Book Review: Peter Høeg’s “The Woman and the Ape” by Octavia

hoegNo-one likes to be called an animal, yet animals are what we inescapably are. And from poor frightened stuffy old Bishop Wilberforce on there have always been people who think that being an ape is worse, somehow, than being any animal at all. Yet apes we are, and apes we remain. Walking down the street one can see the resemblance – in the turn of a jaw, in grasping manipulative hands, in the hairy back of the man who simply must wear a singlet. A newborn baby, a particularly clumsy walk, can illuminate as lightning.

The Woman and the Ape is full of such illumination. Høeg goes out of his way to underline the animal nature of his characters. The text is ripe with comparison and allusion, and provides some of the best imagery and character moments. For example, a young alcoholic wife, driven stir-crazy by the emptiness of her life:

“Madelene looked at the window frame, the park and, beyond that, across the city. From conversations overheard in her childhood home she had retained a vague and repulsive impression of what conditions were like for domestic animals on factory farms. She knew the meaning of such terms as spontaneous fracture, tongue rolling, somatotropin, urine drinking, manger biting, neighbour pecking and monotonization of mating behaviour. Now, in these terms, she spied herself.”

In truth it can’t be said that Høeg is particularly subtle about this – indeed the likenesses keep coming like a sledgehammer to the head – but it has a positive effect, and the continual reinforcement is likely intended. The saturation of simile and metaphor is relentless – not for one moment is the reader allowed to forget that before her is a cast of animals, a regular circus ring of them. The stage is set, and this ruthless undermining of our own puffed-up humanity – the humanity we perceive as somehow less animal in nature than the true animals – underlines the thread of masks and disguise that run through the text. If, as a species, we can perceive ourselves as other than what we really are, how, as individuals, can we be expected to fare any better? Other masks, and more personal, inhabit our lives and define our identities.

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Book review: Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” – by Alethias

The Search For Truth: a book review of “The Golden Compass”, by Phillip Pullman.

I enjoyed reading the series of books by Phillip Pullman, but I especially enjoyed reading the first book in the series. I’m not good at hiding things; the title of this review gives away the punchline to the story before you read the review. On top of being an exciting and entertaining fantasy novel, “The Golden Compass” is in my opinion a metaphor for a particularly human pursuit: the search for truth.

This can be seen at many junctures of the storyline. Lyra Belacqua, at the beginning of the book, doesn’t know anything at all about her parentage. She spent many of her formative years being raised by musty old men at a college in Oxford. She knows that kids typically have moms and dads, and seems to perceive that she is in a unique situation. Through much of the first part of the book we have the story of how she comes about finding the true answers to her parentage. This is an example:

The Alethiometer, the Golden Compass, is a tool in the search for truth. You pose questions to it, and its needle swings around and points to symbols that reveal the true answer to any specfic question you might want to ask – if you have the abilities required to read it. Any answer it gives will be a true answer. It may not give an answer that the user likes, but it will always give a true answer.

As humans, we have tools in life that perform similar functions for us, albeit usually in a much more indirect fashion. Scientists pose premises, or notions or statements about reality in the form of a hypothesis. These hypotheses are in a sense a type of question; they make a statement about reality, and the scientist performs experiments to test the validity, or truth of the hypothesis. They use something called the Scientific Method to ensure the accuracy of their testing. And oftentimes, the premise is proven for one reason or another to not be valid.

The use Lyra makes of the Golden Compass closely parallels this process. She doesn’t have to like its results; there is no sacred topic upon which it doesn’t touch. When asked about a particular man early in the story, it tells of his death, which causes pain and heartache for many.

Some of the people in the world that Lyra inhabits fear her. They find her fierce pursuit of the truth scary and dangerous. Sometimes a pursuit of the truth can place your most sacred institutions at risk, especially when those institutions are built on lies. What if you believe something, you hold to a creed, when you know at the same time that the only reason that you hold the creed is that you were raised in it? Would you find someone that uses the tools she is given to singlemindedly pursue the truth no matter the cost scary? That is the position that Lyra finds herself in.

This book has been out for years. It seems odd and strange to me that it is not until a movie is getting made that people in our world would become afraid of the ideas that it presents. I find it laughable and naive that people are afraid of the idea that the characters of the story have daemons. The daemons are the souls of the people in the book and represent a distinct part of the person that reveals their character. It is a story device. It is not at all what is dangerous.

Some of the very same people are bothered by the Idea of how it presents the supposed death of a god. That is but a minor part of the whole storyline, and I find it laughable that people pick at that.

The real issue ought to be that it it teaches that there is no truth so sacred that it can’t be revealed. Some truths are so dangerous that they cut to the very soul, the essence of a person. The daemons help make a very vivid illustration of this principle. Other truths are subtle and slowly revealed over time. Some men warp the truth in the way they use it.

In my opinion, the things being protested by some religious people are trivial surface details. The really dangerous idea in this novel that ought to be protested is that the search for truth is a central aspect of human existence. It’s not worship of a god, or any other thing. Worship of a god becomes meaningless if the question is asked “Does the god even exist?” and the answer is no. But the search for truth stays central. And that is the real answer to the danger of this book. It lies in the search for truth.

This book review is a labor of love by a fan.

(which is an adaptation from the Greek word that gave the name to the Alethiometer).