Monday, March 2, 2015

Joseph Heller, "Catch-22"

 – e-book

Read from January 19th to February 26th 2015

My rating :

I can’t remember who told me, a long time ago, that Catch 22 is excruciatingly boring. It must have been someone whose judgment I trusted, for although I’ve had this book in my library for a very long time I’ve never come around reading it. Until a month ago, that is, when I decided the time had come to check the truth of this outrageous statement concerning one of the iconic books of the American literature.

It took me about 6 weeks to finish it and I must admit it was not easy. Furthermore, somewhere in the middle of the book I almost gave it up – now I’m glad I didn’t, because it improved sensibly towards the end. And now that I’m done with, I must try and put my thoughts in order a little, to make sense of my weird relationship with this novel, that sometimes irritated me immensely, and other times blew up my mind.

For the first hundred pages or so, Catch 22 generally amused me, although I found its theme and message pretty obvious and without the originality of other great writings: I was impressed neither by the satire of the bureaucracy (not on the same level with Kafka, Nabokov, Bulgakov and so on), nor by the image of war that diminishes the human being, robbing him of any dignity and transforming him in casualty, (it rather made me think of M*A*S*H because of the light comic register). On the whole, I judged it sometimes witty, sometimes grotesque, but I had no patience with the characters, which I found so alike in their obtuse craziness on both sides of the fence that I maliciously thought they deserved all they got. But whenever I was feeling like losing my patience, some brilliant phrasing kept appearing in front of my eyes goading me to go on:

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

After a while, however, I began to find the jokes, like the characters, tiringly repetitive, since most of them were created by the same technique of the frustrated expectation, which reminded me, once more, Umberto Eco’s theory that in a good aphorism the images are never interchangeable, while in facile paradoxes they usually are. Look, for example, at this celebrated quote, which can be so easily reverted without changing much the surprise of the pun: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” (The Texan turned out to be ill-natured, petty and unbearable. In three days everybody loved him.) My reading went along with the same mixture of aggravation and wonder until I grew so fed up with its going round and round that I eventually abandoned the book. For two weeks I was even thinking never to go back to it, for I seriously doubted it kept more surprises in store for me.

I was about to make a flippant short review and put it on the “unfinished” shelf, but something stopped me, maybe the beautiful reviews of some of my friends whose judgment I’ve always trusted and respected, together with the memory of the same contradictory feelings toward another iconic book, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

Thus I somehow reluctantly resumed my reading, and what a surprise! What a redeeming finale! Little by little, the easy irony changes into solemn, bleak absurdity and the main hero grows tall and mighty away from caricature, acquiring mythical dimensions. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book he is wandering, like a Stephen Dedalus suddenly finding himself in K.’s city, on Rome’s “dark, tomblike” streets, paved with teeth that chew down all signs of humanity. Step by step and increasingly tormented, although not altogether surprised, our hero stumbles here upon a restaurant displaying a “keep out” sign, there upon a bored lieutenant who entertains himself by ordering some recruits to put on and down the hood of a car a soldier having convulsions; farther on he passes by a man who beats his dog like the man in Raskolnikov’s dream his horse, he watches a crowd witnessing silent and immobile how a nine-year-old boy is repeatedly hit by his father, and he is almost amused by a man who, molested by police, cries for help to the same police. In a world that has become Kafkian, the hero’s thoughts are Dostoyevskian:

The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

More and more anguished, Yossarian looks frantically for a way out of Inferno. At the end of the labyrinth, though, there is no light, only more horror, a bottomless open mouth feeding on innocence, abiding by a unique and only law, catch-22, scrawlingly written on the new Dantesque door of Hell. The only escape of our hero is to overturn Caron’s boat using pagan rituals: like an old and wise shaman, he reads and finally understands the message in his friend entrails: the only way of survival of mankind is to continually and tirelessly assert its individuality both in body and mind:

He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

The end of the book is optimistic in the same crazy way. Yossarian seems to have found a way out of the Kafkian world (which resembles more and more to ours, by the way). Did he succeed in staying out? Maybe the sequel of Catch-22 answered this question, but I’m not curious enough to read it. I prefer to keep in mind that crowning image of a Yossarian jumping and jumping to perpetually avoid the knife of Nately’s whore.


