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The book of war, the one we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another, was completely useless in this situation. We had to write a new one from scratch.

I reread Brooks’ follow up to the Zombie Survival Guide just as news broke that Glasgow had been converted into downtown zombie besieged Philadelphia for the Brad Pitt film adaptation. That earlier book featured a series of tongue-in-cheek survival techniques for dealing with the imminent time of the undead rising to feed upon the flesh of the living. If you go into a bookstore you’ll like as not find the Guide in the humour section. But the interesting section in the book was its latter half when Brooks introduced a series of short ‘histories’ featuring zombies tropes being applied to a number of unfamiliar settings. My favourite was the zombies in the French Foreign Legion narrative.

For World War Z Brooks revealed that the zombie apocalypse has already happened and following years of hardship humanity is slowly rebuilding itself. This time the storytelling device is that our narrator is a bureaucrat traveling around the world assembling a report on the outbreak of the mysterious disease that caused the ghouls and how it led to the breakdown of civilized society.

The one and one interviews between the narrator and the individuals he meets allows Brooks to introduce a series of contrasting genres into the monotonous zombie horror format. There are military exercises, home invasions, scientific inquiries, political satire – World War Z becomes a wide-ranging critique of many aspects of contemporary culture.

With brain-munching on the side.

Given the variation between the interviews, the tone shifts drastically from ‘objective’ reportage, to comedy, tragedy – even psychological suspense. There has been much comment over the years in relation to the celebrity cameos hidden in the text, from an apathetic Paris Hilton, to Howard Dean and even Nelson Mandela. There is even something blackly comical about Brooks pitching that the only event that could lead the political parties of the United States to unite is the near annihilation of the human race. As such this functions in the best tradition of post-George Romero zombie horror, happy to indulge in both gore and allegory.

There is no plot as such in this book. Rather this is a fictional history of the events that follow the outbreak of World War Z. Brooks was apparently inspired by the documented history of the second world war. Despite this the book is genuinely powerful, avoiding the calculated phrasing of the official report it will come to create. Indeed the narrator frequently alludes to how the official account will exclude much of the personal detail included here. That is possibly the smartest aspect of the book, how it balances the immensity of the horror unleashed with the ‘official version of events’. Compare this to Seeing by José Saramago, the sequel to Blindness, where we discover the government has completely buried the spontaneous lose of sight of an entire city’s population. Ultimately the characters introduced by Brooks are left to deal with the sights they have witnessed and the tragedies they have experienced alone.

This is an instant horror classic, which rises above its brain-dead peers.

World War Z

Perhaps we would be justified by proclaiming that the Centre writes straight on crooked lines, and what it takes away with one hand, it gives with the other, If I remember rightly, that business about crooked lines and writing straight used to be said about God, remarked Cipriano Algo, Nowadays, it comes to pretty much the same thing

I went to a preview of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later at the Dublin Horrorthon, for Halloween 2002. As the producers were trying to build up positive word of mouth for this pseudo-zombie pic – and it is instructive to remember that the current horror glut had not yet washed up on the shores of the mainstream – the screening I attended was followed by a Q&A session featuring the director and stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. One member of the audience commented that the film reminded her of a novel by José Saramago.

I had never heard of the book before, so this proved to be my introduction to the Portuguese author. The novel Blindness does have broad similarities to Boyle’s film. A mysterious ailment causes the collapse of society, although in Saramago’s tale marauding zombies are not the cause, with the entire population of an unnamed country suddenly losing their sight. The novel has a sequel of sorts in Seeing, a political satire that is essential reading and not dependent on the previous book, although it does reveal the fate of the previous book’s protagonists.

Today’s book is once again a satire of sorts predicated on a surreal hook. Cipriano Algo is a potter whose business is dependent on the nearby monolithic Centre, a commercial/residential complex. Living in the shadow of the Centre, not only is Cipriano just barely making enough money from selling clay pottery to its residents, he is legally forbidden from selling his wares to anyone else.

The small business is run by Cipriano and his daughter Marta, whose husband Marçal enjoys an uneasy relationship with his father-in-law. Partly this is due to the young couple intending to move to the Centre, where Marçal works as a security guard. Cipriano resents that his daughter will eventually be pulled away from him by the Centre. Disaster strikes when his goods are finally rejected by the head of the buying department, with insult added to injury by the order to remove the surplus stock of clay crockery from storage.

Desperate to attempt to stay in business, Cipriano and Marta attempt to innovate by producing clay figurines instead. The Centre agrees to accept an initial order on a provisional basis, with the buying department head secretly enjoying the philosophical badinage he engages in with the quick-witted, but humble potter. Another addition is made to the small family by the arrival of a dog, named Found by Cipriano, who inserts himself into the lives of the struggling artisans. Meanwhile Marçal feels increasingly pressurized to achieve a promotion so he can earn the right to live in the Centre with Marta and Cipriano discovers a second chance at love with the widow Isaura.

Once again Saramago delivers an amazing combination of political satire, absurdism and philosophical inquiry. The callousness of the Centre towards desperate labourers such as Cipriano is masked by false niceties, symbolizing the double-edged sword of consumer culture. Issues of family loyalty are also dealt with, as Marçal finds himself goaded by his resentful father-in-law on one side and then being criticized sharply by his own parents for not agreeing to allow them to live with him in his promised future apartment in the Centre. Saramago also in a wonderful feint introduces us to the thought processes of the dog Found and its gratitude to the Algo family for taking him into their home.

Beneath all of the above, we also have several allusions to Plato’s parable about the Cave and the nature of reality. Saramago, I feel, was one of the most incredible literary stylists of the late twentieth century. Sadly the author passed away recently, but he was always fearless in describing thoughts and ideas that proved too controversial for his Catholic homeland. Reading his pages can sometimes feel like staring at a morass of words, with run-on sentences and absent punctuation increasing the feeling of alientation. Should the reader persevere, however, a natural flow to the language Saramago uses emerges, almost like poetry.

An incredible book, by an incredible literary visionary. Need I say it is strongly recommended? I thought not.

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