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Alternate history

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Title: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Year: 2009

I’ve been tempted to read China Miéville many times before, but when I learnt about The City & the City and had the opportunity to borrow it from a friend, i knew that I had no choice but to read it instantly. Why? Because the idea upon which the novel is based is one of the best ideas I’ve ever encountered. I knew I would like this novel even before I opened it, even though I could only hope that the author was competent enough to use such a cool idea and create a good novel as well. He was and he did, far beyond my expectations.

So, what is this idea I keep going on about? The novel is set in a world which seems to be the same as the one we inhabit, but with a significant addition of a city and a city, called Beszel and Ul Qoma respectively. These cities, although geographically coexisting, are two different countries, two different city-states. Citizens in Beszel aren’t allowed to notice what’s going on in Ul Qoma, even though they might share certain streets; the inhabitants of Ul Quoma must carefully “unhear” anything that’s being said on the other side of the border, even though it might be within arm’s reach. The divide is upheld by rigorous social taboos, rules and regulations, internalised by the citizens since they were kids, enabling them to ignore what’s might be happening so close, but is still in another country. There is also the omnipotent Breach, which intervenes whenever illegal interaction occurs between the two cities. Only in the centre of the city can people pass legally over an international border, through customs and reach the other city.

The story starts with body being found in Beszel, and detective Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad starts an investigation. But the murdered woman, a foreign student studying in Ul Qoma, was last seen in that city, which makes Borlú think that this is a case for Breach. However, his request to hand it over to the mysterious and powerful organisation is denied: No breach has occurred, the body was legally transported from Ul Quoma to Beszel, it’s a case for the police, a case for Borlú and his harsh sidekick Corwi. But why would somebody go to such extremes to get rid of a student? Why steal a van and smuggle the body between the cities? The answer is out there for Borlú to find, but in which city?

What is so astonishing about this novel is perhaps not the idea itself, but the fact that China Miéville manages to portray life in the two cities as something quite ordinary and normal. The cities are bizarre, but after only a few chapters, they feel natural and the reader is already in the mindset of the main character. I already said I thought the idea is brilliant, but the author exploits it to its absolute potential and makes far more of it than I thought possible.

In addition to this, the story itself is thrilling, entertaining and fascinating, all at once. Reading the book, I had a very hard time putting it down; I wanted to see what happened in the next chapter and what new aspects of the two cities might emerge. The story is told with a language which probably isn’t beautiful, but yet masterfully used to achieve a certain effect: credibility. In addition, this books is exactly as long as it needs to be, there is no excess and nothing lacks.

To put it very briefly, this novel is perfect. Five snails without even the slightest glimmer of doubt. The City & the City is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Read it now!

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Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Year: 2007

These are strange times to be a Jew, even more so in a world where the state of Israel failed miserably and where many of the world’s Jews ended up in Alaska after the implementation of the Slattery Report, and especially when the lease of that frostbitten piece of land is coming to an end, and Jews soon will need to look elsewhere for some place to live. In the final weeks of the Jewish settlement in Sitka, a young man who was once deemed to be a future messiah, is found shot dead in his hotel room with a mysteriously set-up chess board on his bedside table. Alcoholic and decadent policeman Meyer Landsman starts investigating, sometimes with the support of his half-Jew half-Indian companion Berko Shemets. However, the investigation soon spins out of control and Landsman is relieved of his badge and gun, but he doggedly continues to follow the trail with reckless abandon, discovering ever more unsettling truths as he goes a long.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the first book I read by Michael Chabon, but I can promise you that it will not be the last one. Even though I am normally not a fan of detective stories, this one has two things that I like very much, one of them truly unique. To begin with, I fancy the alternate-history genre. Admittedly, apart from the Jews inhabiting Alaska instead of Israel, the alternate history elements of this novel are not that prominent, but the are enough to earn my liking. This is an awesome genre that allows the author to mix reality with fiction in a way which appears both realistic and fantastic at the same time.

