12 May 2007

Weiser Dawidek, by Pawel Huelle

Here's the thing - I'm just not that into children, or childhood. I mean, I appreciate that it is kind of a fascinating period of discovery in a person's life, and indeed, I think it's kind of interesting to occasionally consider what the world looks like to a little kid, but I can only sustain that interest for so long. I have absolutely no patience for books (and films) that seek to recapture the "magic" of childhood. Oh, that time of innocence and wonder, that precious naivete that somehow gets construed as moral virtue - blech. Kids aren't better than adults. They don't hold the secrets to the universe. Yes, they have an intriguing worldview, but let's not go overboard.

I say all this, because Weiser Dawidek relies heavily on this mystification of childhood. And this has a lot to do with why I didn't like it very much. The book centers around a mystery - Weiser's disappearance. It's not weird enough that he just vanished one day; actually, Weiser was a pretty odd dude from the get-go. A very odd dude with a penchant for explosives. Who could talk to animals, kinda. And was _really_ good at soccer. Oh, and could levitate. What a character, eh? The thing is, the book doesn't really give you any kind of explanation, or motivate this mystery in any way. At the same time, the book does a rather good job of showing you the world from a child's perspective; how kids make sense of the world in very strange ways because they are too dumb to do otherwise, ahem, don't understand how it works yet. In other words, kids create these wierd causal chains, and have a bizarre sort of narrative logic because they're missing certain key premises that we take for granted. So they'll connect stuff that seems to be totally unrelated, for instance, or come up with strange explanations for things, like "the man on the radio said that the play was cancelled because somebody named mr lincoln had been shot and everyone started to cry because now they wouldn't find out how the play ended". While I'm generally a fan of estrangement, in this text it doesn't really work. The kid's perspective is well executed, but on the other hand, it renders him somewhat unreliable as a narrator. Which is a bit of a problem, if we are to believe that Weiser is indeed some kind of sacred figure. It's not that it automatically means that he isn't, but we at least want a second opinion. And there's the rub - the narrator's buddies, whom he goes back and finds years later, don't seem to care. Is it that they don't care? Or are too traumatized to say? Or just don't really remember? Who knows. Again, we're depending on the narrator to interpret them, so we just don't know. So basically, in my eyes the book totally sabotaged itself.

Furthermore, I found myself unable to muster up a lot of sympathy for the narrator in the present. He mostly seemed like an intrusive, whiny guy who was way too hung up on his childhood. Plus, the trope of repeating over and over "This is not a book about Weiser. I'm just writing, just trying to figure things out." and "Oh, but I have to go back and explain x, and I will justify my repetetiveness by subtly hinting at my deep deep trauma" - seriously groan inducing.

All in all, a sort of emo mystery melodrama. Not my bag, baby.


michael said...

Good Lord! How did you manage to get it sooo wrong? Or to be more precise, not to get it at all?

culture_vulture said...

Please, enlighten me.
I readily concede that I probably didn't "get" the book, and that's why I didn't like it. On the other hand, I also read a collection of Huelle's short stories a few months ago and didn't like those either. Maybe I'm just not bright enough to appreciate Huelle, or his mode of expression is too opaque for me. I dunno, but the stuff I've read, I haven't liked. Sorry.

michael said...

Hang on! Liking or not is one thing (gustibus non est disputandum) but you reduced the novel to a "book about childhood" and that's an opinion not a preference. Please feel free to continue disliking - I haven't read anything else by the author so he's not my cup of tea either - but Weiser Dawidek is not a cute childhood kind of book (how did you put it? the magic of childhood?) because if it were it wouldn't be worth one word. It is about our fundamental inability of dealing with the past. We are equally unable to remember as to retell adequately, let alone understand what actually happened to us.

You say that the book "sabotaged itself", which I take to mean that you'd prefer to have a Conan Doyle style explanation at the end but, hey, world ain't that simple!

culture_vulture said...

I don't think that's a fair characterization of my description at all. Not to mention, I don't see why oversimplifying it into "our inability to deal with the past" is somehow more acceptable than being "about childhood."
I honestly don't remember the book much at all, but I describe two major aspects of it in the post: on the one hand, the way it renders the child's perspective (and how children try to make sense of the world), and secondarily, about how the author tries to go back and understand the past and fails.
When I say the book sabotaged itself, I mean that we're dependent on a narrator whose perspective the book undermines. I don't demand an explanation at the end - I just wanted some kind of glimmer of another perspective. Which, I think, can be done even in a first-person novel, though it takes some skill.

michael said...

The glimmer of another perspective comes from us, the readers, as this exchange ironically demonstrates.

Having said that, have it your way... I guess in the end it all boils down to whether you just want to have a say (very democratic!) or want to engage with a different point of view, be it a novel or a comment on your blog.

culture_vulture said...

I mean another perspective on Weiser from somebody who "knows" him. The only real information we have on Weiser, I was arguing, comes from the narrator. When he later goes back to talk to other people, we don't get any additional views on him, but we also aren't sure of why that is.
I'm not saying that would be the difference that would magically make me like the book. Honestly, at the end of the day, like I said, I think I just find Huelle's writing irritating. I was trying to identify some of the specific features that were annoying me, but maybe I was misidentifying them, or maybe they are beside the point.
I _am_ engaging with your point of view. I'm also defending my own - which I feel compelled to do when someone begins an "exchange" by telling me I've not simply gotten something wrong, but failed to get it entirely.

TB said...

I think you have missed the boat on this one. The book is great in that it describes something of human nature that is very elusive.