Saturday, December 27, 2008

Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller

Couldn't get a more appropriate book for a sales guy at the end of his financial year. Drained of energy and waiting for this year to get over, to start again with clean sheets. Death of a Sales man is one of the most sold plays of Arthur Miller, released in 1949. What is surprising is that the relevance of the book at the current times.

The story and synopsis can be read here and I'm not getting into it.

There are multiple angle to this play. At one level , it is the sales man and his relationship with his employer. Despite serving him for 35 years, he is not wanted in that organisation. The same person who build their business empire in New England from scratch, was now fired for non-performance. For the sales guy, the customers with whom he has build a rapport and business are all retired or replaced by newer younger people, nullifying his influence. The old hand at the business is no more and his son who runs the company now, do not value the heritage and the people who build the company.

The other side is the strained relation between the father and son. Willy is blamed (or he takes the blame) for the failure of Biff to graduate after he flunked Maths. Biffs exposure to fathers illicit relationship with a lady in Boston, and his anger and disappointment has lead to his later failure in life. Even at 34 he is unable to settle in any job or place.

Linda, Willy's wife fit in at the perfect house-wife role. All understanding , always supportive to her husband, never complaining and always encouraging. Even when she realises that Willy's frequent car accidents are not mere lack of concentration, but a planned attempt, she does not loose her composure with him.

Willy himself is under hallucinations and day dreams. He move in and out of worlds of real and imaginary, often criticising himself on his inability to live a life like that of his now dead brother ( who comes in his dreams very often). His attempt to resurge his career is turned futile, his hopes on his sons to be own their own and support the aging parents fails , leading him to despair , eventually leading to his death.

Though written about the period 1928 and 1942, the plot is still the same. The middle class life run on mortgage payments and by the time you finished your payment, you have to start all over again. And I don't think it can end any better..
"Forgive me, dear. I can't cry. I don't know what it is, but I cant cry. I don't understand it. Why did you ever do that ? It seems to me that you're just on another trip. I keep expecting you...I search and search and search, and I cant understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear. We're free.. We're free..We're free."
Death of a Salesman
Arthur MillerUBS Publishers Distributors Pvt Ltd

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Petal of Blood - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

"Today, children, I am going to tell you about about the history of Mr.Blackman in three sentences. In the beginning he had the land and the mind and the soul together. On the second day, they took the body away to barter it for silver coins. On the third day, seeing that he was still fighting back, they brought priests and educators to bind his mind and soul so that these foreigners could more easily take his land and its produce."
Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o , tells us the story of Kenya, on a larger scale the story of Africa , or the story of every country being ruled by colonial power for the major part of second half of last millennium.
Munira, arrives at the small village of Ilmorog far away from the cities, inhabited by elders and kids, to set up and run the primary school. All the previous teachers who arrived there did not last a week. He too was welcomed by the villagers with a "mountainous shit-dune" in the school compound. Slowly he gets the acceptance of the locals and starts his effort to teach the children. The other non-native of the place is the one-legged Abdulla, who runs the lone petty shop in the village, supported by Joseph, the orphan he rescued during his journey. All the men and women of the village are taken to the towns to work in the new enterprises, farms and factories run by wealthy individuals and foreign collaborators. To this set up, comes the beautiful Wanja, to stay with her grand mother, the powerful , old leader of the village, whose husband was hanged by the Colonist for opposing and fighting them. Soon, Karega joins Munira in the Village, who like Munira is from the Siriana school and have been expelled after a students strike, repeating the history of Munira. The foursome , now the integral part of the village become their voice, light and their hope.
Why are they here ? What brought these four to this place which receives no visitors. A place, where the inhabitants wants to escape and never returns. A place where the member of the constituent assembly comes with promises just before the election. Each of them are trying to escape from their past. To take refuge in a place far away from the world , away from those tormenting memories. Each of them have a past unknown to others. A past of resistance, rejection, failure, humiliation and torture. Of disappointment, a past of shattered dreams and hopes. Each of them had gone suffered the loss of people close to them, people who are interlinked, related to each other.
The fate and fortune of Ilmorog is all set for a change. The village has been stuck with drought and famine. Their farms are dry and have not yielded any crops this year, to feed them all. The reserves are depleting, the cattle are skinny and dying. It hasn't been rained for months. The offers to gods and the sacrifices of their beloved sheep have not satisfied the supreme. Does the bad omen come through the Donkey of Abdulla ? The village elders have decided to sacrifice the donkey, against Abdulla's pleas. This is when the intelligent among them ( of course , the Teachers an Wanja) suggest that they send a delegation to the City, and meet their MP and request help. They have been supporting and voting him to power every time, and it is time he reciprocate and help them. Thus starts the long journey. A journey that bond them, but help them to understand each other better. Abdulla , Karega, Wanja and Munira re-live their past life to each other during this journey.
The trip to Nairobi did not end all that well. MP while addressing sensed a rebellion of his people. Was it triggered by his opponents ? Who are these four outsiders ? Why are they so worried about the people of Ilmorog ? Why will some one go to such goddamned place ? Naturally, all the four leaders(?) end up in police station, only to be released with an intervention of a progressive lawyer.
The journey did not yield any results. There was no help from the government, but the rain gods were sympathetic. It rained , and rained so hard bringing a new life to the province. Crops were good, agriculture produce was the best in the recent years. Along with this came the progress of the village. Government set up a Police station and the Christian missionary set up the first of its prayer hall. Then came the Trans-Africa road construction along with workers. People started pouring in and soon Ilmorog has more outsiders than the native. Karega is expelled fro the job and leaves the town.The business ( making the local brand of alcohol Theng 'Eta ) of Abdulla prospered, now joined by Wanja. The all open fields were slowly being occupied and converted to individual properties. Slowly, people started loosing their own properties. Lured by the African Development Bank, to take loans for business and agriculture, the uneducated people were made to sign documents only to loose the property to the Bank on non-payment of dues. Abdulla and Wanja lost their business and the right to produce the Theng Eta , which are now being controlled by 3 directors Chui , Kimeria and Meizo ( same people who were once the reason or part of their destruction in their early life).
The novel starts with the interrogation of the four suspects in the murder of the directors. They were burnt alive in the house of Wanja, where she now run a profitable business of flesh trade. The story is being described as narrated and re-collected by Munira over the past 12 years.
This is the Kenya after the Independance ; the colonial power ( " Christianity, commerce, civilization.; the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy trinity " ) has been replaced by the indigenous 'colonist'( those who worked for the European Rulers and on their departure became the owners of the property). The strong sense of betrayal among the native Kenyans as the entire resources are controlled by few individuals. The leaders are engaging in pitting one tribe against other and celebrating the new found richness.
"Big shots from the different communities sat together and talked only in their own mother tongues... Every group talked about the danger of other groups. They were grabbing everything.. they have taken all the white highlands. Then about a month ago the groups from other communities suddenly stopped coming to the place. So the cars were fewer. Now the talk changed a little. We shall fight: we have fought before....the other communities want to reap where they never planted."

