Lesser-known classical books you shouldn't forget
On Bastille-day 195X in France sometime in the near future (the book was published in 1951, so any time in the 50s after that would be the near future, even if we don’t know when) Hydies, an American upper class woman, meets two men. One is Fedja Nikitin, a cultural attaché from the “Commonwealth” (which is a poorly hidden reference to the Soviet Union) and Julien, a former communist now turned something (I didn’t quite get what he was, just that he liked the communist ideals, but didn’t like the “Commonwealth” and their version of communism, and that he was planning a demonstration in France for something).
“Because in reality there is no common language”
I read this book as a part of #1951club (which is about reading books published in 1951). Koestlet was a Jewish Hungerian-British writer and with this book he touches on something that was common in European art in the 1950s. This book is about faith. Not faith in God, (though Hydies both converted to, then lost her Catholic faith). No, it’s about faith in the future, faith in something bigger than yourself (something Nikitin presents with his faith in the “Commonwealth” and their communist ideology). Nikitin has faith, Julian has lost faith and Hydies, to quote Julian, has “a perverse longing to attain faith”. Europe in the 50s were a strange to be in. They were still reeling after the war, the continent was divided by the Berlin wall, the threat of the cold war hanging over everyone, and in the western world the focus had moved from the stable community where everyone knew their place, to focus on the individual. Families were split up and a lot of people were finding themselves in a new country, either as a result of the war or fleeing the new regime in their old country. These people, and the people who has stayed, now had a new task in finding a common ground and figuring out who was a friend and who was a spy.
Some people suffer and turn into saints. The same experience turn others into wild animals, who only thirst for revenge. Others just become neurotic.
Having the relationship between these three people and the people they know, Koestler shows different situations for people in different places and the focus is very much on the finding out the purpose with everything. On one hand, the people are merely a way to show different philosphis and ideologies at the time. On the other hand there is a very interesting story at the centre.
Maximov’s last comment has been the biggest compliment Fedja could have wished for, and yet, again, Maximov had used a tone that was insulting, more than that, contempt.
The one thing that bothered me about the book (which I otherwise loved, what can I say? I’m a sucker for a good discussion book) is that it’s classified as Science Fiction. There is hardly any science in this book, so I really don’t get this. There was a mention of an X-bomb, but that was clearly a refrence to the Atomic bomb which wasn’t Science Fiction in the 50s. Is it simply because he places the plot a few years into the future (his future at least)? Is it automatically Science Fiction if the plot is placed in the future, even if it’s not about the techonology at all, but more an idea about where the politics of today is heading? If anyone has read this book and could tell me, please do. This was confusing.
Other than that, Koetler was a surprisingly witty, yet poignant writer. Clearly influences by what he experience as a Hungerian Jew and should be more known than he is at present. While fictionalised (even changing the name of one of the main countries) I do believe it’s a faithful representation of a lot of the thoughts, philosophies and the people at the time.