The Archipelago of Another Life: read-along, last quarter of the book

  The Archipelago of Another Life Archipel dune autre vie

READ-ALONG
with Carol at Cas d’intérêt 

THE ARCHIPELAGO OF ANOTHER LIFE
L’ARCHIPEL D’UNE AUTRE VIE
by Andreï MAKINE

***

Here is our schedule:
Voici notre calendrier :

April 5: our reading begins, Chapters I and II. Visit Carol’s announcement post, with maps and much more!
5 avril : début de la lecture, Chapitres I et II. Allez voir le billet de Carol annonçant cette lecture, avec des cartes et autres bonnes choses.

April 19: questions asked by Cas d’intérêt on Chapters I and II
19 avril : questions postées à Cas d’intérêt sur ces deux premiers chapitres

May 4: my questions on second quarter of the book
4 mai : mes questions sur le second quart du livre

May 18: questions asked by Cas d’intérêt on the third quarter of the book, up to “loin de mon passé, du monde des autres où je n’avais plus de rôle à jouer.”
18 mai : questions postées à Cas d’intérêt sur le 3e quart du livre, jusqu’à “loin de mon passé, du monde des autres où je n’avais plus de rôle à jouer.”

June 4: questions here today on the last quarter of the book.
4 juin : questions ici sur le dernier quart du livre.

Last quarter of the book:
Dernier quart du livre :

1) The last quarter features several walks (Pavel and Elkan, then Pavel by himself, then again with Elkan; then Pavel and the teen; and the trip with Sacha). How similar/different are the last ones from the other walks we have seen before? What do you think the author is trying to convey?
1) Le dernier quart du livre présente plusieurs marches (Pavel et Elkan, Pavel seul, puis de nouveau avec Elkan ; et Pavel et l’adolescent ; enfin le voyage avec Sacha). Ces marches ont-elles des points similaires / différents de celles que nous avons rencontrées auparavant ? À ton avis, qu’est-ce que l’auteur essaie de transmettre ?

Carol:

Very intriguing question Emma. I am eager to hear your answer to this one. As I was reading, I didn’t take particular note of how these walks differed from others earlier in the book. Thinking back, I’d say that Makine spent less time describing the setting—except perhaps for the crossing of the Lindholm Strait—than he had earlier. I appreciated this because the setting was already well established and now as a reader, I was eager to find out what was going to take place between Pavel and Elkan.

Both of Pavel’s solo trips would also have been hurried with little time to reflect on the surroundings. So, I suppose that by not lingering on the scenery, Makine also conveys the one-track mindset that Pavel has adopted for both journeys. What did you think?

Question intéressante, Emma. J’attends tes impressions avec impatience. En lisant l’histoire, je n’ai pas noté la différence entre les marches à la fin du livre par rapport à celles au début. Avec le recul, je dirais que Makine a passé moins de temps pour décrire le cadre—sauf pour la traversée du détroit de Lindholm—qu’auparavant. J’ai apprécié moins de détails parce que Makine avait déjà bien établi les environs et à cette pointe du récit j’ai eu hâte d’apprendre ce qui allait se passer entre Pavel et Elkan.

Les deux marches en solo de Pavel auraient été exécutées avec précipitation sans le temps d’observer ou de réfléchir. Alors, en réduisant les descriptions de la nature, Makine nous montre que Pavel pense principalement à ses propres buts. En allant à la base, il pense à la gloire et la fin d’une vie de servitude. En revenant, il pense à rattraper Elkan et à la possibilité d’une nouvelle vie. Que penses-tu ?

Emma:

When I read about all these walks, I thought we could do some geometrical and dynamical designs to represent them, with all the different forces at play: for some walks, the person(s) is/are choosing to go in one direction, willingly, even eagerly. In some other walks, they go slowly, against their choice. I think the different natures of the walks tell us a lot about what the characters are going through, in their inner being.

I thought this is powerfully described at the beginning of this section. At the same time, Pavel says, “J’avançais derrière elle, comme si notre but était devenu le même. Montées, pentes, passages à gué.” And then next sentence: “J’imaginais la facilité avec laquelle j’aurais pu ralentir le pas, tourner sans être vu et, déroulant notre chemin dans le sens inverse, arriver au cantonnement une semaine plus tard… Cette idée me hantait.” I could represent it this way: <– Pavel –> He is literarily torn between these two opposite desires and directions. He is haunted, he is still un pantin. A few lines below, he does recognize “Oui, le pantin m’habitait encore”. Very different from the woman’s walk, from her constant courage and firm determination. She knows where she wants/has to go and never changes course.

Quand j’ai lu toutes ces marches, j’ai pensé qu’on faire des dessins géométriques et dynamiques pour les représenter, avec toutes les différentes forces en jeu : pour certaines marches, la ou les personnes choisissent d’aller dans une direction, volontairement, même avec envie. Dans certaines autres, es personnages avancent lentement, contre leur gré. Je pense que les différentes natures de ces marches nous en disent long sur ce que ces gens vivent intérieurement.

Ça me semble décrit avec force au début de cette section. En même temps, dit Pavel, “J‘avançais derrière elle, comme si notre but était devenu le même. Montées, pentes, passages à gué.” Et puis la phrase suivante : “J’imaginais la facilité avec laquelle j’aurais pu ralentir le pas, tourner sans être vu et, déroulant notre chemin dans le sens inverse, arriver au cantonnement une semaine plus tard… Cette idée me hantait.” Je pourrais le représenter ainsi : <– Pavel –> Il est littéralement tiraillé entre ces deux désirs et directions opposés. Il est hanté, il est toujours un pantin. Quelques lignes plus bas, il le reconnaît en effet : « Oui, le pantin m’habitait encore ». Très différent de la marche de la femme, de son courage constant et de sa ferme détermination. Elle sait où elle veut/doit aller et ne change jamais de cap.

