Those Green Trees…

Reading contemporary literature, especially fiction is a tricky thing. There is either some frivolous angst related plot for characters who have no reason to be angst, or they try and say profound things, which all just gets articulated as someone trying very hard to be stream of consciousness or they are written solely to propagate an ism; regardless of the narrative arc etc. No wonder like my friend Cleo says, one feels the constant urge to stick to classics. But sometimes you do have to venture out to the modern world and find out what are the current going ons.

I have been reading some very good reviews about Greenwood by Michael Christie; the plot appealed to me; it was a an interesting mix of historical fiction with some futuristic apocalyptic overtones. But mostly, what really intrigued me was the personality of the author. Mr. Christie seemed to be a very hands on environmentalist. He is a former carpenter and a social worker and now lives in Galiano Island, with his family in a timber house he built for himself. Mr. Christie seemed to know about tress and I had a feeling if nothing else I will learn about trees.

The book begins in 2034 in an apocalyptic world where all trees have died out due to an event called The Withering, a fungal infestation, that has killed all plants and green things. Most of the population is reduced to living in slums with extreme pollution and air filled with noxious gas and other poisonous substances. This causes various illness and diseases including a cough that kills children’s by breaking their ribcage and has shattered the global economy. However the rich continue to be rich and live in huge climate controlled buildings and take vacations to some of last remaining forests and clusters of green acres with fresh air. Jake Greenwood is a guides in one the last bastions of nature, a small island in British Columbia. She has Ph.D but the Withering has wiped out her future as a probable professor of Botany along with her savings, leaving her riddles with a student debt and a pitiful existence. The fact that she shares her last name with the island name is nothing but a coincidence. Until an ex-boyfriend, arrives with a fantastic tale of a timber tycoon Grandfather, who once owned this land and a story of a family, that started a tryst with wood and forests that went back generations.

This is not a perfect book. Some of characters and their actions seemed to have no correlation whatsoever. The plot at times, was slow and I had thoughts of abandoning it. While not a linear narrative, some of the threads did not always tie in very clearly. Having said all of that, it is an important book and a must be read. It made me think deeply about trees and our environment much more deeply than I had ever thought, though I am someone who is very conscious about sustainability and the quality of life of our planet. It made me more than ever appreciate the green planet that we had the privilege to be born into and are now wantonly destroying! It made me uncomfortable about my present and worry about the future. It is that kind of powerful book! There are many good things about the novel from a purely work of fiction perspective as well. While I could not understand the motivation of some of the key characters, others like that of Temple and Liam Feeney, left me moved and touched and amazed at the ability of human kindness and honor, both qualities in short supply in real life! The plot did drag a bit and then suddenly it picked up midway and had me running through the pages as fast as I could. Finally the prose is beautiful and Mr. Christie has an absolutely awe inspiring ability to write about tress without being poetic in the traditional sense. The book is filled with, as I expected, a lot information about trees, but it never reads like dry history and in fact brings humans closer to these marvelous giving creatures, whom we have destroyed with a vengeance. And while the main theme is our environment, there is beautiful sub theme of what it means to be a family, of relations through blood or otherwise and loyalty. This aspect of the book especially resonated with me and added a complex and enriching layer to narrative . I strongly recommend this book, both for its storytelling and the message it tries to drive home. A wonderful wonderful book.

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Dystopia from the Past

As part of my 12 Month Classics Challenge, I  began the year by reading A Classic I have always wanted to read and therefore settled on 1984 by George Orwell. I absolutely loved his Animal Farm and was intrigued by what his take on 1984 would be based on his imagination and understanding of when he actually wrote the novel in 1949. Being born a sometime just before 1984, I did not think of the year as a great futuristic time, but rather as a thing of the past. Therefore I was even more intrigued to find out, how Orwell perceived the future 40 years ahead of his time!

1984 begins with the introduction of our primary protagonist Winston Smith, who is a resident of Airstrip One, the erstwhile England, which is now part of the Oceanic Empire and his secret diary keeping, which violates every norm of the Oceania and for which Smith can he arrested under the guise of Thought Crime. The world is divided into  Oceania, consisting of Americas and England and Australasia, Euroasia made up of Europe and parts of Asia and Eastasia, which is Eastern Asia. These three supra-states have been in a continuous state of warfare with each other with shifting and  ever changing alliances. Oceania is ruled by the Big Brother, a single man – single party dictatorship, that closely governs all its people with various spying techniques including telescreens in every room that capture all movements of its citizen and hidden microphones. The society is divided into Proles, the outcasts or the blue collar citizens, then the more exclusive but deary outer party people and finally the most exclusive and privileged inner party people. The government is divided into 4 organizations that run the nation – Ministry of Peace dealing with war and peace and more former than latter; Ministry of Plenty that manages the economy of country and is continuously imposing ration on its people; Ministry of Love that manages law and governance and is responsible for horrific torture and disappearance of its citizens and finally the Ministry of Truth that deals with media and is constantly re-publishing and changing the party stance as and when required. At the start of the novel, we are made aware that Winston is not convinced with the overall benevolence of Big Brother and his regime and wonders about life before the regime took over and its claims that life is better now. Winston wants to find out the conditions of life before the regime took over, but since the regime has destroyed all references to the life before it came to power, he has no way of knowing what was what. He is aware that the regime continuously changes its stance to adapt to the new events and all records are destroyed or re-published to show case the fact the the regime was aligned to the change from the very beginning. At the ministry, he meets Julia, whom he initially was suspicious off and who confesses her love for him. They soon begin a secret affair, since all kinds of relationship with sexual import is not sanctioned by the regime. They rent a small room in the Proles zone, through a kindly antique shop owner. They soon discover their mutual abhorrence for the regime and in an effort to find out if there is another way out, they seek out O’Brian a Inner Party member, about whom Winston was convinced that he is actually working for Goldstien, the rebel who was constantly threatening to overthrow the regime. As Julia and Winston reach out tor O’Brian, they become more and more involved in actions that violate the laws of Oceania, leading to final, inescapable end.

What can I say about the Dystopian novel, that spoke of the most possible Dystopia before the word became fashionable? Written in clean, clear and powerful prose, the plot grips you as a reader as you turn page after page of  the book without a pause; all the while feeling the creep and the discomfort of a Winston and Julia and of living in a society that is constantly watching your moves. The thing is one cannot dismiss this as a work of fictive imagination, because Stalin’s Soviet Union and the cultural revolution of China are infact live proofs of what can and does happen when the government becomes far too strong. The doublethink, which is a philosophy of Oceania, brings home clearly the ability of regimes to say things with several meanings and not be held accountable for any or can be interpreted as per the current requirement, with its ability to appear contradictory in the same instance.There is a passage where Winston and one his colleagues discuss the development of NewSpeak, the language which is expected to replace Old English and the about the deletion of the verbs and nouns , an act that in itself seeks to destroy individuality and expression of people. The censorship and the surveillance and the constant fear of persecution, brings home the fact that we are truly blessed to live in societies that do many flaws, but are democratic nevertheless. Orwell’s depth of imagination just blew me away and his ability to create a whole new society that lives in terror is as realistic and horrific. The characters are ordinary people who want to do ordinary things – come home, drink good coffee and read a book but for which they have to take extraordinary paths. Even Goldstien’s manifesto, reads for what is – a trading in of the deep blue sea for the devil with no realistic improvements and changes called out.

A brilliant read, that again testifies, just how good George Orwell was.