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Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Opposing Shore" by Julien Gracq (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Julien Gracq at Wikipedia
Order "The Opposing Shore" HERE
Read an Excerpt from The Opposing Shore at Google Books

INTRODUCTION: Several days ago, I discovered this novel utterly by chance. Published in France almost 60 years ago and an instant classic there honored with the Prix Goncourt - which the author refused after publicly railing against literary prizes - The Opposing Shore hooked me from the first page and I could not leave it before doing this review, though usually I leave some time between reading and reviewing for the book to "settle" in my mind. I also plan to get as many books of the author as possible, starting with the few English translations, so do not be surprised to see more reviews of his work here..

"Set in the mythical nation of Orsenna, The Opposing Shore concerns Aldo, a young aristocrat sent to observe the activities of a naval base separating his native land from Farghestan, the power with which Orsenna has been in a state of dormant war for three centuries. The battle has become a complex, tacit game in which no actions are taken and no peace declared. Aldo comes to understand that everything depends upon a boundary, certain but unseen, separating the two sides. He becomes obsessed with this demarcation and each chapter is a further initiation into the possibility of transgression, sym­bolized by Vanessa, a woman whose complex ties to both sides of the war pull Aldo deeper into the story's web."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Opposing Shore" stands at almost 300 pages divided into 12 named chapters. The narrator, Aldo recounts his days as an "Observer" at the seemingly dormant naval fortress in the sleepy Southern province of Syrtes on "the opposing shore" from the mysterious Farghestan, while both enchanting and misdirecting us at the same time.

Speculative fiction that is hard to classify, though in the same narrative space as the recently acclaimed The City and The City by China Mieville, "The Opposing Shore" is a book to be savored at length, read the first time for atmosphere and for having a rough idea of what happens, the second time for starting to get what was going on and then several times more for pure enjoyment.

Note: The Opposing Shore has been translated from French by Richard Howard.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "There is great charm in leaving a familiar city at dawn for a novel destination. Nothing was stirring yet in Orsenna's sleepy streets, and the great palm fronds spread all the more broadly above blind walls, the chiming of the cathedral clock wakened a dim yet lingering vibration from the old facades. With all that seemed chosen for me so decisively, we glided along well-known streets already strange, chosen for me so decisively, by their orientation to a distance still indefinite."

The above excerpt sets the atmosphere. Just awesome prose to drown into and it goes that way to the end. The novel is full of subtle nuances and continuous hints of the possible momentous changes, but all as viewed through a veil. The action is very low key and sometimes it is seen only in allusions that raise in intensity as the book goes on, while of course on the second read you will really get their full meaning.

The three main characters are perfectly drawn. Aldo from a stodgy noble family that is a bit on the periphery of power in Orsenna, wants to do his duty, but also wants to expand his and by implication his society's boundaries.

Vanessa Aldobrandi from the most notorious noble family of Orsenna - family involved in all the momentous events in its history, from revolts to conspiracies to wars, both on the side of the government and opposing it as generations and personalities went - and the on and off lover/seducer of Aldo wants change; both for her personally and for her currently exiled father; she is quite an ambiguous character whose motivations and subtle manipulations are slowly revealed.

Captain Marino is the current Orsenna in essence; an older career soldier and not a noble, so viewed alternatively with mild suspicion or with "he is of no real importance" by the Senate and nobility, Marino is the commander of the Admiralty, the fortress that guards the Syrtes shore. Happier as a manager of his soldiers/sailors that are hired off to the local estates for labor - which Orsenna approved long ago so the Admiralty pays for itself and even makes a profit - than as a naval officer, Marino stodgily does his duty and keeps the status quo to the least rule. However Marino likes Aldo and takes him under his wing despite seeing Aldo's disruptive potential.

"Thus the uneasiness was gaining ground, and day after day you could see some new defense collapsing in an unexpected fashion. As if we were troops advancing into fog, a subtle disorientation of the adversary was preparing and precipitating our movements. When I thought of the instructions I had received from Orsenna, and of the complacent echoes I kept hearing from the city, the rumors filling the place with fever, it sometimes seemed to me that Orsenna was growing weary of its slumbrous health, and without daring to admit such a thing to itself, greedily hoped to feel alive, to wake up altogether in the numb anguish that now was reaching its very depths. As if the happy city, which for so long had swarmed over the seas in all directions, and whose inexhaustible heart had electrified so many vital bodies and venturesome minds, now sucked the bad news deep within its sullen dotage like a richer vibration of all its fibers."

The above excerpt shows why the novel works so well; Orsenna as a land forgotten by time and history is made possible only by the vagueness of the setting; we see guns, cars, engines as well as society balls, church services and feasts, but there is no grounding in the external world, no dynamism as our history showed once technology started developing. So here we have both the sfnal - alt-Earth - aspect of "The Opposing Shore" and the reason why it works and we are so ready to suspend disbelief and let the author's wonderful prose enchant us. Despite being written in 1951, "The Opposing Shore" has a timeless aspect to it and never feels dated.

"...and what can still delight an inert stone except to become, once more, the bed of a raging torrent?"

"The Opposing Shore" (A++) is indeed a masterpiece of 20th century literature, a beautifully written novel that immerses the reader and never lets go and proof that speculative fiction can achieve any heights...



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