Monday, August 07, 2006

A Short Essay I wrote in December 1999: Still Timely

A Classic well worth reading: All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

There are books and there are books: bad ones, good ones, very good ones and excellent ones. What are the criteria for measuring their quality? After years of study I'm still not too sure. I suppose in the final analysis it's almost a matter of taste, though not quite. I like to think of books in terms of depth versus shallowness. In between the two extremes of this scale there lies a multitude of degrees of quality. To talk about the depth-shallow scale is certainly not the same as the heavy-light distinction. A heavy book would refer, to my mind at least, to something academic, to something that certainly would not be bed-time reading. These books certainly are good, very good and some excellent. They are a must for every student and for the advancement of knowledge. A light book might be something like a thriller that you would bring on holiday. Books of this kind are also important for our enjoyment and relaxation. We need them now and again simply to unwind.

Back now to my depth-shallow distinction - my effort to distinguish between what's good and bad in literature for me, and I emphasise again, for me, though perhaps much of what I say will strike a chord in many readers' hearts. A good book, I contend, is one which draws one towards depth. It really does not matter where one is on the depth-shallow scale, provided, of course, that one is drawn in the right direction, towards depth, that is. In short, a good book makes one think, question one's own values, challenge one's prejudices and feel with a new heart. Let me illustrate.

I have just finished reading what is without question a classic - a classic war novel to be precise. It has lain unread on my shelves for years, seventeen to be precise. Now that I have put it down, I question myself as to why I did not read it years ago. I have literally been consumed by it as an account of the gruesome experience of war. It has moved me as seldom I have been moved before. The novel is All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It is a novel that unquestionably draws one towards depth.

Certainly man's inhumanity to man is delineated therein very vividly. We have accounts of a soldier still running several steps even though his head has been blown clear away and blood is spurting up from the chopped neck, or of a man's back having been blown off to reveal the two breathing lungs etc. But it is not just the clarity of such descriptions that terrify, but rather the impact they had on a generation of young soldiers, those lucky enough to escape this holocaust with their lives. They were left numbed beyond belief. Witness the inability of Paul, the hero-narrator of the tale, to reconnect with so-called civilization, even with his family, when he goes home on leave after two years at the Front.

This book makes the reader think. It makes him or her question the values of the societies which sent young lads of eighteen plus out to meet the horrors of war. It further makes one question the values inherent in any society: greed and power, the lust for possessions on the one hand and the desire to dominate and subjugate on the other. There is an interesting line of questioning pursued by the young soldiers as regards the relevance of the education they had received at school. Their considerations are still relevant to today's debate as regards our own system of education. Is civilisation with all its rules, regulations, religious ceremonies and red tape just a veneer? Scratch the surface and you get just little puny, insignificant human beings longing to fill their bellies, satisfy their sexual urges, have their hour in the sun, procreate and die? Is civilisation after all just an elaborate game to while away the time until our last breath?

The human heart is larger than any race, creed or religion. This book teaches this significant fact brilliantly and effectively. One moving moment in the book is where Paul has to slit a Frenchman's throat in No Man's Land. He has to cower in this shell hole for a night and a day and witness the soldier gradually groaning to his death. His monologue to the dying Frenchman and eventual corpse is a moving indictment of the futility of war and a heart-felt plea for the brotherhood of all, irrespective of nationality, colour or creed.

All Quiet On The Western Front invites us to enter the depths of hell of the First World War with its hero, Paul Baumer. But more than that, this book invites us to move ever closer to depth, away from surface and superficiality. It scratches away the false veneer of pomp, sham, and the comedy of manners that is life as we live it. It invites us also to strip away the scales of deception and prejudice from our own eyes. In short, this book is a classic in many senses, and especially because it makes us confront our own inhumanity deep in our own hearts and in our own souls. What better and more challenging book could we read as we approach the eve of the third millennium?

No comments: