Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

On Friday, 7 May 1915, during World War I, RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by the German, and sank down the sea near Ireland. On board was a young British intelligent officer who was carrying a secret document. Seeing that the women had bigger chance to be rescued (because of 'women and children first'), he trusted the oil skin packet containing the document to an American girl.

Fast forward to 1919, when the war was over, two childhood friends met: Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley. They were jobless, broke, but also restless. I guess there were many young people felt the same at that time. Tommy was a demobilized soldier, and Tuppence was ex war-volunteer. Jobs were scarce, and they were penniless. In the meeting, Tommy casually told Tuppence an interesting conversation he overheard on the street about a girl called Jane Finn. This particular passage was actually inspired by Christie's own experience; she overheard two women speaking about a Jane Fish – ‘what an extraordinary name!', thought she. Christie then used it, after changing the last name from Fish to Finn. Tommy and Tuppence concluded their meeting with a decision to form a joint-venture business: the "Young Adventurers, Ltd", planning to take any job they happened to encounter. A Mr. Whittington overheard their conversation, and interviewed Tuppence with the aim to recruit the young partners to do a secret job. When being asked to introduce herself, Tuppence didn't want to give her real name, and instead blurted out the first name popped in her head: Jane Finn! How Mr. Whittington was enraged and shocked on hearing it, and literally sent her away.

Intrigued by that event, Young Adventurers decided to publish advertisement, requiring any information about Jane Finn. They got two replies. One from a Mr. Carter, an intelligent leader, who explained that Jane Finn was the young girl who was trusted the secret document onboard Lusitania; that she has survived, but then gone missing for years. Mr. Carter recruited Tommy and Tuppence to locate the girl and get the document, which was now more dangerous than ever, as it will compromise the Government if it fell in the hand of a powerful enemy, who was now emerging. At the same time Mr. Carter warned them of a mysterious and dangerous 'Mr. Brown', the powerful mastermind behind the enemy whom no one has ever seen.

The second reply of the advertisement was from Julius Hersheimmer, a young American millionaire, who claimed to be Jane Finn's cousin. Without hesitation he was willing to fund the Young Adventurers to find his cousin. Tommy and Tuppence set at once to work, amused at first at their ability to secure their first job so fast and easily. But then, things began to unfold. They were forced to go separate ways, following different trails, entering dangerous zones, and always... shadowed by the presence of the elusive Mr. Brown.

The Secret Adversary is Christie's second detective novel, but it was already very different from her first: The Mysterious Affair at Styles. While Styles was narrower in scope - a murder in a close family, Secret Adversary took a national crisis, intelligent service, and a coup-d'état attempt. In Styles we met a retired crippled detective Hercule Poirot; here a vigorous young amateur couple. The slow pace in Styles is the exact opposite of fast-paced Secret Adversary. Personally, I much prefer the family or small-country-murder cases, one thing which set Agatha Christie apart from most of her contemporaries. However, I  liked Tommy-Tuppence's chemistry - not mentioning their cute, shy romancing throughout their first (of four) adventures (I liked the later less, due to the lack of this aspect). I also enjoyed following their warm and witty interactions, and loved how the sensibility and calmness in Tommy worked perfectly well with the intuitive and imaginative qualities in Tuppence. As Mr. Carter said, their differences complete each other.

In the end, the suspects for Mr. Brown were narrowing down to the three men  the young adventurers have trusted and involved in the adventure. As usual, the culprit is always the one we least suspected. I have been 'deceived' in my first reading about thirty years ago; but I also vaguely remembered the happy ending of the girl who suffered most in this story, which helped me to remove a certain man from the suspects list. This is the disadvantage of rereading mystery/detective novels; the surprise gets less and less with each reread.

Anyway, it was a thrilling and enjoyable suspense, worth of rereads (but only every ten years or so when you have forgotten most of the plot, ha!)

Final score: 4 of 5

Friday, February 22, 2019

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather

When you feel like reading but your present mind is like a spinning wheel, trust Willa Cather! And so did I. O Pioneers! was my second Cather after Death Comes for the Archbishop. 'O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather's first great novel..' is printed on the back of my copy, the Vintage edition. And indeed, it was great for a first work!

