Friday, February 27

The Reader

Catching up on the Oscars fever, last night I saw the movie The Reader. It is a post-War drama based on the best-selling novel by Bernhard Schlink. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the book, but watching the film, I was left drenched in many questions about love and humanity, as opposed to the morality and justice expected to be followed in our society- something we call Ethics. I have probably pondered these questions a time too many here in this blog, from the books that I’ve come across or movies that I’ve seen in the past. And well, it presented itself again.

I don’t want to explore the historical angle of the film, although briefly, it is about the time of the cataclysmic Holocaust where the character of Kate Winslet figured in a crime against the Polish Jews in Auchwitz. She was held accountable for the death of hundreds of men, women, and children, after allowing them to perish in the fire while working as a guard in Hitler’s concentration camp.

In 1958 Germany, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) was a middle-aged tram worker who came across a fifteen-year old Michael while she was walking home one rainy day and saw him retching near her apartment building. She helped him get home where he was diagnosed with scarlet fever. A few months after he recovered, Michael visited Hannah to thank her. The boy develops an almost immediate sexual curiosity about Hannah, although she was twice his age, and calls him "kid". Hannah was an unsmiling woman, gruff and stubborn. But an affair developed between them in no time. Despite her obstinate front, and a vast reserve of unspoken sadness, they seemed to fall into a sensuous sexual relationship. During their liaisons, Hannah would order Michael to read his schoolbooks to her after they make love. Together they explored the literature of Anton Chekov, and the Odyssey.

One day, she was told by her workmate that she had been promoted and would no longer be working in the tram, but inside the office. She didn’t take this news kindly, and she suddenly disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a confused and broken-hearted Michael.

Almost a decade later, when Michael is a law student, he comes across Hannah again He was observing a Nazi war crime trial, where she was a defendant, along with a few others who worked as guards in the concentration camp. She was singled out as having been responsible for drafting a report that put hundreds of Jews to a gut-wrenching tragedy. Michael was torn in the discovery of a horrific truth that the woman he once loved was guilty of a crime against humanity, and of personally betraying him. But in the course of trial, he also discovered Hannah’s most important secret, when he had brief flashes of memory---that she was illiterate, and could never read books nor write her name, and was visibly not capable of writing a damning report. So that he was suddenly caught up in the convolutions of being a man of law and upholding justice, and on the other hand having the power to speak out what he now knows, thereby helping Hannah reduce her prison sentence. He almost spoke of it, to his law professor, who quite perceptively suggested that what people feel or think isn't nearly as important as what they do.

As Michael's character is so layered---inflexible and deeply hurting at the same time, and probably even too young to see beyond the fact that he was shameful of his affair with Hannah and its unknown implications, he ended up keeping his secret and putting Hannah to life imprisonment. In fact, it can be drawn that he never talked about this dark part of his life to anyone, until very much later. After the court sentence was read, he sits on a train home devastated, retreating in the shadows of a dark corner.

The next second we see the same figure emerge from the shadows, but this time he is the middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) bearing sad eyes, and a face that mirrors years of emotional paralysis and the weight of guilt. He was divorced, and left his daughter to the care of his old mother. Alone in his new home, he goes through his old things, and makes voice recordings of a few books he used to read to Hannah. He sends them to her in prison. She fumbles with the player at first, but soon begins to enjoy listening to the stories, just like the old times. This started a new ritual between them, he was to send her many tapes afterwards, and Hannah, a stickler for cleanliness and order, would stack them neatly on the wall of her tiny prison cell.

Hannah, who was by now an aging woman, got up from the prison grounds one day and walked over nervously to the library to ask for a book, The Lady with a Dog by Chekov. She began to slowly decode the words that Michael was saying from the tape, and marked them on the book, initially encircling all of the “the”. Thus, began her self-education. Later she sends one-sentence letters to Michael, asking for more stories of adventure and romance. Michael never answered the letters. But he would continue to send tapes in parcels, for which she would eventually complete her education in reading and writing.

One day, Michael got a call from the prison ward telling him that Hannah was to be set free after 21 years because of her unblemished behavior in prison. He was the only known contact that they are aware of, as indeed there was no other character in the movie that was akin to her, nor was it a part of her that was explored in the story. Michael reluctantly visits her for the first time in prison after so many years. Their meeting was odd; he was perfunctory in his arrangement to get her a job and a place to stay. He was clearly mortified by seeing her again and thinking that he is thrown in the position where he is responsible for her amalgamation back to society, and back to his life. By this time, Hannah was a literate, and was reading a lot. She perceived the uneasiness in him, although once again, she was obstinate enough to not talk about it with him.

Later that week, she killed herself in her prison cell.

When Michael returned to get her, he discovered about her death. He was led to her cell and was given a tin box that contained a sum of money that Hannah had saved, and left instructions for him to hand it to the daughter of one of the holocaust victims. He also discovered writing on her wall, the first words she ever learned to write that were from the opening pages of Chekhov’s novel The Lady with a Dog.

