Captain Pantoja and the Special Service – Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa - Captain Pantoja And The Special Service

Dealing with a sensitive and controversial topic, prostitution, Mario Vargas Llosa utilizes humour and elements of modernism to highlight the conflicts and irony that the protagonist faces in completing his job as an Army captain. Masterfully combining comic, tragedy, satire and irony, the Nobel prize winner presents moral questions relating to the existence and exploitation of prostitution – a topic that is as hard to discuss now as it was in 1973.

With a fluid and flexible format, ranging from linear story telling to segments of military documents, radio broadcasts, dialogue etc., the novel portrays different and varying positions on the Special Service that captain Pantoja is assigned to create and manage. To the captain, this is simply an order from the Army that he must complete and therefore his approach and view at the beginning of his assignment is methodological and objective.  The character displays no moral opinion of the subject and proceeds with careful analysis and calculations of supply and demand and planning the logistics of the prostitution service. To the religious people of Iquitos and surrounding areas, the women in the service are “those who dishonorably deal in their own body” and is an abhorrent and unacceptable practice. The women are considered shameful and disgraceful, filled with sin and utterly dishonourable. To the women themselves, service for the military is stable, low risk, well paid: “security working with the soldiers, feeling yourself protected by the Army”. These opposing views rooted in extremely different motives present the main conflict of the novel that the protagonist finds himself in. The captain struggles between orders from the general, pressure from religious groups and his own military discipline, which is further complicated by his lustful instincts, and pressure from his family. As the conflict builds up and escalates, ironically because the protagonist had “converted the Special Service into the most efficient unit of the armed forces”, the central question of the novel presents itself subtly: “should prostitution be accepted?” Llosa does not answer this but merely presents readers with story line and character branches that are vibrantly developed, charged with energy and strong motivation for the opinions they hold.

This chaotic environment is managed ingeniously by Llosa’s light and farcical tone, which worked extremely well for the topic at hand, one that stirs emotionally and heated debate. Due to the comical tone throughout the narration, the novel allows readers to take in the topic with a relaxed and open mind, hence making the novel effective at communicating different points of view. Most importantly, it has the effect of making Pantoja appear likable; if a more serious and grim tone had been employed, he would have been perceived gravely by the readers right from the start from organizing the service, in other words, being a “pimp”. The novel eases in to such serious topic playfully, but never normalizing or diminishing the importance of the novel’s central theme. However, half way through the novel, a drastic change in tone marks and foreshadows tragic endings. As Pantoja’s nightmare plagues him, the use of strong words such as “terror, distrust, frightened, devil, torture” marks the shift of the story’s direction.

The tragedy that happened to the Special Service has deep thematic implications. Up until that point in the novel, the Special Service has never been described as being a violation of another’s body and they have always been escorted with secure measures. However, the prostitutes’s attack, rape and murder reinstates the vulnerability of the women, placing them in the same danger they had been when they were working outside the army. In addition, the assailant of the women signifies a failure of the army to protect the people who rely on it, and work for it, and symbolically, combined with the bureaucratic implications in the army from the beginning of the novel, is a strong criticism of the Army’s inability to achieve its goals. The crucifixion of the beautiful woman can be interpreted as religion’s role in the danger that women in prostitution face: religion cannot make prostitution go away, and provides little help for the women in such situation.

Mario Vargas Llosa ultimately leaves it up to his readers to take a moral stance on the subject of prostitution. In the end, Pantoja is portrayed as a hero, one with compassion for the women he recruits and strong sense of discipline in the job he undertakes. He is a hero for standing up for the women under his control, by bravely saying to his General Scavino, “And as for the women who carry out this work with true self-denial, what they do has never been acknowledged.” He is a one of a kind hero, a controversial one no doubt.

 

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Chocolates for Breakfast – Pamela Moore

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At 18, Pamela Moore wrote a coming-of-age story, but it is rather a crashing-into-age “tragedy”. Even though the characters announce that they “are not capable of tragedy” and their lives are a “child’s game that came to an end”,  I can’t help but feel a sense of overwhelming sadness as the story closes, as if the protagonist had failed her life. It was then that I catch myself doing the thing that the parents, in the story and in real life, do and think for their children, and I realize the ultimate struggle and conflict of this story: how to gain power and freedom when one is not ready for it.

