Living through the second lockdown: Literary excursions

With wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic in full swing and virologists suddenly elevated to stardom on various TV channels, with critical journalism constantly in decline and with a smug political class imposing lockdown after lockdown with scant regard for all the economic and social fallout, democracy as we know it has been put on halt. This all happens despite even the World Health Organisation arguing in favour of such blunt instruments only to be used as a last resort and a short term solution. With the second shutdown now going into its fourth month, leaders can hardly maintain that the measures taken have been devised so that the spread of the Corona virus can be slowed or stopped in its immediacy. In fact, living under curfew has become a way of life. Given the lack of a comprehensive strategy to fight the pandemic longterm, it is not without a certain irony that politicians celebrate themselves by holding each other in a tight embrace whenever rates of infection slow and lash out at ordinary citizens when their policies don’t bear fruit or fail completely. Remember that it was French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault who said that any pandemic is a godsend for the ruling class. Considering how eager politicians have become to appear tough on the virus, and how much spin they put into trying to convince us that the virus but not their policies adversely affect our lives, Foucault still has a point. Whether by chance or by design, and perhaps at times with all the best intentions, governments have created an all encompassing artificial right to health which, even if only temporarily, trumps all our civil liberties codified in the constitution. To my knowledge a right to health does not exist in any such documents the world over, and the idea that such a legal construct can ever outweigh constitutional law is not just news to me but must be worrying for all of those caring about the state of our societies. True, it goes without saying that the state has a duty to try to protect its citizens from bodily harm, but governments must also respect the right of individuals to make their own informed choices. Many might sadly cry out for governments that attempt to reduce all the uncertainties and complexities of life to bearable levels, and they must be heard and their needs have to be addressed. However, there are also those who, even in the midst of a pandemic, insist on their liberties and their rights to make their own choices, even if this means running the risk of severe illness or premature death. When such apparently mutually exclusive interests collide, the state is left with no other option but to step in and resolve the conflict. One of the lessons of this pandemic is that our governments have proven to be completely unprepared for this task and, whether out of ignorance or political opportunism, have decided to represent only those who ask for or need special protection. A much better approach would have been for governments to allow those who so choose to stay at home and/or take their kids out of school for the duration of the pandemic. In turn, this would have created the necessary space for those eager to continue to live their lives to Cary on as before, or at least with only minimal restrictions and adjustments not detrimental to the economic livelihood of so many business owners. In spite of all the rhetoric preceding COVID-19, we all must take stock and recognise that at present at least our modern democratic societies are ill equipped to handle any sort of natural disaster. Putting democracy on halt cannot and must not be a credible option for the future. While all of this makes for somber reading, a silver lining has appeared on the horizon. Even if history only rimes, then we all have grounds for some optimism despite the mismanagement of the crisis by our politicians, and a shockingly dismal and inadequate performance of the media. Each pandemic was followed by a period of innovation in both culture and the arts and by a time of social indulgence for all the people who lived through such a calamity. When I relayed my optimism to a good friend of mine in the UK, she gave me a rather pitying smile, asking me how I can possibly be so confident. So what is there to do for a free adventurous spirit who had his physical wings clipped and has to exist in social isolation? Whenever options in life are limited, mental fortitude and resilience must thrive. In the absence of real genuine friends, books have become the most reliable and inspiring companions of mine. So while I am sitting in my little one-bedroom apartment and wait for the roaring 20s to kick in, I have started to reread books I have come across years ago and which still have a firm grip on my imagination. Until self-isolation became the norm, I had no idea that reading outstanding literature twice can be so rewarding. A few of these books I want to share with you here.

The Woman in White

Neither in Victorian Britain nor in our age does a lawyer’s job description include traits such as empathy or demands of them to look out for the most vulnerable and destitute souls. Those displaying such cumbersome tendencies are so far and few in between that history has taken the trouble to record each and every one of them.

Indeed, fictional writing is only any good if it borders on the real and allows readers to recognise themselves. In other words, it is the art of imaginative storytelling that can hold the attention of readers until the end. If taken to its highest level, it might even change perceptions too. Like his close friend Charles Dickens, lawyer, writer and Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins never shied away from discussing the social inequities of his time, and both men collaborated on various literary projects. It was not until late 2001 that I came across The Woman in White in the form of a superbly produced radio play broadcast on the BBC. The performing cast was without a doubt the best British theatre had to offer, and so I was hooked and fell head over heels in love with English literature. Perhaps I was so susceptible to being intrigued because my life had been at its most peculiar. Since I had studied and lived in the UK for more than a year and had built up a social circle of friends unmatched ever since, I felt right at home there and in hindsight have to confess that, just a few years after leaving boarding school, it was the only time in my life I felt I had found a place where I could see myself settle one day. Colloquial English had long lost its magic because it had by now become such an integral part of my existence. Maybe this was the reason why I turned to literature with such enthusiasm. Yet, it was not until Apple Books came along more than a decade ago that the written word revealed itself to me in all its beauty and with all its powers of persuasion. At last, I could access books as easily as sighted people, and I have read extensively on Victorian literature over the years. Though the spoken word, particularly when it comes to novels, still appeals to me. To the BBC’s credit, they have published an enormous collection of their radio plays on Audible over the years, and this in turn gives discerning consumers unprecedented access to a wide collection of novels adapted for radio with great skill. It is theatre that fits in your pocket.