He tried to redeem himself by visiting the woman in America, who wrote a book about their death march to Auschwitz. For the first time, he talked about his relationship with Hannah to her and how we was trying to make amends for all his guilt. With Hannah’s money, he proposed to set up a fund in her memory, to help fight illiteracy among the Nazi survivors. The movie ends back in Germany, with Michael and his daughter visiting Hannah’s grave, as he walks away with her, talking about the story that all started that rainy day in 1958.

The fact that the reader has characters that are deeply troubled, and are solely accountable for their failures, it is probably best to reason that man do reckon with their conscience many times in their lifetime, but the circumstances in their lives make them do things differently from what they believe in or feel. They run afoul of the behavior that is expected of them, thus putting their social or moral ethics in question, but it can’t necessarily mean they are evil.

The nuances of this film are too raw for me, there is nothing melodramatic, especially in the way Kate Winslet portrayed her character that was tough, and is perpetually troubled by something. You can see that she is not easy to be with; her face was fraught with sadness, a frown in the corners of her mouth, and almost a kind of physical fatigue that she’s had to deal with all her waking life. Yet, she is very strong and seems to be the commander of her life. She is not easily intimidated by emotions, but peels off a layer of herself once in while to make us construe that she is after all human. Forget about the fact that she was nude in many scenes, which reminds me that is how a married woman’s body is supposed to look like although she makes no bones about hiding it in any guise, and that is why I think that Kate Winslet is a gem.

But indeed, can one be part android and part human at the same time? Human in that she nursed a stranger in the streets and took him safely home, android in that she willingly gave her body away to a sexually charged fifteen year old boy with not much of a word. Human in that when she heard choir music, she was reduced to tears of joy, or was rapt in the story of the Odyssey. Android in that she unceremoniously left everything behind her one day, simply because she couldn’t be found dead in her dark secret, thus negating anything emotional that had been born out of her relationship with Michael. Human in that she was said to have been unusually kind to prisoners and had gathered a group Jewish women in prison every night to ask them to read out loud to her. But android, in that she sent the very same women to death row, because that was what she was ordered and paid to do.

She was living a life of contradiction, she sent herself to life in prison, and only because she was too proud and scared to be discovered an illiterate. Even towards the end of the film, she was caught up in her ambiguity, hanging herself in the cell because she could not stand having to inflict her unsolicited presence in Michael’s life. Once, while in the trial stand, she was questioned about her work as a prison guard. She reasoned that a new group of prisoners would come every time, and that there was barely enough room for everyone, so that they were given orders to send people to death camp in batches. A judge asked her why she even allowed this human atrocity to happen, there was a long awkward silence, and in her seemingly pure countenance, she answered “What would you have done”? To which, another long moment of silence ensued.

Yes, what would we have done indeed, when we are powerless to do something outside our abilities, when doing otherwise could have meant disrupting our little lives and standing up against people who are bigger than we are and who can take us over with malign abuses of their authority, mainly because they know they can do something that we can’t? Of course today, that is not a question anymore. But back then, she was illiterate, many were probably illiterate, and despite appearing to have no moral core, her question made a lot of sense. It leaves a question, too, how love in its unsullied form could be the same reason for people to betray, hurt, abandon, scar and shake up each other, just to be proper and ethical----while we all secretly come to grips with our collective guilt for something that we shouldn’t have done, but did; something we could have done, but did not---and how we can finally and completely learn to forgive everything.

Friday, February 13

My little princess is now three years old.
There are lots to say about her, but for now
A photo will have to do...

Friday, February 6

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The swiftness with which the days have gone by is out of my grasp lately that it is no longer possible to sit down and process the everyday things. Time just seems to come and fleet by, that before I even have the moment to reflect on something important and understand the underlying significance of that reflection so that I can then write about it at length, all is gone and suddenly it’s February of 2009. Sometimes, however, I feel that time is in a standstill, that no matter how I try to delude myself out it, I seem to be warped in it for a very long time and I am locked up in that peculiar capsule forever, that when I awake, all my efforts of trying to get on with the times and accomplish useful things as a human being turns out to be an absolutely thwarted endeavor.

Anyway, the upside of being warped into time, at least these past weeks, is that I had been able to finish reading a couple of books. One was The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho, a gift given to me by my officemate last Christmas; and the other one which I just put down, is a very old book I picked up from Booksale many moons ago and has sat gathering dust on the shelf, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I would like to talk a bit about the latter. A caveat though, by a bit I mean that I might be inclined to go off-track with my thoughts again, seeing that I am notoriously known to start off with crystal-clear head and wind up with various random inane things that I just mentally disintegrate into a drunken stupor.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a study of the lives of five different people, a deaf-mute John Singer, a strange girl Mick Kelly who is faced with the predicament of growing up and taking responsibilities early on while obsessively nursing a passion for music and its magnitude to which her whole young existence lies; a crass but well-read alcoholic Jake Blount, an idealistic black doctor Benedict Copeland who struggles to be respected in the white world and is frustrated by the helplessness and blind ignorance of his own people; and Biff Brannon, a restaurateur who has lost his love for his wife, but chooses to feel compassion for the deformed.