2) Any comment on what’s awaiting Pavel at the military camp?
2) As-tu des remarques à faire sur ce qui attend Pavel au camp militaire ?

Carol:

Again, Makine surprised me with events that in hindsight, I feel I might have predicted. What takes place upon Pavel’s return is horrible yet perfectly in line with the character development that has preceded it—Ratinsky, the villainous brute and Vassine, the virtuous martyr. It also jibes with the underlying critique of the Soviet system that Makine conveys quite convincingly.

Part VI of the book that immediately follows made me want to learn more about the chaos that ensued in the wake of Stalin’s death. I don’t recall ever reading about this.

Encore une fois, Makine m’a surpris et avec le recul, j’ai l’impression que j’ai eu toutes les indications nécessaires pour prédire un tel résultat. Ce qui se passe est horrible pourtant tout à fait fidèle aux personnalités déjà établies. Ratinsky se montre une brute ignoble. Vassine reste le martyr vertueux. Le scénario soutient aussi la critique sous-jacente de Makine du système soviétique.

La partie VI du livre qui suit me fait vouloir apprendre plus sur le chaos qui s’est ensuivi après la mort de Staline.

Emma:

I wasn’t surprised by the “welcome” he received, though I would have guessed the wrong motive. Here Ratinsky’s violence is solely motivated by vainglory. He wants all the glory of the (unreal) capture to himself.
It’s fascinating that finally, facing that violence and vileness, Pavel is no longer un pantin!
I agree with what you highlight about the criticism of the system. This extreme corruption reminded me of my experience in 1988, right before the fall of the regime in Hungary. With a large group of young Christians, I went to Hungary. We were going there to perform a Christian play and offer the book of it to the Hungarian primate. When we arrived at the border with our large double-decker bus, we waited for ever. After several hours, someone got the brilliant idea to offer a case of bottles (we were coming from Burgundy). As by miracle, we were given the green light to enter the country a few minutes after. When I saw that corruption at play, I felt in my guts that this was not going to last much longer. Indeed, shortly after, a republic was proclaimed in Hungary.
Even though we had seen Vassine’s personality before, I was actually surprised by his sacrifice.
One thing that I thought totally useless and a bit too “romancy”, is when we learn at the end of he novel that Elkan had originally been in the same camp, and it’s actually thanks to her that Pavel had managed to escape the terrible underground prison. I’m still l wondering why the author put this in. What are your thoughts on this?

“L’accueil” qu’il a reçu ne m’a pas du tout surprise, même si j’aurais deviné le mauvais motif. Ici, la violence de Ratinsky est uniquement motivée par la vaine gloire. Il veut toute la gloire de la capture (qui n’a pas lieu) pour lui-même.
C’est fascinant qu’enfin, face à cette violence et à cette bassesse, Pavel ne soit plus un pantin !
Je suis d’accord avec ce que tu soulignes au sujet de la critique du système. Cette corruption extrême m’a rappelé mon expérience en 1988, juste avant la chute du régime en Hongrie. Avec un grand groupe de jeunes chrétiens, je suis allée en Hongrie. L’idée était d’y jouer une pièce chrétienne et en offrir le livre au primat hongrois. Quand on est arrivés à la frontière avec notre gros bus à impériale, on a attendu une éternité. Au bout de quelques heures, quelqu’un a eu la brillante idée d’offrir une caisse de bouteilles (on venait de Bourgogne). Comme par miracle, on nous a donné le feu vert pour entrer dans le pays juste quelques minutes après. Quand j’ai vu cette corruption à l’œuvre, j’ai senti que le régime n’allait pas durer très longtemps. En effet, peu de temps après, une république a été proclamée en Hongrie.

Même si on avait déjà vu la personnalité de Vassine, j’ai été surprise par son sacrifice.

Une chose que je trouvais totalement inutile et un peu trop “romantique”, c’est quand on apprend à la fin du roman qu’Elkan avait été à l’origine dans le même camp, et c’est en fait grâce à elle que Pavel avait réussi à s’échapper de la terrible prison souterraine. Je me demande encore pourquoi l’auteur a inséré ce détail. Qu’en penses-tu?

3) There’s again a huge place given to nature and wilderness in this last part. What is the author’s message through it?
3) Il y a encore une place énorme accordée à la nature sauvage dans cette dernière partie. Quel est le message de l’auteur ?

Carol:

I felt this part of the book was weaker than other parts.  To a certain extent, Makine conveys the environment’s harsh and unforgiving nature. A winter that lasts 9 months with temperatures that drop well below zero degrees fahrenheit is perilous, to say the least. At the same time, I feel that Makine romanticizes Pavel and Elkan’s existence in the Shantars. The fact that they could survive after reaching their destination as winter was setting in (rather than at the beginning of the summer when they’d have a chance to prepare a homestead) is asking a lot of the reader to accept.

I think we can all agree that modern life has its downsides. I highlighted a passage where Makine eloquently writes:

“Non, il ne s’agissait pas du nombre d'<<expériences>>, valeur si prisée par la modernité. Ni d’une sagesse fumeuse, fruit de l’une de ces expériences exotiques. Leur quotidien, rude et simple, ne visait aucun but édifiant.”

He goes on to give examples of the natural methods they used to stay warm and feed themselves. It all sounds rather idyllic but in reality, I think it would be unendingly stressful and mercilessly difficult. It reminded me of a PBS series called Frontier House that I watched many years ago. Three families agreed to move to Montana for a summer and live as the original homesteaders did at the end of the 19th century.

Their objective was to build themselves a homestead and spend the entire summer preparing for the winter. At the end of their stay, a panel of judges decided whether they had made adequate preparations. Two of the families were given no chance of surviving. A third, young couple, was deemed successful but only because they were young enough that their physical condition might allow them to survive.

