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The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Sympathizer by first-time novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s about the Vietnam War, the Vietnam era and, in particular, one man’s role in the whole mess. (What ever happened to the rule about novels having to be about American life to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize?) It’s 400 (almost) densely packed pages (no quotation marks; the dialogue is blended in here and there wherever it occurs). The Vietnam War and the Vietnam era would not be on my list of favorite subjects for fiction, but, for me, the saving grace of The Sympathizer is that it’s so good and such accessible, interesting reading.

The story of The Sympathizer is being told in the first-person by a narrator whose name we never know. We learn toward the end of the book that he is writing this whole thing as a confession while in solitary confinement as part of his “re-education” (another word for torture) at the hands of the communists. He is the bastard son of an illiterate Vietnamese woman and a French priest. Since he has spent part of his youth in America, he is “Americanized” and knows English well, but, in spite of that, he never feels like an American but always a bastard, the unwanted foreigner. After the fall of Vietnam and his narrow escape, along with many others, to America, he and many of his fellow countrymen want only to return to help liberate their country. What is more important that freedom and independence? The answer is nothing. (Nothing becomes a very important word to him at the end of the book.) Wait a minute, though! There’s something funny about this man. He claims to be on the side of the anticommunists, but the truth is he’s a secret communist agent. Where is he going with that? Is it safe to say he is conflicted? In the interview at the end of the novel, the author of the book, Viet Thanh Nguyen, says he deliberately wants to rattle the reader. I wouldn’t exactly say I was rattled, but only a little mystified.

For me the best parts of the book are the harrowing escape (by the narrator and his friends) from Saigon on the day it falls and the long section in the middle of the book where the narrator travels to the Philippines with an American movie crew to work as consultant on a movie that is being shot about the Vietnam War. (Ostensibly the movie is Apocalypse Now.) He wants to ensure that Vietnamese people are treated fairly in the movie but falls far short of that goal. There are a few lighter moments in The Sympathizer, as when the narrator is “dating” a much older Japanese woman who doesn’t care for him as much as he cares for her and, later, his infatuation with a beautiful Vietnamese girl named Lana (Lan); but there are also some horrible things, such as a couple of murders, a gang rape, people being dismembered by land mines, torture and other terrible things humans do to other humans in the name of some noble cause. This is a book, after all, about war. Did I need to read a book about Vietnam? Probably not, but now that I’ve read it through to the end, I’m glad to be done with it. If anybody ever asks me, I may be the only person in the room to have read it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

Penny Dreadful, Season 3 ~ A Capsule Review

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Penny Dreadful, Season 3 ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp

Showtime’s gothic horror series set in Victorian London, Penny Dreadful, draws its inspiration from classic dark literature and horror films: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wolf Man. If you think those themes have been done to death, well, Penny Dreadful puts a new spin on all of them.

Season three has shown the advent of a few new characters, namely Dracula, in the guise of a natural historian named Dr. Alexander Sweet; Dr. Henry Jekyll, a “wog” (half-caste Indian) who was Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s only friend going back to medical school; an “alienist” named Dr. Seward (played by Patti Lupone, forbidding but oddly comforting) who undertakes the job of “analyzing” and counseling Vanessa Ives with her many supernatural problems; a “girl of the streets” named Justine, taken up by Lily and Dorian as their new protégé in evil; and Mr. Renfield, a mousey young man who works as secretary for Dr. Seward and who is in thrall to Dracula. Mr. Renfield finds out all he can about Vanessa and reports back to Dracula. (Vanessa, if you will remember going back to the previous season, is much desired by the forces of darkness.) But, wait a minute, isn’t there something familiar about Dr. Seward? Didn’t Vanessa meet her in another place and another time and in a different persona? Vanessa is sure of it, no matter how much Dr. Seward denies it.