A Suitable Boy

Moving from the provinces into a melting pot was in itself a life altering experience. As the ground kept shifting beneath my feet, and daily life brought wondrous revelationss, growing up to become a responsible global citizen seemed all too natural. Yet, consciously dropping one identity only to be replaced by another was by no means easy or painless. Alas, it was a rewarding but also an exhaustive mountain I had chosen to climb.

Any maturing citizen of the world has his or her moments. Hanging out with a bunch of students from India on campus was always a blast. But given my limited knowledge of the subcontinent, I shied away from raising political subjects and, whenever such a topic came up, I preferred to be merely a passive bystander. Hot potato’s are best left untouched if you know you get your fingers burned. Of course I had heard about partition, and the human catastrophe accompanying it was not lost on me either. The name Gandhi rang a bell too, and the conflict between India and Pakistan was also familiar. Whenever newsworthy, India’s tense relations with China caught my attention. Yet I always felt my understanding of the place to be grossly inadequate. Not until the BBC introduced me to one of the hundred novels that shaped our world did all of this change, and India became more than an afterthought. How many resources the British public broadcaster and its production company poured into adapting A Suitable Boy by social critic and Indian novelist Vikram Seth is guesswork. But surely the budget was not one for the faint-hearted. Directed by British award-winning writer and radio producer John Dryden, this is perhaps the jewel in the crown of all the radio plays ever produced. Recorded locally by a world class all-Indian cast, the production won Spoken Word Awards for best drama and best production and was also short-listed in the audio category for the Book of the Year Awards. Specially composed music beautifully woven into the story enriched with extraordinary sound effects turn this into a transformative listening experience. Set out to be a quintessentially Indian love story, you are taken right into the heart of urban India in the early 50s. Seth addresses all the social undercurrents without having to resort to preaching or moralising. Only the most gifted novelists can create such a smooth narrative in which the characters do all the work with grace and ease. It testifies to Seth’s humanity that even the characters you would ordinarily want to avoid call for sympathy. If great novelists have changed perceptions, Seth without a doubt has taken the art of character development and plot organisation one step further – he changes perceptions right from the moment you dive into the novel.

Nationalistic fervour has bedevilled post colonial societies ever since they became independent, and this trend has to varying degrees affected even the ones that have transitioned to democracy rather successfully. With tacit government approval, Hindu nationalism has been taken to new extremes. Desecrated Muslim holy sites, dead bodies and battered women are now making up the political capital used by Narrendra Modi and his crooks to fight and win ideologically charged election campaigns. Procrastinating politicians in the past are largely responsible for Hindu nationalism now rearing its ugly head again. If not held in check soon, any minor event may light the fuse, leading to a new round of extreme violence in the largest democracy in the world. As Seth always points out, India is a place which can only flourish with love, tolerance and respect for diversity.

Les Miserables

The greatest writer of France Victor Hugo was a man of many gifts and talents. In his writing career, he did not just establish Romanticism as a genre in French literature, but he also wrote globally acclaimed novels and was a satirist and poet. Outside France, he became best known for his novels Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Inside his own country he is mostly revered as a masterful poet. Besides, Hugo was a politician and statesman even, considering his role in shaping the Third Republic.

And so the English had Wilkie Collins, and the French had Victor Hugo. With the nobility in constant decline, with the propertied classes making their pitch for influence and power, and with the industrial revolution causing unprecedented levels of poverty and destitution, Hugo’s Les Miserables has become a powerful critique of social decay and injustice. Even today the novel has lost nothing of its global appeal. After all, fairness is a notion designed by and uniquely suited for our species, though implementing it has eluded mankind for millennia. Many colourful characters in conjunction with their complex interactions and compounded relationships entice readers to find at least somebody to sympathise with or someone to look up to. To Hugo’s credit, even the overbearing zealous police officers of today encounter their hero. Now that the novel has been turned into movies, theatre productions and musicals even, I nevertheless keep singing the BBC’s praises again. In early 2002, Hugo’s epic drama debuted on BBC Radio 4 as a radio play ambitiously produced and superbly recorded. Its impact on me was profound and lasting.