"Educators, men of letters, intellectuals; these are only voices - not neutral , disembodied voices - but belonging to bodies of persons, of groups, of interest. You, who will see the truth about words emitted by a voice, look first for the body behind the voice. The voice merely rationalizes the needs, whims, caprices, of its owner, the master. Better therefore to know the master in whose service the intellect is and you'll be able to properly evaluate the import and the imagery of utterances. .. If you would learn look about you: choose your side".
Very powerful and political story in the backdrop of a small time Kenyan Village Ilmorog, which transforms itself to a tourist town. Every inhabitants of the place have lost their land and people due to some manipulations of the few powerful individuals. Was it the new Kenya they all have fought for ?
Very deep , engaging and hard-hitting novel about Kenya ( and African continent in general) post independence and of its disappointments. Of the exploitation of the people by the rulers , the corruption and treachery. At first at the hands of the Europeans : "God save the queen, they sang after every massacre and then went to church for blessings and cleansing: it had always fallen to the priest to ordain human sacrifice to appease every dominant God in history". Then at the hands of the new rich and powerful political and business leaders.
Ilmorog represents the post independence transition of Kenya. it represents the ordeal of the common man. It give us a bleak view of the what the realities of the freedoms were, and how soon the hopes of the people were shattered. Ilmorog is a metaphor of modern Kenya, faced with harsh realities. But the author definitely displays his anger, however does not provide us with any positive of bright outlook of the future. He make some strong statements here (he was arrested and jailed in Kenya in 1978, post this novel - not sure if there are any connections with this book).
Beneath all these strong political views, lies a beautiful story supported with a sublime narrative.
Petal of Blood
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
408 Pages
Rs 435
Further read: Study , Biography ,
PS :
"Where have you been?" she asks him, trying to remove the KAR hat pin-folded on one side from his head.
"Burma....India....Japan... lands far away, soldier fighting for the king."
"Whom were you fighting?"
"Italians, Germans, Japanese."
"You had a quarrel with them ? Oh, you must have been angry."
"Why then were you fighting them?"
"A soldier does not ask questions... he obeys orders and dies, dies fighting for the king."
"Which king ? Does he also fight ?"
"Oh, stop it, little girl. You ask too many questions."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

It happened in India - Kishore Biyani

I think it was towards the end of 2006. I was on my way to Office and an unexpected traffic jam on the Hosur Road, at the Madiwala Checkpost junction caused all my days plan in a spin. The nerve-centre of the jam was the BIG BAZAAR store situated next to the Forum Mall, which I understood later, have launched another innovative campaign of theirs called 'subse sasta din' or so. The crowd was uncontrollable and spilling over to already heavily trafficked Hosur Road. The visual and print media covered this with lot of enthusiasm and I heard the scenes were as bad if not worse in other centres across the country.

As I was reading again of these incidents in Kishore Biyani's book, it revealed a whole lot of new concepts successfully deployed by his team over the years, which I have seen and dismissed as any other campaigns.

Retail is the catchword these days. With the increase in the income and the all too powerful middle class consumer rise, the avenues to spent have to grow in a similar manner. The growth of organised retail in India has to be discussed along with these lines. Though there are many early entrants in this field, supported and funded by big industrial houses in country, the result , barring in the textile sector (to an extend) hasn't been all that great. Many traditional so called 'departmental store' chains have struggled in scaling up their operations and/or in measuring up to the new bourgeoisie communities demand and aspirations. Many of them have had an early death and few remained, to my understanding, are still struggling for existence. The history of the global players too haven't been all that lucrative.

There are few who remain competitive and prosperous in this environment. Future group is definitely one of them with their 'Pantaloon', 'Big Bazaar' and 'Central' stores. This books is the story of this empire from its early days of conception to the behemoth it is today. Kishore Biyani takes us through his experience of building one of the largest retail empire in India, from near bankruptcy and rejection to be one of the role models of the industry. Being a trader and an in born talent, there is no doubt about his penchant towards business. I was particularly interested in his words on the concept of Big Bazaar, which he attributes to the 'Saravana Stores' in Chennai. The created chaos of the stores, the various campaigns being run by the organisation, the early identification of the demographic split of the customers he planned to target and attract , the meticulous planning of location and the goods to be carried in each stores - all of which are quite impressive. Two things stand out in the whole affair; one his knack in getting the pulse of the buying behaviour of his customers, and the speed and accuracy of execution.

Well, this is not a business study ; we are discussing the book here ! Written and announced as an autobiography, it is more of the story of Future Group and the retail business in general, less on the person by himself. It also carries the testimonials and remarks by his associates, employees, contractors and investors, in the expected lines (!). While not commenting on the business side and the personal side of the book, it is an interesting insight to the changing retail scene and the buying behaviour of the people during one of the most eventful period of India growth story.

It happened in India
Kishore Biyani ( with Dipayan Baishya)
Rupa PublicationsRs 99

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The caretaker - Harold Pinter

This is arguably, one of the most popular plays by the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. Originally written and produced in 1960, first major success as a play write.

Confined to a room and three characters, brothers Aston and Mick and an old homeless Davis. As we understand later, Aston rescues Davis from a Cafe before being beaten up and take him to his house. He allows Davis to spent the night in his room and later allows him to stay until suitable alternates have been made by the later. Mick the younger brother, arrives later to the scene and virtually makes things uneasy for the old man. It hasn't been a smooth relationship between the brothers as they hardly speak to each other. Davis is offered a role of a care taker by Mick , provided he is able to establish his identity and credentials.

As things turns out in a couple of weeks, Davis trying to establish himself in the house by playing between the brothers. His changed behaviour and mannerisms puts him into trouble with Aston , which leads to Aston asking him to leave the place. His attempts to garner support of Mick also fails. Davis tries his luck with Aston again, pleading to allow him stay, unsuccessfully.

Typical of Pinters plays, bit absurd, conflict among the members , the abrupt change of character are all in this small play. A tramp with his racial blurts ( his comment on the Indian neighbours and calling them 'blacks') and perennial greed, a mentally challenged young man ( as we understand from the communication between Aston and Davis, where he talk about his stint in the mental hospital and being subjected to electric shock treatment) and a self employed youth trying to establish his authority over his elder brother all makes the undertone of this quite interesting.

Short and fascinating read, and I am sure will reveal more in re-read, which I intent to do.
The Caretaker
Harold Pinter78 Pages
Further read : Literary Encyclopedia , Culture vulture

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Yacoubian Building - Alaa Al Aswani

Originally published in 2002 in Egypt, this book has been a best seller in that part of the world ever since. However, it took few years to get this translated into English, and was popular in the rest of the world as well.

Yacoubian Building, the novel based on the life and events of a cross section of people living and dying in this building in the downtown Cairo. According to the notes, this building still exists in Cairo to whom the description of the book relate ; however, the rest of the story and characters are fictional.

This is the story of the contemporary Cairo or Egypt , even though set in the time of the first Gulf war. The inhabitants of the building is from a cross section of the society. It has businessmen, ultra rich elites, old men, people of different origins, intellectuals, with different religious back ground, sales men. It also have loads of poor families settles on the terrace of the building in tents, sharing common amenities. They share the life on the terrace which is more colourful and real with their quarrel, their stories, their jealousy.

The novel traces the lives of these families in few distinct threads. An old bachelor Zaki, a Paris return elite, flirtatious and womaniser, in search of true love at the twilight of his life, a young boy Taha, son of a door keeper, who cherishes the dream of joining the police academy, passing the intermediate with exemplary result, to be rejected for being the son of a door keeper. He later turns himself into the hands of the religious fundamentals ; indoctrinated , trained and sent for a mission. His girlfriend Busayna , forced to work as a sales girl , exploited by the owner, keeps her family of mother and siblings from her earnings. Her conscience does not allow her to continue her love for Taha, manages to break their friendship. The opportunities and events lands her as a secretary of the old man, assigned by a task of stealing the house from him in the event of his death. She is determined , not to get carried away with sympathy for the old man and of her task at hand. As they get to know each other, she developed a liking towards the old man , eventually marrying him.

The parallel thread follows the life of the businessman Hagg Azzam , who wake up one day and realised that he has been having wet dreams and his potency is as active as in his old days , which he is not able to get satisfied with his wife. His friends and men of religious authority advises him to marry , as it is perfectly legal under the Islamic texts. His sons, finds him a young bride whose husband has not returned from the gulf. He has been missing without any trace for a while and the authorities have granted her the divorce. She had been put up in a separate apartment after the wedding, out of sight from his first wife, where he spent his afternoon, before returning home at night. With the help of bribe and powerful allies, he manages to get elected into the Egyptian House of Representatives, but soon realise that his business fortunes have to be shared by the Supreme leader of the country.

There is also an gay editor in chief , who frequent the gay joints and other places of similar nature while leading an intellectual public life. He falls to the beauty of a black Egyptian Army cadet, living his nights with him. As the military training comes to an end , he manages to fund a kiosk for him thus keeping him under his control and charm. Though he brings his wife and kid to live with him in his new place arranged by the Editor, he is not able to get himself free from the clutches of power and lust. The unfortunate death of their kid and the scream of his wife, forces him to abandon the kiosk and the company of the Editor, moving back to his town. The regular income and the money has dried and soon living has become difficult. This is when the desperate Editor traced him and offered him another job, with a plead to spent another night with him , after which he is free to choose his future. The passionate night turns itself to the unpleasant arguments resulting in the death of the editor.