These families took the challenge quite seriously and those with kids, put them to work. The women had it the worst, working from sunup until well past sundown every day. Unlike Pavel and Elkan, these families started out with livestock, sacks of flour, many hand tools from the era, and various supplies that  well-equipped settlers might have brought with them. Elkan and Pavel had none of these advantages and if anything, their environment sounds as if it could have been even harsher.

J’ai l’impression que cette partie du livre était moins forte. Dans une certaine mesure, Makine transmet le caractère dur et implacable de la nature. Un hiver qui dure pendant 9 mois avec des températures bien en dessous de zéro, c’est périlleux. En même temps, je pense que Makine idéalise l’existence de Pavel et Elkan dans les Îles Chantars. Le fait qu’ils auraient pu survivre après avoir atteint leur destination au même moment où l’hiver s’installe me semble invraisemblable.

Nous pouvons tous convenir que la vie moderne a des mauvais côtés. J’ai souligné le passage où Makine écrit avec éloquence:

“Non, il ne s’agissait pas du nombre d'<<expériences>>, valeur si prisée par la modernité. Ni d’une sagesse fumeuse, fruit de l’une de ces expériences exotiques. Leur quotidien, rude et simple, ne visait aucun but édifiant.”

Il élabore avec des exemples des méthodes naturelles qu’ils ont utilisées pour rester au chaud et se nourrir. Peut-être que ça a l’air idyllique, mais en réalité une telle existence serait continuellement stressante et impitoyablement difficile.

Emma:

This is true that it’s romanticized, but I gladly let myself be awed by it.
Ultimately, besides the strong counter-cultural message,  (“leur exil tenait au refus de participer à ces jeux”, “une autre vie était possible”), I felt it like the evocation of a “new heaven and a new earth”, Revelation 21:1), of a place where “another life” is possible, in a post-Stalin era.
But with the warning that unless we are renewed from the inside, this archipelago would be a mirage and could easily be destroyed by profit and secular entertainment, like shallow tourism.

C’est vrai que c’est romancé, mais je me suis laissée volontiers impressionner par ça.
Au final, outre le fort message contre-culturel,  (“leur exil tenait au refus de participer à ces jeux”, “une autre vie était possible”), je l’ai ressenti comme l’évocation d’un “nouveau ciel et d’une nouvelle terre”, Apocalypse 21,1), d’un lieu où « une autre vie » est possible, dans une ère post-stalinienne.
Mais avec l’avertissement qu’à moins que nous ne soyons renouvelés de l’intérieur, cet archipel serait un mirage et pourrait facilement être détruit par le profit et le divertissement séculaire, comme le tourisme superficiel.

4)  What do you think about the structure of the book?
4) Que penses-tu de la structure du livre ?

Carol:

I liked the structure of the book. Beginning and ending with the same narrator added to the intrigue. I think Makine is a master at keeping the reader at the edge of his chair, eager to know what comes next. The book was never dull. I also admire Makine’s ability to insert multiple surprising outcomes while remaining true to a realistic portrayal of his characters.

J’ai beaucoup aimé la structure du livre. Commencer et terminer avec le même narrateur a ajouté à la intrigue. Makine maîtrise bien l’aptitude pour garder le lecteur au bord de son siège. Le récit n’a jamais été ennuyeux. J’admire la capacité de Makine d’insérer de multiples événements inattendus à travers l’histoire, tout en restant fidèle aux caractères de ses personnages.

Emma:

I liked it too. I always like a story within a story, and here we have a story within a story, within another story. It made me think of the matryoshki, the Russian nesting dolls.
I feel this structure fits perfectly the story, as an invitation to embrace deeper values, the only ones that will give real meaning to whatever new social order we may want to achieve.
And yes, there were also a good amount of suspenseful scenes, and characters with clearly defined personalities.

Je l’ai aussi aimée. J’apprécie toujours une histoire dans une histoire, et ici on a une histoire dans une histoire, dans une autre histoire. Ça m’a fait penser aux matriochki, les poupées gigognes russes.
Je pense que cette structure correspond parfaitement à l’histoire, comme une invitation à embrasser des valeurs plus profondes, les seules qui donneront un sens réel à tout nouvel ordre social qu’on souhaiterait atteindre.
Et oui, il y avait aussi une bonne quantité de scènes pleines de suspense et des personnalités clairement définies.

5)  Did you find the last sentence was a satisfactory ending?
5) La dernière phrase te semble-t-elle une fin satisfaisante ?

Carol:

I didn’t really. I read through those last paragraphs a few times to make sure I wasn’t missing something. Perhaps I’m too much of a realist to find a third-hand account of spotting a sailboat in the fog, sailing along the coast of Belitchy, evidence of the couple’s existence, even figuratively speaking.

Earlier, I was disappointed when the narrator didn’t venture into the interior of the island to locate Pavel’s and Elkan’s homestead. Even if he’d found it destroyed, seeing the place would still give him a clearer vision of their existence. I’d hoped that among the ruins, he might uncover some hidden detail about their life on the island. In my opinion, this would have been a better “trace qu’un amour pouvait laisser parmi les vivants.”

Non, pas vraiment. J’ai relu les derniers paragraphes à plusieurs reprises pour m’assurer que je ne ratais pas quelque chose. Peut-être que je suis trop réaliste pour accepter un tel dénouement. L’aperçu de troisième main à travers le brouillard d’une voile carrée ne me dit pas grande chose.

Plus tôt dans le livre, j’ai été déçue quand le narrateur n’est pas allée à l’intérieur de l’île Belitchy pour trouver plus de traces de Pavel et Elkan. J’espérais qu’il découvrait certains indices parmi les décombres qui nous diraient plus sur leur vie et leur sort ultime. À mon avis, ça pourrait mieux servir de “trace qu’un amour pouvait laisser parmi les vivants.”