Struggling against parents is one of the major themes of the novel. From the first chapter, Courtney laments about her relationship with her mother, “why do we have to pretend to the parents?” The girls lie and avoid their parents when needed so they can achieve a sense of freedom: going to parties at night, drinking with boys and having affairs at their command. Inadvertently, the lies distance them from their parents, and build up an illusion that they have complete control over their lives. Courtney and Janet learn to become masters at controlling the people they meet, through dates and love affairs. Their attractive youth becomes one of their weapons and they equate sexual liberty and breaking laws with power. But it is not just defying parental rules that make them free, it is also breaking away from their parent’s influence. Courtney resists her parents advice, but it is Janet who displays her struggle emotionally and physically as pivotal points of the novel.

In the two scenes between Janet and her father, dynamic and different attack strategies were utilized by the characters. These attacks are seen again and again in many different stories of parent and children, which may be different in words but the same in essence. Janet’s position is her right to privacy and freedom, while her father’s is his right to maintain guidance and control over his underage daughter. The struggle starts from an isolated incident to emotional and accusatory language, escalating in intensity. This is how family relationships are destroyed, from small incidents, building up to accumulating unresolved bitterness to the point where emotion and fact cannot be separated. Once tangled up in this mess, the characters have no way out.

Not unlike parental struggle, which is both physical and emotional, the female protagonists also plunge themselves into love affairs that result in damage. Courtney’s affair with Cabot, which under current laws can be considered statutory rape, met with strong disapproval from her wise guardian Al Leone. This love started out to be a “Romeo and Juliet” type and seemed to head out to a strong and glamorous finish, but Moore chose to let the affair meet with reality and end with pain. The centre piece of the lost of innocence in “Chocolates for Breakfast” is not losing virginity sexually, but rather Courtney’s realization that love is “ugly” and never perfect. It is then she learns to manipulate her lovers, as seen with George, Anthony, Charles etc. She moves from one to another without pain, just like her moving from one restaurant to another, “I get tired of the same places.” Perhaps this is her declaration of sexual independence, that she is not in need of one single man. Readers may disagree with Courtney’s way of finding sexual liberty, but it is no doubt she is making her statement loud and clear. To me, it is a tragedy, because I could no longer see what her value in love is, though she longingly wants to be loved.

And as the girls learn about their life and values, I find myself judging them, disapproving of their decisions, being disappointed and at the same time cheering them on. I react to their actions the way their fictional parents do, and realize the girls did achieve freedom because they made decisions independent of other’s judgments and faced the consequences. The story is a complete coming-of-age tale, with strong female protagonists who refuse to be victims. When the book was published, it probably gained attention for its sexual themes, but I believe it is the psychological and physical struggles that make the story so riveting and moving and relatable to anyone who is going through or remembers the difficulties of growing up.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu started with a very simple and interesting idea. Instead of creating a story about the excitement of time travel, Yu chose his main character to be a normal tech guy. Yu focused his story on an aspect of time travel that pop culture has not explored. And from that idea, the novel offers an observation of our life from the perspective of a science fictional world. That is indeed a very clever and creative idea, which is also the highlight of this unique science fiction novel.

I am not a fan of science fiction, but Yu’s writing has some kind of charm and novelty that interests me greatly. Yu doesn’t spend too much of his book on just creating a science fictional world. He doesn’t spend pages and pages describing this imaginary scientific universe. Instead, Yu draws parallel comparisons between the world we dearly know and the world Charles Yu (the character) is from. To many readers, this novel is a disappointment because it is not really ‘science fictional’; it’s quite “real”. The book’s themes and feelings need not a futuristic setting. But by using “time travelling” as a metaphor for regret and nostalgia, Yu offers a different spin on the topic of time and space travel, while allowing readers to relate to his main character on a human level, instead of trying to imagine him as some kind of robot or alien.