This book is a tale of love, of desire, of lust , of power, of poverty , of corruption , of terrorism - all in one. It is the tale of distress, of exploitation of the poor , of the systematic failure of the authorities to bring development and hope to the vast majority of people. Yacoubian Building itself - Once grand a symbol of aristocracy - is now ruined carries the current state of the affairs of the country. It is also of people , forced to make the choices out of compulsion, against their conscience, later convince themselves with made up excuses.

Alaa Al Aswani, has managed to portray the current social spectrum of Egypt with some good writing. As a reader, I was left with this impression as Zaki says to Busayna, "You know, I feel as though I owned the Yacoubian Building. I'm the longest resident in it. I know the history of every individual and every square meter in the building. I've spent most of my life in it. I lived my best days in it and I feel as though it's a part of me. The day this building's demolished or something happens to it, that'll be the day I die."


The Yacoubian Building

Alaa Al Aswani ( Translated by Humphrey Davies )

American Univ in Cairo Press

253 pages

Rs 295


More Reads : Complete Review

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began - Art Spiegelman

I have read many many books written and movies made on the horrors and sufferings of the people during WW II in the German concentration camps. Here is another one, however with a twist. Unlike the others I have read, this one is a graphics novel. This book is the second in the Maus- A Survivor's tale , and I haven't read the part 1. This book had also won the Pulitzer price for alternate fiction in 1992.

Written by Art Spiegelman, born to Polish parents, who survived the Auschwitz during the final stages of the German concentration camps, before migrating to Sweden ( where Artie was born) and later moving to the US. This book is his recollection of those days through his conversation with his ailing father ,Vladek.

The book has two parallel narratives. One, the current state of affairs of his father, after his wife ( second wife Mala) deserted him unable to withstand his whims, Art and his wife comes to visit him and to give him the necessary support. While being with his father , Art takes him through the memory lanes of Auschwitz, nudging him to re-tell those stories of horror and survival. As Vladek re-live those moments with his son, being separated with his wife at Auschwitz, surviving every day while, many of his prisoners dying all around him , while few others ending up as smoke in those dreaded chimneys.

The stories are not different from what we have red elsewhere , but the visual and the associated conversation has a very different effect. He also engaged in using the metaphorical approach in drawing people of each country. The Jews are mice, Germans are cats , French Frogs, Poles are drawn as pig, Americans as dog etc..

Even though he has survived the holocaust, the ghost of those horrors are with them through their lives, "I'd rather kill myself than live through ... everything Vladek went through. It's a miracle he survived." ... "In some ways he didn't survive,"...

Though the medium of expression is through graphics, it does have the same intensity and the irony that one experience while reading the regular fiction. Art Spiegelman have succeeded in bringing out those elements of the life in Aushwitz and the after effects of those through his portrayal of his father.

My thoughts are summed up in these words by his father, "Look at how many books have already been written about the holocaust. What's the point ?People haven't changed... may be they need a newer, bigger holocaust".

The book has its own funny moments , true to the graphics novel genre.. I, particularly liked this one..
"Samuel Becket once said: "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness"
"on the other hand, he SAID it"

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began
Art Spiegelman
Pantheon Book , Newyork
136 Pages

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Treading Air - Jaan Kross

Thanks to the recently generated inquisitiveness on Estonian Literature, I have just finished reading "Treading Air" by Jaan Kross , translated by Eric Dickens.

Treading Air, is the story of post World War I , Estonia until ( well, mostly) the end of WW II and occupation by Soviet Union. Ullo Paerand ( Ullrich Berends ,before he Estified his name) , narrates the story of his life to his school-mate at Wikman's( and junior by few years) Jaak Sirkel ( considered as an alter ego of Jaan Kross).

Ullo had a wealthy childhood, with his business-man father and his mother. His memories of his early childhood is about those long summer vacation he and his family enjoys in Germany and other places in Estonia. This life does not last long as his father leaves the family to live with a mistress, and eventually abandon the family and the meagre amount of money he sent for their living. Soon, the family has to find other sources of income for survival, apart from changing their living style. They are moved from one house to smaller houses continuously and his mother do odd jobs for a small wage. Ullo earns fairly decent amount income, by writing compositions for his classmates , translating porn magazines from French for his house owner and helping his teacher in his thesis work.

Ullo has been a gifted , intelligent young lad with a phenomenal memory , and finding job and admiration had never been difficult for him. After a short time job with Sports Encyclopedia , he earns a temporary job at the National Election Commission, to do the paperwork for the forthcoming Election. This following events and change of fortune, takes him to the role in the Prime Ministers Office. Next few years of his life and fate is interlinked with the fate of Republic of Estonia. He become an integral part of the political spectrum, even representing the Prime Minister in signing the treaty with Soviet Union ( in allowing Soviet Troops to enter Estonia in the war against Germany which in effect seals the fate of Estonia).

Estonia has been occupied by Germans first, and after their defeat in the WW II, it was attached to Soviet Union ( there is this mocking scene of discussion between Joseph Stalin and Roosevelt on the future of Baltic States, which was ironic and funny), which lasted for almost 40 years. Ullo, had been arrested both by the Germans and by the Soviets for his involvement in the Estonian Nationalist Movement. Though he did not participate directly in the National movement, his experience with the Prime Minister and Government in the earlier administration, make him a wanted man in the new clandestine Government set up during the last days of German occupation. As most of the members of this cabinet were caught and put to trial , Ullo was also goes through the sentence, and spend the remaining of his life in a suitcase factory until retirement.

This is a historical novel and there are many characters shaped the history of Estonia are appearing in the narrative. Translator Eric Dickens have given an introduction to this book in particular and history of Estonia in general at the beginning of the novel and a detailed 'who-is-who' of the people appearing in the book for the readers reference. He was also kind enough to give me some additional insights to the life of Kross and the book.

The construction of this novel is by the narration of Ullo to his friend Sirkel. Thus it is not a continuous and flowing, but at random recollection of incidents in his life. However, the pattern and chronological sequencing has been maintained and have covered the eventful life of him (until the Soviet Occupation) fairly well. While the prose is ironic, and sad, there is an element of detachment. At no point, the writer or narrator get carried away by the events. While this is the story of Ullo, it is also the story of Estonia , or any other country suffered similar turn of misfortune. Ullo had been offered with a couple of chances to escape his country and move to the west and freedom ( once by the Italian pastor, impressed with his knowledge, with a condition of converting to catholic faith , and once by himself trying to escape with others to Sweden, returning at the last moment) , to stay back in his country to be part of it future.

As mentioned earlier, this is written in a mixture of narration by Ullo to Sirkel, recollections and few notes by Sirkel. Jaan Kross, is a master story teller, and have few very interesting passages which are very moving.


Treading Air

Jaan Kross ( translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens )

Harvill Press

338 Pages

Rs 675

More Reads : Guardian , Estonian Literary Magazine, Times , Independent ( obituary)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two Murders in my Double Life - Josef Škvorecký

Two stories, one in the Edenvale College , and one in his native Czech almost at the same time revolves around a murder in Canada and a character assassination ( ? ) in the his homeland, told in a rather interwoven narrative by a professor, emigre from Czech living in Canada with his wife.

The narrator, like the author, lives a double life. One his present life in Canada , and the other his past life in his home country. As we realise, these two lives overlap and there is no escape from his past life and events.

The story starts with a murder of Raymod Hammet, husband of an Edenvale professor. The college with its eccentric professors and students, the romantic entanglements, and professional rivalries adds the the conspiracy theory in the mind of the professor. The police Sergeant Dorothy Sayers, who is investigating this case ( and also a student of the narrator) comes with her multiple suspects and theories. There are no proofs against anyone, only alibis. As the professors goes through the various incidents ( and some keen observations thanks to his wife) and stories and trying to connect them to the common thread, the picture is getting clearer to him on the murder. Professor, as a writer of crime fiction, gets into the act of finding out the motives of the murderer and the motives of the possible witnesses with his clever inquisitive tactics, manages ( well, almost) to untangle the mystery by himself, while fighting another battle at his own personal life.