The Millennium Trilogy

During the Cold War the phrase Valley of the Ignorant was used to describe a series of black spots on the map representing East Germany. In these places TV channels from West Germany could not be received. On FM, radio programs from the western parts were also nonexistent. Nestled in the north east of the country, the town of Greifswald was such an information blackhole and my birthplace too. However, by the latter part of the 1980s, I had already started attending a boarding school catering especially for the blind, and this school happened to be more than 250 kilometers away. As a result I visited the town only on vacation a few times a year. There were many reasons why I did not look forward to these visits. For a start, I had no other children to hang out with. Also, I had ever truly bonded with my father in early childhood, and, even though my mother loved me too in her peculiar way, I already noticed at a very young age that there was something repulsive in her character. It did not help that my parents fought frequently, though the instigator was almost always my mother. In most abusive relationships, the culprits are mostly men, and it is a shame that our justice system still struggles to properly protect women from domestic violence and coercive control. Yet, in a few instances, women can abuse their spouses too, and my parents marriage sadly was such an example. Being almost constantly bored, my best friend became a little Transistor Radio with only medium wave reception. Given the absence of programs from West Germany, the Swedes had taken it upon themselves to use powerful transmitters to broadcast subversive messages of democracy and free speech into our lands. What made me come across the German programs of Radio Sweden International and what then made me stick with them I cannot say. When my father noticed my audio excursions, he told me that Sweden was a country just around the corner. Not a need for parental control or oversight drove him to take an interest in my doings. On the contrary, my father was an intellectually curious man himself, and if time allowed for it, we would listen together to the programs. It still hurts to know that my father’s spirit had been crushed and his ambitions stymied by a gangster regime holding sway in East Berlin. After another criminal experiment in social engineering had had its day in late 1989, he had already passed the prime of his life, thus sharing the experience so common in his generation. So when my parents were fighting again, and boredom and despair sat in, I would start daydreaming in front of my little wireless, wondering what it would feel like to live in this country. As a 9-year-old I wanted to find out if parents in Sweden were fighting with each other too, or if children were happier there. In preparing a completely unrelated piece I tracked down the interval signals used by Radio Sweden International in the 1980s. When the sweet sounds so inextricably linked with my childhood reached my ears for the first time in more than three decades, it was as if heaven and hell had suddenly joined forces – the few tears I shed were both tears of joy and sorrow. For whom or what I wept I cannot say.

Notice now how the most seemingly insignificant childhood memories can creep up on you and collide with the brain fully grown and developed. Only then can the human imagination truly thrive. First, Swedish writer and social activist Henning Mankell drew me into his orbit. Best known internationally for his highly acclaimed Wallander series, Mankell had also a lifelong commitment to address and discuss the many social injustices still afflicting the African continent. Then, Swedish journalist turned novelist Stieg Larsson performed his magic. Having made a name for himself writing for the Swedish anti racist magazine Expo, he made his breakthrough as a novelist with his globally celebrated Millennium Trilogy. Since he died just a few months prior to his first book being published, Larsson, the political activist, idealist and feminist, never saw his work taking the world by storm. Initially, he dedicated his life and career to help resolve the longstanding mystery and likely coverup following the Olof Palme assassination in February 1986. Only after constantly hitting a brick wall did he turn to fiction. Indeed, where investigative journalism falls short you must turn to the arts to keep the darkness at bay.

Superbly dramatised for radio inn German, and splendidly narrated as an audiobook series in English, the Millennium Trilogy tells a story of political intrigue, greedy businessmen and draws attention to violence against women. Victimised and abused by the Swedish state, as well as being taken advantage of by the justice system, the main character Lisbeth Salander, an introvert, gifted hacker, and social misfit, refuses to be cowed or to be defined as a victim. An avenging angel with a simple powerful moral code, Salander pursues her illusive enemies who had almost destroyed her entire life without mercy. Yet her believe to be entirely on her own is misplaced. As intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist finds out, being Salander’s friend is not easy, and his feelings for her are rarely reciprocated. But what binds him to her is the fact that she had once saved his life. When her fate is about to be decided and the justice system is ready to get its hands dirty again, Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine Millennium are ready to go to war. Within the Swedish security police, a tiny group of right-wing ideologues and Cold War warriors have formed a small entity known internally as the Section, an organisation so top secret that it has successfully evaded government and parliamentary oversight. When in the late 1970s a Soviet defector by the name of Alexander Zalachenko sought asylum in Sweden, it fell under the Section’s remit to run the former intelligence officer turned criminal and psychopath. As it turned out, the Section’s commitment to Zalachenko was absolute, and the brotherly club of self righteous hotheads did whatever was necessary to clean up after his crimes. For the sake of Sweden’s security, bypassing the constitution and violating the human rights of his daughter Lisbeth was a price worth paying. When Millennium zeroed in on their criminal activities, the group around acting chief Fredrik Clinton stops at nothing to protect the organisation and its secrets. And so, unprecedented crimes against their own citizens are planned in the shady corridors of power. This spectacular plot holds readers in permanent suspense throughout the novels, but by adding additional subplots subservient to the main one, Larsson creates the artistic space necessary to raise additional social questions of our times. His premature death in November 2004 meant that he could not continue the work on his series.