Yu defines his own physical world using the same template as our scientific theory. I enjoy reading his theorems, especially since I study physics and math on a regular basis. With all the fancy words and the paradoxes (especially the non-existing object paradox), Yu’s definitions aren’t just descriptions of the science fictional universe in his novel, they are also Yu’s attempts at explaining human emotions in a scientific manner. What if all emotions can be clearly defined like a physics theorem:

“Nostalgia, underlying cosmological explanation for

weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.

manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been, a place very much like one’s home universe, or as a longing for versions of one’s self that one will never, and can never know.”

These fundamental concepts make up Yu’s own version of time-travelling: it is a process where one observes a different timeline from the timeline one is currently in. It is a process that relies on human memories, because time travelling is very similar to revisiting memories in our head. And once readers understand Yu’s paradigm for time-travelling, they will realize that after all, this science fiction is not a science fiction, but in nature, a novel about the past, mistakes, regrets and how to deal with them.

So perhaps those disappointed readers do have a reason. 

And for that same reason, I am very fascinated with the way Yu perceives and constructs time-travelling. It is not a big fancy action-packed rocket-science process that Hollywood movies make it out to be. It can be, rather, a leisure activity affordable to the masses and allows us to relive over and over again moments and milestones that we want to preserve. It is ultimately an private emotional journey that we experience everyday when we think of a happy or sad moment in the past.

“Time travel is not a technology built outside, with titanium and beryllium and argon and xenon and seaborgium, but rather it is am mental ability that can be cultivated. […] We experience the present and remember the past. We can’t remember the present, except what is deja vu but a memory of the present? And if we can remember the present, why can’t we experience the past? What kind of machine is this? This machine, what my son and I have built, this is a perception engine, and it works on your mind as much as anywhere else.”

As much as I enjoyed the unique ideas that Yu presented, the writing toward the end of the book became heavy and wordy. The verbosity became a flaw instead of a stylistic bonus, and the way Yu wrote theorems was much more appealing than reading paragraphs and paragraphs that present the same thing. That took away from the quality of this impressive debut. However, some lines now and there are such a pleasure to read.

“The good news is, you don’t have to worry, you can’t change the past. The bad news is, you don’t have to worry, no matter how hard you try, you can’t change the past.”

Love in a Fallen City (collection of short stories) – Eileen Chang

This is the first work of fiction by a female author I’ve read this year (apart from E.L. James, but I don’t want to admit that). So I read Eileen Chang’s collection of short stories, one that is praised internationally because of the sharp, observant and loving stories that combine exquisitely both traditional Chinese and modern Western styles.

Chang’s stories are dynamic and panoramic. Her characters are moving, interesting, alive and multi-dimensional, often passionate and unpredictable. They are believable and understandable even though they come from a different culture and time than most of us. The stories’s settings are exotic and unique, often in Shanghai and Hongkong around the years of transitioning to more Westernized cities. The endings are often bittersweet. The language soft and calm. The clever descriptions short, selective and beautiful. Chang’s command of fiction is masterful; her keen observation of the changing society is transformed flawlessly into stories of China’s volatile time periods, with people struggling to make decisions, to love and live in a shattering environments.

There are many things I love about Chang’s stories: the setting, the characters and the writing.

The China that Chang describes in her stories is beautiful as I would imagine from Chinese ink paintings: “already, beyond the wall a roar of wild azaleas was blooming across the hill, the fiery red stomping through brittle grass, blazing down the mountainside.” The flowers, the tea, incense, mountains create a romantic dreamy backdrop for Chang’s stories. But there are also Western theaters, dance halls, beaches, trams, crowded cities. Chang’s world is fiercely aristocratic and considerably wealthy, with traditional values still strictly in place with the Confucianist familial hierarchy, but at the same time, people still fall in love, to marry, to have affairs, to divorce, to go against families for one’s happiness. However, Chang’s setting is not messy, chaotic, broken, but rather liquid, changing, unsettling, creating the perfect background for Chang’s memorable characters.

