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Rephrasing the famous opening line from, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘it a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of
power, must be in want of more power.’ Power and money are often themes around which entire books or series revolve. Power and money are often motives around which detective stories revolve. But when Jeffrey Archer uses these two aspects in his best-seller, ‘Kane And Abel‘, he fuses other aspects as well such as a bildungsroman theme, ego, hatred, economic empires, economic clout and a concise history of America from the 1900s’ to the 1960s’. This curious fusion creates a thrilling page turner in the form of ‘Kane And Abel.’
The plot is as simple as can be. Two infants-William Kane and Wladek Koskiewicz- are born on the same day on two different continents: Kane with a silver spoon in America and Wladek to a nameless mother in Poland. While William’s life is set out for him by his father who is the chairman of Kane and Cabot bank, Wladek’s life is fraught with difficulties and struggles in the light of which he discovers his strengths and weaknesses as well as his father’s identity. Kane steadily rises to the positions of power in America while Wladek embarks on a life changing journey to America to make a name and a fortune. Kane becomes part of the board of directors in his own bank while Wladek runs a hotel in Chicago after a lot of struggling in low paying jobs. Gradually, these two rise in power and stature, get to know each other by quirks of fate which cements their relation of hate and turns both on to a path to destroy each other. Are they successful in their personal vendettas? Read up the novel to find out more.
Some say that ‘Kane And Abel‘ is Archer’s best work so far. Having read only 1 other book by him, ‘Prisoner Of Birth’, I can’t really affirm this particular claim. What I can vouch for is that the novel will keep you engrossed with its breakneck speed, compelling plot, grasping writing, the twists and turns and the clearly etched out characters and situations. Spanning 60 years, ‘Kane And Abel‘ not only narrates the story of the titular characters but intersperses them with the historic moments of American history- the sinking of the Titanic, World War 1 and 2, Great Depression etc.. This proffers the reader interesting nuggets of history and manifests how history shapes human lives to a large extent.
The downside of the novel is that Archer tries too hard to make the two characters collide. There are too many coincidences that are strewn throughout the story through which their paths cross. After a point, these get too hard to believe. The occurrences of so many coincidences in real life is next to impossible. Archer also has tried to create sympathy for the two characters which at times is at odds with their sole aim for power and destruction. Moreover, there is also an impossible paradox to believe: Both William and Wladek helped each other at some point or the other despite the fact they were hell bent to destroy each other financially and emotionally. This is rather hard to digest.
The worst drawback of the novel is that it is male centric. Women have hardly any role to play in the story other than being mothers,grandmothers, daughters and wives. The only exception is Wladek’s daughter who is assertive and a working woman and not just a rich man’s submissive daughter. Perhaps to make up for this male centric vision of the novel, Archer has extended the story of Wladek’s daughter in the sequel, ‘The Prodigal Daughter.’ This constant association of power with men reiterates the stereotype of empires and power and money being a man’s domain with women only playing arm candy to the men.
Barring the above downsides, ‘Kane And Abel‘ is a fine piece of fiction, one that you can breeze through in a couple of days and elicit oodles of excitement from it as well.
Called as a critique of colonialism, ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ by Joseph Conrad gives a profound, horrific and terrible account of human nature and the darkness within.
The nameless narrator of the novel recounts Marlow’s adventure in the Congo as a steamboat captain and how his experiences in the various colonial outposts over there and with Mistah Kurtz deepened his understanding of the world around him. Marlow narrates his own story on ‘a cruising yawl,’ Nellie on the river Thames. Critics have noted that ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ is based on Conrad’s own travels in the Congo and that Marlow is Conrad himself. Marlow does come across as the vehicle through which Conrad gives voice to his own worldviews. The novella too has a touch of being a travelogue as it consists predominantly of a journey-Marlow’s journey up the the snakelike river. Consequently it is replete with anecdotes-how Marlow made the journey, the steamers he hopped on, the stations he stopped at where he met a wide range of colonialists whose sole purpose seemed to be ivory and domination and who brought him closer to the idea of Kurtz and his ‘unsound’ methods. He eventually gets wrapped in a mission to get Kurtz out of the way as he, despite being a ‘universal genius’ and a ‘remarkable man,’ got carried away and was doing more harm than good in providing the ivory to the Company. Yet at the end, Marlow realises through his talks with Kurtz that there is no proper right and wrong in this place (Congo), that there is darkness in every soul, in every human being, in every civilization. This profound knowledge that he gains leaves him scarred and as they sail away into Thames that sense of the inherent nature of evil in man imbues all who listened to Marlow’s story.
