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• Friday, February 28th, 2014

Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seventeen, he briefly joined the US Maritime Service as a ship’s purser before studying psychology and obtaining his BA degree at Brooklyn College in 1950.

He worked as an associate fiction editor, then as a fashion photographer, before earning a license to teach English in New York City schools. At the same time he studied and received an M.A. degree in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College. He left New York to teach Creative Writing at Wayne State University in Detroit, before moving to Ohio University in 1966 to teach English and Creative Writing.

In 1988 Keyes received the Distinguished Alumnus Medal Of Honour from Brooklyn College and in 2000 he was honoured with professor emeritus status at Ohio University. He lives in Boca Raton in Southern Florida.

Daniel Keyes has written eleven books to date and received several awards. He became well known after the publication of his very successful first novel: Flowers For Algernon, published as a short story in 1959 and as a novel in 1966. It won the Hugo Award in 1960 for the short story and in 1967 for the novel. It also won the Nebula Award in 1966 and the Locus Award of 1998 for the fortieth best novel before 1990.

Flowers For Algernon has been translated into many languages, has sold millions of copies all over the world and was made into a film called, Charly in 1968. It was also adapted for the stage and developed as a Broadway musical drama in 1980.

Algernon is a white laboratory mouse who becomes very intelligent after an unprecedented, experimentally successful brain surgery.

Charlie Gordon, whose fate is about to mirror Algernon’s, works for eleven dollars a week – plus bread or cakes, if he wants – as a cleaner at Donners bakery in New York. He is thirty-two years old and was born mentally disabled. Charlie is extremely eager to become intelligent and learn fast in order to fit in and for people to like him. Therefore, he volunteers to undergo the same brain operation as Algernon. Permission is given by his sister, Norma, and supported by Miss Alice Kinnian, his teacher at Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults who recommends him as her best student, to Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur for the experimental surgery.

Dr Strauss asks Charlie to write down all his thoughts and what he remembers, which Charlie does in a semi-literate way, on a regular basis under the title: “progris riports”. In progress report 7 March 11, he writes: “If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time.”

The spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and acumen of Charlie’s written progress reports improve gradually at the same pace as his mental condition advances steadily after his brain operation. The experiment is a great scientific achievement. Charlie’s IQ increases to exceed even that of his neurosurgeon, Dr Strauss and his psychologist, Professor Nemur.

Sadly, after becoming a genius, Charlie discovers the hard, cruel and real ugly truth about things around him. When he was mentally handicapped he thought people working at the bakery were his friends and never realised that they were making fun of him and laughing at him and not with him as he imagined. Presently what pains him most is that unknowingly he used to join them in laughing at himself.

When he becomes lucid, Charlie turns bitter and rancorous when he says to Alice Kinnian referring to the workers at Donners bakery: “they played tricks on me, and laughed at me” and although being aware of their cruelty, in his confused mind he still thinks of them as his real friends. He says to Professor Nemur: “ when I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one”, albeit knowing “lots and lots of people”. Professor Nemur replies: “You’ve become cynical […] your genius has destroyed your faith in the world and in your fellow men”. Charlie replies, perspicaciously, that intelligence and education alone without “human affection” are worthless.

Charlie becomes shrewd and angrily rebellious against life and people around him. Even Alice Kinnian – his former teacher – admits that after becoming highly intelligent, he has lost “his warm, real smile”, an engaging smile that was meant to attract people and gain their love and affection. Throughout the novel the author accentuates the regrettable fact that a mentally disabled person is just as alienated as an abnormally genius human being, because neither happen to fit with the predominant standard.

Charlie has always been seeking love and affection from his mother, Rosa, his father Matt and his younger sister, Norma. Instead he is rejected as an abnormal child and put in the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults without any of his family ever visiting him. Charlie never recovers from being estranged from his family.

Despite becoming highly intelligent, Charlie remains emotionally handicapped and finds it difficult to become emotionally mature. He is in love with Alice Kinnian who returns his love but with all his knowledge he does not know how to handle the situation. Each time he attempts to physically express his love, the phantoms from his past haunt him. In the end, after making peace with his past as well as using strong will power, he manages to overcome his demons. He then succeeds in making love to his bohemian neighbour, Fay, which encourages him to physically express without inhibition his strong love for Alice, the only woman he ever loved.

Regrettably, the wonderful positive, scientific breakthrough effect of the brain surgery experiment only lasts a few months before Algernon’s cleverness unexpectedly deteriorates followed by his death. After following Algernon’s decline, Charlie witnesses in a panic that his intelligence is also reducing gradually and deduces with horror, that he is going back to his former mental disability.

The heart-wrenching part takes place at the end of the story when the now mentally disabled Charlie reveals he has not forgotten that, not long before, he was a genius. He writes: “I know evrybody feels sorry for me […] I dont want that […] so Im going someplace where they are a lot of other pepul like me and nobody cares that Charlie Gordon was once a genus and now he cant even reed a book or rite good”. The novel ends on a moving note, with Charlie asking Miss Kinnian, in his farewell message if she could put some flowers on Algernon’s grave in the back yard, when she gets a chance.