Emma:

I actually thought it worked, as I perceived “ce voilier dans la brume lumineuse” like a sign of hope. To go back to my interpretation, as explained above in 3 and 4, rebuilding a society on new values is a fragile thing, nothing is ever sure. You can only hope.

En fait, je trouve que ça marche, je perçois “ce voilier dans la brume lumineuse” comme un signe d’espoir. Pour en revenir à mon interprétation, comme expliqué plus haut dans 3 et 4, reconstruire une société sur de nouvelles valeurs est une chose fragile, rien n’est jamais sûr. On ne peut qu’espérer.

6) How do you now understand the title? What do you think is the author’s ultimate message of his book? Do you agree with him?
6) Comment comprends-tu maintenant le titre ? D’après toi, quel est le message ultime de l’auteur ? Es-tu d’accord avec lui ?

Carol:
I think I’ve already touched on this in question 3. From the beginning, I felt the book was heading in the direction of establishing a life free from Soviet oppression and societal corruption somewhere in the Shantars. I don’t want to sound too critical because I think the book has many important messages and that it delivers a beautifully crafted story. Given the horrific dystopia that the central characters found themselves in, their life on Belitchy may well have been their best option. I just don’t buy into the notion that a life in the wilderness has many advantages over lives lived in modern society.

Je pense avoir parlé un peu sur ce sujet pour la question 3. Dès le début, j’ai eu l’impression que l’histoire visait une vie dans les Chantars, à l’abri de l’oppression soviétique et de la corruption sociale. Je ne veux pas donner l’impression que je n’apprécie pas le livre. Je pense qu’il présente plusieurs messages importantes sur la vie et sur le caractère humaine. C’est aussi un très beau récit.

Étant donné la dystopie horrifique dans laquelle les personnages principals se trouvaient, leur vie sur Belitchy aurait pu été le meilleur choix. Je n’adhère pas pourtant à l’idée qu’une vie dans le désert a de nombreux avantages par rapport à une vie dans la société moderne.

Emma:

I also already mentioned above what I thought the ultimate message was.
Having lived myself twenty years far from the trappings of modern society, and still trying to embrace counter-cultural values in my everyday life, I tend to agree with the author’s message.
For me, it’s very scary that most people can no longer even live in silence, they absolutely need noise, distraction, and they are so busy that they don’t have time to go deep inside. A society built on these principles is extremely fragile.

It strikes me that a few other contemporary French authors tend to focus on similar messages, urging people to turn again to nature, to listen, to look.
I’m thinking for instance of novelist Serge Joncour in Wild Dog. I’m currently listening to his Nature humaine (published in August 2020), another wake-up call.
And the other author I have in mind writes nonfiction. That’s Sylvain Tesson, with Dans les forêts de Sibérie (the English title is more explicit: The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga).
In Sur les chemins noirs, he reacts strongly against the French government trying to connect all the rural French areas through the internet, and destroying a lot of natural environments, as well as the places of quiet where you can access your deeper self.
Finally, I’d like to mention his La Panthère des neiges (to be published in English as The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet, on July 13, 2021 by Penguin Press). Whoever wrote the synopsis puts it well:
and as they keep their vigil, Tesson comes to embrace the virtues of patience and silence. His faith is rewarded when the snow leopard, the spirit of the mountain, reveals itself: an embodiment of what we have surrendered in our contemporary lives. And the simple act of waiting proves to be an antidote to the frenzy of our times.
A celebration of the power and grace of the wild, and a requiem for the world’s vanishing places, The Art of Patience is a revelatory account of the communion between nature and the human heart. Sylvain Tesson has written a new masterpiece on the relationship between man and beast in prose as sublime as the wilderness that inspired it.

J’ai aussi déjà mentionné ci-dessus ce que je pensais être le message ultime.
Ayant moi-même vécu vingt ans loin des “valeurs” de la société moderne, et essayant toujours d’embrasser des valeurs contre-culturelles dans ma vie quotidienne, j’ai tendance à être d’accord avec le message de l’auteur.
Pour moi, c’est très effrayant que la plupart des gens ne puissent même plus vivre en silence, ils ont absolument besoin de bruit, de distraction, et ils sont tellement occupés qu’ils n’ont pas le temps d’entrer profondément en eux. Une société reposant sur ces principes est extrêmement fragile.

Cela me frappe que quelques autres auteurs français contemporains ont tendance à se concentrer sur des messages similaires, exhortant les gens à se tourner à nouveau vers la nature, à écouter, à regarder.
Je pense par exemple au romancier Serge Joncour dans Chien-Loup. J’écoute actuellement son Nature humaine (publié en août 2020), une autre sonnette d’alarme.
Et l’autre auteur que j’ai en tête écrit de la non-fiction. C’est Sylvain Tesson, avec Dans les forêts de Sibérie (le titre anglais est plus explicite : The Consolations of the Forest : Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga).
Dans Sur les chemins noirs, il réagit fortement contre le gouvernement français qui essaie de connecter toutes les zones rurales françaises par l’ Internet, et détruit de nombreux environnements naturels, ainsi que les lieux de calme où on peut tenter d’accéder au moi plus profond.
Enfin, j’aimerais mentionner Panthère des neiges (à paraître en anglais sous le titre The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet, le 13 juillet 2021 par Penguin Press).
L’auteur du résumé en anglais dit bien les choses :

“et alors qu’ils veillent, Tesson en vient à embrasser les vertus de patience et de silence. Sa foi est récompensée lorsque le léopard des neiges, l’esprit de la montagne, se révèle : une incarnation de ce que nous avons abandonné dans nos vies contemporaines. Et le simple fait d’attendre s’avère être un antidote à la frénésie de notre temps.
Une célébration de la puissance et de la grâce de la nature et un requiem pour les lieux de disparition du monde, L’art de la patience est un récit révélateur de la communion entre la nature et le cœur humain. Sylvain Tesson a écrit un nouveau chef-d’œuvre sur la relation entre l’homme et la bête en prose aussi sublime que la nature sauvage qui l’a inspiré.”

