Thoughts on Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate

Le Havre

Strait is the Gate is a story of love between a man and a woman. But it is a love beyond the love of a man and a woman. They sought “mental love,” which is akin to divine union: the love through union with God, the fellowship of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. They sought a love without happiness, a love too elusive between two mortals, a love at once holy, pure and sublime, which our mortal passions would likely taint. In the end they must give up the love between a man and a woman, to reach for that holy and pure love without joy and passion. Andre Gide, through his personal struggle between puritanical virtues and personal happiness, created a thought-provoking story about love, which challenges the reader to assess the variations of love. 

Andre Gide

Journey to the End of the Night

In Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline jabs at war, colonialism, the U.S., the medical profession and anything that comes along the way. His writing style, its coarse language and cynical humor, reflects his irreverence toward norms, and animates his contempt for society and pessimism toward the human condition. The book starts like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, hammering at the futility of war, where wide-eyed youths waste their lives fighting for the ambitions of bureaucrats and return with disillusion, wrecked health, chronic unemployment and alienation from society. When our antihero Ferdinand Bardamu goes to Africa, we feel like reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which exposes cruelty and inhumanity in colonial outposts and multinational enterprises’ exploiting the natives for profit. Bardamu’s travel to the U.S. and struggle to stay alive remind us of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where the business conglomerates exploit cheap laborers, squeezing every ounce of life from them, to maximize profit and shareholder value.  In our antihero’s return to France, we recall Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and any number of Honoré de Balzac’s works, with the masses struggling to eke out a living. In the novel, the characters lie, steal, and even kill to survive and live anyway they could. It’s rats fighting each other for scum.

Night in Paris

As the title indicates, our antihero, and his friends and acquaintances, journeys through the dark night of life, in the hope that the end would come soon and the darkness would end. Toward the end of the novel, his friend Robinson, after all his suffering and failure and disillusions, chooses death to end this night. This novel, based on Céline’s life, reveals his disgust for society, government, and humanity.

George Orwell's 1984: Dystopian Society of the Future. Or the Present?

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four."

Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth creating “alternative facts.” Under Big Brother’s omniscient eyes, he tried to ignite his only freedom, the freedom to believe in “obvious” truths, to separate facts from “alternative facts,” but by the novel’s end, at the café Winston was unsure what two plus two would make, a sign that O’Brien had successfully reintegrated a “lost soul” and Winston had become like his friends and neighbors, unable to question and thus unable to revolt. What sends shivers down our spines is not the various tortures O’Brien performed, but after these tortures, Winston’s total capitulation-mind, body, and soul-to Big Brother. When the mind kowtows to external authority and ceases to reflect and question, then the individual had successfully metamorphosed into a machine.

Winston, by editing previous documents to create “alternative facts” and conform to Oceana’s present position, such as whether Eurasia is friend or foe, had helped the regime’s guardians, who like O’Brien believed “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” censor news and mold the citizens’ minds. Censor the media, control sources of knowledge and the government controls what people think. It is the classic feature of totalitarian regimes. We see this in Russia and North Korea alike. Oceana, like other totalitarian regimes, also turned to the indispensable tool, fear, to chisel its citizens’ minds and hearts to its agenda’s shape and form. To stimulate fear and rouse its citizens to a common cause, it would when necessary create fathom enemies, either Eurasia or Eastasia, even though these totalitarian regimes also had similar ideologies, or rather, like Oceana, no ideologies. This sense of ultra-nationalism is another key feature of totalitarian regimes as seen in Nazi Germany and current day North Korea. Fear of a common enemy unites the citizens and detracts from the dictator’s encroachment upon freedom. A common doom gives the dictator much leeway. To that end, worshiping the dictator as God is a requirement of totalitarian regimes. As the Germans worshipped Hitler, so the citizens of Oceania bowed before Big Brother.  

Oceania Society

Under 1984’s dystopian sky, Winston must bow, not only because of Big Brother’s overwhelming power and presence, but also because of Winston’s inability to form any ideologies. Even though he wanted to think freely, he lacked the training and thus the analytical mind to counter O’Brien’s offenses. In the end, his mind followed the path of least resistance. We see this in North Koreans trained from birth to worship their leader as God and to blame all woes on foreigners.

Orwell’s 1984 is a dark apocalypse of sub-human society where homo-sapiens had replaced machines to operate an efficient hierarchy, an apocalypse where man and women have ceased questioning “intuitively obvious truths” and just regurgitate government slogans. What is terrifying is that we continue to have such regimes in our world even in the twenty-first century. The warning of 1984 is a reminder that we can regress just as we can progress and if we don’t mind our steps, we may revert to the past.

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X

When Yasuko Hanaoka’s ex-husband shows up to exhort money, she and her daughter kill him. Her neighbor Tetsuya Ishigami, a high school math teacher, volunteers to help dispose of the body and divert the police’s attention. What results is a scheme to deceive the police into solving the wrong crime.

A dead body whose face is smashed to hide the identity shows up near the river and Detective Kusanagi must identify the murder and find the perpetrator. On reaching a dead end, he solicits his friend and schoolmate, physics professor Dr. Manabu Yukawa, to sift through the clues and red herrings. Thus, pinning the two masterminds against each other.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, Ishigami and Yukawa try to outwit each other in this cops and robbers game. What Yukawa couldn’t fathom is the depth in which Ishigami is willing to devote himself to and ultimately sacrifice for Yasuko. This mystery is among the handful of mystery novels whose plots surprise me. And though I wish the key characters have more depth, the plot more than compensates for that flaw and the sparse prose pushes the plot along without extraneous verbiage. Smart and powerful. I almost wish Ishigami could triumph over Yukawa.