Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for October, 2012

The Left of Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 2, 2012

Shorn of its impressive atmospherics and exotic locales of Planet Winter, Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, is at its core, a brilliant portrayal of two intertwined journeys of exploration, discovery and personal transformation. While the protagonist Ai’s official mission of expanding the interplanetary solidarity by enabling Gethenian civilizations join the Ekumen is one journey, the discovery of the meaning of “otherness” in Gethenians and bridging that gap through compassionate understanding is his other journey. One is physical and temporal and the other is emotional and inward looking.

The “otherness” of Gethenians lies predominantly in their self-contained sexuality making them incomprehensible and puzzling in initial encounters. However, the journey of Ai across the harsh wintry landscape with Estraven gives him an opportunity to enlarge his understanding and break free from his existing impressions. This leads him to alternative worldviews like wholeness and duality of a being with respect to sex and provides him with an opportunity to reassess his views on male-female dichotomy of his world and an acceptance of the way things are around him. On the other hand, the emissarial journey to expand the membership of Ekumen leads Ai into some fundamental questions around the natures of nation-state, competitive politics, patriotism, psychological basis of life and death and most important of all, the complex and multi-faceted feature of shifgrethor which determines the basis for social authority in all civilizations of Gethen. With these powerful and profound portrayals of alternative viewpoints, Le Guin elevates the quality of our reading experience.

Bruce Chatwin in his classic ‘The Songlines’ (paraphrasing Muhammad) said that ‘a journey is a fragment of hell’ and Martin Buber, the famous philosopher opined that ‘all journeys have secret destinations of which a traveler is unaware.’ This is true of both journeys of Ai and in the process it is also true vicariously for all the readers of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

To that inevitable question: Are Ai’s efforts and hardships worth the trouble? Le Guin’s heartening response is:

 ‘It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.’

 In this reassuring wisdom lies the joy of this thought provoking and wonderful book

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The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 2, 2012

Colonization is a form of aggression whose progress is neither smooth nor easy. It is phased, motivated, dehumanizing, brutal and involves loss of life on both sides i.e. the colonizer and the colonized. In ‘The Martian Chronicles’, Bradbury takes a complex, dystopian and fictional theme of interplanetary colonization and uses it as a platform for a thought provoking and deeply moving exploration of some fundamentally troubling human attitudes, behaviours and their consequences. The motive for migration to Mars resides in human desire to find a safe haven from wars, censorship and control prevalent on Earth. And once this safe haven is secured, the same negative attitudes of greed, plunder, aggression and exploitation which make life untenable on Earth start to reappear.

Behind some great and moving story-telling, Bradbury explores the complete character of colonization: Initial aggression and ensuing resistance, rapacious homesteading followed by a mass retreat. And all these phases of colonization give birth to discontents idiosyncratic to them and the sympathetic exploration of the same elevates Martian Chronicles from beyond the ordinary into realms of extra-ordinary. Aggression, greed, insecurity, loneliness, fear, nostalgia, desire for ideal and a sense of loss are all explored with an unparalleled mastery. Although loosely concatenated, the stories in the book when read in their chronological order, march towards a powerful epiphany of sorts. The effect is akin to a beautiful painting coming to life with the unexplainable and random brushstrokes of an artist at work.

Bradbury draws strongly from real historical precedents when he makes Spender in the story ‘And The Moon Be Still As Bright” say:

“Do you remember what happened to Mexico when Cortez and his very fine good friends arrived from Spain? A whole civilization destroyed by greedy, righteous bigots….”

Undoubtedly, the book is a product of its times and Bradbury largely lays the responsibility for the deteriorating state of human condition at the door-steps of Western World especially America:

“Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American. If it doesn’t have Chicago plumbing, it’s nonsense…..isn’t it enough they have ruined one planet, without ruining another; do they have to foul someone else’s manger?”

And this frustrating sentiment is also echoed by Bradbury in the final story “The Million Year Picnic” when William says:

“I am burning a way of life, just like the way of life is being burned clean of Earth right now…… Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing the machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed the Earth. That’s what the silent radio means. That’s what we ran away from……But that way of life proved itself wrong and strangled itself with its own hands.”

And if our collective history to current day run up is any reliable indicator, then Bradbury’s assertions appear to have hit the bull’s eye. It is in holding a mirror which reflects with frightening clarity the degree of our deterioration lies not only the true merit of Bradbury as a writer but the enduring quality of his writing.

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