July 25, 2004

Catch-22

Joseph Heller: When I read something saying I've not done anything as good as Catch-22 I'm tempted to reply, 'Who has?'

This book is crazy. It'll drive you crazy if you think too much about it. All the characters in it are insane, in varying degrees. It's a book that cannot be understood, cannot be analysed, it just is. It's based during the second world war, with a group of American airmen based somewhere in Italy. And the war, along with the bureaucratic of the army, is what drives everybody crazy. It really drives home the point that bureaucracy absurd.

All the craziness aside, this is a brilliant book. It's thoroughly unconventional. It's so funny at times that you need to stop reading for a few moments. And it's tragic at the times it's the most funny.

The book is mainly about one man, Yossarin. When you start reading the book, you'll think that he is insane. In the end, it turns out that he's probably the most sane person left around. Yossarin is someone who seems to have given up on all his ideals, and his only remaining concern is living through the war. He fakes illness, runs away from combat, tries to get off duty any way he can. He seems to believe everybody is out to get him, he comes across as an extremely paranoid person at first. Of course, all this is in the initial part of the book, you learn more later.

And you come across Catch-22, a military rule of sorts. It's a fundamental paradox, and the first time we come across it is when Yossarin wants to get off combat on grounds of being insane.

You see, the army cannot let an insane person fly missions.
So Yossarin who's insane to some degree, asks to be excused.
But asking to be excused means that he's worried about his own safety, which shows that a degree of sanity remains in him. And he has to keep flying.
Anybody who's really insane would not ask to be excused, so he has to keep flying also.

You come across Catch-22 in varying forms throughout the book.

The most amazing thing about this book is that all the jokes & gags in the book are long-running. Even the smallest joke in the initial pages will come back to you near the end. There are so many varies plot-lines going through the book, and there is no definite sense of time. But it all resolves in the end.

Of course, there are a lot of other characters in the book, some more absurd than the rest. But as the book progresses, they keep dying, and only a few remain till the end. One of them is Milo, a mess supply officer who forms a trade syndicate of his own, in which "everybody has a share". Throughout the novel, he grows in power, and even starters trading with the enemy. He also becomes a military officer, even bombing his own unit for a profit. Milo is Heller's view of what capitalism can become.

This is one profoundly disturbing novel. It's a must read for precisely the same reason.

On a side-note, every novel I've read recently has been of similar character. Time to read some simple/feel-good book now.

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