Book review: American Pastoral

I learned about this book by Philip Roth from a Ewan McGregor interview, where he mentioned having directed and starred in the film version of this novel. The film flopped despite a Pulitzer-winning material, which has also been included in Time Magazine’s all-time 100 greatest novels. Curious, I read.

Set in the 1960s, an all-too perfect, upper middle-class Jewish-American (the novel never fails to make this distinction) couple find themselves with an activist daughter who is swept off by the civil rights movement of that period. What we get is a novel-length rumination on the frustrations of a pastoral-slash-suburban family, whose American values of hard work, socioeconomic mobility, and morality, are threatened by an emerging modern capitalist society. I felt like a therapist being unloaded with pages and pages of trauma inherent in the social constructs and pressures of being THE star athlete, THE beauty queen, THE beautiful young family with the picket fences and swing in the backyard—of being an American (stars and stripes!!!)—then in the end, they all wonder about what went wrong. I have little to no sympathy for almost all the characters in this book whose collective vanity denies everyone the chance to move forward; instead, the navel-gazing merely perpetuates a victim complex and that is repetitive plot-wise and unfortunately for the reader, holds true in the dialogue, too. (A perfect example is a 2,000-word dialogue in Chapter 9 between the Swede and Sheila Salzman that is ultimately summed up as thus: “Merry is crazy.” “No she’s not.”)

No doubt this is an excellent novel to read in the age of Trump, when terrorism and violence are no longer a foreign threat, but homegrown. Unfortunately, I am in fact not a therapist and I am not being paid hundreds of dollars per hour for this session.  America, he’s with you.

Review: A Horse Walks into a Bar

A Horse Walks into a Bar

Photo: Penguin 

I finished reading A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman after four days. The winner of the International Man Booker Prize 2017 is a short novel, set within a two-hour stand-up act in a comedy club in Israel. I skimmed the reviews before reading the book and scanned more after having read it and the novel seems to have gone over the head of most, if not all, the reviewers. That or not many people share the same dark thoughts I’ve had as Dovaleh, the protagonist, has. I refused to acknowledge that this novel ought to be lazily couched in abstract phrases as a book on “Jewish history, the dysfunctional nation of Israel and its people” (now that went over my head), so in search of validation I ended up hearing David Grossman’s podcast interview, wherein he thankfully explained that it’s about a boy who’s deciding on who among his parents should have died and how this choice continued to play a role into his adulthood. It’s essentially like being asked who you love more between two parents who raised you the way they knew how, with all their strengths and faults, then having to stick with that decision for the rest of your life.

There’s also a lot more to the novel than that—the narrative technique, for one, is brilliant. According to David, he’s had the basic premise for 20 years but he didn’t know exactly how to tell the story. The standup comedy as a literary device just came to him from nowhere, and it’s amazing how it gave him the freedom to not only tell this boy’s story, but also hold up a mirror to society and ourselves, which brings me to two: it’s a great metaphor for social media, too—the patrons start leaving the club the more serious and deeply personal Dovaleh gets, much like how lengthily worded posts are dismissed as photos and memes rack in the thumbs up and ‘likes.’

The novel did have many Israeli references, and I have no doubt I missed on a lot of them, but I think the reviews’ attempt to describe A Horse with such wordy calisthenics to accord it with pedestal-worthy significance is unnecessary and could even be a disservice to those thinking about picking up this book. It is a beautiful book with the simplest of storylines that betray the profound narratives it has on childhood, and relationships and friendships that could have been.

An extract of the book is available on www.penguin.co.uk.

It’s the end of June and the start of another weekend

No stats. Can you believe it, we’re halfway through 2017? To be honest, I’ve been in a state of catatonia in the last two weeks, so I’m just going to give a rundown of the things I enjoyed this month, much like my other weekend posts.

