Love of books, in the face of certain death
My son loves books. He uses much of his allowance to buy books.
Over dinner recently, he told his mother and me the book he was reading mentioned that Hans Christian Andersen was once a house guest of Charles Dickens. The conversation drifted to me saying if there were only three books he could read, these should be “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” by John Le Carre and “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. Of course there are hundreds of other books worth reading, like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller or “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell or “Noli Me Tangere” by Jose Rizal.
My top-of-mind recommendation got me thinking: Why did I single out these three books as must-reads for my son? In Dickens’ classic, the dissolute barrister Sydney Carton gives up his life by taking the place of the condemned French aristocrat who is married to the woman Carton loves. “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” he tells himself as he is about to lose his head to the guillotine. Le Carre’s Alec Leamas, the British double agent living a life of lies and deception, realizes that he is just a pawn in some grander plot and does something completely contrary to what is expected of an amoral soldier of the Cold War: He decides to die beside the idealistic woman who herself is a victim of espionage. Camus’ Meursault is convicted of killing a man because of a petty quarrel in which he was only peripherally involved.
Two die for love, and the third awaits execution over nothing, a random, meaningless crime. I guess it is how they face certain death that appeals to me. It is their redemption, their saving grace. It is the equanimity with which they embrace their fates that struck me when I first read those books decades ago and which has remained with me subconsciously and came to the fore over that dinner.
The fates of these characters were certainly gloomy. Why should I foist them upon my son, whose preponderance of literary exposure to despair and the darkness of the human heart has been in fairy tales and Edgar Allan Poe/Bram Stoker/Stephen King (with the exception of the stunning “Silence” by Shusaku Endo, and it was he who made me read that)?
What is the value of the lives and deaths of these literary characters? Their stories play out in a world governed by forces far greater than they could ever hope to control: the maelstrom of the French Revolution, the murky depths of the Cold War, the seemingly random intersecting paths in an indifferent universe. Maybe in that sense Meursault has the more realistic attitude. He has no illusions about life, or at least his life, having meaning. And he is perfectly okay with that. Carton and Leamas finally find meaning in the ultimate sacrifice. And they are perfectly okay with that, too.
My reflection also made me realize that I no longer read fiction. (The last one I read after a very long time was “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami. And that I remember not so much for its story as for the time I was browsing in the bookstore and a high school girl picked up the title, read it aloud, and naughtily observed how dull it was. “Ay, wala siyang kabuhay-buhay,” she told her companion. “Smart girl,” I thought, and I was disappointed when she put the copy back on the shelf.) Maybe because I am no longer young and I no longer need fiction to vicariously experience life and death. It is not only life that seems to hold no meaning at times, but death as well. More so now, living as we do in the time of nightly drug executions, do I realize that fact is more compelling than fiction.
Maybe my son is also outgrowing fiction at an earlier age than I did. The other week it was a faux-leather bound copy of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” that he brought to the table. Last week it was Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” He observed: “It doesn’t have a swastika or a picture of Hitler.”
My wife is right. It is a bad world into which we have brought our son. Fact and fiction bear this out. It is only by loving that we can gain a measure of redemption.
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Roderick Toledo, 61, is a freelance communication projects manager.
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