Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gulliver's Travels

I am not a big movie fan, but a few years ago, the comedy actor Jack Black did a movie based on the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels.  I don’t much care for movies, so I know even less about actors.  What I did know was that Jack Black made a movie about being a Mexican professional wrestler.  It looked massively dumb, and I never saw it.  Black’s modernized take on the classic novel didn’t look much better, and I avoided it, too.  I hadn’t ever read the book, but, as everyone knows, the book is better than the movie.

Book cover. Gulliver’s Travels (ISBN: 0-14-143949-1) by Jonathan Swift is an interesting novel that was originally published as political satire.  Now far removed from the contentious political scene of XVIII-century Great Britain, it has withstood the test of time and continues to be popular.  This is mostly thanks to the first part of the book, where the book’s hero, Lemuel Gulliver, visits Lilliput, home to a humanoid race only inches tall.  Gulliver has a number of adventures in this part of the world, including participating in a battle and putting out fires, which saves the island’s royalty.  He also ends up being trapped in some distant land where the inhabitants are giants, which also provides for some adventure, but mostly being carried around in a box by a girl.  Gulliver’s third voyage features a few different islands and a people who have figured out how to live on a machine that perpetually floats in the sky, landing only if the inhabitants are trying to crush the people on the ground below.  Finally, Gulliver finds himself in a land where the ruling inhabitants are horses.  The most inferior race in this quarter of the world are essentially humans, but in a wild and feral form.  In each place, Gulliver is exposed to differing methods of government and people.  He seems to learn from each, although always very patriotic when it comes to his homeland.  Finally, after his visit to the land of the horse beings, he is disgusted with mankind, claiming it to not think and to be disgusting and wild in nature.

I, like most modern readers, did not get much of the political satire in the book.  I would probably agree with many others that the Lilliput episode was the highlight as far as adventures went.  The other sections were significantly drier, although they still had their interesting points.  I noticed that by the end, although likely starting in the third episode, I was more attuned to the commentary on the behavior of people.  One of the points that Swift made multiple times in the book is that people spend a lot of time in conflict with one another because we choose to magnify little differences.  He also thought people succumb to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, especially when it comes to the pursuit of scientific and technological advancement.  Finally, Swift, as I read him, was a big proponent of honesty.  If people would be honest in their dealings and in what they say, the likelihood of our never-ending conflicts decreases to a large degree.  The combination of the story of travel and adventure with commentary was interesting, although I think it tended to detract from the book a little, making it too slow in places.  I thought it was a decent book, but probably not one that I would pick up and read again just for the fun of it.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Rise and Fall

Yugoslavia did not play a large role in my life until I came to Sarajevo for work.  I was too young, really, for the 1984 Olympics to mean anything.  I vaguely remember the old, small, black-and-white television showing ice skating competitions from the games.  Later, I learned that Yugoslavia was part of the Communist bloc.  Beyond that, I knew nothing of it and heard nothing of it until the 1990s, when it all, quite literally, blew up.  War, ethnic cleansing, and genocide are probably not what the peoples of this Balkan region wanted to have help them get on the map, so to speak, but it did.  There has been no shooting here for twenty years, but when people learn that I am working in Sarajevo, 90% of the time, they ask about the war and if that makes it a problem to live, work, and play in Sarajevo.  The effects, of course, do, but the war, of course, does not.

Book cover.Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas (ISBN: 0-15-177572-9) provides one man’s (Djilas (Đilas) himself) view of the Communist rise to power in Yugoslavia.  Since he was one of Tito’s closest aides and advisors, he provides an inside perspective that is largely unrivaled.  He also chronicles what he considers the falling away of the Yugoslav Communists from their revolutionary ideals.  As he comes to realize that Communism, as implemented in Yugoslavia, isn’t what was promised, he becomes disillusioned with it, enough so that he published material critical of Tito and the Communists, leading to nine years as a political prisoner.  Djilas covers a lot of ground in a little over 400 pages.  He gives a short account of the wartime Communists, but mostly focuses on life under Tito after the war.  He talks about foreign relations, internal politics, bizarre Communist Party perks like special stores for the elite party members, the cult of personality surrounding Tito, and the oppressive nature of a totalitarian or dictatorial political system.  Interestingly, Djilas’s falling out was not with Communism; it was with what Communism had developed into in Yugoslavia.  The reader even gets a small glimpse into Djilas’s personal life as he discusses his marriages.  Finally, the totalitarian oppression claims the once high-ranking government official and he spends almost a decade as a prisoner because of his ideas, not necessarily even that radical.

If one wants to study Yugoslav history at all, this is likely not the appropriate place to start.  Djilas made his name in the West because he was considered a dissident in a system that the West saw as inherently evil (rightly so) even though he was not proposing anything radical and certainly not a departure from Communism.  While that contributes to my thinking that Djilas was not the best person to take up as any kind of symbol or hero of the opposition in Yugoslavia, that is what happened, and this book is one of the results.  It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the history of Yugoslavia, which, if one lacks, results in a rather dry read in places.  On the other hand, the intimate insider view of things is appreciated and unique.  I found his discussion of Yugoslavia’s short-lived falling out with Russia fascinating.  Many modern Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians paint Yugoslavia as different from many of the other Eastern bloc countries for a few different reasons.  One of those reasons, they proudly proclaim, is that they weren’t just a puppet state of the U.S.S.R., like the Warsaw Pact nations.  Reading Djilas’s take, Yugoslavia towed the line set by Moscow as much as it could, so things really weren’t that different.  Those types of insights made for an interesting read.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.