When season three begins, soulful, cleft-chinned Dr. Victor Frankenstein is still pining over Lily, who was Brona before she died of consumption and he “reanimated” her. When his old friend Dr. Henry Jekyll arrives on the scene again, Victor is in a bad way with his obsession over Lily and his addiction to morphine, which he injects into his arm. Dr. Jekyll works with dangerous mental patients in Bedlam hospital. After Victor tells him the story of Lily, he says he can help make Lily what Victor wants her to be, by using the treatment he uses on out-of-control insane people at Bedlam. They can help each other. Victor knows how to resurrect people from the dead and Henry can make them docile and amenable.

Ethan Chandler, the wolf man, has been extradited back to America by a one-armed Scotland Yard man named Bartholomew Rusk. (Ethan, you will remember, butchered several people in England, but didn’t they, as the saying goes, have it coming?) In the wild New Mexico Territory, on a train enroute to the place where justice will be administered, the party is waylaid by a band of men who kidnap Ethan because Ethan’s father sent them. Have they saved him or is there something more sinister afoot? But—wait one damn minute!—besides the party who kidnapped Ethan, two other men are on his trail: a mysterious Indian named Kaetenay and our old friend Sir Malcolm Murray who has been recruited by Kaetenay to, as he says, “save our son.” What does he mean by this?

And then there is our friend, “the creature,” whom we met almost all the way back at the beginning of the series. Dr. Frankenstein “created” him, unhappily it seems, and he has been constantly dogging Dr. Frankenstein to do something to help him. His original intention of wanting a mate seems to have been superseded by other, more pressing, desires. He loves poetry and he seems to only want to be loved, but he will rip your head off if you give him any reason to do so. In season three, we are finding out more about his origins and how he came to be changed from a “normal” man into a monster. There is some connection between him and poor, tormented Vanessa Ives. As season three progresses, we will learn more about this.

A recurring theme in Penny Dreadful is the duality in human nature: every good that exists is counterbalanced by an equal or greater amount of bad; in every angel there’s a demon waiting to get out and in every demon an angel. It’s fantasy TV, not for everybody, of course, but for the thinking person who is fed up with raunchy sit-coms and mind-numbing commercials and drivel that TV serves up every minute of every day. It could have been schlock but it’s not. It’s intelligent and engaging, always a little surprising. (Some of the dialogue is brilliant, as in the exchanges between Dr. Seward and Vanessa.) Every episode is beautiful to look at, whether it’s the deserts of the American Southwest or the dreary, crowded streets of Victorian London. The acting is sincere; the actors never seem to think themselves superior to the material, even if it’s campy or overly familiar. I’m a big fan of Penny Dreadful and I have been since the very beginning. You can have Veep, Girls, and Game of Thrones. I’ll take Penny Dreadful.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Open All Nite

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Open All Nite ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“You’re probably not going to leave your wife for me, are you?” the waitress asked as she came toward him with a pot of coffee.

“I don’t have a wife,” he said, as if anticipating the question.

“That makes it easier, then, doesn’t it?”

“Not for me.”

She started to pour him a cup.

“I don’t want any of that,” he said.

“What?”

“I said I don’t want any coffee.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “Well, now, you really are unique, aren’t you? Ninety-nine men out of a hundred want coffee when they come in here.”

“I’m that very rare one percent who doesn’t,” he said.

“What are you having tonight?” She set the pot down and took a pad out of her apron.

“How about some hot water, a tea bag and some lemon?”

“So, what you want is a cup of tea?”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“Why don’t you want coffee?” she asked.

“It makes me vomit.”

“Well, we can’t have that, can we? That’s very discouraging to the patrons who come in here to eat.”

He looked over each shoulder and back at her. “You don’t have any patrons.”

“Well, that’s because it’s two in the morning and all decent people are at home in bed.”

“Does that mean I’m not decent?” he asked.

“You tell me. Does it?”

“I’m sure I’m just as decent as you are. Maybe more so.”

She brought a little pot of hot water, a cup, a tea bag and two slices of lemon.