Even more important than that, however, is Chabon’s fantastic language. His style is truly unique and reminds me of no other author whatsoever. He uses words in the most unconventional, but yet effective way. His metaphors are sometimes beyond description, but most of the time they are entertaining, well-written and sometimes they also succeed in giving the reader a good idea about what the author wants to describe. Here is an example from page 135 which might be said to be typical for the author’s style:

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.

This kind of imaginative and highly creative language permeates the books. Chabon’s language is always interesting, albeit not always meaningful. Details, such as the recurring allusions to Chess, adds to the overall rating. Chabon also employs a mixture of Yiddish, Sitka slang and English, which works very well (however, this can not be said to be a major part of the novel in the same way as it is for, say, A Clockwork Orange).

In addition to this, the characters who inhabit the world of this novel are truly masterpieces. They are multi-faceted and highly credible portrayals of human beings, but are still very interesting and entertaining. I especially like Landsman himself, mostly because of his refusal to do what sane people would do in his place, and because of his sense of humour. This, and much more, makes me smile and laugh a lot when I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a valuable addition to a novel which would have felt heavy otherwise (literally speaking, the novel spans 400 pages).

That being said, the book is not perfect. The plot itself is interesting and Chabon does his best to deepen it with layers of chess, Judaism and Alaskan landscape, but it still is not even close to the brilliance of his language. Therefore, I felt a little bit disappointed in the end, and considered giving the novel only four snails. However, looking back at the novel as a whole, the good parts are so outstandingly good that I have no choice but to give four and a half snails to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

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Titel: The Man in the High Castle
Författare: Philip K. Dick
Utgivningsår: 1962 (2001)
Recenserad: 2005-06-06
Status: I bokhyllan

Handlingen utspelar sig samma år som boken skrevs, 1962 och i samma land, USA. Den viktiga skillnaden är att de allierade makterna förlorade andra världskriget. Mordförsöket på Roosevelt 1933 lyckades, USA fortsatte med isoleringspolitik och lämnade Europa i tyskarnas händer. Kvar nere i depressionen hade USA inte mycket att sätta mot Japans effektiva anfall när kriget väl började för deras del.

Resultatet: ett USA delat mellan Japan och Tyskland, ett Afrika nästan helt rensat på liv och Martin Bormann som tysk Rikskansler och världens mäktigaste man. Vi får följa flera personer som lever i denna värld och Dicks persongalleri är som vanligt beskrivet på ett mycket bra och levande sätt. Genom dessa fantastiska personskildringar får vi ta del av det centrala i boken.

Det är två böcker som pekar detta. Den första är I Ching, Book of Changes, den flera tusen år gamla daoistiska spådomsboken. Japanerna är de mer humana av de två supermakterna och de har fört in en stor portion österländskt till USAs västkust. I Ching går visserligen bra att använda som en vanlig spådomsbok, men den har också ett mycket djupare värde än så.

Den andra boken är en bok-i-boken, kallad The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, författad av Hawthorne Abendsen. På samma sätt som Dick använde I Ching för att skriva The Man in the High Castle, använde Abendsen I Ching för att skriva The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Boken är mycket populär, men bannlyst i hela den tyskkontrollerade delen av världen. För att skydda sig, ryktas det om att författaren har byggt in sig i en fästning i Klippiga bergen: the High Castle. I sin bok berättar Abendsen om en alternativ historia, hur världen kunde ha varit, en värld där axelmakterna blir besegrade och de allierade vinner andra världskriget…

Den här boken har djup, den tål att tänka på ett bra tag. Även om jag kanske inte kommer minnas boken för själva handlingen, kommer jag garanterat att minnas stämningen, personerna och djupet i berättelsen. Utan att avslöja ännu mer och förstöra nöjet att läsa boken, filosoferar Dick kring många frågor: Kan det finnas en bättre värld än denna? Finns det något sådant som en objektiv historia? Rekommenderar Snigel boken?

Javisst!

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