  1. I read it while I was a student, more than 10 years ago. I remember liking it very much, mostly for the dark humour and, yes, it reminded me of MASH, as well. I've been planning for a while to read it again in my 30s, to see how (or if) my perception has changed in the meantime.

    1. If you liked it you'll like it again. for me, it is one of those books I don't see myself re-reading

  2. Ha, mi-aș dori să am și eu modul ăsta (și cunoștințele necesare) de a privi o carte, dar cred că aș deveni mult prea cârcotașă. :) Mă refer la acel calambur, sau cum se numește, unde elementele pot fi inversate. Interesant ce zice Umberto Eco, eu cred că aș fi mulțumită și amuzată chiar și de varianta facilă, pentru că nu știam că se poate mai mult. :)) Acum, dacă tot ai pomenit treaba asta, sunt tare curioasă să văd și un exemplu de aforism de calitate, dacă ai așa ceva la îndemână.

    Am revenit la recenzie pentru că voiam să citesc părerea ta despre Catch-22. M-am gândit de nenumărate ori să încep cartea, dar am ezitat întotdeauna. O să ezit și de acum încolo, pentru că sunt șanse destule să o găsesc plictisitoare. Dar e bine de știut că finalul ți-a plăcut foarte mult - dacă trec și eu prin aceleași experiențe de lectură ca și tine, știu măcar că lucrurile se redresează. :) Acum vreo doi ani, un american de pe Gr mi-a oferit ajutorul în cazul în care mă apuc de roman, în sensul că îmi stă la dispoziție pentru orice nelămurire sau poticneală. Mda, sigur n-o să mai existe Goodreads când mă voi apuca eu de cartea asta. :))

    1. Eco numeste genul asta de aforisme "cancrizzabili" (un cuvint inventat de el de la "cancro" - rac si caruia nu i-am gasit inca un echivalent multumitor in româna) si afirma ca se caracterizeaza prin faptul ca si opusul lor contine un adevar la fel de valabil. Il acuza si pe Oscar Wilde de astfel de aforisme (eu nu-s de acord cu asta!) si da ca exemplu de aforisme solide pe cele ale lui Stanislaw J. Lec:
      "Daca darîmati monumentele, pastrati piedestalele. Cine stie cînd pot servi.È
      "Se îmbratisau atît de strîns ca nu mai era loc de sentimente."
      "Frecventarea piticilor deformeaza coloana vertebrala "
      (am tradus aproximativ din italiana)

      Cît despre Catch-22, nu regret ca l-am citit, dar mi-a venit nu o data sa-l izbesc de toti peretii asa ca nu stiu ce sfat sa-ti dau. Pe de alta parte, cine stie, poate tie o sa-ti placa! Am multi amici care îl considera de referinta pentru literatura americana!

    2. Mulțumesc pentru exemplele pe care le-ai tradus, Stela! Sunt tare interesante, curiozitatea mea a fost satisfăcută. :) Interesant și termenul folosit de Eco pentru aforismele facile, deja mă întreb și eu cum ar putea suna în română. Ceva gen „reversibile” - oricum, sună tare bine în italiană. :)

      Să vedem, poate voi citi romanul la un moment dat. Nu simt totuși o prea mare afinitate cu subiectul, poate de-asta nici nu m-am apucat de carte până acum. Văd că nu reușesc să ajung nici la cărțile care sunt - cică - urgente, darămite la altele care-s mai pe la capătul listei... Te înțeleg când nu vrei să mai adaugi altele pe lista ta de citit. :))

    3. Nu-i nici o graba - dupa parerea mea, cînd o sa-i vina rîndul o sa-i vina rîndul (ma-nnebunesc dupa truisme :) ), la urma urmelor pe mine m-a asteptat vreo 15 ani!