7) Did you like this book, why or why not?
7) As-tu aimé ce livre, pourquoi ou pourquoi pas ?

Carol:

Yes, I definitely enjoyed the book. I loved the descriptions of the Taiga. I thought Makine’s characters were excellent. He described realistic backstories for each of them using an economy of words. Each man was unique and yet a believable by-product of the hardships that had formed him. In the end, Makine gave us a bit more about Elkan to help us understand her path to becoming a fugitive. One thing missing, however, were a few details that could explain how she came to be such an adept survivalist. The fact that she was a native of the area, was not quite enough to satisfy me but this is a nitpick.

I’ve already commented that I think Makine is a master storyteller. I can’t imagine knowing how to layer a plot so completely that it exhibits so many of the key elements of good writing and still flows seamlessly along. I’ve really appreciated Andrew Blackman’s commentary on this book. As a professional author, he speaks far more intelligently about Makine’s craft than I’m able to do. 

Oui, j’ai beaucoup aimé. Les descriptions de la taïga me plaisent. Les personnages sont excellents. Makine nous donne des profils justes et riches avec une précision de mots. Chaque homme a un caractère unique et crédible. À la fin, Makine nous présente un peu plus sur Elkan pour mieux comprendre sa vie auparavant. Une chose qui manque, cependant, ce sont quelques détails qui auraient pu expliquer comment elle est devenue une survivaliste exemplaire. Le fait qu’elle est autochtone n’est pas assez pour me satisfaire, mais tant pis.

J’ai déjà dit que Makine me semble être un maître conteur. J’ai beaucoup apprécié les commentaires d’Andrew Blackman qui lit le livre avec nous. En tant qu’auteur professionnel, il parle brillamment des techniques d’écritures, ce que je ne sais pas très bien faire.

Emma:

I liked it a lot, especially for the ultimate messages highlighted above. Originally, I wanted to listen to it, but the service I use for French audiobooks never made it available. I’m actually glad I read it, as I had more opportunity to take the time to taste the great style. There are so powerful sentences that you just want to read and re-read.

I want to thank Carol for joining me in this bilingual adventure. It made it an even richer reading experience, that compelled me to slow down, reflect, analyze, and share. Merci Carol !
I invite you to check her post today, where she added gorgeous pictures of the archipelago (The Shantar Islands)!

Je l’ai beaucoup aimé, surtout pour les messages ultimes mis en évidence ci-dessus. À l’origine, je voulais l’écouter, mais le service que j’utilise pour les livres audio en français ne l’a jamais rendu disponible. En fait, je suis contente de l’avoir lu, car j’ai eu plus l’occasion de prendre le temps de goûter le style exquis. Il y a des phrases si puissantes que vous voulez juste lire et relire.

Je tiens à remercier Carol de m’avoir accompagnée dans cette aventure bilingue. Ma lecture en a été d’autant plus enrichie, m’obligeant à ralentir, à réfléchir, à analyser et à partager. Merci Carol !
Je vous invite à consulter son blog aujourd’hui. Elle a ajouté de magnifiques photos de l’archipel (Les îles Chantar) !

Please check also the wonderful reflections by Andrew Blackman on the end of the book

Feel free to comment here and/or on Carol’s blog,
or create your own post.

N’hésitez pas à commenter ici et/ou sur le blog de Carol,
ou à créer vos propre billet.

The Andromeda Strain: read-along, last discussion, on Day 4 and Day 5

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain,
by Michael Crichton,
1969
Science Fiction/Thriller
Goodreads

Today is the last post of my buddy read with Julie Anna.
In case you missed our previous posts, you can find them by clicking on these links:

Pre-read discussion
Day 1 and Day 2
Day 3

And today, here are our answers to my questions on Day 4 and Day 5:

1. What did you think about how the suspense is handled by the author, especially in Day 4 and 5?

Julie Anna
Days 4 and 5 actually didn’t go how I expected them to! I made the assumption that the strain would spread outside the town and be deadly and contagious, so after seeing what actually happened with the strain it wasn’t as suspenseful as I expected it to be? That’s all on me because of my expectations, but at the same time, I feel like the emphasis was so much so on the process of figuring things out that it wasn’t as suspenseful. The only exception I would say was at the countdown part – that was the most suspenseful part for me! But then with the ending you do feel that kind of relief when you do find out what happens to the strain as it spreads. Overall, I found that the book leaned more towards science than suspense towards the end, but I don’t mind that much at all.

Emma
I had actually problems with the way suspense was handled throughout the book. Earlier on, with a few hints here and there, you know most survived. It is to be expected if it’s science-fiction and not horror, but still, I prefer when I don’t know for sure until the end.
You are right that the countdown part was super suspenseful. But I remember reflecting when I got there, wow, finally some serious suspense, but we are already at 96% of the book! It was so suspenseful that for a few minutes, I did forget that the outcome was going to be ok.

2. How did you like the scientific explanations in this last part?

Julie Anna
I liked the emphasis on using simulations in this part to determine explanations and next steps! Where I went to school the surrounding area’s employers were in aerospace defense and so simulations like these were a big part of my curriculum. And while I didn’t go in that industry itself, the exposure we got to that in these parts (and throughout the book) were really cool for me to revisit. Computing is my most familiar topic when it comes to what’s discussed in this book, so I can’t help but be a bit excited when I get to see the applications, especially to see how they were used several decades ago when we had so little bandwidth to work with!

Emma
Beside the mutation part, I did enjoy these as well. It is also part of the author’s style to really focus on serious science, to make it sound as close as possible to reality.

