Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Alexandre Dumas is probably my favorite 19th century author. Unlike some authors of the era Dumas wrote what I call 'pure' novels and didn't delve into tangents in discussing politics, religion, or other social issues of the day. Look no further than Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo who were masters at these tangents within their novels. Dumas was a writer of fiction and kept it that way. I like his works the more for it.
I read The Count of Monte Cristo just over three years ago immediately after finishing War and Peace. It is a novel I just loved from the first to last and is probably Dumas' finest work. Interestingly it is a more complex book to read than The Three Musketeers, and far longer as it was split into two seven hundred page books. But it still show cases Dumas' clear writing style which is easy to get into and enjoy.
What I like about Musketeers is that it is easier to read than most novels of the era. Dumas didn't bog his narratives down with complex sentence structure that the like of Charles Dickens did. Dickens is a great writer but his complex style can be a hindrance to the story. I find I have to be in a very settled state of mind to fully concentrate with his writing. Whereas with Dumas his sentence structure is less complex, and yet, like Dickens, he can fit so much into just the one sentence! He just does it with more economy of words.
This is not to say that Dumas is a simplistic writer because he had a very distinctive way of writing his novels. In Musketeers there are many passages that mirror William Shakespeare. What I mean by that is in a play Shakespeare had to describe so much within the words of the actors. Scenery, castles, furniture, people,etc, were described not in text but in word, and of course when you see a Shakespeare play there are very few props as the actors are describing what is around them. It is up to the audience to imagine what the actors are portraying. It is in essence the Shakespearean eras version of a modern film makers use of CGI.
Dumas in Musketeers takes this technique and novelises it. He brilliantly uses the characters speech and words to describe their surroundings and props. Instead of writing, the four went to the castle, one character would say, 'now let us retire to the castle yonder'. The spoken line lets the reader know there is a castle nearby and the four are going to it. This technique provides an economy of words and is an enjoyable reading experience. I love the technique, and it is what I took most away from from the book.
The other thing so noticeable about Musketeers, as it is with The Count of Monte Cristo, is the way the characters speak to each other. It is all politeness, even to enemies. To my modern sensibilities it was quite quaint!! Speech has moved on and been dumbed down so much it was a joy to read the by gone eras way of communicating. At times their speech was a bit long winded, and again shows the difference in the use of speech from our modern usage. Whereas an author today would take a paragraph to make a statement or describe something, Dumas would take four or five to describe the same thing!! It is indicative of the era, and whilst frustrating at times it was the style of the times and must be read as such.
It is not to say that Musketeers drags because of the long windedness of some passages. It moves along at a very good clip and I was able to average about forty pages a hour comfortably. Not once did I find a part I slogged through. After I put the book down I was amazed at how much I had read compared to how much I thought I had. The narrative is swift and with the amount of speech involved many pages can be read quite quickly compared to a dense page of complex descriptions. This again comes back to the writing style. It is a long book and yet it can be read very quickly which is an acknowledgement to the crisp writing of Dumas. It is a classic example of less being more!!
The plot is very easy to follow and doesn't get bogged down in too much sub-plot or tangents. For a 19th century novel it is relatively clear and concise compared to many of the era. An interesting thing to note is the short list of characters. There are only fifteen named. Any others are referred to by rank or as nameless civilians or soldiers ( as those at the siege of La Rochelle ). This brevity is great compared to say War and peace that has over two hundred different characters. It all helps to the pacing of the novel as the reader doesn't have to search back constantly to remember a character that hasn't been mentioned for some time.
Hollywood has made many adaptations of this novel and they have all been a disgrace. They all pick up on the sword fights and costumes, but at detriment to the plot. It isn't a difficult plot to follow and would be quite an easy novel to adapt.
In some ways Musketeers has dated especially in regards to women. Dumas portrays the fair sex as delicate, sweet natured, maidens who faint and swoon at anything even mildly unpleasant. They are afraid of heights and....well almost everything! In essence they are completely useless!! It is to our modern eyes quite laughable and I wonder how a modern woman who reads it feels. It is quaint and indicative of 'ladies' of the time, but I'm glad woman aren't like that any more!!
For me as I read Uncle Tom's Cabin I couldn't help but feel certain parts and passages were lifted straight from it and into Roots. Sure both are about slavery, and their will always be similarities, but there is in Roots parts that are way too similar to be original and reek strongly of plagiarism. Roots has had its due recognition, but Uncle Tom's Cabin is the foremost book in bringing the abhorrence of the slave trade to the world's attention. It is a shame that Haley delved to the depths he did for Roots is a very fine book for all the faults of its author.
