Monday, February 7, 2011

Book review: The Castle In The Pyrenees

The Castle In The Pyrenees speaks of ghosts, fate and scientific method

Book: The Castle In The Pyrenees
Jostein Gaarder
Orion Publishing
256 pages
Rs295

Rene Magritte’s painting ‘La Chateau des Pyrenees’ features a giant boulder floating in the sky, with a castle atop it. At one point in The Castle In The Pyrenees, (the book refers to the painting) one character tells another: “If you’d witnessed (that scene) today, you’d have tried to explain it away. Maybe you’d have said it was a trick. Or that the rock was filled with Helium… whereas I’d have just sung out ‘Hallelujah’.”

Pyrenees, at heart, is about this divergence in world views. Solrun and Steinn were a young couple in love in the 70s. Thirty years after they broke up and vowed never to look each other up, they happen to meet. Something of the old attraction is still there, and they start exchanging emails. The discussion turns to whether they consider their meeting pure chance or divine intervention.

Steinn thinks it was pure chance — he’s very analytical, avoids all supernatural ideas, and is content to accept the world as it is. Solrun, on the other hand, is desperate to find a greater meaning to the world beyond the visible, and turns to any spiritual theory she can find. She thinks Fate brought them together again. But as they explain their views in detail, one common thing begins to stand out: they are both frightened by the idea that death is the end of everything. Their preoccupation with this concept began 30 years ago, with an odd incident that drove them apart. They can’t explain the incident even now. While Solrun has accepted that they had a supernatural experience then, Steinn tries to explain it scientifically. Neither budges from their stand.

Gaarder brings out how seemingly simple incidents can shake one’s beliefs. It may be something as simple as meeting someone unexpectedly, or injuring a stranger by mistake — but your interpretation of the event is just as important as the event itself. Here, Solrun and Steinn look at the same incident in diametrically different ways, and their personalities become very different as a result.

The book takes the format of email exchanges between Solrun and Steinn. This trick is only partially successful. While it works well when the two are debating the existence of Fate, this format doesn’t work when a straight narrative tension is to be built up. Gaarder chooses to have one character “remember things better”, and thus single-handedly narrate the critical parts of the story.

Not much actually happens in the book. The aforementioned debates over ghosts and the scientific method run into dozens of pages, and the pleasures of the book are to be derived from the philosophical points discussed. But through these conversations, we learn about the characters through each other’s eyes, and the ending of the book actually packs a punch.

Jostein Gaarder shot to fame with Sophie’s World, which was an introduction to Western philosophy on one level, and a startling study of the relationship between writers and their characters, on another. The Castle In The Pyrenees is comparatively smaller in scale, but the ideas it presents are equally absorbing.

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