“What do you have that’s good to eat?” he asked.

“Well, let me see,” she said. “We’ve got some Hungarian goulash, some chicken fricassee and some salmon croquettes.”

“Bring me a ham and cheese on rye and some cottage cheese.”

“I’m not sure about the cottage cheese, but I’ll check.”

She found some in the back of the refrigerator on the point of turning and, arranging it artfully in a small bowl on a lettuce leaf with a maraschino cherry on top, took it to him.

“You’re not the usual run of truck drivers and traveling men we get in here at night,” she said.

“No?” He looked at her without expression until she had to look away.

“Where you coming from?”

“East,” he said.

“Where you heading?”

“West.”

“It’s always lovely there this time of year, I hear.”

A few minutes later she brought him the ham and cheese on rye on a large plate with a profusion of lettuce. She set the plate down and said, “Will there be anything else, sir?”

He shook his head, his eyes on the sandwich.

When he was finished eating, he motioned to her and she gave him the check.

“Was everything all right, sir?” she asked.

“I was never here,” he said.

“What?”

“You never saw me.” He took a gun out of his pocket and laid it on the counter beside the plate.

“There’s about twenty-one dollars in the cash drawer,” she said. “Take it.”

He smiled for the first time. “I don’t want your twenty-one dollars.”

“What’s the gun for? You don’t need to be flashing that in here.”

“You’re here all alone, aren’t you?”

“The cook’s in the back. He’s deaf and dumb. Never says a word to anybody.”

“So, just you and the cook at almost two-thirty in the morning.”

“That’s right, but business is about to pick up, I’m sure.”

“You’ve never seen me.”

“All right. I got that.”

“I’m not even here.”

“Fine by me.”

“I’ll be back this way and I’ll know if you told anybody you saw me.”

“Nobody here,” she said. “Slow night. Just me and the cook in the back and he never says a word to anybody.”

“It seems we understand each other.”

He stood up, took a bill out of his wallet and slapped it on the counter. “I’ll be seeing you again,” he said, and then he was gone.

Business began to pick up about four-thirty, early risers on their way to their important destinations. She was taking an order from a couple of old people when two police officers came in and sat down at the counter.

“What can I get you this morning?” she asked the officers as she poured their coffee.

“Been here all right?” the younger of the two asked her.

“Since about ten,” she said.

“Have you seen this man?”

He thrust a picture at her; she took it from him and held it close to her face. It was without any doubt the man who had had the ham and cheese on rye and the cottage cheese with the maraschino cherry on top.

“He has beautiful eyes,” she said, handing the picture back. “You just don’t forget those eyes.”

“Have you seen him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Keep the picture and if you see him in here, give us a call.”

“What did he do?”

“Murdered his wife.”

“I’ll bet she had it coming.”

“Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know. Just a thought.”

“You shouldn’t romanticize crime,” he said, lighting a filterless cigarette and blowing a purple cloud into the air above his head.

She waited for them to leave and after they were gone she folded the picture and slipped it into her pocket before anybody else had a chance to see it. She would keep it for private viewing later.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Albinos and Holy Rollers

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Albinos and Holy Rollers ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“They have albinos at the Penny Cost church,” Ruthie says.

“What’s Penny Cost mean?” Phillip asks.

“It’s a kind of religion, dumbbell,” she says. “You know. Methodists, Baptists, and Penny Costs.”

“Oh. What’s albinos?”

“It’s people that are all white, even their eyes and hair.”

“I don’t believe you,” he says.

“They’re just like anybody else, only they don’t have any color. Anywhere. Everything is all white.”

She was eleven and he was nine, just at the age when he was starting to doubt things people told him.

“I’m white and you’re white,” he says.

“We belong to the white race,” she says, “but we’re not albinos. Your hair is blond and mine is brown. You have blue eyes and I have brown ones. If we were albinos, our hair and eyes would be white, just like our skin.”

