One-Year War and Peace 11.27 – Assassin

Reading for Wednesday, 11 March

And now we finally find out what Pierre’s up to – he wants to assassinate Napoleon. If it was anybody else, I’d say they’d kind of gone crazy.

But for some reason, Pierre flits from one idea to another so often, this one seems perfectly logical. Take out Napoleon and solve the world’s problems. I think it’s just the way Tolstoy writes for Pierre. While Pierre gets all the crazy monologues and ideas, Tolstoy always treats him with the utmost compassion and lets his thoughts speak for themselves. Is Pierre naive? Of course. But is he contemptible? Never.

One-Year War and Peace 11.26 – Breakdown of an Army

Reading for Tuesday, 10 March

The novel continues along in its stunning breakdown of society. In brilliant prose, Tolstoy describes how the French arrive as an army – but then disappear.  Like a big sponge, the soldiers are all soaked up and disappear, each of them becoming looters and scroungers.

As well as describing what clearly was one of the most momentous events in Russian history, this story backs up Tolstoy’s theory by showing that when the group put their mind to something, no commander can hold them back.

In this case, the group want to loot and pillage – so no commanders can hold back the Frenchmen. Thus, despite any orders Napoleon might give to the contrary – it’s his men that are driving the events here.

In the same way, the great fire of Moscow (can you really claim to be a great city if you haven’t had a great fire whip through your city at some stage?) begins – was it started by anyone? No, says Tolstoy, it was an inevitable event that was bound to happen. Wooden buildings + no one to look after them = fire.

We’ll see what the human consequences of this equation turn out to be tomorrow.

One-Year War and Peace 11.25 – Inhumane

Reading for Monday 9 March

I’m surprised I don’t remember reading this chapter the first time I read the book, because it really is the most disturbing chapter I’ve encountered in War and Peace to date. It certainly hasn’t been pleasant watching men go off to war and be killed and maimed.

But nothing really prepares you for the violence that Rastoptchin unleashes. Especially because Tolstoy’s prose stays at the same calm, slightly satirical level that it’s always been. But Tolstoy doesn’t need to preach in this chapter. The events speak for themselves.

When things get out of control, the unspeakable happens. The force of commanders and law breaks down when the weight of the people press against it. What’s ironic is that, in this chapter, the leader that is meant to control the mob and enforce order is the very one who unleashes disorder and chaos.

In a fit of petty rage, no one is human any more.

One-Year War and Peace 11.24 – Rastoptchin

Reading for Sunday 8 March

Tolstoy returns to historian mode to deliver a resounding diatribe against the so-called commander-in-chief of Moscow. I don’t know for sure, but it sounds like he must have written his memoirs after the event to explain why he knew what was happening, because Tolstoy just dismantles any excuses he might have had for what happens.

But clearly, R. thought everyone would be happy to stay and fight the French. Clearly, he was in a distinct minority.

However, I think the point is that, it’s not just incompetent (in an amusing sort of way), because of Rastoptchin’s failure to mobilise the town, he was now leaving heaps of stuff behind to be looted and emptying convicts and madmen loose on the streets. Not a good state of affairs . . .

One-Year War and Peace 11.23 – Why Are Drunk People Funny?

Reading for Saturday 7 March

I’m not sure why, but drunks always make for the best comic interludes. As I understand this chapter, we have a bunch of factory hands who delivered grog to the tavern owner, for which they have been allowed to booze up all morning . . .

But then a group of blacksmiths arrive who want some free grog as well (they figure there’s a bit of looting going on). So, at the sound of the fight, the factory hands come out and decide to attack the tavern owner who was giving them grog in the first place.

It does highlight the chaos of the town, but it’s also a humorous look at the occasion as well. I’m not sure where Pierre has disappeared in the midst of all this, but just be patient, I’m sure we’ll get back to someone we know soon.

Film Review: Slumdog Millionaire

I know it’s about three months after it’s release date, and it’s already picked up the Best Picture Oscar at this stage, but I finally had a chance to see Slumdog Millionaire for myself.

The problem with seeing a film this late is that the hype is already big around it. The one that I probably find most misleading is the idea that this is the “feel-good film of the year”.

There was a time when a feel-good film was a piece of light fluff with a happy ending. While I’ll agree with the happy ending, there’s nothing light and fluffy about this story.

Just in case nobody has heard anything about this film, it tells the story of a boy from the slums who gets all the questions right on India’s “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” on TV. Via flashbacks, we find out how he knew the answers. I don’t need to say any more than that. Watch the film for yourself.