His wife ( Sidonia) , who is also an emigre like him (both of them deserted Czech , to settle in Canada) runs a publishing house, releasing writings of authors of Czech exile. The end of communist regime and the end of StG ( the secret police) rule , things are expected to get better for those in exile. More so for Sidonia, with the eminent personalities including the President of the State, are among her close friends and associates. However, one document published in 'kill communism' an exile magazine on the involvement of Sidonia, in reporting one of her co-worker to StG, ( a la Milan Kundera , as you see in these recent revelations) has changed their lives forever . Sidonia's name also appeared in "the list" as one of the informers of StG during her past life at Czech. Sidonia, and to a lesser extend the professor, gets into the depression, discontinuing her writing , spending her days in the company of alcohol. It hasn't been easy for the professor as well. Their efforts of coming clean in the malice, prove fatal as more dirt is surfaced. His attempt to meet the creators of the report and confronting them with dire consequences too did not help to reduce the damage that has already been done. The officials , represented by a blond lawyer is also been very non-committal as she states ,
"An entry in the register of files, or if you wish, on the List , in no way proves that the registered person behaved as an agent and performed an agent's duties. It proves only one single thing; that he or she has entered into the register of files".

Though they have managed to come clean out of this trouble by a court ruling, it was already too late and the physical health and mental health of Sidonia was already on a decline.

Two murders in my Double life is thus a story of past & present, of Czech and Edenvale, of personal and professional life , of crime and alibi and of life and death. It is a crime fiction, a memoir, a campus story all in one.

This is the first novel written by Skvorecky in English and the narrator and his wife resembles to himself and his wife in character. I have read his one of his earlier novel "Republic of Whores" years ago, and recollect, not having a great opinion about it. This book has been written in a humorous, very informal style, intermixing the events beautifully, and with an easy and absorbing narration.

"for all good writers know that the first idea that occurs must be rejected. Such unexamined impulses must be destroyed by the power of thought."

Two Murders in my Double Life

Josef Škvorecký
178 Pages
Rs 462
More read : NY Times, Complete Review , Interview with the author

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Onitsha - Jean Marie Gustav Le Clezio

Like many others around the world, I was also a bit surprised with this years selection of Nobel Prize for Literature. Not having heard his name before ( leave alone reading his books), or seen any of his books in India earlier, I was told by a friend that Rupa Publishers have plans to release many French Books in India, which include that of Le Clezio.

The first book was available at the book shops and I had my copy last week. Though it is may not be the best book of JMG Le Clezio, Onitsha is an important book of his bibliography and have some good remarks by fellow readers.

Fintan ( a young boy) travels with his Italian mother to Africa in the year 1948 to join his English father whom he has never met. Geoffrey, stationed at Onitsha, a Nigerian town on the bank of the river Niger, is serving the East Africa Company managing their warehouse operations. After his initial apprehension, he start recognising the exotic beauty of the place and its people, befriending the local boy and running and exploring the plants and animal world on bare foot.

Maou, his mother was also taken aback initially with the place as she expected the place to be as very exotic and wild. " She had imagined naked savages, painted for war. Adventurers, missionaries, doctors consumed by the tropics, heroic women school teachers. In Onitsha she had found a society of boring and sententious civil servants, dressed in ridiculous outfits and head gear, who spent their time playing bridge, drinking, and spying on each other, and their wives, cramped by their respectable principles, counting their pennies and speaking harshly to their maids, waiting for the return ticket to England".
Soon the brutality and the greed of the colonisers have come to light to the Maou and Fintan and the rift between her and the British rulers of the place starts widening. Marooned at the house with no one else to interact with, she too starts exploring the people and their lives, fascinated by their rituals and culture.
Geoffrey is engrossed in his project of the history of the African people and their migratory culture and the settlement. He dreams of the gods and the people and their voyage, partly from the folklore and partly from the earlier works of his predecessor.
While the British colonisers continue their act of atrocities and abuse of power, Geoffrey continues his fascination towards their culture, which do not go well with his superiors. As Sabine Rhodes tells Maou, "My dear signorita, you must realise we see people like your husband pass throgh here every day, people who think they are going to change every thing. I am noy implying that he is wrong, any more than you are, but one must be realistic, one must see things as they are and not as one would like them to be. We are colonisers, not the benefactors of mankind."

Soon he was given with the orders of deportation, and was replaced by another Britisher, not before the seeds of rebellion started. Sabine Rhodes, another British National, already a miscast in the colony recognises the inevitable. " The days are numbered for all of us, all of us! The empire is finished, signorita, it's crumbling on every side, turning to dust; the great ship of empire is sinking. But I shan't leave. I shall stay here to see it all, that's my mission, my vocation, to watch the ship go under".

A beautifully written book, about the intolerance and brutality of colonial powers and the destruction of native culture and exploitation of their resources. The prose is very clear and straight forward , and look at the events at difference perspective of the child, mother and the father. After a somewhat dragging initial pages of their voyage to Onitsha, the novel is a superb read.

The book released in 1991, is supposed to be based on his own experience in his childhood in Nigeria. It is a novel of the greed of few countries of the world to master the natural resources of the world, by deploying their military power, destroying native civilisations, disarming and subjugating the natives. The role of the countries are now being replaced by large corporates as we understand at the end of the novel. The tactics deployed are similar and often supported by the economical and military mightiness of the nations of their origin.

PS : While the efforts of Rupa Publications have to be lauded , in getting these books in India at an affordable price, I wasn't all that impressed with the print and presentation quality of the book. To me, it had a printing and styling similar to that of the 'pirated', locally printed paper-backs of popular books available at the road sides, next to forum mall and other parts of the city.
Jean Mari Gustav Le Clezio . Translated by Alison Anderson
206 Pages
Rs 295
More reads : Translators note on Onitsha , World Literature today , Oxford Journals , Inerview with Nobel Committee

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A tale of the dispossessed - Laura Restrepo

The protagonist of this short novel arrives at a refugee shelter run by French nuns in search of the lady he loves the most. Set in Tora,Columbia, during the war, this mysterious man is looking for his foster mother , called Matilde Lina , from whom he was separated during an ambush years ago.
"If somebody asked him for more details, he just murmured that she was like everybody else, neither tall nor short, neither white nor black, not pretty or ugly, not lame or harelipped, and with no birthmarks on her face. There was nothing , absolutely nothing that would distinguish her from the others, except for many years of his life he had invested in searching for her".
The narrator, nameless, falls in love with this mysterious man , but it is only Matilde Lina, he talks and thinks about ("The world tastes of her," he says) . Three sevens, as he is called ( he does not know his real name ; from the time he remembers, he was called twenty one for having an extra toe, which later changed into three sevens) is desperate to find Matilde Lina, a laundress who rescued and raised him, from whom he was forcibly separated as a teenager during the War. "There's no country on earth as beautiful as this one," says the narrator. "No, there isn't," answers the dispossessed, "nor a more murderous one, either."
"His worst enemy has always been his guilt. Guilt for not having been able to prevent their dragging her away. Guilt for not searching enough for her. Guilt for still being alive, for breathing, eating, walking: he believes all of that is betraying her."

While on the run he has saved the wooden sculpture of 'Dancing Madonna' , a symbolic relic from the ancient past. Though he was later gets arrested and accused of stealing the dancing madonna, in the new place of his shelter, the sculpture gets its due respect and dignity.
A short fiction, superb plot to expand and carry , but disappointed at the end. An Oedipal sort of love ( there aren't many details of his relationship with Matilde Lina) and a silent love of the narrator in the backdrop of the war, ruins and refuge. The symbolic use of the 'dancing madonna' and the restoration of it in the shelter , the trouble at the oil refinery workers and the effect of the war which has a constant role in the events ; could have made this into a much interesting work.
A Tale of the dispossessed
Laura Restrepo translated by Dolores M Koch
Harper Collins Publications
101 Pages
Rs 99/-
More read : Salon , Interview

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In the country of men - Hisham Matar

Another debut novel, this time by this Anglo- Libyan author, about Suleiman, a nine-year old boy under the Gaddafi's rule . A commendable work for a debut novel and was short listed for Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Suleiman lives with his mother Najwa, and his father Faraj, who is on continuous travel for his business need. He thinks his mother is not well, usually when his father is away on tours, for which she takes medicine ( alcohol disguised as medicine to the child ) sourced through the baker Madji.