Throwback film: The First Wives Club, released in 1996, surprisingly remains modern in this day and age. Issues it raised on sexism and ageism are very much on key—even politically sensitive to a degree—and so it must have been very, very ahead of its time, which makes this a highly recommended movie. But the best part really is Maggie Smith as the preeminent New York society lady with Sarah Jessica Parker as a social-climbing mistress. I remember having enjoyed those scenes from way back for their comedy (including those with Bronson Pinchot as an interior designer), but having now known Dame Maggie in Downton Abbey and SJP as Carrie has added a far more delicious layer to their characters.

First Wives Club

Maggie Smith as a modern-day dowager

Late-night show: Graham Norton is probably the only late-night talk show host who could truly make me LOL. James Corden is cute and charming and Stephen Colbert is on-point and witty, but only Graham could make me snort and laugh throughout his show. The British show has just ended its season, so I’ve been going through his archives on YouTube. I don’t normally care for Robbie Williams, who guests in this episode, but this I think is the best Graham Norton episode, hands down, in case you want to go straight to the goods.

Season finale: (SPOILER ALERT) I’m fairly new to the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise having only seen three seasons out of 10 and this latest season was the first one I got to watch from start to finish in sync with the US broadcast. I was underwhelmed—I don’t think there were standout comedians in the group aside from Trinity, but nevertheless, I’m glad that Sasha won. She clearly won the lip sync battles on finals night, and I love the thought process behind the rose petals, which she explained in Buzzfeed’s The Library podcast (Gist: So Emotional by Whitney Houston describes someone with so much love to give, it turns into a huge, hot mess). Her brand of drag—conceptual and ugly pretty—is not something I see very often. If you want to watch the season, search for Queens of Draw on Facebook and they have recorded live streams of all the episodes.

Ru Paul Drag Race

Like a performance artist, Sasha Velour injects layers of meaning to her lip sync number.

Podcasts: Speaking of which, Pam and Tammy have mentioned them/tweeted about them offhand, and I realized, yeah, why am I not listening to podcasts? I usually listen to Spotify during my 30-minute walk to the gym, but the songs in the charts RARELY change (I mean, come on, Despacito has been in the top five for mooonths), so I’m sick of music right now. I haven’t discovered much yet, but I’ve been listening to Still Processing (iTunes|NYT) by the pop culture writers of The New York Times and The Koy Pond with Jo Koy, a Filipino-American standup comedian based in the US, who also has an outstanding comedy special available on Netflix (Jo Koy: Live from Seattle). If you have other recommendations, please leave a comment! I’m looking for something light and funny, not necessarily educational.

Book club: Let me just give myself a pat on the back for having read The Satanic Verses. It took me eight weeks, more than half of which were frustrating. The first few chapters seemed to have been written to specifically annoy the reader, such as:

‘O, my shoes are Japanese,’ Gibreel sang, translating the old song into English in semi-conscious deference to the uprushing host-nation, ‘These trousers English, if you please. On my head, red Russian hat; my heart’s Indian for all that.’ The clouds were bubbling up towards them, and perhaps it was on account of that great mystification of cumulus and cumulo-nimbus, the mighty rolling thunderheads standing like hammers in the dawn, or perhaps it was the singing (the one busy performing, the other booing the performance), or their blast-delirium that spared them full foreknowledge of the imminent … but for whatever reason, the two men, Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha, condemned to this endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall, did not become aware of the moment at which the processes of their transmutation began.

Mutation?

Yessir, but not random. Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, – because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible – wayupthere, at any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have gladdened the heart of old Mr Lamarck: under extreme environmental pressure, characteristics were acquired.

Luh.

But I couldn’t abandon the book—I guess, I was penalizing myself for all those months I haven’t read a single novel. More importantly, the real-life repercussions and persecutions that came with the publication of this book also made me swat my frustrations aside and give the novel due respect; people died for the freedom to read this book. So read I did, and eventually, his sentences, paragraphs, and chapters became more forgiving to this average reader and I was entertained and piqued: I ended up reading about the early history of Islam, the politics between India and Pakistan, and even the geological history of Mt. Everest (essentially, it was the result of India, formerly a separate continent “slamming” into Euro-Asia). I actually enjoyed the religious themes of the book, but on the whole, this novel is more about the exploration of an immigrant’s experience and roots (and all the politics that entails, including with oneself) so it’s unfortunate how the non-literary issues regarding this book had been blown out of proportion and context.

