On preparing for a trip to Central Europe, I had a look through my books - currently boxed up in the attic due to house renovations - and I had a good scan around Waterstones, on a relatively rare trip into Manchester city centre. With 'lightening up' in mind, I cast the theology, history and political philosophy books to one side, insteading picking up a few novels.
I also opted, as much as possible, for smaller novels. This is partly because I have not read a book from cover to cover since last summer - instead tending to dip in and dip out out of books, a reading habit which I believe has been encouraged by internet reading.
The two standout books, from around half a dozen that made the shortlist, were 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway and 'A Life's Music' by Andreï Makine.
Ernest Hemingway's story, his last published work during his lifetime, tells the tale of an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago who - following a period of failure - sets out ostensibly for one last big catch. In doing so he goes out further than any of the other fishermen, who had largely taken to mocking him, into the deeper, more dangerous seas. This leads to the old man essentially 'half-catching' a huge marlin who he proceeds to struggle with over a number of days, in a fight to the death.
The old man narrowly prevails and, exhausted, attempts to bring his haul back to shore - with an eye to both feeding himself and restoring not simply his pride (the dangers of which he is acutely aware, expressed during his monologues) but his deeply held identity as a man of the sea. This in itself brings around further struggles, as the towed corpse of the marlin attracts sharks which progressively destroy its fleshy bounty. The final image - one I have found has lingered with me for the past few weeks - sees the old man laid face down at home in a deep sleep with his arms stretched out and palms facing upwards, possibly in a coma, whilst being tended to by his young protégé Manolin (for whom Santiago has laid down a powerful marker about how to live).
The catch, now a skeleton following the successive shark attacks, is applauded by the locals who recognise its inherent magnitude - regardless of its apparent loss - but significantly the passing tourists confuse it for a large shark or whale hinting that the old man's legacy is already being distorted and diluted. Yet, in his comatose state, the old man returns to a dream of lions playing on the beach - a pleasant dream he has had since his youth - suggesting he is somehow re-fulfilled or regenerated spiritually.
For all of my attempts to eschew more serious reading, I have since learned from reading about this novel, that it is in fact embedded with Christian imagery in terms of the old man's wounds to his hands, his Calvary-style carrying of his mast up the hill to his home and that final powerful image. The story also can be analysed as a commentary on nature, on the interplay between life and death, on humankind and the planet earth.
Having read 'The Old Man and the Sea', and from there 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (which I will not comment on at this point, having not really enjoyed it), I moved on to 'A Life's Music' by Andreï Makine. Again, this was a short novel - a novella - coming in at around one hundred pages.
'A Life's Music' is set within a small, obscure train station in the Ural Mountains around 1958, on the western edge of Siberia, at a time when thousands were being released from the gulags of the Russian Far East. The train station itself is described by the narrator in detail, as a passenger waiting for a delayed train, staring at other passengers and the cold, near-on inhospitable environment in which they are marooned - perhaps a microcosm for Communist Russian as a whole.
What follows is a conversation between the narrating passenger and an older man, dressed in such a way he first appears to be what we in the West may label as a 'tramp', 'vagabond' or 'down and out'. The conversation becomes a retelling of the older man's life story.
The older man, Alexei Berg, recalls his childhood as son of prominent artists and his own development into a pianist of great potential, bringing him to the night before his debut performance at a factory. Already aware of his family's precarious position as possible targets for purging - due to their place amongst those deemed to be dangerous intelligentsia - he arrives home to see, from afar, a member of NKVD (pre-cursor to the KGB) stood at his kitchen window.
From there, he flees to Ukraine to seek refuge with family. It is 1941 and his journey westwards collides with the Nazi's push eastwards. In the carnage that ensures, Alexei takes the identity of a dead Soviet soldier and finds himself, whilst safe from the hand of Stalin, thrust into war. What follows is Alexei essentially becoming less and less of the pianist he wished to be and more and more of 'homo sovieticus' - gaining honour for his courage in battle and a seemingly privileged position as loyal-yet-robotic driver for one of the Red Army's generals.
But, what initially seems an insignificant development as Alexei watches the daughter of the general learn to play the piano, leads to an explosive climax in which he reveals his true self. All we are left to learn, from there, is Alexei was forced to joined the ranks of Gulag victims for at least a decade.
As with 'The Old Man and the Sea', there are so many points of reflection that could be drawn from 'A Life's Music' - both are stories that seem to sit on the mind for weeks after reading.
What I have personally drawn from both is that humans must each individually uncover our true self, what it is we truly wish to become and be, as interconnected yet unique sparks of creativity within the universe. For the Santiago, it was a life out at sea. For Alexei, it was a life in front of the piano. And in this continuing uncovering and re-uncovering of the true self, we must be willing to face fear, discomfort and possible ruin.
If we think about it, this is the age-old path of the hero - be that Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, King or Mandela.
As I approach the next yearly cycle of work, as I weigh up a potential return to university studies which will require a significant commitment and may well change my career direction in the long run, I have found - for all my intentions to 'lighten up' - that these two stories have carried some serious messages.
In the words of Ernest Hemingway,
"Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is..."