Thoughts and Reflections
I had taken this book out of the library at least three times before finally having the time to read it once I had my hands on it. Being one who doesn't typically read the synopsis, I had no idea what this book was about. All I knew going into this books was that I loved The Poisonwood Bible from a few years back.
As I read this book, I wondered more than once what the point of it was. Mostly, it seemed more like a biography. In fact, it is written as a biography, complete with notes from the archivist. Anyway, with the hope of experiencing great things, I continued to read the novel. I enjoyed it, absolutely, despite not really knowing where it was going. And, in the end, I found it thought provoking.
Personal history is a central element to this novel. The protagonist believes strongly in history and how history creates the present. He has a discussion at one point with his stenographer about how American's dismiss their history and look to the future. If they thought of their history, they would have to consider their actions more than they feel the need to do so now. The Mexicans are more connected with their history, thinking back on their ancestry in a way that the Americans don't. The author doesn't necessarily claim that one method is better or more moral than the other, but rather simply comments on the connection of history to an individual and to the culture and what value, if there is value, that connection may bring.
Newspapers, Mass media, and the spread of information was another key theme running throughout the novel. The media in the novel was more likely to spread untruth than truth. The protagonist repeatedly experiences the lies that the media declares as truth. He himself is subject to the made up truths, as are his employers. Even as a school boy he knows the truth of the situation and reads the falsehoods in the newspapers. As a result, the protagonist, though avidly reads the papers, is not bothered by the rumours spread by the paper and forever takes what they claim to be true with a grain of salt, well, a lot of salt. This results in the author not really noticing the gravity of the events going on around him. Believing everything he reads to be false and sensationalist, spun for entertainment more than the spreading of true information, he misses what is going on around him.
Themes of fear persist throughout the novel. The protagonist is employed by Trotsky while Trotsky is in exile in Mexico. Trotsky daily lives in the fear of being assassinated, an assassination that, as we know now, was inevitable. Nonetheless, Trotsky wrote prolifically and never seemed to lose his passion for his cause. He did not let his fear master him. He relentlessly fought to clear his name, to bring truth to the lies that were so vehemently spread about him, perhaps hoping the the fear of assassination would vanish with an emerging truth. The protagonist, following the death of Trotsky, also struggles with the fear of assassination, which manifests as social anxiety. Another character, Frida, is constantly worried for her health. Finally, the mania of the cold war and the fears of a communist take-over play a strong role in the novel. The author shows how fear limits the ability of individuals live.
I knew that fear ran rampant in during the cold war, perhaps stronger in the US than in Canada. However, I had forgotten that cold war fears also resulted in black lists, witch hunts, the defamation of so many people, and the deportation of so many more. The protagonist, a character that I found endearing in his shy and quiet way, experienced the worst of the black lists. The reader reads as the newspapers publish all kinds of false tales, adding insult to injury, and resulting in the demise of a kind and peaceful man. The protagonist, long having been aware of the lies news media can weave, is powerless to clear his name and even close friends leave him behind, either disgusted by him or afraid to get pulled into the mire. As I read the final pages of the novel, reading the spiral, how the media spun its stories, I felt nauseated. Much like modern voters mindlessly buying into the simple ad campaigns of politicians, I was appalled that people believed the drivel they were spoon fed. The author specifically mentions that no media agent called to confirm quotes or stories, but rather fed off one another impossible truths and fed them to the masses who believed the lies and treated people like the days rubbish.
All in all, the novel was enjoyable. It definitely became more interesting as I read and, perhaps, as I figured out what it was all about. I would recommend the novel. The discussion of the media is certainly an interesting one. Though it is set in the early 1900s and then in the cold war, the author's discussion of the media is certainly still relevant.