“Do albinos have white blood?”

“I guess they do.”

“You’re making that up. I don’t believe you.”

“I’ll prove it to you,” she says.

She goes to the other room and gets the dictionary and when she comes back she opens it on the table and begins flipping the pages.

A-l-b-i-n-o,” she says. “Here it is. Now, listen to this:  A person or animal having a congenital absence of pigment, causing the hair and skin to be white and the eyes typically pink.”

“Hah-hah!” he says. “You said they have white eyes!”

“Well, isn’t pink even better?”

“I’d have to see it to believe it,” he says.

“Just ask grandma.”

They find grandma lying on the couch with a cloth over her head, having one of her headaches.

“Grandma!” Ruthie says.

“Don’t bother me unless it’s an emergency,” grandma says. She slurs her words, meaning that she has probably been taking nips of whiskey in the pantry.

“We want to ask you a question.”

“What is it?”

“Have you ever seen an albino?”

“Not that I recall.”

“But you’ve heard of them.”

“Everybody has heard of them.”

“Am I an albino?” Phillip asks.

Grandma removes the cloth from her eyes and looks at him. “Have you been teasing him, Ruthie?” she asks.

“No, I have not!” Ruthie says.

“If the two of you don’t have enough to do, I can give you some chores.”

“We want to go to the Penny Cost church to see the albinos with pink eyes!” Phillips says.

“No! You stay right here where I can keep an eye on you.”

“But you’re not!” Ruthie says.

“Not what?”

“Not keeping an eye on us. You’re napping.”

“Don’t get technical on me, dear. Even if I am napping, I’m still keeping my eye on you.”

“Marilyn says they have albinos at the Penny Cost church.”

“You know as well as I do that Marilyn is full of crap.”

“But she’s in high school!”

“It doesn’t make any difference. She’s still full of crap.”

“We want to go to the Penny Cost church and see the albinos with pink eyes!” Phillip says.

“What do you think it is? A circus?”

“How should I know?”

“You stay away from those old Penny Cost people. You’re likely to see more than you bargained for.”

“Like what?” Ruthie asks.

“They’re holy rollers at that church.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means stay away.”

“No, really. What does it mean?” Ruthie asks. “I’ve heard that before but I never knew what it meant.”

“It means they roll on the floor and scream.”

“Are they afraid?” Phillip asks.

“No, they’re happy.”

“Why are they happy?”

“They think they see Jesus.”

“Do they see Jesus?”

“I guess they think they do.”

“That’s it!” Ruthie says. “We’re going. I wish I had a camera so I could take some pictures.”

“Last time I checked I’m still the boss around here,” grandma says. “I think that means whenever I tell you to stay at home, you’d better do it.”

“We’ll wait until you go back to sleep and then we’ll go, anyway,” Ruthie says. “We’re not prisoners.”

“No, you’re not prisoners, but you’re little children and in this family little children do as they are told.”

“Please!”

“No!”

“I want to see the albinos!” Phillip says. “I want to see their pink eyes!”

“Albinos nothing,” Ruthie says. “It would be a lot more fun to see the holy rollers.”

“I’ll tell you what!” grandma says. “The next time the circus comes to town I’ll take you to see the freak show. There’s sure to be at least one albino.”

“That doesn’t do us any good,” Ruthie says. “We want to see them now!”

“I’ll drive you over in the car. For a minute or two! And when we come back I want absolute peace and quiet from both of you.”

“Well, all right,” Ruthie says. “If that’s the only way we get to go.”

“Oh, goody!” Phillips jumps up and down. “Grandma’s going to take us to the Penny Cost church!”

The church was on the edge of town, at least a mile away, in what grandma considered an unsavory neighborhood. When she pulled onto the parking lot of the church, nobody was there.

“Where are all the albinos?” Ruthie asks.

“They must be inside,” Phillip says.

