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He who has seen the present has seen everything, that which happened in the most distant past and that which will happen in the future. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, book VI, The effect, far from being frustrating, is mesmerising, or so I found it to be, leaving me with the feeling that I needed to savour such details as we were given, with the result that I read many passages in the book two, and even three, times.
Austere though the writing is, and disturbing though much of what is recounted may be, there are some beautiful passages of descriptive writing. This can be the case even when he is at his gloomiest. It is impossible to stop anywhere in that passage because it is so complete, and so well translated by Duska Mikic-Mitchell. There is, however, no avoiding the mood of almost every moment, of almost every story, which a deep foreboding; an all pervasive, and entirely justified paranoia.
Many questions are asked here about conviction and ideology, because the stories are replete with characters - some taken from history, some invented - who believe absolutely in a political position or religious belief. Depth of conviction, however, is no guarantee that those who appear to share those opinions will treat you as a comrade. On the contrary it seems, in these stories and in the real situations to which they refer, that a shared belief is the first reason to suspect the other person of duplicity or treason.
Those who believe in the betterment of all humankind find a multitude of reasons to murder great numbers of humans for the eventual betterment of all. A scene of laid out; characters speak or interact. Then we seen them at another time in circumstances that may have changed a little or changed utterly.
In one of the most shocking scenes a man confesses to everything he is accused of in the belief that this will prevent his daughter from being murdered only to discover years later, at a labor camp, that she was killed on the day he was interrogated. Yet, despite all the suffering we encounter in this book the author is still able to say that "despite everything, the temporary suffering of existence is worth more than the final void of nothingness". A remarkable, and marvellous, conclusion to arrive at.
It is because they emerge from the realisation of all that horrors that humans can visit in one another that the moments of lyrical beauty are so valuable and special in this book.
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