This is the summer vacation and Suleiman spends his time with friends, his mother and on the terrace where he has his set up of tools and other accessories. One of these days, his father is on travel as always, he and his mother were followed by another car on their way back from the market. He realised from his mother that they were the secret police from the revolutionary committee. He also suspects of seeing his father , who is supposed to be on business trip , in one of the clandestine apartments in the town, where he was accompanied by another person carrying a type-writer. The events soon take turn as Ustath Rashid, a professor, his neighbour and father of his close friend Kareem, was taken by the revolutionary committee as a traitor for bringing up agitation against the revolution.

Suleiman's father is the next suspect in line and with in few days, the revolutionary committee members, who arrested Kareem's father, appears in his house looking for his father. Moosa , a close associate of his father and an Egyptian by origin, manages to dissuade the team from search, not before they discovered his mothers drinking habit. It is obvious that the family has already earned the distrust of the regime and his father has to escape to safety. Moosa and Najwa burns all the books and other potential proofs before they were confiscated, but Suleiman recover one of the handwritten book which his father used to keep under his pillow, from burning. With the help of the powerful neighbour Ustath Jafer ( a Govt Official) his mother manages to save the father from the imminent death ( as happened to the professor, which was telecasted live to the horror of the family and the curiosity of young Suleiman) but not before being taken as a prisoner and interrogated. His father returns one night after being released from detention, and was kept away from Suleiman's view. For long he refused to believe and accept it as his father, until he was taken to the room and spoken to his father who is unrecognisable in the current state. By now Suleiman has already severed his relationship with all his friends, often fighting with them ( including his close friend Kareem, whom he called a traitor in the height of one argument) and was more and grew desperate with the events at home ( more with the elders who seems to be hiding many things from him).

Moosa has been deported to his home country soon after Suleiman's fathers release, and the family decides to save Suleiman from this mess and manages to send him away to Moosa at Cairo where he completes his study away from his home, parents and friends.

It's a book of growing up under the torture regime, where no one is above suspicion. Secret police, informers, fragile social network and family , the televised trials and execution are all influencing the child. There is also an issue of isolation from the society, and within family itself. The family structure itself is very week. Alcoholic mother, not so smooth relationship between his mother and father, his fathers clandestine ant-establishment activities, the excitement of the young boy in seeing the secret police ( he even befriends him) and the execution ( he notices the wet patch around the groin , the push by the executioners to the rope , the froth in the corner of the mouth).

The hanging inflames the spectators. "He was propped up, slapped a couple of times across the face, then turned toward the camera. We could see now that his trousers were wet. Something yellow appeared from his mouth and seemed to grow. ... The crowd spilled down on to the court now. ... A couple of men hugged and dangled from his ankles, then waved to others to come and do the same. They looked like children satisfied with a swing they had just made."

Mu-Ammar Gaddafi is also a character of the story with his omnipresence. Though his name is not used directly, he is referred as the Guide , his influence in the people are God-like.

It is difficult to write an entire book as told by a nine year old boy. Obvious things to the reader ( adult ) is not so for the young boy and he has a different meaning in each situation. Hisham Matar has done a good job in this part without getting into the adult zone of thinking. However, the main plot of anti-regime movement is not touched, may be because the kid who narrates the story is too ignorant of the fact. And that leaves the entire story a bit incomplete from the reader's point. One never know for what they have plotted ( all we know that it is for "Democracy now") and what is his fathers participation in the same. The last pages after the narrator is grown up and now works and lives in Egypt was also was a bit out of place, and spoils the flow of the narration.

The story is told by the young boy with no premonitions, no judgements, no secrets. But with his perception and associated immaturity, thus leaving many things un answered to the adult reader. Underlying to all these is the love he has for his mother, towards his friends, for Tripoli and his libyan life, which he carries with him in his journey to Cairo, and till date. Equally strong is the feeling of betrayal; of his friend Kareem by calling him traitor in front of others, betrayal of his neighboring boys , betraying of his mother ( parents ) and the betrayal of his homeland.

A fluid, very well written prose , never getting carried away by emotions, Matar has brought out a decent fictional work.
In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar
249 Pages
Rs 295/-
More reads : NY Times, Guardian Review, Complete Review

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

Winner of Pulitzer Prize award for Fiction, and many recommendations and good reviews, I had decided to pick this up for read. It has also been heralded as the novel people have been waiting for, for 10 years. Dominican Republic born Junot Diaz , talk about a nerd boy with passion for sci-fi , crime thrillers and computer games in his first ever novel.

Oscar de Leon, lives in Patterson , New Jersey with his mother and sister whose roots are in Dominican Republic. Over 350 pounds and a failure with girls who is frustrated ( so is the reader) thinking that he will die a virgin. As he grew up in among his few friends who are normal and chasing girls as expected of their age, Oscar is busy writing sci-fi thrillers pages after pages. His attempts with girls often ends up in disappointment, often rejected and insulted at the first instance or dumped unable to stand his style.

The flashback sequences of the novel also explores the younger life of his mother Beli in Dominican Republic before she was 'exiled' to US by her relatives after being on the wrong side of the regime of Trujillo. She was fallen in love with a middle aged Gangster spending many nights with him and even getting pregnant. However, her gangster boyfriend is married to the sister of Trujillo. Soon she was detained and was taken to the cane fields, assaulted and abandoned by the attackers.

The second flashback involve Beli's parents in the early years of Trujillo. Her father, a respected Doctor from a wealthy family and her mother a nurse assisting the doctor in his job, lived in Dominican Republic under the regime, in the favour of the dictator. As their elder girl grow up, she are already the talk of the town and is in the 'wishlist' of the ruler. Trujillo does not hide his admiration towards her, and even managed to send an invite to the doctor with his family for a party. Though the doctor managed to prevent the inevitable at this point of time, the later events as they unfolds could not save him from the disaster. He was arrested and put in prison and torture and others die mysteriously, leaving the new born baby (that is Beli) under the care of one of the relatives.

Back to the story of Oscar; as he continues his nerdy stuff and his effort to win a girlfriend. As a predictable outcome, he falls in love with a small town prostitute during his visit to Dominican Republic and his efforts to win her over puts him in all sort of trouble ending up in a hospital bed beaten by one of her numerous lover & his men . He was packed and sent back to US by his mother and relatives, only to return back with more determination and the rest of the story is to take the book to an end.

Large number of pages are devoted to the history of Dominican Republic and the 30 year long dictatorship of Trujillo. Many times, I find the events repetitive. Though these are discussed with the history of Oscars Family, his grand parents and his mother's early life, it was a bit of out of way in the story's context. There is a brilliant book by Mario Vargas Llosa, on Trujillo and the time , called "The feast of the Goat".

There are whole lot of Spanish words and phrases through out the book which makes it often difficult to understand. While the chapters pertaining to Oscar and his sister is quite fast and funny, the others drag a little. The prose is written as being talked by Oscar's one time room-mate ( sister's boyfriend, Yunior) in most of the chapters, or through his sister Lola, or as a 3rd person narrative by the author.

Diaz, set the tone of his novel with the introductory pages about 'Fuku' ; the eternal curse on the Dominican People , or the world people in general. Fuku , the ancestral curse doomed upon generations after generations considered the reason for all the bad luck on the people and will be the biggest player in this story. For every thing happening to Oscar and his family over generations are all attributed to the Fuku factor.

