Friday, 11 April 2014

"The Book of Daniel" (E. L. Doctorow)

So I've finished reading it for class.
Objectively speaking, it's a brilliant, well-structured, profound novel with good prose and striking, memorable, sometimes disturbing, images. It's also interesting to read this book, which deals with anticommunism/ McCarthyism vs freedom, justice and rights, after "Invisible man" by Ralph Ellison, which, in addition to the themes of racism and racial stereotypes, deals with the concept of identity and which is born of the author's disillusionment with the communist party (called the Brotherhood in the book). "The book of Daniel" can, too, be tragic and heartbreaking, as a fictionalised account of the lives and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Doctorow's couple are Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, having a son named Daniel and a daughter named Susan, and the book alternates between 2 periods- when Paul and Rochelle are alive (from the time before the arrest to the time they're electrocuted), and many years later when Daniel writes a book as an attempt to search for truth, to understand his parents' case. Doctorow describes Paul's and Rochelle's emotions, then the tale becomes more poignant as the tragedy's passed onto the children, both of whom can never get out of the past- Susan becomes a radical, then later has to be institutionalised and finally kills herself, Daniel is self-destructive in a different way, on the surface he seems to cope with it better than his sister, but now and then becomes unstable, sadistic, callous, hateful.
And yet, in spite of everything, I have problems with this book- you know, that personal factor. On the 1 hand, I do find the story tragic and haunting. On the other hand, I have problems with the author's politics, with the way he implies that the Isaacsons are innocent, in order to condemn more strongly the injustice of the American system, with all the passages on what he calls American imperialism, fear, paranoia, exaggeration of the Soviet threat, the totalitarian/ brainwashing nature of Disneyland, every citizen being an enemy of the state, the US's changing attitudes about the USSR before and after the end of WW2, the US's self-interests and hypocrisy (e.g the Truman doctrine, the Marshall plan), etc. You may want to argue that the narrator's views are not necessarily the author's views, but usually the writing would show whether or not the author agrees with the narrator (like I know Nabokov doesn't side with Humbert Humbert, Tolstoy condemns the adultery but doesn't hate Anna Karenina, Dostoyevsky doesn't share Raskolnikov's arguments, Graham Greene sides with Thomas Fowler rather than Alden Pyle, etc). I see no contradiction in liking "1984" and keeping a distance from this book, because "1984" is dystopian literature and its depiction of a totalitarian society can fit any such society whereas "The book of Daniel" is historical fiction, known to be inspired by a real case, and the author not only shows his standpoint but even makes the couple in his book more innocent than the couple in reality, so it's perhaps not further from the truth to say that his book is written to serve a purpose, like propagandist literature. And that is distasteful. Poshlost.
But I suppose, it's good enough that I don't let my personal reaction blind me to the artistic values of this book- it's a brilliant work. 

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