Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review: Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

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If you enjoy taking a ride into the ancient myths and into the worlds of fantasy, you will surely enjoy Ragnarok.
     Byatt, one of the great masters of the English language, tries with a certain amount of success, to reinvent here for us the Norse myths, while at the same time drawing parallels with the modern day world. What she’s most interested in, as it seems, is not to retell a story that’s been told so many times before, but rather explore whether we’ve learned something from humanity’s past mistakes, if we somehow became a little wiser. Besides, as she points out: “…They (the gods) are human, because they are limited and stupid.”
     The narration drives the reader back and forth in time, talking to him/her about the wars of the gods and those of men. It all begins with a thin girl, who’s trying to survive the war, hiding in a shelter. At the start she feels kind of bored -“The thin girl, despite the war that was raging, was more afraid of eternal boredom,” as we read- until a book full of wonder and awe falls into her hands; a book that talks about Asgard and the gods, and which for her becomes a passion. Through that book, she comes to discover an amazing world, where magic exists, and where the gods are full of weaknesses and prone to mistakes, who sometimes look kindhearted, but most of the time are just petty and vengeful; they somehow remind her of the gods of the Old Testament.
     The thin girl is encouraged by these stories to look deep inside her own being, to discover herself, and to ask questions about the what’s and the why’s of modern day reality. It all comes tumbling down, day after day the world heads straight towards total destruction, she seems to think, and no one can or maybe wants to do anything to stop it from happening. Even when the war comes to an end, the thin girl cannot feel happy, because she thinks that she saw the future, and she already misses the illuminatingly dark world of the book.
     Byatt, using the myths as her stepping stone, sets off to create a parable about today: about the world of plenty, where more and more people starve to death, where the powerful still play their dirty games at the expense of the weak and the poor, where one catastrophe follows the next as the earth seems to takes its revenge on people, and where, as usual, the ones who have the less to lose, are the ones called upon to pay the price.
     She tells a story in exquisite prose and she gives the reader food for thought in an almost poetic way. I’d recommend this book not only to just every fan of good literary fiction, but also to every thinking person out there. The gods blew it, the author seems to think, so now it’s up to us to make things right; we’ll either correct their mistakes or we’ll just be drawn into the abyss, which they have created (with our helping hands, of course) for us.

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