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Classics that redefine freedom and independence

There couldn’t be a better opportunity than this Independence Day to dive right amidst the classical masters of the written word
Book covers: 1984, A Room of One's Own, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Shrestha Saha   |     |   Published 13.08.20, 09:34 PM

The year 2020 has increasingly been about an ever-growing list of sacrificed freedoms, to fight a pandemic. And much like every other privilege or lack thereof, these sacrifices have been subjective. While essential workers have had to struggle for survival and basic food and shelter, a missed birthday party or personal milestone has been cause for concern for many. Staying under complete lockdown, the redefining of freedom and what it means to be truly free, has been contemplated by most at some really conscious or deeply subconscious level and we thought there couldn’t be a better opportunity than this Independence Day to dive right amidst the classical masters of the written word and understand the various faces of freedom.

Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat documenting and also fictionalising the assassination of Rafael Trujillo in Dominican Republic, is a haunting crossfire of three different narrations that questions freedom in its various forms. Urania Cabral, who has left her past behind only to return to it, physically as well as emotionally, recounts her trauma and a secret that she has kept for decades. However, the other two narratives comprise of Trujillo’s life and the sychophants who constitute it and that of his assassins who have been wronged by the dictator at some point. To each and every character, freedom is a need governed by their oppressive environment and not social diktats. The pace of the novel picks speed as the imminent arrival and subsequent plan of his assassination of ‘the Goat’, as Trujillo is called, approaches. The social, personal, gender, racial and power politics play out in every page of the novel, making it the perfect companion to gather a deeper understanding of the possible meaning of ‘freedom’.

A fictional piece on freedom with politics at the helm, reminds one of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as he writes about surveillance culture and totalitarianism of the most cruel kind. While we firmly believe that it is always a great time to read 1984, we can’t help but realise how much this book resonates with the times. No better way to understand censorship achieved subtly, like someone slowly pulling the rug from under you, than an evening with Orwell.

It is difficult to write a book on freedom without grasping the deep-rooted binary understanding of gender politics, in regards to women and when speaking of the welfare of women, and one can’t stray too far from Virginia Woolf and her collected essays in A Room of One’s Own. In her inimitable style, Woolf finds freedom for female writers within the confines of four walls. A radical text of her times, this feminist literature is a lesson waiting to be learnt. The importance of a physical space to fight the good fight of occupying the figurative space in an industry led by men, she speaks of publishing and fiction by women. “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” she writes, immortalising a thought in a heartbreakingly poignant manner.

Along similar lines lie Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha which recounts Chiyo Sakamoto’s journey from a sold-off maid to Sayuri, a top geisha who finds love in a stranger on the streets of Tokyo. Golden’s tale is equal parts serious, heartwarming and empowering with an overwhelming celebration of finding freedom in love.

One obviously has to think of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl while writing about women and freedom. Spending two years in captivity of the worst kind, young Anne’s tale of depravity from a point in history, has inspired generations and will continue to do so. Suitable for young children, this book should be a part of the syllabus to give them a clear understanding of concepts of physical movement and their privileges in a war-torn land.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also comes to mind while imagining unadulterated freedom of the best kind. What could be freer than running away from home? As Huck Finn is taken captive by his father and travels along the Mississippi river, we can’t help but imagine being a part of the adventures of his life. Satirical in places, the novel is worth revisiting at any given point in life.

A lot of authors have equated the thought of freedom with a physical activity of sorts but no one quite touches the heart like the elusive author Haruki Murakami. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he writes about the process of running and his journey from one marathon to the other, sprinkled with memories of his encounters on this journey. A slight insight into the life of the reticent author, the physical act of running is a metaphor for the life we lead, where every moment can be an act of rebellion. Only Murakami can weave a memoir, travelogue and mundane technicalities in the life of athletes into one book, so perfectly.

Metaphors and their frequent usage also make us think of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the very act of existing on your own terms defines freedom to Howard Roark, the iconic architect from Rand’s fiction that the world collectively fell in love with. Rebelling against ostentatious shows of arrogance in architecture, Roark creates to serve himself and the greater purpose that he has been asked to serve. Roark, as a character and his ability to exist and fight, defines freedom better than complete books on the subject.

Few more classics we can’t help but think of on this topic would definitely be Solomon Northup’s 1853 account Twelve Years a Slave, the movie of which swept the awards season in 2019; Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

If diving into a pile of old classics this Independence Day is your plan, be prepared to realise that the very idea of freedom and independence is a varied lived experience for everyone and to figure out how to define yours, take a little help of the masters!

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