O Pioneers! is the first of Great Plains trilogy, succeeded by The Song of the Lark and My Antonia. Depicting the first immigrants who settled as farmers in the Nebraska country, the story focused on the Bergsons, a Swedish-American family who owned and farmed their land. Before the father died, he trusted the land management to Alexandra, his only daughter who was much more able compared to her two brothers, Lou and Oscars, while their youngest brother Emil was still a little boy. The Linstrum's land was next to Bergson's farm, and for years Alexandra and Carl - the Linstrum boy - were friends. After two years of tereible drought and crop failure, many of their neighbors left the land to seek better opportunities in other counties, including the Linstrums. But Alexandra, despite of Lou and Oscar's objections, kept staying. Bold, strong-willed, and intelligent, she loved and trusted their farmland, and by her intuition and eagerness to learn modern techniques, she succeeded in making it prosper, while their neighbors failed.

Sixteen years later, the Bergsons were the richest landowner there. Carl Linstrum visited for the first time after he tried (and failed) to prosper in Chicago. Lou and Oscar suspected him of wanting to marry Alexandra. They trudged the idea if receiving an outsider into the farm, while it was they who had worked hard for years. Carl, who has realized after those years that he truly loved Alexandra, had no choice but left, this time to Alaska. But not before he witnessed a growing flirtatious relationship between Emil (now a handsome young man) and a married Bohemian woman, Marie Shabata, who, with his husband, has brought Linstrums' land after they left.

If you seek a slow-paced, soothing book, O Pioneers! is perfect for you. But for one tragedy near the end, this book is generally calm. It gives us chance to witness the characters dynamically developed. At the beginning, Alexandra was my favorite. But I was disappointed after she blamed Emil and Marie, while pitied Frank over the tragedy. I realized that adultery is never right, but you can't stop people of falling in love with anyone. And really, it's Frank's fault too that his wife must find another love. She fell in love head over heels with him in the first place, but he just wanted her to suffer during their marriage. Marie is flirtatious in nature, but never unfaithful. And on top of everything, murder is the ultimate crime. I can probably (though difficultly) forgive adultery, but never murder - passionately or coldly. I personally will never forgive a man who deliberately seized a gun when he was just suspicious. No, Frank has always been a murderer-to-be from the beginning. He just sought for a justification to take revenge on Marie. (-_-)

Fortunately Cather ended the story happily. At least, Carl Linstrum deserved it!

All in all, 4,5 / 5 is my final score.

Monday, February 11, 2019

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (An Indonesian Clasic)

Finally, I came to read this book which is considered one of the highest achievements in Indonesian literature. Set in the end of 19th century during Dutch colonialism in Indies (Indonesia), this book highlights the injustice imposed upon Indonesians (particularly the Javanese) by the Dutch for three and a half centuries.

Before continuing to plot summary, let me explain first about the ladder of social status at the time. On top, of course, was the Pure Blood - Dutch or other Europeans who lived in Indies. Below them was Indo - children who were born from European and Native (most are illegitimate); while the bottom are inhibited by the Natives. These statuses set their rights in all life aspect, from education, cultural, to legal.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who first 'wrote' the story orally to fellow prisoner when he was a political prisoner by Indonesian government, told the story from Minke's perspective, a Javanese - thus a Native. Descended from a prominent family with royal blood, Minke was able to study in H.B.S (the Dutch school), which at that time were exclusively attended by Europeans or Indos. One day he met a proud and remarkable woman: Nyai Ontosoroh. Nyai means Native concubine of a Dutch man. When she was a young girl of fourteen, Nyai Ontosoroh was sold, without her consent, by her father to Herman Mellema, a Dutch businessman. Her Humiliation encouraged the Nyai to passionately teach herself of science, business, and literature, under the guidance of Mr. Mellema. She soon became a cultured and intelligent woman, far superior even from any European or Indo women.