Right now, I’m reading A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, which was recently awarded the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. I chose this because it’s relatively short—I think I can finish this in a week—and it’s set within a two-hour stand up act in a comedy club, so I liked the simplicity and conciseness it promises the reader, in contrast with The Satanic Verses.

Books, redux

“The anger with God carried him through another day, but then it faded, and in its place there came a terrible emptiness, an isolation, as he realized he was talking to thin air, that there was nobody there at all, and then he felt more foolish than ever in his life, and he began to plead into the emptiness, ya Allah, just be there, damn it, just be. But he felt nothing, nothing nothing, and then one day he found that he no longer needed there to be anything to feel. On that day of metamorphosis the illness changed and his recovery began.”

The Satanic Verses
Also, TFW you’re under the Duterte government, char.

Reading The Satanic Verses now, my first Salman Rushdie novel, in an attempt to read books again. This is not another means to self-flagellate (I have CrossFit for that, teehee), but I can sincerely feel the difference in my level of creativity since I stopped reading books, specifically in my writing ability. So hopefully, I’ll get to fill this page with books I’ve read this year. (Mr. Rushdie, by the way, has one of my all-time favorite movie ‘celebrity’ cameos, courtesy of Bridget Jones.)

The first chapter was immensely challenging: my impressions and general awareness about the book gave me assumptions, which didn’t help me in understanding the opening storyline. So I’ve had to Google and read a few synopses, and thankfully, chapters two and three are friendlier plot-wise so I’m not as lost as I was when I started (where I almost gave up).

Other books I hope to read this year are:

  • All My Lonely Islands, first-prize winner of the 2015 Palanca Awards and which was written by a former colleague. Granted I haven’t scoured hard enough, but I simply couldn’t find a copy in bookstores I’ve been to.
  • Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which according to reviews, is a book that will make you understand these four building blocks of cooking so you wouldn’t require the exact ingredients listed in a recipe; you’d know what to substitute them with just by having a good understanding of these four flavors! It’s also illustrated by an artist I’ve been following on Instagram, Wendy MacNaughton.
  • And Clinton Palanca’s The Gullet. I think Clinton is the best food writer in the country, and maybe, the best Pinoy reviewer, period.

On that note, let me add a wishlist to my reading list page.

My 2015 resolutions

New Year’s celebration for me this year was mellow––so mellow that I spent the first few minutes asleep, haha. I had an extremely long day, beginning with a trip to the ER on December 30 that lasted until the wee hours of December 31. (No worries, I’m okay.) Hence, I had trouble staying awake until midnight. In any case, I love mellow. One can learn to appreciate mellow after experiencing the ‘excitement’ that drama brings. So if the rest of my year will be low-key, I’ll more than welcome it.

* * * *

I’m embarrassed to draft a new set, and more so, review my previous resolutions; I failed all of them. I was consumed by my driving lessons, and I’m still nowhere near being good at it. I remember when I was parking with Tatin:

Me: *parking in reverse* Ohmygad, ohmygad, never pa ko nag-park ng ganito kasikip.
Tatin: Anong masikip?! Ang luwag-luwag!!!

True enough, there were no other cars in the parking lot, lol. (In my defense, I was referring to the narrow lane markings, lol.)

In terms of books, I read a total of 20, though I slowed down in the second half (again, the driving). I didn’t finish a book in September and October, and I only managed to read one each in November and December. The best ones I read in 2014 were: Wild, now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon; And the Mountains Echoed; and HHhH. I’m disappointed that I didn’t read any Filipino author last year. And I really must read a Murakami this year, which I’ve put off for several years now. I like the premise of his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so I plan to start with that.