The novel is hailed for its revolutionary ideas and for its questioning of not just British Imperialism but also European Imperialism on the whole. Throughout the novel, the reader sees Marlow hesitatingly exploring the disadvantages of colonialism and how power and greed can blind men/ women to unthinkable cruelty and oppression. Conrad very subtly presents such complex notions on this theme. There is a constant juxtaposition and even mocking of the greatness of the white people with the wildness and the mess around them. Kurtz himself went to absurd lengths to acquire the ivory and even commanded a bunch of tribes to do his bidding to get more ivory but he in the end realised the horror of his deeds while the the authorities simply don’t. What they call Kurtz’s ‘unsound’ methods is also what they themselves are perpetuating throughout the world. Thus the novel takes a hard hitting look at the politics of power, greed as well as territorial, racial and ideological supremacy that is relevant in today’s global world where we are subject to a capitalistic or corporate colonialism
However, despite, ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ being an attack on the imperial powers, it is thoroughly grounded in those very ideologies. Thus, Marlow may have gained enlightenment about the darkness of the human heart, he still is very much a product of that very imperial superpower. Many of his ideas and views adhere to imperialistic ideologies. He seems to journey in his own contradiction of being questioning as well as open minded. This makes the novella very ambiguous as to whether ‘The horror! The horror!’ that Kurtz talks about is in fact a meditation of his own deeds or of the way of the ‘savages,’ and whether Marlow is indeed talking of ‘the heart of darkness’ of humans in general or of an ‘uncivilized’ place that creates this kind of greed and horror in them. The novel is racist, sexist and reiterates colonial notions undoubtedly. There is a tinge of racial superiority in Marlow and the others who constantly believe about the rightness of their actions. This was possibly the dominant way of thinking at that time and Conrad seems to have been influenced by it despite the ‘reality’ of the human nature he encountered there.
‘Heart Of Darkness‘ therefore provides a mix of two different attitudes. Conrad is trying to be liberal, transgress his colonial upbringing and throughout the novel, the reader does see the way he illuminates colonialism’s downside, yet that upbringing seems to be ingrained in him.
A powerful and profound read. Don’t let the size fool you. Its not a book for time pass. It will move you, hurt you and shock you and enlighten you as well.
P.S. : ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ was also transformed into a cinematic spectacle in the movie, ‘Apocalypse Now'(1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring the famous Marlon Brando and the not so famous, Martin Sheen, who has given a brilliant performance nonetheless! What Coppola has done however is that he has used similar ideas and applied it to a different context all together. From the European imperialism he has used it to comment on the American high handedness during the Vietnam war. Its a splendid movie that captures the ‘essence’ of the book in a completely different context. It has the same sense of unreal, lunatic and dreamy, haunting feel that shocks the viewer doubly because it is now visual and accentuated by the breathtaking music that blends so well with the story from the Doors’ songs to the Wagner track. The movie can be a task to watch because it is 3 hours long but a complete cinematic treat to watch nonetheless. Reading the book and watching this movie will deepen one’s understanding even further about the message and moral of the book. The movie however is more political and clear in its stance.
‘Animal Farm‘ was another book that I read as part of my English Literature class. Written by George Orwell, ‘Animal Farm‘ is an interesting read with animals as the main characters. I quite enjoyed the book mainly because of Orwell’s remarkable story and its relevance to politics of any country. Anybody who knows the dirtiness of politics will surely relate to this book. ‘Animal Farm‘ is a biting satire on politics and is based on the Russian Revolution and the events during Stalin era. There are several characters in the novel that represent real life characters prominent at that time.
The story is about animals on Manor Farm who lead a revolution to get rid of the torturous and oppressive Mr Jones, a human and how they overthrow him and take over the farm. The pigs are proclaimed as leaders. Although initially several steps are taken to better the animals’ conditions, gradually power corrupts the pigs and they begin neglecting the masses i.e. the animals. Sounds like politics played n India, doesn’t it?
The most remarkable feature of the book is the use of animals to represent a human tendency(I think it is human because I do not think it exists in animals)- to play dirty politics. Orwell’s writing is simple, no flamboyant usage of language and his story is plain to understand as it does not have deep symbolism which one has to crack one’s brains over. Another plus point, despite it being written in 1945, is that it is still contemporary. Its themes of power, corruption , deceit and the vicious cycle of politics are still relevant as even today politicians use tactics mentioned in the book. Not much seems to have changed in the political field. Anyone can, even today, draw parallels in our own society and among our politicians from several incidents in the book. Napoleon, the pig who usurps power in the book is a classic example of how power corrupts and his sidekick Squealer, is an excellent example of any political party’s spokesperson who will do practically anything-lie, cheat, kill, bribe-to uphold the leader’s greatness(even though he/she does the most gruesome and criminal of things).
As a conclusion,’Animal Farm‘ is a delightful read, an amazing satire that can make one think. It is good(but not necessary) to get some background information on the Russian Revolution and Stalin Era to comprehend the story thoroughly. Without that information too, the story will be meaningful. ‘Animal Farm‘ is well worth a read!