Flowers For Algernon is narrated by the main character, Charlie Gordon. It is a non typical science fiction novel, written in a diary cum epistolary form. The author brings into focus several subjects: the main one is compassion for mentally handicapped people who are less fortunate than ourselves. Then there are the ethical questions about experimenting on human beings as well as on animals and how the upbringing of a child can severely hinder him psychologically, haunt him and ruin his future. And finally, how great conflicts can arise between mind versus feeling.

Flowers For Algernon is an original, enthralling, thought provoking novel, deeply poignant and beautifully written with a great deal of empathy.

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Author:
• Friday, June 14th, 2013

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, from a middle class family. His father was a musicologist and a pianist. Milan learned to play the piano from his father and later studied musicology and musical composition.

Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague for two terms, before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and script writing. He graduated in 1952 and worked as lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later, for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However he rejoined the party again in 1956 and was discharged once more in the seventies.

Kundera’s works were banned and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Kundera and his wife left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

He has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in 1987 won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his own home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”, says the long exiled Kundera at the beginning of his philosophical novel Ignorance. This sentence sets the main themes of the book which are: emigration, nostalgia, the longing for homecoming and the indifference that follows once back home as well as the deliberation on recollection and about human fallibility, creating a state of amnesia and ignorance. These are topics understandably close to the author’s heart, emigration being a first-hand experience for him.

Pregnant Irena, her husband Martin and their young daughter, leave their homeland, Czechoslovakia in 1969, one year after the Russian invasion, to seek refuge in Paris.

After twenty years of exile, Irena is now a mother of two daughters and a widow. With her new Swedish companion Gustaf, they decide to go back and live in the post-communist Czech Republic.
At Paris airport, while waiting for the Prague flight, her path crosses Josef – a short time heart-throb from adolescent days. He is also by coincidence, returning to his country for a brief visit after his wife’s death and twenty years of exile in Denmark.

The two uprooted protagonists, once back home after a long absence, are disillusioned to find their past forever gone. They don’t know how to pick up the threads. They come back to a completely transformed country from the one they remember, which no longer exists except in their own memories. They feel estranged in their native land among their compatriots and their families with whom they no longer have anything in common. They suffer through loss of identity as well as solitude for not fitting in with others.

Irena and Josef’ feel that their families and friends ignore them, as well as showing no interest in their lives in exile during the past twenty years. Irena, once in Prague, invites her friends and offers them an expensive French 1985 vintage Bordeaux wine but her friends who wanted “to teach (her) a lesson in patriotism” ask to drink beer instead. Irena believes that “rejecting the wine was rejecting her. She, as the person she is now, coming back after so many years…Either she succeeds in being among them as the person she has become, or else she won’t stay” because with their aloofness and disinterest in all she has been through abroad, they are erasing twenty years of her life.

Irena, on reflection, decides that her once beloved Prague of the old days is now completely alien to her. That is when she realises with assertion that she is more mature and wants to lead a life of her own and not stay in this city as it stands now. Her apprehension for the “Great Return” to the post-communist Czech Republic, occurs at the beginning of the book during her conversation with Parisian friend, Sylvie, who encourages her to go back home and reconnect with her past. After a short visit to Prague, Irena’s presentiment is proven to be correct – she no longer belongs to this new country.

Josef also feels the same as Irena and decides to go back to Denmark to continue living true to the memory of his deceased beloved wife. He was convinced after the disappointing visit to his older brother and his wife, followed by the visit to N., a Czech friend from forty years ago. To his surprise and sorrow, he discovers that neither his friend N. nor his wife are interested in his life and experiences during all his long years abroad. Josef discovers that even his mother tongue has become unfamiliar to his ears, as if it was “some unknown language”. He wonders what happened to Czech during these last two decades while he was away.

Just like Odysseus when he came back home after being tortured by his nostalgia and was eager to return to his beloved Ithaca after his long absence. To his great astonishment and affliction, he discovers “that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca, in the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost and could retrieve only by telling about it”.

The several themes meditated, philosophically analysed at length and historically paralleled with Odysseus in the Odyssey, plus the inclusion of the Czech poet Jan Skacel, the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg and the German writer,Thomas Mann, override the development of the one dimensional characters in the book. Kundera mentioned once during an interview, that the “unity” of a book can depend on its theme rather than on its plot.

The double erotic scenes at the end of the novel – between Irena and Josef on one side and her mother with Gustaf on the other, don’t enhance the story. They are gaudy and anticlimactic. They belittle the seriousness of the matters raised in the book, despite what the author says in one of his interviews that:“the erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located”.

A very emotional, short, concentrated and thought provoking book. It analyses human weaknesses and therefore problems that touch many people today. These problems are unlikely to change because they have been with us since the dawn of time. Throughout the centuries, people have been pushed to emigration and homecoming with all that it entails.

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