As for my resolutions, hmmm… I do want to watch more locally produced plays. I need to write more often. Aside from pushups, I should do squats regularly. (I’m deciding whether to enroll in yoga or go back to the gym this year.) I wish to volunteer in HIV counseling, but I’m not sure if I can handle it emotionally––it’s pretty taxing. (Probably more on this later.) Avoid sedentary weekends. Learn to make art and crafts. Celebrate mellow. Love. And behave. 😀

Book review: Invisible Monsters Remix by Chuck Palahniuk

Invisible Monsters Remix by Chuck PalahniukFew novels can make me gasp out loud like I do in those soap opera revelations that leave your mouth wide open. Invisible Monsters Remix by Chuck” Palahniuk (pronounced ‘paula nick’) had that effect on me, and the author just kept it coming and coming. I found it hilarious that the novel’s revelations got me every single time, and I thank Chuck for making me realize I still have that naiveté buried in me somewhere.

After all the seriousness of books I’ve been reading this year (even The Adventurers, despite the epic quotes, had depressing themes), Monsters was a riot, even if underneath, the characters represent pop culture’s extreme social maladies. I doubt any of today’s tabloid sensations have achieved anything close to what these Monsters have accomplished: Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t dare take up the gauntlet.

It’s as if Chuck wrote the standard for which any fame whore should measure himself up against: if you can’t beat these Monsters, then you might as well shoot yourself. At least until life imitates art, it’s hilarious.

The narrator is a disfigured woman, a former model whose freak accident has now forced her to hide behind layers of veil and tulle. She is befriended by the gorgeous Brandy Alexander, and along with man candy Manus, the trio pilfer prescription drugs from stately mansions up for sale during open houses.

The ‘remix’ in the title is exactly that—Monsters was first published in 1999, and this version was released in 2012 (although this was really how Chuck had originally written it). This time, the chapters aren’t read in chronological order so at the end of each one, you are instructed to jump several chapters up… or down… then back up again, and so on. Also, based from what I’ve read, there are a few, minor changes in the end scene compared to the first book.

That’s how I originally structured this book: to be a little unknowable. Reader friends complained about how the dwindling number of pages, those physical sheets of paper you held between the thumb and index finger of your right hand, suggested when the plot of a novel was reaching its climax…

… Following the plot would mean paging forward and backward, and you’d never know where the story might end. It might all come to a head at the physical center of the book. Better yet, as you hunted for the next chapter, you’d glimpse marvelous, ridiculous scenes, and you’d wonder, “How will the story ever get there?”

A Reintroduction to Invisible Monsters

Some people may find this borderline pretentious, but be patient—it does get enjoyable at some point. In my case, the page flipping serves as a cliffhanger, like a soap opera making a grand revelation before immediately cutting to commercial. A book that forces this delayed gratification on readers (sequels not counting) works as a literally device specifically for this type of novel; I appreciate the purpose. However, I can’t the say same for the pages printed in reverse image and which requires a mirror. I haven’t read those until now.

 

Book review: Ruth Reichl’s Delicious!

Delicious by Ruth Reichl

This is the book I was referring to in this Instagram post: it was a gift from Pam from her recent vacation in New York. When she had my book signed, Pam told Ruth about my carbonara experience, which was essentially, my first foray into cooking. Ruth then wrote a special message for me.

I’m amazed at how writers are able to write specialized messages for each book they are signing.

I’m amazed at how writers are able to write specialized messages for each book they are signing.

 

June had been slightly more hectic and stressful than usual I simply didn’t have enough time to curl up with Delicious! the entire month. And so I had to cram on the last day of June: with about 200 pages left, I proceeded to a coffee shop right after work, ordered chicken and pesto sandwich and iced soy latte, and delved into it. (Highly recommended: Spotify’s Late Night Reading playlist; the sandwich with the stale bread from Starbucks, not so much.)

Taking everything into account, including my love for Ruth’s work (Garlic and Sapphires is one of my all-time favorite books), I already loved Delicious! even before reading it.