3. What was your reaction to the nature of the strain and how it worked?

Julie Anna
It definitely wasn’t how I expected it to work! I really wasn’t sure how the survivors, well, survived, but we got to see a lot of figuring this out in Day 4 which I really enjoyed. And while I couldn’t quite guess this one and wanted to, I let that aspect go and enjoyed the journey. I particularly enjoyed the problem solving process and how they figured this one out, especially with the tools they used to get there.

Emma
Yes, that was a pretty cool explanation. And it totally makes sense when you remember that Crichton studied medicine.
I was struck at one point that one of the possible explanations they were considering was that “the organism acted by causing damage to blood vessels… if our organism attacks vessel walls”, which is basically what Covid19 does, attacking their lining. Spooky!

4. Do you agree with Churchill’s definition of genius?

Julie Anna
This was an interesting quote for sure! It reminds me of the comparison between book-smart and street-smart when people compare intelligence. I think that genius can be defined in so many ways and as a range of skills, if that’s the word? And I think that the ability to handle information in such a manner that Churchill states is a part of that equation. It might not be the complete definition in my mind, but I do think it’s a big part of it.

Emma
For those who forgot that part, “true genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information”. Who knows actually if Churchill really said that? Anyway, I also think that a genius would definitely have that trait, plus others.

5. How did you like the ending of the book?

Julie Anna
Again, it wasn’t quite what I was expected! I suppose I thought we were in for a really dark ending. I was hoping for a bit more exploration of topics we didn’t get to see as much, but at the same time, I like how the book pretty much stuck to the internal processes of figuring out the contagion all the way to the end. The ending also made me wonder how many potential dangers are out there that government agencies handle without the average citizen’s knowledge.

Emma
I found the ending rather anticlimactic (that’s another problem of the suspense handling): no one needs to do anything, just a mutation, and the problem is over.
The very last chapter indeed highlights how little we really know about big stuff happening. And maybe it’s better we don’t know. I wonder sometimes how heads of states can even sleep!

6. What are your final thoughts on how Crichton handled the topic of an epidemic?

Julie Anna
I feel like I was expecting more from the side of what the average person dealt with in an epidemic (since I expected this to spread really badly), so it was cool to see it from the perspective of working to stop it. Even though this book is older, it felt like such a timely read and gave us an idea of what the process looks like to understand new strains of contagious diseases and how scientists identify them and develop solutions. I thought it was interesting to have our current experiences with a pandemic combined with a profession neither of us are in, and relating that back to what we know!

Emma
Yes, focusing on the scientific side was really neat. I enjoyed that, even if it means the book is poorer as for character development.
But like you, I was expecting more about the spread, epidemic, and possibly a pandemic situation, though I am sure I would not have had that expectation before Covid-19!!

7. Was there anything you wish was explored that wasn’t?

Julie Anna
Although I said I liked the perspectives we had, I do wish we got to see things more from the side of an average citizen. However, this is also because I expected the strain to become deadly past Piedmont. I know I keep on going back and forth on this as well, because it would have been really interesting, however, tapping into the emotional side could have made it way too much subject matter for one book.

Emma
I think I would have enjoyed it more if the solution had been brought by something the scientists had to do. The experiments and research explained what it was and how it worked, but they didn’t need to do anything special for the problem to go away.
Though of course in real life, I wish that would be the case with Covid-19!

8. Are you going to watch the movie now?

Julie Anna
I feel like I always intend to watch film adaptations but never do (I’m a bit fidgety when it comes to TV and movies!). But I am really curious to see how they adapted this, especially considering how detail-heavy this book is. If I had to guess, I’m assuming the adaptation has some big differences compared to the book!

Emma
OMG, you have to watch it, I did yesterday night! I highly recommend also you watch it on DVD, I’m sure you can find it at your library or through inter-library loan, should be free through your library, because it has awesome interviews, including one by Crichton himself.
I was struck at how close they are to the book, including most of the dialogs. The only difference is the very end: looks like they didn’t like the simple solution more than I did, because in the movie, the solution does come from something the scientists do.
The countdown is also crazy suspenseful.
All the scientific part is awesome! And remember they did all this before what we can do with computers now! Nicely explained in the interviews.

9. Daniel H. Wilson wrote a sequel. Do you feel like reading it?

Julie Anna
I feel a similar way to this that I do to the sequel for Before the Coffee Gets Cold. I am satisfied with what I’ve read, but I’m also curious with what the direction the sequel will take. I’m also curious about Wilson’s writing style and how it will compare to Crichton’s. It’s definitely something I’m thinking about!

Emma
Rereading the end, it does make sense to have a sequel.
When I wrote the question, I was not really thinking reading it, because the name Daniel H. Wilson was not ringing a bell. Then I realized he is the author of Robopocalypse, which was very popular a few years ago – what, already ten years ago?! ( I haven’t read it yet!)
So now, I may give it a shot.

10. Are you planning on reading more books by Crichton?

Julie Anna
Definitely! I have my copy of Jurassic Park / The Lost World that will be next for me, and after that I’d love to see what else he’s written. I’m also curious to see how the level of detail in this book compares to his other writing, or if he’s experimented quite a bit with his writing over the course of his career.

Emma
Yes, I want to try some of his other books. In the interview after the movie, I discovered that he also wrote a lot under other pen names (because as a student  in medicine, he was afraid his teachers would take him less seriously if they discovered he was writing novels!!) They are more thrillers, and they do sound good. It would definitely be interesting to see how he handles other genres.

11. What will be your next science-fiction read?

Julie Anna
One of my Instagram friends kindly gave me their copy of War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, so that will likely be my very next sci-fi read. I also have a lot of unread sci-fi classics on my shelf by Asimov, Wells, and Bradbury that I’d love to read next. And in terms of what I don’t own, I’d love to check out the books by Okorafor and Liu you mentioned earlier!

