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review 2015-03-14 21:46
Jonathan Bennett wants it all
The Colonial Hotel - Jonathan Bennett

Jonathan Bennett wants it all. He wants his latest book, The Colonial Hotel, to be a thriller, a literary homage, a political intrigue, a romance and a story about the act of storytelling itself. What’s amazing is not his audacity but the fact that he pulls it off.

The Colonial Hotel is an adaptation of the Helen and Paris myth, set in an unnamed war-ravaged country and starring a couple of aid workers. The lovers are torn apart when rebels overrun their town, and their stories are told through letters to their child.

There is much to grapple with in The Colonial Hotel, even though the book is elegantly slim — Bennett actually reworked it from an earlier long poem. The international politics and personal drama of the separated lovers would be enough to carry most novels. But Bennett is known for complex, multi-layered books that most writers can only dream of writing. Reading The Colonial Hotel is like wandering the halls of an actual hotel, opening the doors of every room you pass and finding a different story inside each one.

The novel is set in the wreckage of colonialism, but Bennett is careful not to name the country. Readers are forced to decide where the events are taking place and why. The very act of reading becomes political, as readers become aware of and perhaps even question their own biases and assumptions. It quickly becomes clear that the “colonial” in the title of the book is carefully chosen.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Colonial Hotel could easily wind up being a trite and tired political fable. But Bennett is a master writer, and he has the gift of a poetic voice as well. The novel is a literary wonder, with its spare but crafted lines singing in the reader’s imagination like an epic poem. It’s the sort of work other writers love, because it is a beautiful yet merciless story of life itself while at the same time honouring the fact that life is, at its essence, the stories we tell ourselves.

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review 2015-01-10 09:46
Je Suis Charlie
Kant's Dialectic - Jonathan Francis Bennett

Okay Kant may not be satire, nor is he French, but as I was finishing off this academic analysis of the second half of his A Critique of Pure Reason I could not help but think that there is some connection between his writings from two-hundred years ago and the tragic events in Paris over the last week. I guess in many ways it has a lot to do with freedom of speech and with the idea of censorship, which may not be what Kant was necessarily writing about, but he does explore the idea of freedom, especially freedom to be able to think outside of the dogmatic circles of his day. In another way many of us here are writers (and while we may not be paid for the writing that we do, those of us who write reviews, blog posts, or even academic essays are still writers) and as such the brutal murder at Charlie Hebdo no doubt struck a chord – it did so with myself.

 

Charlie Hebdo

 

However, moving on I should say a few things about this particular book. Bennett outlines the reason for writing this book to make the second half of Critique of Pure Reason more accessible to many of us. Personally I didn't really think that he was all that successful in that regards because, to me, it seemed to be little more than another dry academic text to go along with the plethora of other academic texts on the subject. In a way I felt that maybe I would get a lot more out of reading Kant as opposed to reading a book about him.

It is interesting though to examine the philosophy of the earlier period because it seems that the discipline was much broader than it is today. I remember going to a meeting of the philosophy club at one of the universities in Adelaide and most of the discussion seemed to be how philosophy relates to ethics. While it is true that ethics is an important part of philosophy, it is not the only aspect and to ignore the other aspects really does not do it justice.

In Kant's days, and earlier, philosophy and science were in the same thing, and it is only recently that the two disciplines have gone their separate ways. For instance Aristotle wrote about a lot of things, including literary criticism, science, ethics, and even constitutional law. However these days when we think of a philosopher many of us get the picture of some guy with his head in the clouds who has no understanding of the real world in which we live.

 

Head in the clous

 

What was really surprising was the amount of maths that Bennett was using in his work, though I must admit that this did end up losing me (which is probably why the original work would have been a better read). However, he does talk about the dialectic in areas such as the concept of infinity (how can there be a synthesis of the finite and the infinite?). Infinity is also quite interesting because in some ways it can really create a lot of headaches. We, in many ways, are not capable of truly understanding the infinite especially when our minds are only able to understand the finite. I remember asking my Dad once about how we knew that numbers were infinite, and he told me to think of the biggest number possible and then add one. In the same way numbers are infinite in more ways because by going down the negative it is infinite, and by looking at fractions it is also infinite.

The other thing that I noted was that there was a lot of discussion of the nature of God. This is not surprising because much of philosophy is trying to understand the world in which we live and also the nature of reality as we perceive it. The title of Kant's work does give us a clue as to the direction that he was heading because in a way he is writing against the earlier philosophers such as David Hume, Rene Descartes, and John Locke, who saw the world through a purely rational mindset. Kant does not necessarily seem to believe that it is all that helpful to view the world in such a way because we seem to be trying to encapsulate our understanding within a sphere that can only be measured rationally. The rational mind suggests that because we cannot prove the existence of God then God must not exist, however that logic is flawed in the sense that just because we cannot prove something does not mean that the proof does not exist, nor is the lack of a proof a proof in and of itself.

However, this book was a little disappointing because even though it was an interesting read, Bennett did not seem to be going anywhere, and when I came to the last sentence of the last paragraph I was left thinking 'gee, is that all there is?' In fact, there was no conclusion, at all, which sort of left me scratching my head because if Bennett is an academic I always thought that their academic treatise's were supposed to have conclusions.

 

I have written a post about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the limitations of Freedom of Speech on my blog.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1139856003
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review 2014-03-14 04:59
The Colonial Hotel, by Jonathan Bennett
The Colonial Hotel - Jonathan Bennett

In a way, war stories never change. They are always tales of disillusionment, mortal terror, psychological horror, wrenching violence. It is fitting, then, that Jonathan Bennett weaves together the oldest recorded war story with some of the newest conflicts in The Colonial Hotel...

 

Read the rest of my review at Summer Reading Project.

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