La Vita Nuova [1294/2021] by Dante Alighieri – ★★★★★
“Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me”. Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Vita Nuova is Dante’s early work dedicated to his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Part autobiographical narrative and part poetry, the book is about this Italian poet’s joy and anguish as he worships Beatrice and her image, dedicating poem after poem to her, and his narrative is filled with tenderness, wonder, and visions and premonitions of all kinds. Being purely platonic and much idealised, this is no ordinary love, especially since Dante allegedly met Beatrice only twice in his life (the first time when both of them were children). So, some in his immediate entourage expressed their scepticism about this otherworldly love of his: “To what end lovest thou this lady, seeing that thou canst not support her presence?” However, Dante had an answer. “Love governs [his] Soul”. In this work at least, Dante’s love is obsessive and transformative, but also pure and unselfish, and does not depend on his beloved being near or reciprocating, though the torment of not seeing her and then seeing her pass to the “otherworld” of Angels is too much to bear (“The look she hath when she a little smiles/Cannot be said, nor hidden in the thought; ‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle” [Dante/Rossetti, Pan Macmillan, 1294/2021: 47]). This is Dante’s soul-crying, soul-searching work; a powerful, moving evocation.
The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) [1956/57] – ★★★★1/2
The Roots of Heaven, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is set deep in the wilderness of Africa just after the WWII when the complex geopolitical situation meant a world on the brink of an explosion from the collusion of different interests, values and opinions. In this world, amidst all the criticisms levelled at colonialism, cries for African independence and still fresh horrors of the Nazi regime, there emerges a candle of “hope” in the form of one idealistic Frenchman – Morel, whose passion for the protection of elephants soon reaches mythical proportions in the region around Chad. He soon gathers around the most unlikely champions to ban the slaughter of elephants, for example Minna, a woman who suffered much during the Fall of Berlin, and Forsythe, an American who was dishonourably discharged from the army. Morel, equipped only with the belief that his cause will attract public sympathy, faces a lot of adversaries, such as the reality itself, as well as numerous people who hunt for business, pleasure and trophies. Because of his eccentricities and naïve outlooks, Morel is soon converted into a symbol of dignity and liberation, even though his enemies are already closing in on his noble campaign and it is far from certain what will be the real consequences of his increasingly drastic actions. Through Gary’s dense narrative and second-hand accounts, we can piece together a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of one unshakeable belief, all coming from the author whose own life was probably more illustrious than any fiction he wrote.