Emma
Liu Cixin, yes! Amazing author. I have still to read his The Three-Body Problem, so I may read this one soon.
I actually just finished today reading Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, that I started reading while reading The Andromeda Strain. I know, not my smartest move to read two scifi at the same time, though it was fun sometimes to make comparisons. Now, if you like a LOT of technical details, go for it! There are even more than in The Martian, if I recall correctly.  BUT the plot, twists, and character development are fabulous. I can’t wait to see that one made into a movie, it begs for it.

As for Asimov, I loved a lot I, Robot (ignore the awful movie), but was so so disappointed by Foundation.
Bradbury has some awesome ones, including The Martian Chronicles. I recently read Killer, Come Back to Me: The Crime Stories of Ray Bradbury (published August 18, 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers). Yes, he originally was a mystery writer! Near the end of the collection, you see how he slowly switched to scifi, and some stories in there were really fabulous.
Ad I also need to try Wells!!

12. Oops, I wanted to revisit the question, and I forgot to ask you, Julie Anna: would you consider this book a classic? Why, or why not?

Thanks so much Julie Anna for this buddy read experience. Definitely very enriching, and I have the feeling it will not be the last 😉

HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK? ARE YOU READING IT WITH US?
PLEASE ADD YOUR ANSWERS TO THIS PART, HERE OR ON YOUR BLOG.

IT WAS PUBLISHED IN 1969. WOULD YOU CONSIDER IT A CLASSIC?

The Andromeda Strain: read-along, discussion on Day 1 and Day 2

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain,
by Michael Crichton,
1969
Science Fiction/Thriller
Goodreads

If you missed them, please see what pre-read questions Julie Anna had prepared for our buddy-read of The Andromeda Strain. You will see both our answers, feel free to add yours in a comment there.

Obviously, our Q&A contain spoilers, so first read the book sections before coming here 😉

And today, here are our answers to my questions on Day 1 and Day 2:

1. As early as the foreword, it struck me how contemporary the book sounds to me. Did you have that feeling? For what particular aspects? I will share how spooky it sounds to me, when you compare the why of the Scoop satellites, and the possible origin of the current Covid-19…

Julie Anna
Yes, I did! Aside from the dated nature of the computer functionality, I was beginning to question when this book really took place. The only thing that exposed the time period for me were the references to more dated computer functionality. However, there’s also a lack of mention for the cultural events going on at the time of publication, which I believe was intentional in order to emphasize the timelessness of this story and its conflict. Since we are getting specific with computer limitations here, I’m not sure what the final intent of the setting is yet, but it does feel like it could be now. The origins of the contagion here vs. covid-19 are interesting as well – from our experiences, we know that by the time this city is placed on lockdown, it will have spread…

Emma
I like your idea that not specifying when this took place allows readers of different periods to relate.
What really spooked me were the revelations on the ultimate mission of the Scoops: nations realized they didn’t have powerful enough biological weapons, so they decided to go to space and collect foreign bacteria, bring them back to Earth, and use them to make “more satisfactory” biological weapons. With the still blurry origin of the Covid-19 strain, and still the possibility that scientists were working on it in The Wuhan Institute of Virology, this detail sounded too close to life!

2. How do you make the difference between reality and fiction in this novel? For instance, I thought first it was a clever way to insert the author’s acknowledgments as part of the story, but then I realized, are these real acknowledgments, or are these also fictional? And then I started wondering what scientific element was real or not. It’s kind of funny that there is indeed a Piedmont in Arizona, and the Vanderberg Air Force Base does exist as well. Then I felt like double-checking everything!! How did you deal with that?

Julie Anna
There is definitely also that feeling that this book was based on real events, which is incredibly unsettling as well! I do have a tendency to put books down for a moment to research things I’m unaware of, but Crichton is doing an excellent job of making it unclear of what’s real and what’s not. For example, I had to look up J.J. Merrick as I was convinced that his character and his studies were based on true events – turns out, they are not. But the research he proposes was written in such a realistic way that it was easy to believe that these scientific developments really happened. I think part of that also has to do with the fact that the research is so widely applicable to our current situation that it’s especially unsettling.
In terms of the science, I’ve been taking the same route of looking up what I don’t know much about. But I also feel that his explanations behind events are scientifically sound – it just seems like some of the storytelling elements themselves are not always real.

Emma
Same here, I could spend a lot of time researching every scientific detail, to see what’s real or not, but I guess that’s really not the point of reading scifi! I love how you put it, “his explanations behind events are scientifically sound”, that’s an awesome balance he achieved to trick the reader into believing this is real.
I was really intrigued by the Acknowledgement part. I actually wonder if some names could be real, and a way for the author to honor them. For instance, Murray Charles is an American political scientist born in 1943. With the amount of political issues in the book, I wonder if Crichton has read Charles and want to honor him.
I see this also with Jeremy Stone. I don’t know any Jeremy Stone who won a Nobel Prize, but Jeremy Stone was a research mathematician at Stanford, and may Crichton wanted to acknowledge his contribution.
Looking around about the Acknowledgement, I found this fabulous essay: Apparent truth and false reality: Michael Crichton and the distancing of scientific discourse. Stéphanie Genty has great passages on this point. I will just quote this, but the whole essay is definitely worth reading:

The fiction works because of Crichton’s mastery of the codes of scientific discourse – or at least his representation of them – which must correspond to that of the popular mind. The various documents which make up the narrative texture appear authentic since they respect the formal rules of argumentation and style. The narrator’s interventions appear to explain the technical aspects of the intricacies of the plot. But the fiction also works because of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, which is maintained in large part by the fact that he/she knows that the author has a scientific background, that he has access to experts in the field and has done thorough research and so, presumably knows what he is talking about.

So, while Crichton feigns authorial proximity to scientific reality and his narrator feigns proximity to the reader, he is actually pulling the wool over our eyes and spinning a yarn a tale which is “a long way off the truth”. The novelist’s use of fictitious fact may be compared to the publication of fabricated experimental results by unscrupulous scientists, or to the many humoristic parodies of scientific articles, both of which rely on a similar mastery of the codes of scientific discourse.

