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The Nature of Evil
on 21 May 2005
In a bitterly cold, snow-driven European village, the narrator marches through a field followed by another man and two soldiers. The soldiers throw a pickaxe and a shovel between the two men. The narrator, who turns out to be the village baker, begins to dig whilst the other man looks on. Gradually, as the observed baker digs deeper and deeper, the men strike up conversation and the baker realises that his heavily-smoking overseer is his brother's former teacher. Meanwhile, villagers are brought truckload after truckload to await their fate in a nearby field...
'Schopenhauer's Telescope' consists largely of dialogue between the baker/narrator and the teacher, canvassing a range of historical and philosophical issues - and in particular the nature of evil - by drawing upon anecdotes from medieval Europe to Big Foot and the Sioux Indians, Genghis Khan to King Leopold in the Congo. Although I usually enjoy novels that concentrate on ideas and issues, I found most of this novel tough-going and almost gave up on a number of occasions. It is difficult for the reader to feel any connection with either character as little information is given about the two men, and the scant information that is given portrays both in a bad light with the teacher appearing particularly authoritarian and the baker coming across as a swindler and a bit of a weirdo. Furthermore, except for the brief discussion of Schopenhauer's telescope and an amusing anecdote applying Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' to the shopping practices of the village policeman's wife, most of the historical and philosophical anecdotes weren't particularly engaging. Moreover, Donovan's various devices for conveying this information struck me as heavy-handed and gave the novel as a whole a contrived feel.
The novel more than redeems itself in the final thirty pages or so where everything comes together. Indeed, the ending is so satisfying that I have given Donovan's debut novel an overall three star grading. But it really was an act of faith to persevere getting there!