“The church is closed now,” grandma says. “Can’t you see that all the lights are off and the parking lot is empty?”

“I bet they’re all inside,” Phillip says. “Having punch and cookies.”

“You see that sign over there? It says the next revival meeting is Saturday night at seven o’clock.”

“Oh, can we come back then?” Ruthie asks.

“You want to attend the revival meeting?”

“Yes.”

“Just so you can gawk and stare?”

“Yes.”

“You know, don’t you, that they’ll make you join the church?”

“No, they won’t.”

“Yes, they will. They’ll make you get up and come down to the front of the church and they’ll say some magic words over you and then you’ll be a holy roller, too.”

“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do!”

“If you want to see the albinos and the holy rollers, that’s the price you have to pay.”

“I don’t think so!”

“You don’t want to be a holy roller?”

“Not really.”

“You’d be the only one in fourth grade. People would come from miles around just to see you. They’d stare and gawk and want to take your picture.”

“Maybe we’d just better forget the whole thing,” Ruthie says. “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Spiders’ Rendezvous

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The Spiders’ Rendezvous ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The fans close to the ceiling whir lazily, shifting the warm air from one place to another. He pulls back the fly-specked curtain and looks down into the street. Two cars and an old truck are parked at the curb. A fat woman in a flowered dress leads two children who don’t want to be led. An old man in overalls totters on the sidewalk, nearly falls, rights himself and spits. A dog trots across the street and urinates against a tree on the other aside. Everything here has gone to hell, he tells himself, and lets the curtain fall back into place.

He calls down to room service. “Send up a bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice,” he says.

“Who is this?” a voice asks, and he recognizes it as the ignorant desk clerk.

“Mr. Gilchrist in room four twenty-five.”

“We don’t have no champagne, sir,” the clerk says.

“Well, what do you have?”

“Hold on a minute.”

He hears the low murmur of voices as the clerk confers with others and in a minute he comes back on the line.

“Is beer okay?”

“As long as it’s cold.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Send up six bottles. And I don’t want it unless it’s cold.”

“Yes, sir.”

He opens the suitcase on the bed and a couple of minutes later is annoyed by a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” he says loudly.

Room service.”

When he opens the door he sees standing there a woman past the first blush of youth but still not old. She brings the tray bearing six bottles of beer into the room and sets it on the desk.

“Will there be anything else?” she asks in a half-hearted, disinterested way.

He looks closely at her and smiles. “You’re much prettier than the usual bellboy,” he says.

“We don’t have no bellboy anymore,” she says. “He quit.”

“What is your function in the establishment, then, if I may be so bold?”

“What?”

“If you’re not the usual bellboy, what do you do?”

“Well, I mostly help in the kitchen. Some days I clean rooms and sometimes I have to take things to people because there’s nobody else to do it.”

“Like now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I can’t tip you because I don’t have any money but I’ll take care of you before I check out.”

“Oh, that’s all right, sir. Nobody ever tips me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Stella Penny.”

“That’s a euphonious name. It trips lightly off the tongue.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Won’t you stay and have a drink with me?”

“Oh, no, sir. I can’t. I’m expected back in the kitchen.”

“They don’t let you take rest breaks in the kitchen?”

“Well, I guess it’ll be all right for a minute or two.”

She comes inside. He closes the door, uncaps one of the beers and hands it to her.

“I shouldn’t drink while I’m working,” she says.

“I won’t tell anybody if you don’t,” he says.

She sits on the settee and he takes one of the beers for himself and sits down beside her. She looks warily at him and takes a drink of the beer.

“You’re not trying to get me drunk, are you?” she asks.

“No, I’m not trying to get you drunk, Stella. It would avail me nothing if I did.”

“I don’t understand half of what you say,” she says and shakes her head.

“How old are you, Stella?”

“I’m twenty-five.”

“I think you’re at least ten years older than that, but we won’t quibble.”

She giggles and blushes. “What does it matter? It’s just a number, anyway.”