Her analysis makes me even more admire Crichton’s style and way of “pulling the wool over our eyes.” I think the whole “Alterations” section (at 38%) is also very instrumental in that respect.

3. What did you think of when we first met “the man in the white robe”?

Julie Anna
I had a feeling that things were going to get really interesting then! I wasn’t expecting for him to be introduced knowing how quickly (or at least assuming how quickly) this contagion kills. But having a possibility for more answers really piqued my interest.

Emma
I have to say, when he showed up that early (at 4%), I was a bit uncomfortable, because he looked like a religious figure to me, and I don’t really like mixing religion with scifi (with one major exception: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell).
But at 43%, so far this dimension has not been developed.

4. Swear words have evolved a lot! I was getting annoyed at how many times the author used “Judas” as a swear word. Why focus on this one? Is there a special reason you think?

Julie Anna
I’m not sure honestly! I don’t know if this was a term that was used often at the time it was written, or if it will have any sort of meaning later on. I also wonder if using this particular term as a swear in place of others would have made this book more marketable at the time that it was published. Regardless, it’s a bit strange – you’d think that there’d at least be some variety in their vocabulary.

Emma
This got me even more nervous about the man in white robe! Looks like it was a popular swear word in the 60s, as a “minced oath”, so yes, maybe for marketing reasons.
It’s funny, I remember DNFing a famous and popular book, because the author used so much the f* word in the first pages, and I often criticize authors in my reviews when they constantly use this one, underlining their lack of creativity, and here same thing, couldn’t he have used various other terms, instead of always that one, lol!

5. Did his definition of a “crisis” resonate with you?

Julie Anna
It absolutely has, but especially in this past year it made me think a lot about our current crisis and how the world has been navigating it. I liked how the definition of crisis was expanded to many scenarios as well, yet the outcomes were the same. I also felt like the introduction of this definition really set the tone of this book in anticipation for what’s to come, and it’s definitely one of the more memorable quotes for me in this book so far.

Emma
I am quoting it here, “a crisis is a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable.”
I did stay for a while on it, reflecting on what that meant for our world this past year, and also if this could apply to some moments in my own life.
I like your perspective about its impact on the tone of the book.
Actually, a bit later on, he adds, ” A crisis is made by men, who enter into the crisis with their own prejudices, propensities, and predispositions.  A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored.” This definitely resonates with me, especially with the “blind spots.” Often times, if we accepted to read the signs early enough, the crisis could be avoided.

6. I know you like serious technical details and data in scifi. How is it for you so far? Do you find these technical details modern enough, relevant today? What do you think about the balance: too many technical details not enough?

Julie Anna
Personally, I’m loving it! One of my favorite scenes so far was the phone number puzzle solved via translating numbers to binary digits. I wasn’t expecting a puzzle like that and I thought it was a fun addition. There’s also scenes about the history of the different sciences, proposed research, and computer models that we’ve seen so far, which add so much depth for me personally. I always miss having these details in space opera, and I do miss studying these subjects as intensively as I did in college. That being said, reading these details is a nice way of returning to those subjects. In terms of balance, while I personally enjoy it, I can see it not being the best fit for everyone. However, I do find it helpful that the book explains the logic behind the details so that the concepts are more easily understood.

Emma
I’m loving it as well!
Ah yes, the phone number puzzle. I even tried to understand it. I could follow the beginning, but then I got lost! Does it make sense, mathematically speaking?
I also liked the description of the Scavenger. With its “infrared multispex camera”, it really made me think of the Perseverance Rover that landed on Mars on February 18. I actually followed the event live through a Zoom event organized by my public library, in connection with Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and the NASA feed. It was really so well done, with scientific details explained for everyone.
And it was fun identifying scientific details that were scifi at the time, and are real now, for instance, “The technical quality here is quite good. Can’t read the license plates on the cars yet, but we’re working on it. Perhaps by next year.” I think many satellites have now that level of precision. There’s also the “finger and palm-print analyzer“, commonly used now, for security or even shopping! And the “electronic body analyzer”, that “would eventually replace the human physician as a diagnostic instrument”. Already in use, at least partially.””

I also liked the whole concept around life form: “an evolutionary progression from simple to complex life forms. This is true on earth. It is probably true throughout the universe.” The popular view of life in space is (or used to be) too often as large beings, but this novel (and Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, that I’m currently reading) focuses on life as small as bacteria. With the possible idea that actually, it can be super developed, even if it’s tiny (just like our earthly technologies have gotten more complex and smaller at the same time).
Crichton even mentions “biosynergics, the future possible combinations of man and machines implanted inside the body”, which is now a reality.

7. Did some scenes remind you of any scifi movie (beside The Andromeda Strain movie, that neither of us has watched)?

Julie Anna
I’m honestly not a big movie-watcher, so I’m not sure that I could point out any in particular! But do feel the anticipation (and ominous nature) of what’s to come, much like many films in general. I think there’s that one horror moment where you know you’re dealing with something much bigger than you that you have no knowledge of, and this is one of those moments.

Emma
I don’t often watch movies either, but my husband has been working on educating me in classics, and I have watched a few scifi classics. When I read “They proceeded another mile, bouncing along the dirt rut, and then came over a hill. Suddenly Hall saw a large, fenced circle perhaps a hundred yards in diameter”, a scene came to mind right away, when Roy and Jillian discover the site in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (but obviously, our novel cane before the movie):the site

Now come this way to read our Q&A for Day 3

HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK? ARE YOU READING IT WITH US?
PLEASE ADD YOUR ANSWERS TO THIS PART, HERE OR ON YOUR BLOG.

IT WAS PUBLISHED IN 1969. WOULD YOU CONSIDER IT A CLASSIC?