The first few pages were enthralling, the prelude ended in dramatic fashion as a young Billie Breslin attempts to recreate her mother’s gingerbread, based solely on memory and to her surprise, her palate’s razor-sharp ability to distinguish and identify flavors. That was promising; I couldn’t wait to go on this ride.

Many years later, as a fresh graduate, Billie lands an interview in the distinguished food magazine, Delicious!—where its staff, friendly, flirtatious, and otherwise—unwittingly dare her to unleash her culinary talents, now kept under wraps due to a traumatic experience. My expectations were then set on a lighthearted romance novel—in the tradition of Confessions of a Shopaholic (which I loved)—with food as the central motif.

Unfortunately, the ride took way too many turns for my taste. The number and nature of the subplots bordered on farcical (I’d list them here but they all involve spoilers), most of them an unnecessary juggling of Wikipedia-like narrative (however written in Ruth’s elegant prose).

It’s hard for me to fault Ruth’s enthusiasm: her brightness and optimism drip on every page, which was, to be fair, refreshing versus nauseating; nerds would have a field day learning about obscure ingredients and dishes, although in my case, it was a challenge to keep myself fascinated by the many details. Overall, I feel this was more the editor’s fault than the writer’s: the former could have striven for a tighter storyline, although I do acknowledge that this wish is rather subjective.

I suppose I could be upbraided for having set such a limited expectation for the novel’s storyline; however, the problem with having a myriad of subplots is that the reader ends up disappointing himself every time the author decides to explore a different direction. Even if Ruth was successful in tightening all loose ends, my interest in them had waned by then.

I liked the book and enjoyed its heartiness; with some fine-tuning, it may have been perfect.

* * * *

First few paragraphs:

“You should have used fresh ginger!”

The words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. I glanced at Aunt Melba to see if she was upset, but she was looking at me with undisguised admiration. “Why didn’t I think of that!”

“And orange peel.” I wanted her to look at me that way again.

“Any other ideas?” Aunt Melba was rooting around in the vegetable bin.

She emerged holding a large knob of ginger triumphantly over her head, then went to the counter and began to grate it, sending the mysterious tingly scent into the air. “How come you didn’t say something last year?”

“Would you have believed me?”

She swiped at the thick red curl that had fallen across her right eye and grinned ruefully. “Ask advice from a nine-year old?” She  reached out and tousled my hair. “Now that you’re ten, of course, everything’s changed.”

Book: Wild (From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail)

Tatin loaded my Kobo with lots of great titles–most of the stuff I’ve read in the last six months are courtesy of her good taste. However, when I saw Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail—a book about hiking—in my library, I was dumbfounded. We are both not the outdoorsy type; our idea of hiking is going from Bonifacio High Street Central to SM Aura. Hence I was a bit apprehensive about starting this book.

Wild Cheryl StrayedI ended up being hooked. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, not only for this year, but ever.

Written by Cheryl Strayed, the book chronicles the author’s journey through the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs along the entire US West Coast, from the border of Mexico to Canada. After having lost her mother to cancer and divorced a devoted husband, she felt the sudden urge to hike the trail—on her own—to find herself and sort things out.

There were the injuries that made me flinch, especially those about her toenails falling off, but there were also the grievous moments with her dying mother. Then hike then, becomes a spiritual one but not in a religious sense; the trail is severely backbreaking that it transcends the physical. I think that’s how it connected me to this book, and to others readers, who’ve never hiked a kilometer in their lives.

While reading this book, keep the Internet and Google Maps close (I love Street View) as they add richly to the experience.

* * * *

Prologue

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off of a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked when it did. My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.

I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty-two. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.

In the years before I pitched my boot over the edge of that mountain, I’d been pitching myself over the edge too. I’d ranged and roamed and railed—from Minnesota to New York to Oregon and all across the West—until at last I found myself, bootless, in the summer of 1995, not so much loose in the world as bound to it.

