Tuesday, 3 July 2001

Catch-22 and Chocolat

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in D, K593.

Just read:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

This is a very famous book, and I can see why. It’s a black comedy about the experience of being in the military, set in the US air force during WWII. It was funny enough to make me laugh out loud on occasion, but also savage enough to make one feel quite chilled and depressed by the very idea of war. This was not really induced by the depiction of combat with enemies, as happens in Captain Corelli’s mandolin, with its explicit descriptions of the Italian war against Greece, and also the later Nazi attack on the Italians in Cephallonia. The characters in Catch-22 are all in the Air Force, so their military struggles are with remote, mechanical enemies, principally anti-aircraft batteries.

Instead, the horror of the situation is conveyed by the way in which the military personnel are desperate to be home, know that they can’t escape, and gradually crack up under the strain. The ridiculous mindset and behaviour of the high level officers (at colonel level and above) is perhaps a little over-done, but one can’t help but feel that it has a deal of truth in it. Heller was a bombardier in the USAAF during WWII, and one imagines that he knows what he’s on about. It’s a book well-stocked with memorable characters. The main hero is Yossarian, who is the most desperate to escape, and who is generally quite sympathetic. Then there are Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, and the cunning Orr.

Catch-22’s narrative is not presented in a straightforward, linear fashion. Instead, there are flash-backs and flash-forwards. Some important events within the story are described more than once, usually just being hinted at on a number of occasions, gradually being filled in with more detail. There are some amazing set-pieces, where the prose becomes poetic and heightened in impact. In particular, towards the end of the book, when Yossarian is stumbling through a Rome that is both ruined and depraved, the scene is painted so as to make one feel in a trance-like nightmare.

Joanne Harris, Chocolat.

This is a pleasant read. It’s “low intensity” fiction really, though I have to admit that my reaction to it was almost certainly affected by the fact that I saw the film first (a month or so ago now; see below). On finishing the book, it’s difficult to think back on it and claim that it’s about anything particularly deep. The story is that of an itinerant woman, Vianne, who arrives with her young daughter in a small, conservative French village, and has a generally positive effect on the inhabitants. Vianne is a chocolatier and she opens a chocolate shop in the central square of the village, right opposite the church. Her arrival upsets the forces of conservatism that have hitherto dominated the village, principally the priest. The story describes the way in which the hero manages to settle down, denying her roaming heritage, personified in her dead mother, and gets the village to “loosen up”.

An enjoyable read, with a solidity to the characters, particularly Vianne, that makes it all the more appealing.

To read next:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

A recent movie:

Chocolat. The film is not bad, but it’s not as good as the book. It loses out by denying the characters the solidity they had in the book, and by exaggerating the general sappiness of the story. The acting is all good; Alfred Molina as the seigneur of the village is particularly good. For reasons known only to the film-makers, the priest is no longer the bad-guy; instead he is a young guy, newly appointed, and pretty much under Molina’s control.

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