the long brown bookcase which fills the long side of our living room to the white bookshelves of my room.
Then the book was catalogued with a special stamp and reported on my library notebook between Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe (two stars and a half) and The Foundations Trilogy by Isac Asimov (two stars). I was a harsh reviewer or, perhaps, a neglectful reader.

Unlike what happened with Poe and Asimov, whose novels I never liked, I rediscovered George Orwell in the following fifteen years; well, actually, fifteen years later, on 2011.

It does make a difference reading anything by Orwell in English rather than in its Italian translation, but during my 2011 Xmas holidays guest for a few days in my old Italian room, I picked up Nel ventre della balena from its white bookshelf.

I blew a thick layer of dust away from the book and start (re)reading it.
Now I like all that George Orwell wrote and "Inside the Whale" made no exception.
Of course Orwell the novelist is quite different from Orwell the essayist and both sides of Eric Arthur Blair stand on a class of their own.

Nevertheless, there is a common ground: as an author, Mr Blair/Orwell was not always able to reach the same quality level. And he knew it very well.
Most of the people who read something by Orwell chose 1984 and/or Animal Farm and ignore everything else. Those who decided to explore the sociological and political side of Orwell gave a chance to Homage to Catalonia and a minority of them went on The Road to Wigan Pier or to In and Out in Paris and London.
And that's pretty much all George Orwell is remembered for today. I bet you will have very few chances of coming across any reference to novels like Coming Up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and - above all - A Clergyman's Daughter. The same autobiographical Burmese Days is not really on any Orwellian top list.

The same Orwell died too early for getting but a hint of his fame, but knew how he delivered great stories and average stories. I really liked Coming Up for Air and appreciated Keep the Aspidistra Flying but their author was never particularly proud of both novels.

What we have with the articles and essays written by George Orwell is, somehow, a similar story. Inside the Whale offers a wide menu where, say, childhood memories stand cheek to cheek with a bittersweet analysis of Gandhi and literary criticism on Koestler, Swift, Tolstoy lies in between a "pop" essay regarding the different British teenager magazines of the 1930s and a sort of bucolic elegy of the toad (!).

Then we have the pedantic eccess of Orwell who sometimes indulged a bit too much in quantifying his own work and life in mathematical terms (Oh my dad would have liked this!) counting how much he spent for his own book collection including what he borrowed or was given or never gave back and demonstrating that reading is a less expensive pastime than smoking cigarettes. Charts included. This scrivener syndrome reveals the human side of an author whom - I recall - compared his own literary production with the coal dug out of Lancashire caves from a miner. Pages for rocks.

Let's face it: this behavior was really naive but also extremely humble. A big towering man like Orwell although affected by breathing troubles for all of his life (and dying because of that) felt somehow guilty of being an intellectual, a failed worker, a failed craftsman.
I adore this human side of Orwell and Inside the Whale includes several examples of this inner fragility of him. Here we have an author that never claims his infallibility or confidence but also specifies that he is expressing his own ideas, the result of his own studies and research.

It's true how Orwell held sway after his death and became one of those "Great Masters" whose main writings are constantly reprinted and minor production is always available and often praised beyond its virtues, but he himself would have laughed of the posthumous aura he got.
Reading what he wrote here on his hard childhood at a posh public school and the wonderful analysis he does of the time he spent as a bookseller assistant, one can easily get the impression that Eric Arthur Blair was a very decent fellow: not a Nabokov or a Mailer, but the kind of person one would have liked having as a neighbour.


Beware of the Parents!

Monday mornings are always the best ones.
After having spent most of the weekend relaxing from a heavy, stressful double-job spiced week, I start a new five working days strip with less energies than expected.

The alarm clock on my cellphone ringing up at 6 AM.
My girlfriend cuddling up against the duvet.
The winter darkness indoors.
The winter darkness outdoors.
The gentle muttering of the coffee mocha.
Three handfuls of cold water on my face.
(Those awful rings below my eyes).

Another daily article from the UK to deliver within a quarter past eight.
Do the Italian audience know what NHS, OBR and NIN are?
(Do you? Behold! The last one doesn't stand for Nine Inch Nails, apparently). I assume not and need to write them down.