I’m not sure why, but this is now the third Danny Boyle film I’ve seen in recent years (the other two being Sunshine and 28 Days Later . . .). I’m not sure why, but I always find the first hour of his films brilliant, as he sets everything up and then the second hour not quite as satisfying – mainly because you can tell where everything is going to go by the halfway mark.

I’m not sure why, but I was starting to disengage by the halfway mark. But the first hour of this film is astonishing. The slums of India emerge on the screen. No wonder they were complaining about this film in India.

Their normal diet of Hindi Bollywood films – cranked out at a massive rate each year – usually feature stunningly good-looking actors and actresses, in middle to upper-class parts of town, and are designed to be as escapist as possible.

Slumdog borrows some of the Bollywood conventions – their is a romance at the heart of the story that drives it forward, a race-to-the-finish sort of ending and even a dance number for the closing credits. (Though let me tell you, compared to the real thing from a Bollywood film, the actors looked like they were trying to remember their steps more than anything else.)

But as soon as we flashback to little Jamal and his brother running through the slums of (what was then) Bombay, we realise that this is no Bollywood film. No set designer built this. The filthy gutters, the masses of people, and the thousands of precarious buildings that fill the screen are all the real deal. This is the India the Indians are not putting in their own cinema, and it’s taken an Englishman to do it for them.

Ultimately, this is made me not feel so good by the end of the film. The povery displayed was so real and the situations so horrific, that the movie ended up making me feel more concerned over the state of affairs in India more than anything else.

Sure, in the story, one guy from the slums wins the money and gets the girl – but even if that was a true story – it’s just one person. What about all the others, who never get that chance?

I think where the film is strong is that Boyle has crafted a film that opens our eyes to a country that can be easy to glamourise. A very telling moment is when the film shifts to the Taj Mahal. By this stage, we have really seen the underbelly of the nation, but in trot the tourists (the first white people we’ve ever seen), just to take a few happy snaps and be guided by the locals. But they have no idea of what the country is really like.

Boyle has successfully taken us off the tourist trail and shown us the real thing. But the bigger questions remain – how can a nation with that much poverty be helped? How do we turn the dream of overcoming poverty from a movie fiction into something tangible?

4 out of 5.

One-Year War and Peace 11.22 – The Mysterious Relative

Reading for Friday 6 March

This chapter is a bit unusual because an unnamed relative of Count Rostov’s shows up looking for a bit of help. This chapter does give us a snapshot into what the Rostov household is looking like now that the master and mistress are away, but I can’t help wondering . . . am I supposed to know this relative?

Would he have shown up somewhere else? Or have I come across an entirely new character? I’ll have to keep reading to find out. I certainly love the picture of the various domestics, and old Mavra Kuzminishna putting herself in the shoes of the Countess and doling out money . . .

One-Year War and Peace 11.21 – Descending Into Chaos

Reading for Thursday, 5 March

And returning to the chaos that is Moscow, we see this vignette of the looting that was taking place. In a touch of irony, we’re reminded that for all the fear of the invading French, the Russians could do enough damage on their own. It is the Russians army that are doing most of the stealing here . . .

But this moral dilemma is interrupted by a far more drastic measure, as Russians townsfolks are threated with cannon fire . . .

I think there’s an element of truth in all of this. If our nation descended into chaos and was invaded by anyone, we could well do the worst damage to ourselves. For some people, an upset like this is not a time to band together but a time to get away with stuff that social boundaries keep in place.

Apology to All War and Peace Fans

Hi everyone, I just wanted to apologise for the extraordinarily long hiatus between posts. It’s been one of those couple of weeks, where various big things in life have been coming together.

I normally don’t have too much trouble “switching off”, but it has been much more difficult these last few weeks.

Anyway, I don’t have time for a post today, but I shall return very shortly, and if not actually catch up, at least start posting again.

Thanks for your patience in the meantime.

One-Year War and Peace 11.20 – Bees

Reading for Wednesday, 4 March

And who would have expected this? A lesson about bees and beehives.

There’s not a lot to say about this chapter except that it got me really curious about looking in a beehive one of these days. Has anyone else ever looked at a beehive? I’ve never known anyone with one (or one of those suits, that I think you’d probably want for this sort of thing).

What’s amazing, I think, is that the beehive description is just as interesting as the rest of the novel.