It was a world I’d never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I’d staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I’d once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long.

A world called the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

Book review: HHhH on WWII and historical fiction

It is possible that this was the book that President Aquino was reading when he compared the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines to the Munich Agreement in an interview with The New York Times:

“If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now, what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line?” he said. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Peter Beinart, writing for The Atlantic, said it was rare “(for someone to compare) a contemporary international situation to ‘Munich’ without sounding absurd.”

“For more than half a century, ‘Munich’ has been the most abused analogy in American foreign policy. The actual Munich agreement, signed in late September 1938 by Germany, Britain, France, and Italy, gave the largely German-speaking Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia to Germany despite Czech warnings that it would leave the country defenseless and whet Hitler’s appetite for further conquest, which it did.”

* * * *

HHhh

There are many, many things which I still don’t know about World War II (including the details behind Munich) and HHhH fills in the gap with such wit, integrity, humor, and somberness. This was one of the rare books which, as I ended, made me sigh and smile as I think of this lovely tribute for all the fallen heroes of the war.

I mentioned integrity because here’s a novel wherein the author, writing as the narrator, comments on other historical novels and films, particularly their “psychological dimension, which is full of interior monologues.”

For example:

“‘That night, at an altitude of two thousand feet, the huge Halifax aircraft roared out of the sky above the winter countryside of Czechoslovakia. The four airscrews churned through the drifts of low broken cloud, flailing them back against the wet black flanks of the machine, and in the cold fuselage Jan Kubis and Josef Gabchik stared down at their homeland through the open, coffin-shaped exit hatch cut in the floor.’

“This is the opening paragraph of Alan Burgess’s novel Seven Men at Daybreak, written in 1960. And from those first lines, I know that he hasn’t written the book I want to write. I don’t know how much of their homeland Gabčík and Kubiš could see at an altitude of more than two thousand feet in that black December night. As for the image of the coffin, I’d prefer to avoid such obvious metaphors.”

The meta references are conversational and they are what I find funny; the author proves that such informality could be a highly effective literary device. (He even discusses what the name of the book would be, and if released differently, then it would have been his publisher’s fault—his publisher won.) I can imagine how this could irritate readers as I normally get with such ruminations (see Proust), but Binet charmed me.

Ten paragraphs and I haven’t even said what the book is about.

HHhH stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”

Heinrich Himmler, who was the Chief of the German Police, was one of the persons directly responsible for the Holocaust. His deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, was a rising star in the Nazi party and partly responsible for the Final Solution to the Jewish question. He also became ‘Protector’ of what is now known as the Czech Republic.

The novel is about the assassination of Heydrich and the heroes responsible for it, primarily Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, with Josef Valčík. It is a gripping account of the events surrounding this assassination and I wish more people know their names (and thanks to this book, there will).

On a sad note, Germany’s reprisals due to the assassination were heartbreaking. As if the Holocaust wasn’t heartbreaking enough.

* * * *

First chapter

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

So, Gabčík existed, and it was to this name that he answered (although not always). His story is as true as it is extraordinary. He and his comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War. For a long time I have wanted to pay tribute to him. For a long time I have seen him, lying in his little room—shutters closed, window open—listening to the creak of the tram (going which way? I don’t know) that stops outside the Botanical Gardens. But if I put this image on paper, as I’m sneakily doing now, that won’t necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don’t want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.

* * * *

More on the Munich Agreement:

Along with France and Italy, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, brokers the deal between Germany and the Czech Republic, without the latter’s consent or even prior knowledge: a Czech province, the Sudetenland, had been given to Germany.

Chapter 67

Chamberlain, on a balcony in London: “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”

Chapter 68

Krofta, the Czech foreign minister: “They have put us in this situation. Now it’s our turn; tomorrow it will be their turn.”

Chapter 70

Churchill: “You had to choose between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor. You will have war.”

World opinion has never been as significant, swift, and collective as it is now. It would be interesting how China’s bullying and vast territorial claims would play out in such a time.