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Books that Burn Bright

By Geri Decheva

“Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!”
Ray Bradbury
A year ago, I translated a book about the Calash People. The Calashum inhabit the high mountain area in the Chitral region of Pakistan. Thanks to the altitude and the challenge to get there, these people have survived the changes of time and their lives are pretty much the same as they were several hundred years ago and even more. Few are the innovations that have entered their civilization and culture: there is one broken television for decoration, no mobile phones, nothing of what we know. They have preserved their religion and rituals, as strange as they might seem to us, their folklore, their happiness. Away from civilization, they have jealously kept to all those values which the rest of the world has lost. I was envious and happy that there are places where people still feel free, but then again few of them know what’s there beyond the high mountains. People go to the Chitral region and look at them like they are some strange kind of species and sometimes ridicule them because of their ignorance. To the outside world the Calash people are like flies in a jar made of black glass with a lid with a few holes to let the air in. Naturally, they don’t know what’s beyond. They hear things, they see very few tourists, but they don’t seem too eager to leave the jar. ”The jar of flies” stays intact.
I wondered then, as I wonder now, if the flies in the jar are really those people. Maybe we are. Boxed in our everyday routine and fed as much truth as we are supposed to know, we are caught in the loop of the rat race, losing ourselves, entirely dependent on technologies someone made for us, on entertainment someone designed for us, on morals and standards intended for an obedient society and a crowd complying with the rules, where individuality is slowly lost. Even the very process of creation and expression of talent has become dependent on what others feel is fit and appropriate. And then, someone takes even that from us.  
We are slowly abolishing books in favour of electronic devices to read for us. We watch movies with less acting and more technological effects. We look younger and happier because of plastic surgeries. “What’s wrong with that, you boomer?” the young generation will ask. Well, my answer is that you have been brought up in a jar. You are taught what happiness should look like. You are shown that financial goals are all the goals there are. You are told that in this jar you have all the freedom you will ever need and you, as opposed to us, have taken it for the only truth because someone slowly UNtaught you how to make decisions for yourselves and groomed you for the rat race.
Books? I was recently scolded for defending the traditional books as we know them and I was told rudely that young generation would rather listen to a book than read it. There’s no time for reading, you see. They can’t be bothered to read a text message, you are offering them a book! It’s okay. I’m probably an abnormal human being. I saw the world change so fast – it has made me dizzy. That gnawing feeling of losing a lot and gaining so little, if anything at all, hasn’t left me for a while. And then, for two tears I have been listening to people chanting: “Make ‘1984’ fiction again!”
Well, from the perspective of a person, whose childhood was in a totalitarian regime, I can assure you that “1984” came as no shock to me. I was brought up in a calm and crimeless environment, smiling happy people everywhere, where everyone got the same salary – a cleaner and a doctor had the same lifestyle. We had two newspapers, same furniture in every home, same clothes, same shoes, same food, same trips (only within the country), same obedience (which we believed was our devotion to the Party), same fears of being watched all the time by informants, who ratted out on everyone who dared share a political joke about the communists. We marched in straight lines, we sang songs in praise of the Party. We had almost no knowledge of the world outside the jar, apart from the fact that it was “dangerous”, but we were offered heaven in the jar, you see. I saw elections won with 100% for the communist party, I saw bookstores with nothing from the world of literature outside. I was hoping for a song on the radio in English, but it rarely came. Every breath we took was censored. We were the flies in the jar. I was too young when it all went down like a domino and a new world came. I was brave and I believed in freedom, but the older generations were programmed pretty well and it took them decades to shake the fear off. My mother was in prison at the age of several months with my Granny, my Grandpa was a political prisoner and survived. I knew nothing about that till years later when finally, my family felt secure enough in the new reality to talk about it. I cried when I re-read the story of my family tree. I still do.
And then books, art, music, news of the world flooded in. We were free to leave one cage. And enter the next.
I read “1984” and “Animal Farm” by Orwell and although the books were meant as a warning and based on reality, I had experienced some of it, if not worse. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Fact.
I read “Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and cried all the time, because I was so afraid that this might happen to our books and history and knowledge (again), but was doubtful that technology would develop so fast. Well, I was wrong.
I read “Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and I prayed it was just fiction, but I have seen some of it already. Numbing people through happiness… that was what it was – keep them happy and keep them on their knees.  
I have read “A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and watched the movie many times. At one point in my life, it was familiar in one way and then, years later, even now it’s beginning to sound familiar in another.
I read “The Children of Men by P.D. James and it reminded me how our negligence is getting us closer to the dystopian world in the book.
I translated “Divergent” by Veronica Roth and all the time I kept associating it with both my past under a totalitarian regime and my present in a machine-controlled mind-numbing world with few of us stopping to think where we are headed to.
I watched “V for Vendetta” and then read one of the greatest graphic novels of all time and I kept thinking of both my past and my now. V became and still is my favorite hero of the genre, along with Montag of “Fahrenheit 451”.  
I read and watched “The Hunger Games” trilogy and I already knew that trick – make them fight between themselves and conquer them and oppress them through fear.
Dystopian literature has been here for quite a while. After all, it all started in the 18th century with Johnathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and marched on through the 19th century, “The Last Man” by Mary Shelly leading the chain reaction of literary masterpieces that warn us, teach us what humanity must never be like, what values we should treasure above all.
Alas, most of the warning came true in the 20th century. I really don’t know whether ignorance is bliss anymore.  Probably knowledge is a curse, but if the world today, wherever you are, feels dystopian to you, remember, they warned us.
“Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” –  Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
Ask yourself why your eyes tear up when you read the “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Why are you afraid, why are you numbed by the story? Because you realize that it is “truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations”. You think of your compensations and call them happiness and freedom.
Now ask yourself – freedom to do something or freedom of someone. Good luck with the soul-searching process.  
There is this great album “Jar of Flies” by Alice in Chains. I see it quite fit for putting the full stop here.
What I see is unreal
I've written my own part
Eat of the apple, so young
I'm crawling back to start.
The Calash people? Oh, I envy them so much. Unaware of the rest, living in their own happy world, believing their beliefs and not a soul near to lie to them that the world beyond the mountains is great and so marvelous. Because… well, it is for some, but for the most it’s not, and some of us even know it.
Gergana Decheva
+359 88 261 4385
+359 88 337 9697

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