This book has been published as a book the world has been waiting for 10 years. While it is good in parts , I do not find this as a compelling book as it has been projected it to be. I guess this is largely due to the digression from Oscar to Dominican history, the flash backs, and the Fuku.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot DiazFaber & Faber
340 Pages
Rs 495/-
More reads : NY Times, Stewart , Interview

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

9 - Andrzej Stasiuk

Written in 1998, this book is set in post communist Warsaw. Pawel is a failed business man and is in pursuit of money to stay alive. His apartment has been ransacked and he has 3 days to pay the debt back. He approaches his friends, who are in same if not worse state. Bolek, active in Warsaw under world and a drug dealers is still trying to make a mark for himself and Jacek is an addict and struggling.

The three protagonists, their companions are on a constant motion through out the novel. Pawel in need for money, but not knowing where to get from, Jacek and Bolek rather aimlessly, without any defined destination. Each of them, in separate threads, move in their own paths between apartments, trams, cars and by walk continuously. When there is no hopes, and no real friends, each of them live a risky and eventful life from which there is no escape. There are others like Iron Man, The Blond guy who completes their limited circle apart from the girlfriends, whose existence does not bring any value to their already ruined life. It is a continuous run for survival with no alternative.

This book also looks upon the post communist optimism in Warsaw ( people starting business), new found open market economy ( Nike , the French brands of perfumes, the Marriot and other symbols of capitalism are used magnificently) and the failure of them to take off or to match to the hope with which it started cause the disruption of the society, springing up the drug cartel and other underground organisations are I think signify the harsh reality hit the people. As Jacek asks Pawel ""Why did you go to a pool if you don't know how to swim ?"

Stasiuk sees the minute events, people and places with his microscopic eyes and reproduces each in detail. Such descriptive writing are uncommon in contemporary fiction. his writing about the childhood memories of Pawel, Bolek and Iron Man and Jacek are in beautiful prose and very impressive.

A very dark and pessimistic novel with an abrupt ending, presents a very disturbing view of Warsaw life in general.


Andrzej Stasiuk ; Translated by Bill Johnston

Vintage Books

230 Pages

Rs 406
More reads : NY Times, Complete Review

Monday, September 29, 2008

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

I haven't read many graphic novels, apart from those you read in your school days. Neither am I a great fan of them. However, I just finished reading Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, on a recommendation by a friend.

This book has been figuring in the Time Magazines 100 best novels and among few graphics novels to gain entry here. I must say I do not subscribe to this list. There are more controversy as this novel is now being made into a movie scheduled for a 2009 release. Alan Moore has been very vocal about this as you can see here.

Originally released as 12 monthly releases, this book as been later compiled and republished. The story is set in 1985, where costumed adventurers are back at work, against criminal syndicates after one of their co-member is killed. Soon, the event takes a serious turn as another of them was shot, but escaped ; one was tricked and was arrested; and another was forced to leave earth to his home in Mars. While the remaining people are trying to regroup and identify the culprits, the suspicion turns to one among them. The fear of marking and eliminating masked superheros are in the air and soon it becomes a game of superiority.On the other hand the word political scene has gone through some of the worst time and the imminent world war III is looming over the world populace, after the invasion of Afghanistan by the mighty USSR.

There are two periods of activities in discussion here. One when the masked adventurers were at the prime of their eventful existence, and one when they are already an outcast of the society and trying to re-establish themselves through working on small time offenders. There are conflicting and a bit confusing plots of the murder of the masked warriors and of the nuclear war and the destruction there off. There is also an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of these superheros by the toy/doll business group trying to sell their replica.

Fictitious Biographies, retrospectives, journals and other reading including another graphic story within this novel is all there. The structure is also has some documents, memoirs, collective data and other at the end of each chapter. Illustrations and the colouring are superb, and the structure and the narration are a bit odd ( may be I am not so used to such fiction). There is also a quote from a literary work or of a writer at the end of each chapter, which I found quite interesting and out of place.

It was an interesting experience personally for me, and have opened the possibilities and capabilities of this narrative medium in the world of fictions. However, I still do not think that this can move beyond the crime fiction category.

Written by Alan Moore; Art by Dave Gibbons
DC Universe
334 Pages
More reads : Jai Arjun , Alan Moore interview

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Confessions of an economic hitman - John Perkins

The International Politics is controlled by few individuals and corporates in their quest to dominate the world commerce. It is a known fact that most of the political and military actions in the world has "economics" as the underlying reason rather than the stated and published issues. The quest to control the resources across the globe has started in the 2nd millennium. The earlier traders , where the need was to do trading of goods between communities and geographies, was later replaced with greed and countries , especially the European countries have started taking control of the world , people and the resources much early.

During the 20th century most of the countries have started rebelling and gained independence (or self rule) from the rulers from the west. The two world wars have changed the world political spectrum and soon had two superpowers and associated countries. For almost five decades, the effort was to curtail the spread of communism and to control the world both politically and commercially, by the capitalist countries.

US, the leader of the capitalist world , have used all its will to increase its influence over the rest of the world. Military power, political isolation, financial control over economies were few tactics deployed. World has also seen the raise of United States as a military and Economic super power and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist world in general, put US in such an enviable position with no rivals.
The vision or greed to become a GLOBAL EMPIRE thus begun. There are multiple methods being deployed by the super power through military and deplomatic means. After the debacle in Korea and Vietnam, they have realised that the military might may not be the right approach. Alternate method of getting into the country and managing the affairs had begun, post this. The modus operandi is fairly simple. Agents gets into the country as consultants and will project inflated growth potential and demand requirement in their energy and resource requirements and will get the rulers to see the vision as required by the US corporates. In order to achieve this vision, the host country will have to go through a series of reforms and infrastructure changes, which will be then funded by World Bank or IMF ( both controlled by US). This money allocated will then be used to award mega contracts to US corporates, thus the money flows back to the US. The affected country will then spent years repaying the financial institutes ( usually forever in debt). If the country defaults or fails in repayment, this is then used as an arm-twisting tactics to get the UN votes, approval to establish military bases or other strategic needs of US.
While this has been in discussion for long ( by the anti-propaganda team), here is a first hand account by a person involved in these operations at Indonesia, Panama, Ecuador, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The economic hit men ( or EHM as there were called) have the responsibility until the local government is in agreement with the projections and in getting the lucrative contracts to their clients in building dams, highways, electric sub stations, reactors etc. John Perkins , narrates his story ( out of guilt, as he claim ) to reveal the steps and incidents in executing such activities across the globe. A first hand detailing, starting from his early years and his enrolment into the elite EHM team ( most of them does not even know what they are getting into) and his multiple engagements.

There are people who understood this and tries to defend their country from such an invasion, usually to end up in mysterious deaths, like Torrijos or Panama and Raldos of equador , or hanged ( Saddam , Najibulla(?) ), or will be captured and sentenced in US( Manuel Noriega). There are umpteen coup attempts and efforts to topple the democratically elected government, if they are not towing the US line. There are always justifications for such actions. They will be called a fascist or Nazi during and after the WW II , or a communist ( during the prime of USSR ), a Narcotic dealer ( Noriega and Columbia) , a Terrorist ( the newly found popular word ). The media is also manipulated, so that the common man believes the reasoning and echoes the official line.
Though this book is not very revealing to me, I found it very appropriate to read at this time when India is all about signing a nuclear treaty with the US for our energy supply ( energy security as the supporters calls it) , and as the recent news article says, most of the construction activities are being awarded to US firms.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

John Perkins
Ebury Press , Random House

250 Pages

INR 325/-

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Let the wind speak - Juan Carlos Onetti

This book was written soon after his exile in Spain, by this Uruguay born author. This book looks into the periods life of Medina, as a fake (!) doctor , as a painter and as the chief of police. Bitterness, revenge and destruction is the underlying scheme of this novel. Being expelled from Santa Maria and living across the river at Lavanda, Medina has a love-hate relation with Santa Maria and everything associated with it. His long lost love, his numerous other lovers, the criminals and drug addicts are part of that world.

A life in poverty as a painter, living out of selling the unimpressive paintings of models and his girl friends to a corrupt and brutal chief of police shows the change in the character and attributes of Medina. The only thing that is common is the contempt for the place of Santa Maria and the eagerness to be the part of the happenings there while secretly wanting to see the down fall of its might.