Although the novel focuses on John Singer and the effect he has on the other central characters, it was mostly through the girl Mick Kelly that the story is viewed and unfolds. These five characters lead lives that are often mired by feelings of isolation and loneliness, an inner torment to be understood and accepted for who they are and what they think, and the apparent lack of reciprocity for how they feel towards the people nearest to them, thus worsening their silent agony.

Without going into the finer details, these four people’s lives began to revolve around the deaf-mute John Singer, with whom they each had private interactions. John Singer is a kindly man who unselfishly shared his time to listen to each of them on their visits. His benevolence reached out beyond skin color at a time when colored Americans were discriminated against, as reflected by the black doctor Benedict Copeland who remembers him as the only white man who offered a light to his cigarette on a rainy night. The fact that he was deaf and therefore never learned to speak was overlooked by people, who were increasingly becoming curious of him, and on whom he unwittingly left an impression of being a mystic, someone short of a god who, while perpetually silent, harbors the strength and dignity they can trust their burdens on to. In him, they felt strangely comforted, and saw the chance to heal and liberate their souls, to speak freely of whatever was inside their convalescent hearts while being aware that he does not hear. It was if his silence was answer enough to all their questions.

The altruistic way with which he shared his friendship with them, however, concealed the fact that he was just an ordinary man, a man who misses a dear friend locked up in a mental asylum. He tried to visit him on a few occasions, at one time desperately thinking that he could turn his back from the friends he had begun to like and enjoy, if only to be able to live with Antonapolous in that odd sanctuary.

The dear friend he cared so truly about was in fact a slothy Greek deaf-mute he had lived with in a flat for ten years. At the beginning of the novel, everything seemed roses between them, two friends walking hand in hand, doing things together each single day, and getting by in the evenings with simple things like playing chess or going to the movies. Then Antonopoulos begins to act strangely after falling ill, often appearing dirty and disheveled, deliberately stealing food and things, hitting at people he didn’t like in the streets, and acting lewdly in public, that he was always to be found in the town court for the many infringements he had done. John Singer was always there to redeem him, even when his savings had been used up to settle and keep his friend out of jail. Eventually, against Singer’s wishes, Antonopoulos was committed to a mental asylum by a distant cousin.

It was the start of great distress and loneliness for Singer, who felt a void in his life when his friend had gone. But Antonopolous was never interested in giving back the kindness shown to him. However, because of his unremitting love for his friend, John Singer tried to ignore the bad things, and only remembered the good things in him, which were in truth, very few and far in between. The next time he tried to see Antonopoulos in the asylum, John Singer learned that his friend had died of an illness. He went home despondent, and killed himself.

His tragedy bore different circumstances on the friends he left behind. The black doctor had to give up his profession as he spent his remaining days suffering tuberculosis in the care of the very same people whose ignorance he abhorred, disillusioned of his failure to make a change. The alcoholic Blount left the town in hope to meet someone who would be willing to sit through his outbursts again, much like the deaf-mute did. Biff Brannon lost his wife to a fatal surgery , had slowly began to find himself, and get in touch with his unrealized passions, while remaining to be a quiet and astute observer of the things that go around his world, or at least his cafe. Mick Kelly finds a measure of peace and hope in that she is resolved to achieve things for herself and her family, keeping the music within her inner world, and sharing whatever was left of the selfless desire to be that was unsuspectingly imparted to her by the dead John Singer.

A peculiar fascination about human nature had lingered on me long after I put it down. I am concerned in the central theme that is about the desolation we each feel in our hearts, especially when we try to be understood and accepted, but are not. That others, even the ones we love the most, would not always share the same fervor we have in our hearts and that we are like square pegs to their circles. We trudge the earth, among a sea of souls who are themselves wandering far and wide, to be able to find, or hunt, for that familiarity we can clench close to our hearts and forever latch on to. Thus, the heart is a lonely hunter. But what if it's suddenly gone or taken away from us?

I believe this is when we turn to divine intervention. Silence becomes our earnest friend and companion, when words are not spoken to affirm what we think. Sometimes, it's a fallen leaf, or a whiff of air, or intimation of music, or a gentle smile from a little child that come to answer us in our deepest human longings. I was touched by the scene where Mick Kelly, hiding among the bushes in a neighbor’s yard one night, listened to the radio and heard Beethoven for the first time. Being a non-believer, she had an epiphany, suddenly convinced that indeed there is a God who can create such beauty that can well up her eyes with tears and melt her young, volatile heart.
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