On this day I finally conquer the mountain that was War and Peace


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May 29th 2007
Published: May 29th 2007
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Phew, is all I can say; well, I can and will say more, but that was my immediate reaction as I flopped down my now dog-eared, travel-worn, two-dollar unabridged version of Tolstoy´s tome on my spare pillow this morning...and not without a sigh, now that all that philosophy, channelled throughout the characters (real and imagined) of Napoleon´s crusades into Russia, is gone. For the past few months, War and Peace has been my constant travel companion. I started reading the epic in Cuba in February, and it´s been with me through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ecuador....its final resting place. Though it´s hardly in a fit state to pass on - the first half of the book literally fell apart and out already - I had been keeping it together with sellotape and spit for posterity, but one night in Nicaragua on this farm the rain and wind lashing into my cabin whipped away several pages into the violence of the night........not being arsed to chase out into the storm to recover the lost hojas meant I saw no reason in keeping the first half of the book either.

I never really expected to enjoy it, imagining a rather dry read replete with too many out-dated and big words. I don´t know if it´s age (I attempted it and gave up once after my mum treated me to it at Christmas, 1996), or because of what I have now read over the preceding years, but it´s brilliant stuff. Not everyone should read it, I suppose, but I think most should. You may disagree with Leo´s central theme, that ´history is an inexorable process´ and not influenced by any one or group of few individuals. However, it´s so full of different views about life, expounded through (apparently) 500 personages (though masterfully he keeps focus on just a few), that you become a voyeur into a world of high-brow international political intrigue and motivations, the private fears of officers, princes, and soldiers, and the petty whims of presidents and peasants. And then in-between all this is the weaving of several love stories, developing as they do from light to heavy affairs, through the tumult of the wars and progress of time (about 15 years I think from 1805). It could be though, that now and again you tire a bit of his overall omnipotence, knowing as he does, every atom that constitutes each member of his cast and his matter-of-fact knowledge of generally, everything. (A style of writing co-traveller Keith says was common in the past and unnacceptable in literature today). It doesn´t leave much to the imagination of the reader. He writes every scene like a fine artist painting a picture, each detail being rendered by his albeit expert brush.

You´ve just gotta be patient and roll with it; it´s classic lit after all, and I for one am not really used to it.

I say read it because (though he would beg to differ, since I understood he repudiates the concept of genius) in the first, Tolstoy was probably a genius - he writes artistically as a poet and at times as analytically and exactly as a scientist (using as he can the tools of physics and mathematics to make his arguments). Second, his explorations into the character and plans of types such as Napolean himself and Russia´s Alexander I, make you think....certain passages could be lent to an analysis of today´s heroes and devils, who just like back then, the media and popular opinion attribute so much world-wide influence.

Tolstoy´s view is pretty much this: the closer you are to the action, the more influence you have and correct opinion you have of what is going on (examining a battle in the field, say); conversely, the further away you are from the action, say a general or whatever, the LESS influence you can exert. However, historians (who are in the main anethma to L.T.), depend on the general reports of ´commanders´ and foreigners, who only looked on from afar or were not even near the action, to ascertain, describe and surmise what happened and why, and significantly, because of which individual´s will. His opinion is that unless history takes into account the will and spirit of EVERY person involved in say a campaign, the accounts we receive in the historical literature are accounts of the writers only, and maybe the whims and caprices of a few generals and sovereigns. Historians love to try and make certain outcomes and events commensurate with the ideas and wishes of the leaders, who, in reality, have no more influence over the outcome of a battle than a single soldier.

In the appraisal of the book at the end by the author himself, he quotes one general from one of the battles, who, after reading W&P, asserted he had never read a truer account. The general said never in any of the fights on the field that he had ever led, had his orders been actually carried though.

There is an excellent, though not easy, review of Tolstoy´s opinions on the union between freedom and inevitability. Really thought-provoking stuff. If you reflect on decisions you make, cherishing as you will your apparent freedom to make this or that choice, he makes you realise how bounded we all are. Inevitability is when something happens because it HAS to, maybe a mental patient stabbing someone and murdering them, who will then be judged in light of his mental disorder...he was less free in his choice to kill someone, than you or I would be.

It is easy to succumb to what the media tells us about the influence such as George W. has on the world today, and using my own brain now, I understand that with the high-tech communications we have, and economic strange-hold administrations like the US one have on countries, things are different to back in Tolstoy´s days. However, humanity has not changed, the boys he sends over to Iraq have their individual and collective spirit, and unless the will of the people matches the will of that horrid infantile individual (and his cronies´), there can be no apparent exercise of power (power is the element missed out of historian´s writings, which normally assert that this or that leader wanted this event to occur, and simply his will and words CAUSED it to happen......Tolstoy, alternatively, asserts that a few words from the mouth of one man CANNOT force 500 thousand men to march a thousand miles to go and kill another few hundered thousand men; the power equation is simply not balanced)

Good book anyway.....Pierre was my favourite, and then I think Prince Andrew Bolkonsky; Count Nicolas was a bit of a twit in my view.

enjoy!

jules

PS Tomorrow I actually will try to climb a mountain - the almost 6km high Cotopaxi. I am pretty nervous, despite now being acclimatized after 3 days tough trekking though canyons last week followed by the 5km high climb of volcano Guagua Pichincha. Cotopaxi screams into the clouds covered in a glacier, so you have to ice-axe your way along for the last five hours of the seven it takes to scale it, and climb at the end to get to the crater mouth. Seven hours, to walk only TWO kilometers.

---- ER, EDIT that - trip got cancelled, well kind of.....more in next entry

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