They are often fierce and passionate. They learn to love with a naive mind or broken hearts, or both. These characters define their own kind of ‘love’: the “red rose” love, the “white rose” love (Red Rose, White Rose), the “Wei-long-innocent-adolescent-sweet” kind of love (Aloeswood Incense), the “love in a fallen city” kind of love. And then there is also hate, the twisted, suppressed, confused hate of a young man struggling to face his emotions and lie up to his parents’ expectations (Jasmine Tea). These characters glow with passion and motivation; they are individuals finding their own path, making their own families and culture while the world around them changes. What I love most about them is their eager to fight for their own life: Weilong setting out on her own to create the life she always wanted, Liusu and Liuyuan rising from the debris of the bombed Hong Kong to create a marriage for themselves. These new and modern men and women of the changing China constantly come to terms with their feelings and decisions and respond to changing circumstances with logic and determinism. 

Chang uses her beautiful language to bring the setting, characters and stories to life. For me, language-wise, “Sealed-off” is the most successful story in the collection. Chang uses sound, colors, motions masterfully to describe an encounter between people on a crowded train. The invisible human connection and the internal psychological feedback mechanisms are highlighted cleverly and realistically. Chang’s writing echoes the nostalgia of classical literature and adopts modern techniques into one unique and genius style of her own.    

“But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall that she could be vindicated? […] Liusu didn’t feel there was anything subtle about her place in history. […] Those legendary beauties wo felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that. Legend exists everywhere, but they don’t necessarily have such happy endings. When the huqin wails on a night of ten thousand lamps, the bow slides back and forth, drawing forth a tale too desolate for words-oh! why go into it?” (Love in a Fallen City)

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

There is nothing much about “Catch-22” that has not been mentioned in scholastic articles and essays that analyze this “apocalyptic masterpiece”. I’m sure if I was a literature student I would have to write an in-depth report of this novel at some point in my academic life, but I am not, so instead of trying to dissect this work of art, I will just jolt down some of my reactions to this novel.

I believe that “Catch 22”, along with 1984, is a must-read for everyone. If its reputation hasn’t convinced you enough, here are some of my reasons, from the objective of a common reader and not an academic literature researcher, for why you should (must) read this book.

Firstly, it’s funny. It’s not like “Heart of Darkness” or other Ondaatje war novels with such thick, over-bearing melancholic tone. Dealing with the ghastly topic of war, the novel chooses a humorous approach. It’s pretty obvious from the first chapter how unique this novel is: the absurdity of the character’s action, the contrasting and illogical sequence of events, the meaningless conversations. You should laugh, and not criticize the total incoherence logic, because as the novelty of the humor start to wear off and you don’t find Heller’s jokes funny anymore, you would come to realize that his jokes are not just cheap ways of pulling attention. The illogic is the theme of the book; the paradoxical motifs keep repeating itself to build fundamental themes of this classic novel. So do try to find those jokes funny instead of resisting the (seemingly) nonsensical layout of the book, because the book gets much darker afterwards. 

Secondly, it’s quite unpredictable. That is an obvious fact anyone can observe from just the first few chapters. Chronology does not exist in the novel, neither does logic. Even Kurt Vonnegut places his jokes in order and creates an apparent plotline that readers can follow. But Heller just keeps pumping out illogical jokes after illogical jokes, and if you can find the patience and mood to play along with him, you’re in for a fun ride. Unlike usual books that go in a direction that you can predict, Catch 22 just spirals out of control. It’s very fun, indeed, to, for once, let the story lead you.

Thirdly, it’s meaningful and smart. You could easily pull some materials off the book and crack a joke to people and look very intelligent. Furthermore, it is a very recognized book, so people might even perceive you as a scholarly person just when you allude to Catch-22.

I can think of more, but let’s talk about the book now.

Many themes appear and re-appear in Heller’s novel, usually at unexpected moments. Before my eyes, the novel transforms illogic into logic, creates its own rationale and justifies its unusual characters. Heller’s brilliance lies in building up this absurd world, then making his readers realize that is the world we have. The juxtaposition between sanity and insanity, between normal and abnormal, justice and injustice (and much more) emphasizes the crucial effects of war, bureaucracy and capitalism. Hidden among the complex humor and satire is the truth that we may or may not have accepted. This truth involves greed for money and power. And the system has allowed individuals to manipulate logic to their own benefits, resulting in the absurdity that we observe but not always realize. 

