Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 1: Pan’s Labyrinth

There was no intention on my part to read two dystopian novels at the same time.  I was already in motion to read 1984 – an embarrassingly long-overdue attempt – when I heard a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth was to be released in July.  I got in the library line quickly (these things go like hot cakes), and soon, with del Toro/Funke’s fantasy horror in one hand and Orwell’s bleak dystopia in the other, made the abrupt leap from “light summer fluff” to “not-sure-if-I’ll-sleep-tonight bedtime stories.”

So… What Were You Thinking!?

1984 requires little introduction.  In Western culture, at least, terms such as Big Brother and doublethink flavor our vocabulary as glib reminders that a British author back in 1948 foretold the existence of increasingly powerful, monolithic, and tech-savvy governments.  We see signs of it everywhere today, from more innocuous instruments such as traffic cameras to the disturbing birth of China’s Social Credit System.  At this point, it is hard to say if the book is still futuristic.

Pan’s Labyrinth, marketed as a dark Alice in Wonderland with a historical backdrop, is a story that’s long piqued my interest. I had some vague awareness of the movie release in 2006, but since I’m highly squeamish and generally avoid R-rated films, it was never a film I had an overwhelming desire to try.  In my college Spanish course, we saw the introduction to the film, with subtitles, and once again, I was curious about the story.  The novelization by YA author Cornelia Funke and the movie’s director, Guillermo del Toro, presented the perfect chance to experience the story without watching gruesome reenactments on the screen.

Battle of the Two Totalitarian States

As mentioned, the settings of both these novels are as bleak as you can imagine.  1984 is Orwell’s picture of England under a North Korean-esque dictatorship, where everyone is trained to march in time to the Party’s tune and anyone who even breathes differently is liquidated and blotted out from history.  Pan’s Labyrinth is set in real-world Franco’s Spain (not unlike Hitler’s Germany, for those unfamiliar with 20th-century Spanish history).  In both novels, the sense of being watched, of being victim to your overlords’ whims and paranoia, and finding a double meaning in the few close relationships you have, overwhelm the reader with a claustrophobic dread that evil is winning and may always win.

I do not enjoy horror for the sake of horror, so if I read a book with violence in it, I look for some deeper meaning to make it worth my time.  I have read a few dystopian works in the past few years – in particular, Lord of the World, We, and Lord of the Flies – and have developed some personal criteria for this genre:

  1. Accuracy to logic and historical or contemporary precedence.  There must be some realism for me to take it seriously.
  2. Depictions of violence which are purposeful (to teach a lesson, to strengthen the character, or as a necessary part of the plot), not gratuitous or purely sensational.
  3. The presence or possibility of salvation, either physical or metaphysical. (My Christian background makes this necessary.)

I was impressed by the writing in both books but disappointed when it came to a serious evaluation of their content, message, and characterizations.  Pan’s Labyrinth held a slight edge (1.5 stars) over 1984 (1 star), so I’ll start by going into that one in a bit more detail.

The Lost Girl and El Capitán

There are two stories going on in Pan’s Labyrinth.  One is the quest of the Faun to find the Underworld King’s long-lost daughter, who vanished many years ago following her fatal curiosity about the over-world.  Second is the plight of poor Ofelia, a bookish child whose widowed mother Carmen marries Captain Vidal, the father of her forthcoming son and one of the most sadistic officers serving under General Franco.  Carmen’s naive hope is that love will conquer all and that Vidal will accept Ofelia as his daughter.  Ofelia knows better…knows in fact that Vidal is a heartless “Wolf,” just like the monsters in the stories she reads.  The Faun gives Ofelia a chance to escape the terrible life awaiting her, but she must do everything he says and face other, less human monsters in the forest.

Blood, blood, blood, and more blood.  Amazon tells me this book is for grades 6-9, but I’m pretty sure twelve-year-old me would have been properly traumatized by the tortures and killings that Vidal relishes in inflicting.  The authors are none too subtle about the sanguine imagery, and at times the references to “blood red” become almost laughable in their frequency.  Other brutalities, such as rape and cannibalism, are alluded to if not depicted, though the authors seem to want you to know they’re coming close to it, over and over again. I have read books about North Korea which treat similar subjects in a more restrained manner.  The way violence was depicted here really felt gratuitous.

There is plenty of magic going on, though the why’s and the how’s are never made quite clear.  You just have to accept what the Faun says.  I find this frustrating, perhaps because I’m used to the magic of Lewis’s Narnia, which is fairly clear-cut and almost logical, or even the supernatural elements in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which carry some sense of purpose and structure.  I had a fair amount of questions by the end of the book which I suppose can never be answered, because other reviewers say the movie and the book are nearly identical in plot.

I will say, I was sympathetic to Ofelia, her friend Mercedes, and Mercedes’s brother Pedro.  I cried a couple of times because the plot was just one bad thing after another, and it is hard to watch a child suffer.  Even the ending, which is vaguely “happy,” seemed cruel.  That is the theme of the book: cruelty is pervasive and there is nobody on earth or in Heaven to help you; suicide is mentioned a couple of times as an escape.  I don’t doubt this as an accurate portrayal of how some people feel in those kinds of situations.  But is that really the whole picture?  If it is, that means evil always wins, and I can’t believe that.

Overall, I felt the concept and protagonists of Pan’s Labyrinth were strong, but the writing and storyline did not hold up for me.  I did appreciate the authors’ ability to create a fairytale-like story with atmosphere and a likeable protagonist.  It was more than I could say for 1984… that review will be coming soon.

Lord of the Flies Revisited

William Golding 1983
William Golding – [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl],
via Wikimedia Commons

However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.

Earlier this year, I considered the question “What Is a Classic?”, in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast.  With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as “the culture” in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.

If you’re still with me… I didn’t really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics.  If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my “axes” or favorites, though there’d likely be some overlap.  I guess that’s because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones.  Anyways, more on that later.

I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think.  I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens.  That’s not to say I wasn’t disturbed by Lord of the Flies.  But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn’t itching to pick it up again until very recently.

For those who don’t know the premise: A massive war – either WWII or its successor – is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean.  It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world.  To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.

In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick “Piggy,” and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys.  What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power.  At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy – known as the Beast – further divide the survivors.

Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from.  What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning.  Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you’re not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.

In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit “off-screen” death of the pilot.  In chapter two, “Piggy” is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys – and the cause of their disappearance – is a tragedy just alluded to.  In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself.  This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.

Golding’s style is masterful in both its approach and its execution.  The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph’s perspective.  While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we’re also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph’s experience.  That is why we are never told Piggy’s real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head.  The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis.  We are “stuck” with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.

While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it’s clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys.  The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to.  The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.

Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic.  The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can.  Certainly, I’ll be looking for other books by him in the near future.