Thursday, 2 April 2015

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“...[A]nything worth dying for ... is certainly worth living for.” 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is set during WWII on island of Pianosa (though the setting is of little importance). It follows the story of a common soldier, Yossarian, and his friends. Yossarian has lost many of his colleagues and friends to the war. His problems are further perpetuated by Colonel Cathcar, who keeps raising the number of missions the men had to fly to complete their service. No matter, how much Yossarian longs to be sent home, he is trapped by a ‘Catch-22’. The term, coined by Heller, refers to the paradoxical set of circumstances that the characters are often faced with; especially, the idea that any soldier who is willing to fly is insane and could be sent home if he asked for it, however, as soon as he asks to be sent home he shows concern for his safety and is therefore of a rational mind.

Heller’s satirical book is, despite initial controversy, a defining novel of the 20th Century. Despite it being set during WWII, the book concerns postmodernist ideas. The book is still taught in schools and contains important critiques that can still be applied to modern society. Any reader has to be prepared to face the absurdity of Heller’s work. Personally, I did not enjoy the book. However, this is because I prefer the structure and predictability of Victorian literature. But I am glad that I read this book. I thought Heller presented very important ideas and I agreed with many of his values; some of these ideas will be explored later in this review.

The novel has become representative of postmodernist literature by its subversion of form to represent the zeitgeist of the time. The book uses an ‘anti-novel’ structure and an ‘anti-hero’. The book rejects many of the traditional novel formats. The book is not written in chronological order and does not follow the structure of introduction, climax and conclusion. Instead the reader is introduced to Yossarian in a hospital talking about events that will only occur at the end of the book. Yossarian talks about the death of Snowden during a mission that isn’t described until the second last chapter of the book. The novel also has an ambiguous ending, living questions unanswered. Yossarian, the protagonist, is not a ‘hero’. Yossarian has many faults and is quite insane – or at actually he is quite sane in an insane world. Yossarian does not have the courage and intengrity that heroes often display. The whole plot follows Yossarian’s plan to escape, including the lies he creates to stay in a hospital where he can escape his duties. These are two of the main ways that Heller changes the format of books in order to represent the new values of the postmodern world.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Stasiland by Anna Funder

“Though it is the hardest thing, to work out one's weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value.” - Anna Funder
Stasiland is Australian Anna Funder’s literary journalism of Germany’s dark past.  In 1996, seven years after the reunification of Germany, Funder is working in television in West Berlin and grows interested in the occupants of the former German Democratic Republic. She explores the stories of the victims and perpetrators of the Stasi in East Germany. Anecdotes are drawn from people who answer to Funder’s newspaper advertisements and Funder’s own acquaintances. Miriam is the ‘tragic hero’ of the text. Funder sympathises with the 16-year-old who came to be considered an enemy of the state. Miriam tells the story of Charlie, her husband that was killed in custody. Miriam’s story is interwoven with the stories of Julia and Frau Paul. Julia is Funder’s land lady, although reluctant about telling her story, shares the details of how her family went through “internal emigration”. Julia was ostracized because of her Italian boyfriend even though she had no intentions to go against the state. Frau Paul shares her story of how her sick baby was taken to West Berlin for treatment and because of her attempts to visit her son she becomes embroiled with a group helping people leave East Berlin. These sad stories are mixed with the stories of the perpetrators, the people who worked with or helped the Nazi, including Herr Winz, Hagen Koch, Karl E. Schnitzler and Herr Bock. Many of these men think back to the GDR with nostalgia and little to none remorse. Funder’s story is a personal and passionate exploration of Germany’s Stasi epoch.

I really enjoyed Stasiland, and I don’t often read non-fiction. Funder’s literary journalism style may not be conventional or the most factual but I found that it is creates a very interesting way to read non-fiction. I could empathise with these real life characters and it added a breath of fresh air into a topic that is now often seen only through the details of school textbooks.