For all the faults of Roots though the reader must read it with a grain of the proverbial salt. All of Haley's personal anecdotes and references to his 'researches should be some what dis-regarded because they are faulty to say the least. He has embellished much to his own purposes, which again is unfortunate because all he has done for posterity is leave a legacy of lies and a flawed book. If you read Roots it pays to read it as a straight novel based on historical events. It is not at all a family history as Haley would have us believe.
If you read this as a straight novel then you will enjoy it the more. It isn't original in describing the plight of Africans taken from their native country for the slave trade. But unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin it starts in Africa and is far, far more harrowing than Uncle Tom. The description of the slaves on the slave ship is so harrowing and vividly described I felt physically sick and found it almost impossible to keep reading at times. It is embellished, and for Haley's faults he must be praised for his descriptions of the sufferings of the slaves themselves.
The slaves were transported in ships chained down close together, lying in their own filth, with only one wash a week. They were whipped and the open sores festered from the filth and stung unmercifully when sea water was used to wash them. The women were raped, and the men were powerless to help them. The reader is led into the impotent rage these men felt at their plight and their inability to do a thing about it. Over half of them die en-route from their appalling conditions. They are treated worse than animals and fed on a diet of flour and water for months on end. It is despicable. As a white it makes you bow your head in shame for what was done to the black man.
After Kinte is landed in America his rage is so great he attempts several escapes but is caught each time. He finally has one of his feet cut off with an axe. Can you even begin to imagine that??! He is sold to a owner who uses him as a carriage driver as he can barley walk. He marries late in life and has a daughter who is sold off for helping a young boy she likes escape. She is repeatedly raped by her new owner and has a child by him. A 'mulatto', a term that crops up repeatedly when reading the slave trade ( as does that word, you know the one, 'nigger' ). Mulatto being a person of mixed white/black parentage. Even with white blood the person was treated as black, and hence a slave.
The tearing up of families runs right throughout Roots. In many respects it is more harrowing reading than the transporting of the slaves. Woman have babies torn from their arms as they are sold separately from their mothers. Husbands and wife's separated, and children sold off unceremoniously. It is all vividly told and the reader can't help but feel extreme anger towards those doing the buying and selling. The blacks are treated like so much cattle and aren't even given the credit for being human. Once Kinte daughter Kizzy is sold off he disappears from the book completely and we never learn what happens to him.
The book goes through all the conditions the slaves lived in, to the attitudes of the owners towards their 'property'. Some are good to the slaves, while others are terrible and employ sadistic over-seers to make them work. The slaves themselves know they are stuck but quietly rebel by intentionally breaking tools and woman house-cooks putting their 'bodily wastes' into their masters food. Oops, sorry they pronounce it 'masser'.
Unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin, Roots is easier to read. The slaves have a pidgin sort of English and in Uncle Tom it is extremely difficult to read. Mammy's speech in Gone With the Wind is a very good example and I had trouble deciphering her speech ( at times I just skipped it as it was starting to annoy me as I stumbled my way through it ). Haley in Roots has made it a bit clearer and easier to read, and yet it is still undeniably slave talk. It was with relief it was so, because I seriously doubt I would have had the patience to slog through such pidgin type speech and found it enjoyable.
The story Haley tells is quite a good read. He encompasses the many decades of the slave trade within a novel extremely well. The Civil War is gone through and the subsequent emancipation, as is the white owners attitudes to having to set free their slaves. Slavery may have ended but the attitude of the predominantly white population didn't change. The blacks were still 'niggers' and though slavery was gone another evil manifested itself in the guise of racism. Haley goes through the end of slavery and how blacks had to adjust to being free and the uphill struggle they faced to gain equality.
Roots is an extremely good book. It is flawed because Haley plagiarised some of it and insisted his researches on his own family's history was that of the book. But that aside, Alex Haley has written an outstanding novel ( because that is what it is ) on the slave trade through one hundred and fifty years. It is brutal, sad ,disgusting, and quite harrowing. It will appall the reading in knowing how a whole population of people were treated. You will feel anger like very few books can make you experience. You watch human beings treated worse than animals, and yet by the end these same people ultimately triumphed, and you feel uplifted by it.
An astonishing 'must' read. A book you will never forget and will think about over and over again.
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