Alright. Article done.
Now there's only a short bike ride through the suburbs left, all the way down to the business park where another monitor awaits me.

On normal circumstances this is an enjoyable part of the day.
I live pretty close to a primary school and I do like seeing kids on their way to school. My mum was a primary school teacher, loved her job and I'm sure she would have liked to see that too. I often think about that when I see these little Britons chasing each other in the school playground with their violet sweaters and their funny jargon.
I've always been kind of sympathetic towards the British kids and their parents. And I've always thought that - as long as they don't discover alcohol - they're generally more polite than their Italian counterpart.

When I ride to work, it's nice seeing these kids walking to school hand in hand with their parents with very little traffic in the streets and a sort of relaxed, joyful attitude even in the freezing cold of December. It is something that calms me down and I think I smile while cycling at a very moderate speed till the end of the road.

But today things went differently. Today, as usual, I slowed down before the zebra crossings and let a kid cross the road. I almost stopped in the process. Then I had a look at my left and saw how a bunch of kids with their parents were approximately 5-10 yards before reaching the stripes and I pushed on the pedals.
I mean these people were not even crossing. But that didn't occurred to an outraged mother who screamed at me:
«You're supposed to stop at the zebra crossing».
«Idiot!» (added up an outraged father).

Now, is it crying at the passing cyclist a national sport, I wonder? Or is it just me being an irresistible marvel of the streets?

I decided not to reply, but maybe it was a wrong idea.
Later on I couldn't get over the anger and frustration of that moment.
Ah, you should have heard the hatred these people expressed with their remarks! They made me feel like a beast. They made me feel like the worst bastard on the peaceful tree-lined and pot-holed streets of England.

Let's make it crystal clear. It's not a matter of racism as I could have been British myself, as far as these parents were concerned.
It's just that I cannot explain what I did wrong. Am I supposed to stop at the zebra crossing forever, I wonder? No kid was in danger, no one get closer to my bike than 5 yards, nobody had even put their feet on the stripes. I actually STOPPED. I let a kid cross.
What if I had had a car? I am sure nobody would have said anything. They saw a cyclist and they thought they could express their rage to him. Well done, Mother and Father Courage! You are brave-hearts.

What I thought is that these over-apprehensive, moral censoring parents went nuts. And what worries me is the kind of education these people are giving to their own kids screaming "idiot" at strangers without any reason.
Now I'm not that sure if the education provided here is all that good. But let me just add one more thing: no kid said a word. Perhaps, despite of their arrogant, street fighting parents they could still grow up in a decent and well-mannered way.
And, after all, we are all in this together. For what it's worth.


Ernest Cline - Ready Player One

Rating 7.1

I was born on 1982. Which means that I was only 8 years old when the 1980s were over. My first personal computer came home on 1996. I never owned a game console.

And yet, one of the clearest memories of my childhood is the envy I felt for the kids who were playing at the the coin operated videogames in a bar I used to buy ice creams at. It was that sort of typical Italian bar including billiards, a television set, dusty football flags hanging on the walls, a bald bartender sweeping the counter always with the same cloth, old customers swearing, playing cards and ordering red wine or vermouth. Not a woman was on sight. The sort of bar made to stay forever unchanged, untouched by progress, unspoiled in its placid lull. But.

But at some point during the roaring geeky 1980s someone decided to push away a broken jukebox and a table from the dark corner at the left of the main entrance making little room for three mammoth-like coin operated videogames.
Don't ask me what videogames they were, because I don't remember it. What I do remember is that, due to some Italian law, kids who were under 14 couldn't play with these videogames. It was printed on the lower case of the videogames themselves, black over white:


which meant and means

I don't know how the bartender was supposed to check your age or if he ever bothered to do that, but I stuck to the law with that kind of sheepish respect for any given rule that shy, eye-glassed little kids may sometimes have.
I was forced to watch the other players play and sometimes I did, although those black screens where alien battleships were blown away, spiders from Mars killed and magic treasures discovered all in different beep variation were hard to spot from my poor 3 feet 9 inches tall perspective.