“How old do you think I am?” he asks.

“I don’t know. About forty, I guess.”

“Not even close,” he says, “but thank you for lying.”

“The beer sure tastes good,” she says. “I haven’t had a beer in a long time.”

“It seems that beer is all they have in this establishment. It used to be that they would have anything you would ever ask for, and if they didn’t have it, they’d get it.”

“When was that?”

“A long time ago, probably before you were even born. I had the best time I ever had in my life right here in this hotel.”

“You spent your honeymoon here with your wife?”

“No. That was in Niagara. I had a far better time right here, though.”

“Where is your wife now?”

“Long ago departed.”

“What do you mean? Did she die?”

“As far as I’m concerned she did.”

“But she’s still alive somewhere?”

“I guess so. I haven’t thought to inquire.”

“So the fun you had here was not with your wife?”

“No. My wife and I never had any fun.”

“What did you do here that was so much fun?”

“A long time ago, right after I graduated from college, a group of my friends and I spent a part of every summer here.”

“Oh.” She seems disappointed.

“It was a very fine hotel then. The service was impeccable. The food was the best anywhere. They had a beer garden and a dance floor out back.”

“There’s nothing back there now.”

“Yes, there was a flood and the river swept all that away and after it was gone nobody bothered to bring it back.”

“I don’t remember a flood like that,” she said.

“There were five and sometimes six or more of us,” he says. “There were no better or closer friends in the world. We swam and hiked during the day and rode horses. At night we caroused and played cards and drank until two in the morning or sometimes later. Then we didn’t get up until noon the next day and when we did we had a huge meal and rested up for that night.”

“You didn’t have to work?”

“Not a care in the world.”

“And what happened to your friends?”

“They’re all dead now. One of them’s in jail.”

“And you’re the only one left?”

“Gone to seed, just like the hotel.”

She finishes her beer and hands him the bottle. “I have to get back to work,” she says. “They’ll come looking for me.”

“I wish you could stay and have another one,” he says.

“I guess it doesn’t make much difference,” she says. “I’m going to be out of a job soon, anyway.”

“Why is that?”

“They’re shutting down the hotel. Nobody wants to come here anymore.”

“You probably can’t believe it now,” he says, “but it used to be a very fine hotel.”

He hands her another beer and she drinks half of it in one gulp as if she has a tremendous thirst. “What do you suppose happened?” she asks, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth.

“Time,” he says. “Time is what happened.”

She rests her head on his shoulder and belches. “I should probably get back downstairs,” she says.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I read the Japanese novel (in English translation, of course) Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe in 1992, but had never seen the 1964 movie version of the novel until it was shown on “TCM Imports” on Sunday night. It’s a simple story with two principal characters and a handful of “villagers” that we never see for more than a minute or two at a time.

A young, child-like Japanese woman, whose name we never know, lives in a crude wooden shack at the bottom of a ravine from which there is no escape. It’s a barren, isolated place. Sand is all we ever see and the sand moves all the time (from wind and gravity), like a creepy, sinister entity, down into the ravine in which the woman lives. She must shovel the sand day and night to keep from being buried in it. (We learn after a while that her husband and daughter are both buried there.) She hoists the sand up to the villagers who sell it to be used in bricks or building materials. In return, they send her a scant amount of food and water. While most people would believe that the perpetual shoveling of sand is just another version of hell, the Japanese woman thinks of it as her life and the ravine as her home. She states at one point, “Nobody would even bother with me if it wasn’t for the sand.” She thinks it’s what she deserves.

A young man from Tokyo named Niki Jumpei is a teacher and entomologist. He is looking for a certain specimen of sand beetle and if he can find one that hasn’t been classified yet, he’ll get his name in the journals. When he misses the last bus home in the evening, he asks a villager if there is someplace nearby where he might stay for the night. The villager leads him to the ravine where the young woman lives. A rope ladder hangs there which he might easily climb down. The woman feeds him and he spends the night there. In the morning he prepares to leave but discovers that the rope ladder that he used to climb down into the ravine is gone. He is trapped in much the same way that he traps his insect specimens.