Minke was impressed by this enigmatic woman and her wisdom; and from his frequent visits, he soon fell in love with Annelies, the daughter of Nyai Ontosoroh and Herman Mellema. Through his study at H.B.S. and his involvement with the Nyai, Minke became an open minded person. He believed more and more in the equality of men; and unlike most Natives (including his own family), he was bold and confident towards Pure Bloods or Indos; whereas before, he had a slight inferiority towards his school buddies or teachers. Minke also proved that he was a good writer. His future seemed bright, especially after marrying the beautiful Annelies. Now he had everything that others could only envy.

Nyai Ontosoroh & Annelies - from the upcoming movie
this year

Then a tragedy came, and like a snow ball, it shattered and smashed all the liberal people's lives and hopes, one by one. Annelies, that poor fragile woman, must endure the pain of being separated from her beloved husband not long after their marriage. And although their marriage was authorized by Islam law, it was later considered illegal by Dutch law. Their lives and happiness were torn apart by a mere piece of legal paper authorized by the colonial government. As much hope as Minke and the liberals have ever put for a better future of the Natives, this tragedy reminded them of their complete helplessness under the colonialist. This Earth of Mankind criticized the abuse of humanity because of ambition, arrogance, and greediness of the colonialist; because one nation regarded itself higher than others. 

This book might not be my favorite, but it struck me of how far the colonialism had shaped Indonesian character as a nation today. We have had our independence 74 years ago, but most of us are still so much alike the Natives in this story: the inferiority towards European (or foreigners), the laziness, the ignorance, and shallow-mindedness. Would we be like this if history had been kinder to us? Or has it already been like that far before the colonialism era? We might never know...

One thing I liked from this book is the way Pram created divers characters to portray many different views and interests of those who were involved in the colonialism era. There's the liberal Pure Blood such as Magda Peters, Jean Marais, and Doctor Martinet, whose views were beyond race, but more on personal qualities; while other H.B.S. teachers and most of the Dutch considered the Natives as low as animals. Then there was the snobbish Indo such as Robert Mellema, who hated the half Native blood in his veins and wanted to be taken as European; while Jan Dapperste, the Native who was adopted by European parents, hated his name, and even run away from his parents when they wanted to take him to Europe, because he preferred to stay in his native land. Pram let us "live" in the heart of colonialism era through his characters - that's the main interest of this book, compensating Pram's writing style which, though vivid and bold, is not very special. I hated, though, the scene where Minke chased Darsam to the neighbor's house; I couldn't understand why Pram ever wrote it ridiculously similar to a cheap soap opera scene! That scene alone deserved one star off of what I have intended to give this book.

Minke met Annelies for the first time

On the other hand, I could mostly relate to Annelies's character. In Goodreads, many readers slander her personality as spoiled, weak, and egotistical. But I happen to know at least one real person who is similar to Annelies: my own dearest mother. I don't know what you call that... hmm.. symptom, illness? But like Annelies, my mom is never able to live independently on her own; she needs to cling to someone who loves her and accepts her as she is, and whom she trusts. As a young girl my mom was very depended on her ailing older sister. Then when she (the sister) died, my mom was so depressed and unstable, that the psychiatrist advised my father (who at that time has been attracted to my mom) to marry her very soon, as to give my mom a new solid "pillar" to cling to. What I tried to say is that there are some people in this world who are very dependent to others, not out of laziness or childishness, but because of their mental deficiencies. Annelies, I suppose, is one of this kind. And if we tear this kind of people off their "safety net", it would damage their mental balance. They tend to be suicidal too, which make it more dangerous. On this story, Annelies has also gone through these symptoms, from her calm but dispirited, into her subservient manner, before the Dutch brought her abroad. You can imagine how I was shudder while reading through this part! I kept screaming inside my head: "No, no, please don't do that, have mercy!" For it reminded me very much of my own mother; I imagined, if this should have happened to her, I know she would have never survived. And so, if Pram really knew about this mental problem, I predicted Annelies would have either gone crazy or committed suicide in the next book. Oh, have I told you that This Earth of Mankind is the first book of Buru Quartet

Considering all the strength and weakness of this book, my final score is:

4 / 5