I remember how much the fact of being under 14 pissed me off at that time and what kind of magic aura of invincibility the self-proclaimed over 14 years old kids had. When I was at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice me, I could see these demigods when they approached the videogames chewing a bubble-gum, tossed a token into the slot of the shiny altar, stretched their fingers and then gave a jingling life to a whole world of exciting adventures hidden beyond my reach.

Words like "level", "bonus", "credits", "tricks", "final villain" and "death" became a part of my daily vocabulary thanks to those videogames watching sessions while the old customers playing cards shook their head mumbling complaints to the evil players.

And you know what happened when I finally hit the big 14? The coin operated videogames were gone. Game over. They had become relics of the 1980s. And let's face it, the 1980s were all but fashionable back in the 1990s when even in the steamy Bolognese summer you could see people wearing a flannel shirt chequered black and blue over Alice in Chains t-shirts.
The bar itself had closed down one year earlier. For a few months someone took it over renaming it "Odin's Cave" or something and trying to convert it into a gothic bikers' meeting point. But local gothic bikers had better places to spend their time in and the Odin's Cave was shut.

So when 15 years later I heard about a book praising the 1980s and the pop culture sprouted from coin operated videogames, Atari, Amiga and Nintendo consoles I was a bit sceptical about it. Because I missed all that stuff. I was born just 6 or 7 years too late, I guess. But, yeah, eventually I ordered the book after having read a few posts on the blog of its author. What I learned is that Ernest Cline is a cool nerd guy and the proud owner of a DeLorean just like the one working as a time machine in the Back To The Future movies, but including some Ghostbusters' stickers and a Night Rider's hood light which I found a bit too much.

Anyways, what Ready Player One is if not an eye-catcher just like the DeLorean of Ernest Cline? This book literally catches the eyes of the reader and don't let them go anywhere else till the story is over. If you think about that, it seems a bit scary and indeed it is. Some compared RPO to porn for geeks and being my knowledge of both, porn and geeks, pretty limited I cannot really say if that's true. It doesn't sound like a compliment.
What I can say is that while reading this novel on an actual paper copy, I sometimes had the weird feeling of being in front of my laptop hanging around: the same kind of headache brought by too many hours spent surfing the Internet without a real goal.
You know what I mean.

Ready Player One is at the same very original and extremely derivative. Personally, I had never read about a whole battle fought by avatars manouevring 200 metres tall Japanese robots in an alternative universe while their owners are sitting in an Oregonian-Rivendell in the year 2040 something.
And yet, at the same time, Cline plays way too much here with his notionism regarding hundreds and thoudands of 1980s related stuff. From tv series to pop music passing through cereals advertising, teen movies, sci-fi books and, of course, videogames.

There are many style lapses here (Pink Floyd and Monty Pythons in the 1980s? YouTube still operating in 2044? The adjective Rubenesque) and countless obscure references to stuff no doubt Cline is very familliar with but not the rest of the world. Not even in 2011.
But there are also many brilliant ideas and an excellent pace which makes you wonder what happens next and this is not easy to accomplish with a first novel.

On the one hand, nobody can deny that Cline had no second thought in casually borrowing around tons of cues, sometimes rather noble (Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams) but also pretty obvious like the clear link which ties Minecraft to the OASIS, the alternative universe on the Internet where most of Ready Player One takes place. On the other hand, here Cline did an excellent copy and paste of all the stuff he loved, delivering a book which is enjoyable and led by a surprisingly convincing main character.

The author decided not to explore too much the topics he felt uneasy with (social and political life of the 2040s, climate change, power crisis, life out of the US) and his choice had a good impact on the plot of a novel which doesn't really need a serious background layer.
One may wonder what this nerd guy will be able to write after this novel and I think he will have a hard time in finding it out but no problems in getting a good literary contract now.

Now that I'm done with Ready Player One and I even managed to write an astonishingly long review about this novel, it comes the hardest part of the game: convinving my girlfriend that this is the right book for her, a self-proclaimed geek. I know it won't be easy divert her attention from her online strategy game setted in some pseudo-Greek world of oceans, islands, polis and alliances, but I will try to. She became an experienced player and has far more chances than me to find where Cline's Easter Egg really lies.


Paul Kingsnorth - Real England

Rating 7.1

The main thesis behind this book is that there is no such thing as a "Real England". Not anymore. Not if you don't seek and fight for it. Whereas community pubs, local shops, farms and orchards used to stay for centuries an avalanche of Tesco supermarkets, chain stores and suburban "redevelopment" settlements have drawn a new English-non English landscape.

This is a new England where you can travel from north Brighton to south Carlisle without noticing any difference around you. Some people may find this evenness somehow reassuring making their grocery at Asda, buying clothes in Primark, selecting a new tea table from an Argos catalog, sipping a latte from a Starbucks branded cuppa and then heading to the nearest multiplex cinema, but not Mr Kingsnorth. And I am with him.

Although, Real England could be sometimes too idealist and no-logo oriented for my liking, I have to admit how what still strikes me in this country is how many things have this tendency of looking everywhere the same. What made either a little town or an average size city different from the others, that local character these places used to have is fading away while a few people seem to care.

Let's talk about my own personal experience in England. I moved to Abingdon (30,000 inhabitants) from Oxford just 9 months ago. In the meantime, 4 pubs have closed down just like 3 shops did in the downtown area, while two mini-Tescos and a Coop supermarket have opened. Abingdon High Street is lined with estate agencies, branch banks and the occasional charity shop. The local council thought about move and diminish the local library. There is no functioning movie-theatre in Abingdon and very little to do after 5 PM, apart from shopping in a 24 hours open Tesco at the edge of town. The favourite meeting point of the local kids is a kebab van parked in the Market Place.

Overall, I have got the feeling that Paul Kingsnorth is right: everything which made England English has been swallowed by international standardization and poor redevelopment policies. What I don't really like in this book is just the way it talks about "They".
"They" are the enemies of local communities, co-operatives and villagers who try to defend their surrounding from the brand invasion. "They" could be banks, local authorities, corporations or quangos (the funny neologism they use to name State-owned agencies in the UK), but are always evil.
Which is a point of view. As a matter of fact, Kingsnorth here creates a counterposition between these "They" and a sort of "Us" suggesting that every Englishman and woman should be aware of what is happening to their country.

This clash is nothing new. It's decades that English anthropoligists, historians, sociologists, economists and novelists are warning against the end of England as an identifiable entity. Some people blamed the growing influence of immigrants on the English society while others (and Kingsnorth gets the credit of being among them) reckon how foreigners actually brought even more diversity and cultural richness into England being victims and not executioners of the social impoverishment of a whole country.

Back in 1938 and back from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell decided to dedicate to his own homeland the final lines of Homage to Catalonia:

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges of the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowlers hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen - all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

Nowadays, this extremely long - but all the same wonderful - paragraph could be easily read as a prophecy of what would have happened next: World War II, Coventry and the Blitz, the hard years after the end of the conflict with the final gasp of a tottering British Empire.
But what Orwell was also trying to say in this elegy of a bygone land is that his own country was on the verge of losing its peculiarities, its character, what made England a different place than the rest of Europe.

That deep, deep sleep which the abrupt awakening of German bombs and V2s would have eventually stopped was at the same time a critic and a praise of England in Orwell's words. On the one hand, it certainly meant distrust and closeness towards the rest of the world, but on the other hand it also implied a diversity brought by centuries of a parallel social, cultural and political development. England was going to lose all of this and Orwell knew very well how, for better or worse, most of the unmistakable Englishness he liked and despised would have disappeared soon.

It's no coincidence that Paul Kingsnorth quotes Orwell pretty often here.
Real England worths to be read if only for learning a few things about England that don't appear very often in the newsreels and becoming familiar with a bunch of characters who dedicated their lives to the survival of what the Kinks named "The Village Green Preservation Society". It was 1968 and a pop band had already spotted very well what was going on in England.