Ramblings, Season 1, Episode 2

The One with the Volvo Bashing

So, who likes airport paperbacks?

I know. I don't particularly like them either.

Once I was stranded in an airport and the only paperback priced according to the loose bills in my pocket was Dan Brown's The da Vinci Code. What a piece of garbage! I only got through it because I literally had nothing better to do.

But there is a book in the airport paperback category that had a considerable influence on me, although I didn't bought it or read it in an airport: Trevanian's Shibumi. It's no masterpiece, like Pride and Prejudice or Ana Karenina, but has its upsides. It also has a lot of silliness and awkwardness.

Between the ludicrous tantric sex and the tedious passages around spelunking, there is this recurring stupidity where the protagonist always bashes his Volvo car after entering or leaving it. At one point, Trevanian's narrator remarks:

It was not long before his caving associates fell into the practice of bashing his Volvo whenever they passed it, at first as a joke and later by habit. Soon they and the young men they traveled with began to bash any Volvo they passed. And in the illogical way of fads, Volvo-bashing began to spread, here taking on an anti-Establishment tone, there a quality of youthful exuberance; here as an expression of antimaterialism, there as a manifestation of in-cult with-itness. Even owners of Volvos began to accept the bashing craze, for it proved that they traveled in circles of the internationally aware. And there were cases of owners secretly bashing their own Volvos, to gain unearned reputations as cosmopolites.

As a teenager, I found the detached prose quite entertaining. Specially the passages where the narrator pokes fun at all sorts of shallow practices and hypocrisy, from corporate capitalism to military mentality. I guess it was the persistent derision towards authority, institutions and mass culture that attracted me as a teenager.

More recently, I took a peek inside the book once more and reread some passages. Predictably, my overall opinion of the book is now way lower. What changed?

Well, let me first dwell on what didn't change.

Although the narrator seems to invariably shine a good light over the protagonist, I think is very likely that Trevanian himself despises him. Nicholai Hel, that's his name, is actually a caricature, whom the narrator seems to admire, but whom the author is trying to mock. The novel is a spoof, as were previous novels by Trevanian with similar protagonists.

I mean, the backstory of Nicholai Hel alone is such a ridiculous pastiche, it's almost burlesque: a child of a German soldier and Russian nobility born in Shanghai is sent by his Japanese foster father to study Go in Japan. What?!

Mixed in with this entertaining satire, however, there are some serious and thoughtful passages about war and other human misfortunes.

The Bombing of Shanghai, the desperation and hunger endured by civilians in Japan at the end of WWII, the incompetence and brutality of military missions in the subsequent Cold War (an appalling misnomer).

These were all experienced by the protagonist and often masterfully narrated. I remember in particular the passage where Hel tries to endure torture by going somewhere else deep inside his own mind.

I still hold these passages in high regard. Now, for the low points.

First, the female characters are... well, they are not really characters, but caricatures. I guess that could be said of every character in the book, but still. It seems the female characters got it worst on average. Perhaps, I just shouldn't expected good character development from airport paperbacks.

Furthermore, there is a particular running theme... some kind of cheap contempt, and sometimes even resentment, towards average persons. Actually, it reminds me of the kind of petty aristocratic resentment so frankly expressed in Tocqueville's Democracy in America:

When I survey this countless multitude of beings, shaped in each other's likeness, amidst whom nothing rises and nothing falls, the sight of such universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to regret that state of society which has ceased to be. When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, of great wealth and extreme poverty, of great learning and extreme ignorance, I turned aside from the latter to fix my observation on the former alone, who gratified my sympathies. But I admit that this gratification arose from my own weakness: it is because I am unable to see at once all that is around me, that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my predilection from among so many others. Such is not the case with that almighty and eternal Being whose gaze necessarily includes the whole of created things, and who surveys distinctly, though at once, mankind and man. We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, which is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What appears to me to be man's decline, is to His eye advancement; what afflicts me is acceptable to Him. A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty. I would strive then to raise myself to this point of the divine contemplation, and thence to view and to judge the concerns of men.

The translation doesn't quite manage to capture the beauty of the original prose. I suppose it's pedantic of me to write that, which seems appropriate to the context 😉.

Yes, it's almost endearing coming from a 19th century French aristocrat. With respect to Shibumi, however, this disparagement of the “common masses” annoyed me quite a bit this time around, whereas I barely even noticed it the first time. To be fair to my past self, the first time around, I haven't yet read any great literature. No Kafka, Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Flaubert. After those, people tend to become less forgiving as readers.

Anyway, I don't want to turn this into a review of Shibumi. After all, the book is only a pretext for me to ramble about and waste your time.

This supposedly new failing I found is likely a projection of some musings that have preoccupied me lately. You see, individuals are often the subject of admiration. They can distinguish themselves. They can be unique, interesting, special, rare.

The communal is usually less exciting. It's more difficult to find praise for what is common, popular, collective, public. And when you do find it, there's always a catch. We love to praise “democracy”, but also never get tired of complaining about it, specially when it doesn't deliver the results we were expecting.

We prefer to flaunt MLK, Gandhi and Einstein than to discuss civil rights, social change and physics. We want heroes to praise, messiahs to save us, examples to admire. It is comforting to have these figures. They provide something to look up to and aspire, as well as an excuse when we don't get there. Who can blame us? We're no Gandhi!

Ideally we would need fewer heroes, messiahs, martyrs and examples. Virtue should not always require sacrifice. Achievement should not require genius.

We've made some progress. But heroes, messiahs, knights, geniuses and benevolent dictators still entice us. Why?

The civil rights movement in the United States, for example, was much more than MLK or any other individual. But a MLK biopic is probably more watchable than a civil rights documentary. Most people would rather quote MLK than review a draft bill or discuss parliamentary procedure. And that's fine. Really.

We should not forget, however, that some details in legislation or parliamentary procedure can be much more important for the values we hold so dear. What keeps those values in place is often dull, boring and even undignified.

We like to complain about politicians and their compromises and alliances. We think politics should be mostly principled and that unreasonable people can simply be “forced to be free”, to borrow a phrase from Rousseau.

Hel's Volvo served him pretty well. Yet he despised it and felt compelled to bash it whenever possible.

Let us not bash our Volvos.

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