Niki Jumpei spends a lot of time calculating how he might get out of the ravine and go home, but the young woman is cheerful and unmoved. He begins to help her with the shoveling and she prepares his food. He tells himself that when he doesn’t return, the people at home will come looking for him. He tries everything he can think of to get out of the ravine, but nothing works. The one time he does get out, he loses his way, gets caught in quicksand, and the villagers find him and lower him back into the ravine.

In time, Niki Jumpei and the young woman are drawn to each other in a sexual way, as nature dictates when two heterosexual people of opposing genders are thrown together. She bathes him as he stands in the middle of the floor naked. She asks him how she compares with the girls in Tokyo. Does he have a wife? She is clearly delighted at his being there and horrified at the thought that he might get away.

For such a simple, stark story, there is a considerable amount of tension in Woman in the Dunes, accompanied by eerie (though appropriate) Japanese music and the perpetual effects of the sand closing in. What’s going to happen? Will Niki Jumpei kill the young woman? Will he be able to escape? Will he escape and take her with him? Will she finally relent and get the villagers to let him go? There are any number of possible outcomes and the way the story finally ends is something we didn’t see coming.

The “director’s cut” of Woman in the Dunes is almost two-and-a-half hours long. In Japanese with English subtitles, it’s not for everybody, of course, but it’s accessible and memorable for those willing to spend the time. Foreign movies, like grand opera, are an acquired taste. Some people will resist both as a matter of principle. It’s hard for some of us to overcome our hillbilly origins.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Nausea

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer and philosopher, lived from 1905 to 1980. His philosophical novel Nausea, first published in 1938, is one of the landmark works of twentieth century French literature and Sartre’s most famous work. In it, the fictional character Antoine Roquetin (Sartre himself?) is a Parisian writer who is in the medium-sized French city that he calls “Bouville” (means “Mudtown” and is probably Le Havre), researching the life of—and writing a historical book about—an eighteenth-century aristocrat and political figure, the Marquis de Rollebon. The novel is set in 1932 when Antoine Roquetin is thirty years old.

There is really not much of a story or plot to Nausea. It is told in the form of diary entries and is mostly the stream of consciousness impressions of Roquetin as he goes about living from day to day. He observes the people around him and the things they say and do, whether he’s in a café, his hotel, the library or some other place. He anticipates reuniting with an old girlfriend from his past named Anny. He has a superficial dalliance with a waitress. He takes long walks in the fog. He contemplates, at great length, portraits hanging in the library of the city’s founding fathers. He befriends a man whom he calls the Self-Taught Man, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquetin is afflicted with a sort of moral paralysis that he calls “nausea.” It’s not a physical malady but a degeneration of the spirit. Human life to him is unnecessary. Existence is pointless and there is no God, which is the essence of the philosophy known as “existentialism.” He eventually gives up his writing and research in Bouville to return to Paris to—what?—probably just waste away. Aren’t we all going through the paces of living just so we can die? Seems that way, doesn’t it? But, wait a minute! If we were to write a song that will be remembered long after we die, or to sing that song on a recording that will be listened to for a long time to come, maybe that (or something like it) is enough is rescue us from the awful pointlessness of existence. What do you think?

Nausea is philosophical treatise disguised as fiction. It’s fitfully interesting, fascinating at times and tedious at other times. If you’re a student of French literature or a student of Sartre, it’s going to be essential reading. If you are just looking for a good “story” because you enjoy reading, Nausea probably isn’t it. Not exactly painful reading, but you’ll almost certainly be glad when you reach the last page. I think I’ll take my diary and turn it into a depressing philosophical novel. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have a story, a beginning, a middle or an end, will it? Everything is pointless, anyway.   

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

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