Every relationship of Medina is a bit complex, or always under some wrap, not allowing the reader to get the full details of the character. His relationship with Freida , his long time lover , Gurisa his model and new girlfriend , the short stint with Junaina the model , prostitute and occasional lover of Frieda, Seoane , allegedly his son ( though we don't get the full picture of this side) and others are all written and described under a cloud of uncertainties.

"He only looked at Medina and the later understood and remembered that he had hated that man, without ever having seen him, since the very first day of his life, perhaps since even before he was born. But it wasn't the hatred of one person for another; it was like the hatred of an inescapable thing. It was the hatred of all sufferings - mingled like one wave with another, whether the sufferings were great or small- that had been inflicted on him by childhood." .... this summarises the general feel of this novel.

I am certain that this is not the best or most important work of this prolific writer. However, this gives me a glimpse to his style or writing. Moreover, it is important to know this author and his life before appreciating this novel , and this has some personal traits.

Juan Carlos Onetti was born in Montevideo of Uruguay. He never completed his secondary education and spent his first twenty years in his native Uruguay, working in odd jobs. He then moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he worked as a journalist and began publishing short stories in the early 1930s. From 1946 to 1955 Onetti edited the Vea y Lea, in Buenos Aires. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1974 by the military dictators and was exiled to Spain. He lived in Madrid till his death in 1994 . Onetti, writer of many novels and short stories is one of the important figure in the Latin American Literature.

And what's more, I'm thinking of the wind now. It wont be long now. But who can guess which way the wind will blow ?

Let the Wind Speak

Translated by Helen Lane

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Nada - Carmen Laforet

Nada, means nothing in Spanish, is considered a modern literary classic in Spanish. Written in 1944, the first novel of the celebrated writer Carmen Laforet, at a young age of 23. The book has become an instant hit and was soon adapted to a film under the same name. There was another film version of the same novel by an Argentine director. The book in discussion is the new translation by Edith Grossman, released last year. There had been two earlier translations of this book into English by Charles F. Payne (in 1964) and Glafyra Ennis (in 1993). The book also has a good introduction of Laforet's writing and the early days of Franco regime by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Written after the devastating Spanish Civil war, during the initial days of the Franco Regime, this book reflects the Spanish society and its struggle and frustrations after the war. There is no war to be fought now, but the uneasy calm of the streets is now complimented the violent interior of the society.

Andrea, an 18 year old orphan arrives at Barcelona on a rainy day to pursue her education. She has to live in the mysterious house on Calle de Aribau, inhabited with her extended family. An artistic and depressed uncle Ramon , a controlling and single aunt Angustias, an abusive uncle painter Juan and his beautiful and gambler wife Gloria, Grand mother along with the maid and her dog lives in chaos and poverty. The house is on shambles and the skirmish and violence have shifted from the streets to inside of the house. There are no sympathy , closeness and endship among the members and Andrea had to endures the daily shouting , abusing , screaming, cursing rituals. She takes into wandering along the Barcelona streets in order to escape from all this and not to partake in the "actions" at home.

She befriends her classmates at the university and spends larger part of her time at her friend's place and on the streets of Barcelona. Aunt Angustias runs away from home to join the religious movement. Filth, violence, sadness and hunger controls the environment in the house as against the fun,food and freedom at the outside world. Laforet in her simple writing brings forward the differences in the middle class Spanish society and the outside world. During the one year of stay at their house, you also see the transform of an innocent eighteen year old girl from the village to an experienced, bold and strong woman. In other words, many critics view this as a coming of age novel.

According to this preview, Laforet's own life was similar to that of Andrea, and thus there seems to be many elements of her own life reflected in the events taken place in the novel. The struggled upbringing , away from her parents at Caymen Islands, her education in Barcelona etc are few examples. I get a feeling that the novel is more about the disintegration of the society and the depression, hope and disillusionment at the aftermath of the long civil war. Every character lives a life of isolation, trying to get out of this life, by running away or by taking their own life.

A very melancholic and sober novel, written as a first person narrative. A young woman from the remote village coming to Barcelona and trying to maintain her cool and sanity in a chaotic world.

Translated by Edith Grossman
Contributor Mario Vargas Llosa
Modern Library, 2008
244 Pages
More read : Complete Review

Friday, August 22, 2008

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer - Life & Music by V.Sriram & V.Subramanian

Carnatic Classical Music World, remembered on of the titans of modern era musian on the occasion of his birth centenary. July 25 was the birth Centenary of Semmangudi Srinvasa Iyer and there were remembrance functions across country , followed with concerts, presentations and lectures.

One of the prime disciple of Semmangudi, V .Subramaniam along with V Sriram ( who has already written two books related to carnatic music to his credit) have come out with a coffee table book on Semmangudi which was released on occasion of his centenary. There are many books already in circulation on Semmangudi, either focussing on him entirely or dedicating ample pages to his life and music. Voices Within ( by T M Krishna and Bombay Jayshri) and a book by Pala C K Ramachandran ( another disciple of Semmangudi) are few recent books that have come out.

This book , as the name suggests , has written as two parts. LIFE, on his childhood, his growth as a musician and his life in Travancore written by V.Sriram and MUSIC, about the musical journey of Semmangudi with insight to his preparation, delivery and the constant yearn to improve his music , written by V.Subramaniam. I found the biographical part of the book, like reading my school history book. It is something like a data collection in a chronological manner and presented to the reader. There was hardly anything new about the man. I am not sure if this was the intention. But going by the true sense of BIOGRAPHY writing, this part does not impress very much. However, the second part of the book, which focusses on his music and his style was different. Being a follower of Semmangudi for a long period of time, accompanying him on concerts , singing along with him as vocal support, Subramanian is able to tell us the many aspects of the musician.

The book also contains abundant quantities of photographs, many of which are new to me. I dont understand the concept of 'Coffee Table book' very well. May be this was written with an intention of light reading, instead of a serious in depth study or biographical details. In that way, they have done a good job.

There is a complimentary CD with some of the gems of Semmangudi, along with the book.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer - Life & Music
V.Sriram & V.Subramanian
148 Pages
Rs 790/ ( there was a discount during the centenary celebrations.. Not sure if it is continued.!! )

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Laughing Policeman - Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are renowned detective / crime fiction writers from Sweden. As a team, they had written a series of 10 novels about the detectives of Swedish Police Force with a character Martin Beck in the lead. This is the 4th novel in the Martin Beck series by this Swedish crime writers, The Laughing Policeman was derived from the song with the same name by Charles Jolly. This novel was later made into a Hollywood movie ( the only one to be made a movie in Hollywood) re-planting the plot into San Francisco from Stockholm.

While the police force in Stockholm was trying to manage the agitation by anti-war demonstrators in front of the US Embassy, on a rainy evening ; when Martin Beck with his colleague Kollberg where tussling away on a game of chess, there was a brutal murder taking place in another part of Stockholm, where a gunman has killed 8 people of a bus ( including the driver) and seriously wounded another.

One of the passenger in the bus, was a fellow detective Stenstrom, who works under Martin Beck , who was sitting along side a nurse who was returning home presumably after work. All passengers were identified except one. The hope of getting some input from the injured person was also unsuccessful , as he did not survive the operation. But before that he managed to answer 'drnk' and 'koleson'. The question remained as what was Stenstrom doing in that bus and while Off-Duty, why was he carrying the gun with him ? Who was the lady seated next to him and what was their relation ? Who is the unidentified person ?

The story develops as we read typical to any crime novel and more and more information are revealed, without any real break through in the investigation. And as it happens in every detective fiction, there are enough twist and the clue of this murder is linked a previous unresolved murder mystery which happened 16 years back of one Portuguese nymphomaniac.
I haven't read many crime fictions to comment, but haven't seen many with a double murder investigation. That must be the reason for its popularity in Sweden as well as the other part of the world.

Critics says, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are confirmed communists and all their writings have something to indicate this fact. The demonstration in front of the US Embassy was discussed as one of such example. I am not too sure. However, after many 'heavy readings' I find it immensely enjoyable and relaxing.

