In my attempt to catch-up on the reviews of the things that have been entertaining me during my most recent sabbatical, here are a few notes on books I’ve been reading (which are hopefully better than my rather rubbish commentary on the Queen & Country novels; those books are even better than my misguided attempt to summarise them in three paragraphs).
This book was a Christmas present from a friend. It is an historical novel by a former journalist, translated from the original Spanish, written in the first person by Inigo Balboa, the young ward of soldier of fortune, Captain Diego Alatriste, set in the early 1700s in Madrid. The story involves a father and two sons asking for help to free the daughter, who is being kept in a convent by a powerful chaplain who does unpleasant things to the novices. On helping, it turns out that it is a trap to capture Alatriste, who escapes, but our narrator is captured by the Inquisition.
Herein lies the problem with the story: our narrator is relaying these events as his life in the past from some time in the future. How is there any tension involved? He also talks about how he and Alatriste would have other adventures after this incident, so you know Alatriste won’t die. You know that nothing dangerous is going to happen. The slight story is therefore devoid of suspense. It is very bizarre. The real work in the novel is the research into the details of the period, which the author does admirably. You get a feel for the world in which our protagonists live and the way that society operated (and the accurate yet not exactly pleasant attitude to Jews, shortly after they had been driven out of Spain).
The translation works well, demonstrating the clear and descriptive prose well. The only place where translation and the original prose falls down is in the multiply used device of inserting snatches of witty poetry of the time – every other character, particularly the narrator, feels the need to show off their literary knowledge and poetry skills, which gets really annoying after a time, and the stanzas have been translated such that they rhyme in English. A well-written tale, but lacking that certain something that makes you want to read it.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig
I have had this book on my shelves for a while as one of those books I’ve heard about and should read. I finally got round to it but don’t know if I got anything out of it. In it, the author talks about the metaphysics of Quality, which he does while going on a motorcycle trip with his son and interspersing this narrative with the history of Phaedrus, the name of a character in a Plato dialogue that he gives to himself to describe his university days and the original search for the value of quality. The philosophy stuff is out of my league, but it is written in a clear and accessible style that puts across all the relevant points without being excessively dry or academic. The travelogue is more readable, with a simple, elegant style seemingly honed from writing technical manuals for a living. He talks a lot of sense, but I don’t know if I can fully comprehend the meaning of everything. It is an interesting read, if not exactly a page turner.
Waking Dragons (which is a great title, and the book has a great cover to match) is a non-fiction book about the author’s life in martial arts and his physical and mental preparation for the 30-man kumite, where the karate-ka must fight 30 other karate-ka (all with at least a second dan black belt) for a minute each at full strength, full contact. I have done a bit of karate (it is too external and physical for me – I prefer the internal power and beauty of Chen Taijiquan) and so know a bit about the physical hardships involved, but Powell (a copywriter by profession) is able to bring across this to someone not versed in martial arts, as well as being very emotionally honest about the mental aspect of the discipline.
The prose is efficient but not captivating, but that’s not the reason for reading this. Although the main draw might be to those of hardcore martial art mindset, all about the hardness and physicality involved, it appeals to the general martial artist and those interested in sport, discussing the discipline and training and hardships, both bodily and in relationships, and the passion involved in doing something that you love.