While playing with logic, Catch-22 also describes the graphic terror of war. In the last few chapters, as the tone switches from “hilarity to horror”, readers come to face the more immediate effect of war: death. Strangely, I felt “sad” as the characters disappear. The sombreness of the theme of death is greatly emphasized by the contrast between humor and horror. The novel also redefines “heroism”. As Yossarian comes to realize his ultimate solution, the novel also presents a new perspective on the glory of war and what it means to truly be a hero.

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

With “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, Jonathan Safran Foer has written a novel for everyone.

The novel is filled with humanity, emotions, tempers, lost, kindness and the human connection that we all share. Foer describes with such compassion the delicate relationships between us in a compelling unbelievable journey, which although is so unlikely, gives us a chance to hope and have faith in each other in this completely strange world we occupy.

Although the book is praised to have dealt with the sorrows of 9/11, I didn’t really feel this was the objective of the book. The novel is merely using  9/11 as an instrument to address a much vaster topic of human kind. It’s not just the lost and pain of the 9/11 victims that readers feel, it is also the suffering and regrets of victims of wars before my generation’s time. The feeling of compassion I had for these characters proves that Foer can genuinely tuck at heartstrings with sincerity and love.

I read reviews of this book upon completion, and many criticisms of the novel revolves around the “over-the-top” portrayal of human emotions, or the fact that Foer had “stolen” ideas from other works, or the unlikely events in the story. I however received the book with more open arms and I embraced the modern fairy tale emerging from the sadness and loneliness of our lives. Foer offers his readers hope and courage to cure ourselves from the prison that we build for ourselves by curling into our own blanket of silence. We can break the silence and reach out to others.

Contrary to what some online comments say about the nine-year-old Oskar Schell, I found him very adorable and creative. From the first chapters I admired his ideas to “fix” the problems he sees around him; impractical ideas, to be fair, since he is only supposed to be nine years old, but ideas that reflect his longing for compassion and care. My favourite Oskar Schell idea was the idea of building a massive system of drains from everyone’s pillows to collect people’s tears when they cry at night, and in the morning the weatherman can inform the entire city of how much people have cried. I admire that kind of caring thought, and it made me think of how much we estrange each other.

In an era of instant connection via internet, Foer offers a completely different way for us to connect to others: go on a journey on foot. As the novel traces Oskar’s clumpsy footsteps throughout New York, readers are opened to a world much different from the one we envision in our heads when we think of “the world out there”. It is a city where there are no kidnappers, there is no reason to be afraid of talking to a stranger, asking strangers about their personal thoughts. It is a world where you can ask for a hug, a kiss without feeling out of the norm, where people can believe one another and support a child through his quest for the truth. This is why I think this story is a modern day fairy tale; it represents such simple dreams and hopes romantically in an imagination that is so close, yet so unbelievable.

Oskar’s quest to find the truth hidden behind his father’s key isn’t an ordinary journey. And for those who were disappointed in the ending, I would say, “you have totally missed the entire point of the story.” It is a quest for intimacy, for belonging and love. Put in Oskar’s own words, his journey was to bring him closer to his father, a spiritual embarkation that revealed how similar we all are, in the quest to feel closer to another human being. Foer had depicted what I had always hoped was true: that somewhere out there someone is feeling the same way I am and is striving towards the same goal as I am. We are surprisingly parallel adventurers, and without knowing, we form invisible connections with our paths.

At the same time, the story is also about how we fail to reach out and understand one another: “He looked confused, or embarrassed, or surprised, or maybe even sad. I couldn’t tell what he was feeling, because I couldn’t speak the language of his feelings.” The characters often fail to express themselves, through the lack of courage and faith. This human flaw causes each of them to unintentionally hurt each other and drift apart. And yet shining brightly in the center of the story is a boy who is determined on his own goal, and without knowing, touches these adults and heal them in ways no reader could have predicted.

The novel is a stunning read, filled with gentle metaphors and pictures that will provoke thoughts and feelings. It is a book written for everyone because everyone needs a nice fairy tale to hope in and believe in. 

