Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Never Let Me Go

I'm the first to admit that I easily get swept up by the bandwagon when something big rolls around.  I take almost giddy delight in reading reviewer's quotes on the back of nearly every book I read.  So, when on the cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005), Time magazine declares the book to be "the best novel of the decade," I go into it with fairly high expectations.  Moreover, Never Let Me Go is held up as a stirring expression of the moral disquietude that often comes hand-in-hand with advances in biomedical science, a field which is near and dear to my own heart.

The story itself revolves around a three children who are raised at Hailsham, a boarding school nestled in the English countryside.  Kathy H., the narrator of the novel, provides a window into Hailsham through her recollections of day-to-day life with her friends.  In the course of these vignettes, it becomes clear that Hailsham is no ordinary school.  The children, while seemingly well cared-for by their guardians, are not taught the skills necessary to lead an independent life and, arguably more damaging to them, lack any nurturing emotional connections save those they clumsily forge amongst themselves.

As they grow older, the children slowly come to the realization of exactly who and what they are.  As it turns out, they are clones being raised to provide organs needed by others in the outside world.  At some point in their lives, each of them will become a donor and eventually, unable to give any more, will "complete."  There is no great moment of realization here.  Instead, the children catch snippets of information about what their future holds here and there as they grow older, and are, remarkably, almost wholly unphased by the revelation.

While Kathy spends a good deal of time trying to understand how they become aware of their role in the world, she never once comments on the injustice of the system.  And therein lies what, to me, is the most tragic circumstance of Never Let Me Go.  The society portrayed in the novel has set up a quiet, out-of-view system to essentially strip the humanity from the cloned children.  The psychological tools needed to question or otherwise analyze their circumstance are purposefully withheld from them, and, as a result, they are left to float through life detached from many of the things that make us humans who we are.  And everyone in the outside world benefiting from the clones' existence is quietly complicit.

The lack of overt action and sparse plot might be difficult for some readers to overcome (as they certainly were for me).  I had trouble at times mustering the fortitude to endure another seemingly mundane conversation between Kathy and her friends.  However, thinking back over the novel as a whole has made me realize that Never Let Me Go has much to offer a thoughtful reader!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Conspirata (Lustrum)

Up this time around is Conspirata (2010; known in the UK as Lustrum), the second volume in  Robert Harris's planned trilogy about the famous Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.  The first novel (reviewed here) in the series was exceptionally good, so I was quite excited to dive into Conspirata.

Conspirata chronicles the momentous events in the year of Cicero's consulship and the succeeding four years (63-58 BC), a span of time known in ancient Rome as a lustrum (hence the original title of the novel...I guess that wasn't juicy enough for the American audience).  The novel is once again narrated by Cicero's slave Tiro, who, by virtue of being Cicero's personal secretary, is in a unique position to observe and comment on events.

After struggling to achieve his life's goal--the consulship--Cicero struggles to make a lasting mark on Rome from his post.  That is, until he uncovers a plot led by Sergius Catalina to overthrow the Republic with the aid of foreign troops (later to become known as the Catalinarian conspiracy).  After taking his case against Cataline to the Senate, to which he delivers a series of brilliant orations, Cicero uses his authority to arrest and summarily execute the five leading members of the conspiracy without a trial, effectively quashing the rebellion.

Despite being hailed as patres patriae (only the third Roman ever so honored) for his decisive actions, Cicero will be haunted by this decision for the rest of his life.  Indeed, the years following his consulship see his dignitas undermined by the efforts of Julius Caesar and his populist allies.  The culmination of this is the promulgation of a law by Publius Clodius (a rogue if ever there was one) that punishes anyone who executes a Roman citizen without a trial.  After seeing his political clout completely erode, Cicero is forced to confront the ugly truth that Rome is no longer safe for him, and he rides away from Rome in the dark of night into voluntary exile.  How's that for a grateful nation?

The story, being a retelling of history, can only be so suspenseful.  So, while it was sad to see Cicero treated so shabbily by nearly everyone in Rome, there is some consolation in knowing that he will be recalled to the center of Roman politics in fairly short order.  I certainly look forward to seeing how Harris wraps up the latter part of Cicero's life!

As an interesting side note, I was quite struck by the difference in the portrayals of Julius Caesar in Conspirata and Colleen McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series.  In McCullough's works, Caesar is a paragon of virtue who forthrightly struggles to correct the course of the Republic.  In contrast, Harris chooses to cast Caesar in a decidedly shady light.  This Caesar actively seeks to destroy the remains of the Roman republic, whether through associating with demagogues like Clodius or by "social engineering" with his opponents' wives (wink, wink. nudge, nudge).  I suspect that neither author has it quite right, and that the real man is somewhere between angel and demon.  I might check out a comprehensive Caesar biography sometime to get to the bottom of this.