Only passion can coax an already accomplished writer to walk in the footsteps of a visionary. Only a burning desire can prompt a man to complete the literary works of an idealist. Yet in his writings, Swedish journalist and author David Lagercrantz meets this challenge head-on. With great stylistic refinement and finesse, he brings back to life the characters he inherited from Larsson, and, being ahead of his time like Larsson already was more than 15 years ago, Lagercrantz lets his heroes grapple with all the intricacies and technical wonders of our age. Not before the 6th and final volume of the series does the story of our protagonists reach its climax and final conclusion. Perhaps it was all a case of Larsson watching over his protege Lagercrantz as he put pen to paper. One of the rarest accomplishments in literature, the entire Millennium Series is the product of two soulmates at last finding each other – the eternal believe uniting both men that the arts can help change the world for the better. Still following various English language podcasts on Radio Sweden, I have no reason to idealise the place by imagining it to be a sort of social democratic paradise. But I still feel a great affection toward the Swedish model. After all, even in Garden Eden do bad apples grow on trees you know.

Societies upended?

Like in utopian writings, dystopian fiction is highly speculative, allowing authors to use their untethered imagination while tempting readers to look far beyond their immediate horizons. Inspired by the flawed human condition, the dystopian novel depicts a society both frightening and dehumanising. Having emerged in response to utopian fiction, dystopian literature is a relatively recent phenomenon, owing much of its power and appeal to circumstance. Most commonly, novelists focus on government control, mass poverty and environmental decay. The most imaginative create an apparently utopian setting unmasked by dystopian elements. Dreaming up the perfect itself is satirised. Since the world has been shrinking for centuries now, this kind of literature has undergone profound changes. Not least because the perfect faraway land cannot be found or even secretly longed for anymore. If, in fact, utopia is to be realised anywhere on the Globe, it can only be crafted by men. In turn, mere yearning for the perfect coupled with our fallacies inspire dystopian fiction which, in spite of its commercial success, must mean more to us readers than cheap evening entertainment. Underpinned by strong research, German best-selling author Frank Schätzing has helped the genre evolve by making one of the most creative contributions. In his novel Der Schwarm nature at last resolves to do the right thing, declaring war on humanity. Finally, Mother Earth is ready to throw off Gods Children, delivering judgement on a species gifted with reason and common sense, yet it kept recklessly encroaching on its natural habitat and employed whatever means necessary to erode and destroy the planet’s ecosystems. But how does humanity plead its case when both judge and jury reside in the depths of the oceans? What language are we to use to be granted a temporary reprieve? In Schätzing’s story, our survival hinges upon the outcome of an epic battle between scientists and politicians.

Our zeitgeist is defined by people clinging desperately to illusive certainties. To maintain a sense of self, they must outsource the human thought process to their TV sets or PCs, preferring to have their information sorted by hidden algorithms and Artificial Stupidity, wasting precious time by constantly interacting with voice assistants, devices that at best have the intellectual faculties of 6-year-old children. So obsessed are we now about our health that the well-to-do wear shiny fancy new gadgets which monitor heart rate, blood sugar levels and enlighten users as to their blood oxygen saturation levels too. Very soon, I will have to share the streets with stupidly grinning wannabe Androids, chanting vigorously that ignorance is bliss as they step into the light. With this sad procession marching on, I turn away in disgust, recognising perhaps belatedly that the collective IQ of our race keeps dropping sharply. then, we celebrate mediocre journalism, allowing a few crackpot politicians to thrive on human suffering and community angst – duplicitous men still passing for the modern version of human beings. Particularly ironic are the performances of the ones using the pulpit to preach empathy only to return to their polished villas worth millions. Let me tell you folks: I am happy to make do with my tiny little one-bedroom apartment. As I am sitting here waiting for the borders to reopen, my emotional roller coaster ride continues unabated, with its trajectory not yet known.

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