The Laughing Policeman
Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo - Translated by Alan Blair
Harper Perennial
248 Pages

Other reads : Eurocrime

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Night Train to Lisbon - Pascal Mercier

Many a times, our life takes a turn triggered by some incident of no significance. Raimund Gregorius , a 57 year old High school teacher of classical languages, encounters a mysterious portuguese woman in the street who writes a phone number on his forehead, on a rainy day. Something has changed in him for ever. He leaves the class room mid-way through the lecture leaving the books on the table. He goes to the known Spanish bookstore, which he used to visit with his , now separated wife, and was drawn to a book written by Portuguese philosopher, doctor and writer Amadeu de Prado. The book keeper reads the initial paragraphs of the text to him and he is so moved by these words, takes the book home and starts reading the pages with the help of dictionary.

Mundus, as he is known, leads drab solitary life after his marriage ended years ago. The only person he talks to is his friend and eye-doctor Constantie Doxiades, a fellow insomniac, with whom he also engage in the game of chess.

Fascinated by the book of Prado, and driven by the words of Aurelis (Do wrong to thyself, do wrong to thyself, my soul; but later thou wilt no longer have the opportunity of respecting and honouring thyself. For every man has but one life. But yours is nearly finished, though in it you had no regard for yourself but placed thy felicity in the souls of others. . . . But those who do not observe the impulses of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy) Gregorius takes a train to Lisbon, in order to discover the man whose writing has made such an impact on him. He visits the places and sites of the writers life, meets and interview his sisters, friends, lovers and others in the resistive movement. Prado, a praciticing doctor, was active in the movement against the oppressive regime of Salazar, before coming to a sudden death caused by aneurysm. From his diaries and other unpublished writing , which he obtains from the people he meet, the life of Prado is revealed to Gregorius as well as to the reader. To me every one of the character is trying to re-discover themselves in the process, including Gregorius.

A very appealing book and well structured, the writer ( who is a professor of philosophy), explores the life of another intellectual through Gregorius. For me, every individual is trying to escape from something that is locked within themselves. Gregorius trying to escape his monotonous life and the walls of his school where he has spent his entire life , first as a student and later as a teacher. The others associated with Prado is still trying to get out the haunting memories and the effect of Prado from their life. His sister Adriana, gets the clock stopped to the time of his death, for 31 yrs, until Gregorius set it to motion again, along with her life. Many of them hand over unread, unopen envelops of Prado's writing not wanting read them. Everyone associated with him as a distinct image of him, guided by admiration and awe for his prowess.

Pascal Mercier, is able to develop the portrait of a man, as a doctor, an intellectual , a member of resistance movement, a son who is in awe of his powerful father, a husband and brother. More so, an individual who in his time influenced a large number of people through his profession and words.

Swiss author Pascal Mercier (actually: Peter Bieri) was born in 1944 and also teaches philosophy. It is not surprising that the book has a lot of philosophical and intellectual side of writing. It is already a huge success in Europe, and has been translated to English in the beginning of the year. Initial pages are a bit laborious and not very convincing ( his sudden change of thoughts and leaving the teaching job and taking a train to Lisbon on an impulse etc), as I think it was rather forced on the reader, but once the writing gets into the real mission of exploring the character of Amadue Prado, it gets interesting and falls in line with the quite a simple story.
Night Train to Lisbon
Pascal Mercier ( Real Name : Peter Bieri) translated by Barbara Harshav
Grove Atlantic
Rs 323/-
436 Pages

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Homecoming - Harold Pinter

I'm not a great reader of play and drama styled literature. I prefer to see them perform as they are meant to be written for performance. I haven't had any great read of screenplay or literature written for theatre performance.

I haven't had much of read of Harold Pinter either. Having got a chance to come across few of his works, I have decided to make a go at it. The homecoming, supposed to be one of his strong works and the most popular.
Ted, a University Professor in the US and Ruth, his wife for 6 years are coming to his ancestral home in UK. His father , uncle and brothers are still staying at this place ( a rather all-male household). A traditional working class family ( butchers and taxi drivers ) life , where the over educated academic brings his wife for the first time and the reactions from the family members are the theme of the play. Very surrealistic or satirist way of looking at the middle class family values. Every characters behaves as if unguided by the writer, given freedom to be on their own self. The deep down real personalities are out in the open causing disturbance to the very existence of family values.

I understand that this is an extremely popular stage play and a performance view can help me to understand this work better. I am determined to read more books of this writer.

The Home Coming
Harold Pinter
Eyre Methien
82 Pages

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Fugitive - Pramoedya Ananta Toer

This is the first book, I am reading , of this prolific novelist from Indinesia. Pitted to win the nobel prize of literature multiple times ( short listed 5 times at least), I wanted to read his books for a long time. Though this may not be the best or most popular work of this author, it is an important book in his literary career.

Written during his stay under retention in one of the Indonesian prison during 1947 to 1949 , and published in 1950, this novel is supposed to be the first novel written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. This covers a span of a night and the following day , the day on which Japanes surrendered to the allied forces. Hardo, a young platoon commander under the Occupied Japanese forces, lead a failed coup attempt with his friend. The revolt was quashed after one of their comrade in action abstained at last minute and leaked the plan. Ever since, he and his team are being hunted by the Japanese and he is on a constant run.

This novel written mostly in conversational style, takes us through the events and the aftermath of the rebellion. Hardo , disguised as a beggar, returns to his home town in Java, in an effort to meet his fiancee. Failing to meet her in her house and being recognised by her brother, he escapes from there with the group of beggars. His father-in-law-to-be meets him to lure him back to the house on an order by his son and wife. The initial pages are the conversation between the two , where Hardo comes to know the death of his mother and his fathers gambling habits. As expected the father-in-law-to-be reports his where about to the Japanese and soon the hunting soldiers lands at the village searching for him. He also meets his father later in a hut trying to escape the hunting soldiers. His father develop doubts about the begger and addresses him as his son from the voice , despite the darkness of the night. Other meeting and conversations include his co-conspirator Dipo and other friends as the day progresses. In the meanwhile, soldiers arrests the father-in-law-to-be and his gambler father and detain them until they find Hardo. The arrest and detention is lead to the town where his fiancee is working as a teacher. The leader of the police, their co-conspirator and traitor, is leading the search and arrests for the Japanese. The novel ends at the arrests of the Fugitives and the subsequent announcement of the surrender of Japanese. The jubilant crowd wants to take revenge on the Japanese Officer and the traitor, causing a minor skirmish, resulting in the death of the Japanese soldier and his fiancee in the end.

It is important to know the time of this fiction and the events lead to this. Indonesia, under the rule of Dutch for a long time, found a welcome change when Japanese soldiers defeated the Dutch force. Like Suharto , Sukarno and other prominent leaders, Pramoedya Toer also supported the Japanese initially. Soon they realised their mistake as Japanese turned out to be worse than the Dutch and the revolutionary forces now started their campaign against Japanese occupation.

Beautifully written novel with a very detached and un-sensitive narration, I found this book very good. True to a revolutionary , Hardo does not get sentimental at any point of time, beit when he hear the news of his mothers death, his fathers gambling habits, on being betrayed by his close friend or the death of his fiancee by a random fire from the gun of the Japanese Officer trying to save his own life. This book may not be a structurally elaborate and with the large scale description and characterisation, but effective in getting the strong feel across the readers.

Here is a dedicated web page for this author.

The Fugitive
Pramoedya Ananta Toer translated by Willem Samuels
Penguin Publications
171 Pages
Rs 595/-
The beggar laughed and glanced the sky. "The star is out again", he said slowly.
"What star?" the old man asked. "What star?" he repeated.
"There in the sky."
"There in the sky, nd in my heart."
"Your heart?" The old man shook his head." I dont understand."
"Go home"
"Go home? But if I go home, I should at least take some news about you, And what are you going to do ? Are you going to your father's?"
"Tell me where you are going."
"To the stars": the beggar answered shortly.
"The stars in the sky and your heart ?" the old man muttered in frustration.
"That's right."
" I dont understand at all".
"Go home".