 

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

In this short novel, Burgess traces the happenings of a teenage “gangster”. With the use of Nadsat, Burgess’s invented language, the protagonist, Alex, is stylistically portrayed as a symbol of rebellion and ultra-violence, whose journey spans between high and lows of power. The narration is kept simple and linear, though not without interesting twists, and concisely raises some key questions about humanity, repression and freedom. 

The language in the novel created a challenge for me to break the ‘code’ of speech, and although I still haven’t understood every word in Nadsat, I can appreciate the tone of rebellion that the language conveys. And throughout the novel, the language is fast-paced, straightforward, strong, depicting sharp images of attacks and assaults, as well as Alex’s quick-minded intelligence. This all makes “A Clockwork Orange” a compact novel, surged with adrenaline and fright.

The novel is not just about violent crimes however, but also of subtle but “big” questions of our humanity. It challenges the idea of being “cured”, “healthy” and “good”, as opposed to being evil and repressive. Alex remains quite undeniably a horrible villain until the second part of the book, where the “good intentions” of the people trying to cure him becomes questionable. Surely Alex is “evil”, but so is the government, according to those who are against the Ludovico technique, since it tortures and distorts individual personality, striping people off their right to choose his own fate. So what constitutes as evil? It is easy to agree evil is beating up helpless people, but is it also evil to beat up those who beat up people, with an even more powerful and torturous method? It is debatable how far the government’s power should extend to, in the name of justice even, to “correct” or transform human beings into personalities accepted by the general society. “You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being.” (Chapter 4, part 3) Forcing conformity is repression, therefore it is evil, but what if it is the conformity to “goodness”? And with the juxtaposition of two situations of “cure”, one announced by Dr. Brodsky, whose mission is to turn Alex into a violent-hating and “good” citizen, and one announced by a different doctor later on, who considers him returning to a violence-seeking state of mind as “good”, emphasizes the subjective of “healthiness”, and the fact that upon different intentions, different meaning and idea are used for the same word. So what constitutes “evil” and “goodness”? Perhaps they can never have definite meaning, since human intentions vary wildly from person to person, and from time to time.

Another idea the book tackles is the meaning of being “human”. Raised by the jailer and F. Alexander, the subject of debate involves concepts of freedom of choice: if a man is good, but he did not choose to be good, instead forced to be good, is he still human? In contrast, if a villain chooses to be evil, he is still human, because he has a choice in his actions. Is it still humane to force an individual to be “good”, even though that means stripping away his freedom? Or is this act acceptable, because “goodness” trumps freedom? “You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine  capable only of good.” (Chapter 4, part 3) Alex’s situation puts our morals into question, asking whether it is freedom that is superior to “goodness” (which consists of kindness, caring, respect, etc.), or the opposite. How important is freedom, and how much are of it are we willing to give up for other benefits. For example, would you give up your right to smoke in public so you don’t have to smell other people’s smoke? “The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life.” (Chapter 5, part 3) And it is also the question of how much freedom should one be allowed, and how much of it should be restricted upon individuals who have encroached on other’s well-being. In reality, this issue arises in areas such as the debate around whether the capital penalty should be legal, whether rapists should be castrated etc. And in Alex’s case, I had to debate whether he is a hero or a villain, and still i have not decided.

Finally, “A clockwork orange” is a portrayal of youth, with all its strength and power, its capacity to do good and bad, to be influenced and to revoke and fight against influence. Burgess demonstrated this chaotic time of one’s life through the over-the-top violent life of Alex, with all his sins and wit, his ability to realize what is being done to him and the rebellious instinctive behaviour that is so familiar to any youth. And the final chapter, where the anger and greed for power subsides, Burgess calls the dying flame of violence “maturity”, a state of mind with calmness and seeking of the future. Alex is a hyperbolic description of us teenagers and young adults, who seek for pleasure and fight to find it, who thirst for being a non-conformist and being free to pursue what we claim make us powerful. But it is not just a novel for growing youths, it is also a reflective piece on the freedom of life and self-determinism.