Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Marquise of O- by Heinrich von Kleist

Heinrich von Kleist, is an 18th Century Born German Play write and novelist. He ended his life in the tender age of 34 by shooting himself ( after shooting his girlfriend who was suffering from terminal Cancer, where they had signed a suicidal pact before executing the same). His style and language have influenced the next generation of German writers including Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. After his short term military service, as his father, he enrolled and devoted himself in to education and have started writing short stories and plays. His encounter with the writing of Kants have made a huge change in his way of looking at the world and the people which in turn have ended in his suicide.

This book , re-published by London based Hesperuspress include a foreword by Andrew Miller and an introduction by the translator Richard Stokes, giving us insight to the interesting author. This short book consists of a novella with the same name and two short stories, 'the earthquake in Chile' and 'the foundling'.

The little town of M** in northern Italy was greeted with this announcement in the local newspaper , by the Widowed Marquise of O** , a lady of excellent reputation and mother of several well bred children, without knowing the cause, come to find herself in an interesting condition, that she wished the father of the child she was expecting to present himself; and that she was resolved, out of consideration to her family, to marry him. The lady, who is the daughter of Colonel G**, commander of the citadel at M**, have lost her husband three years ago during a journey. She along with her parents and brother have to come out of the citadel, after the citadel was attacked and held control by the Russian Army. During the siege and attack, she along with her mother who was escaping from the citadel to their bunglaw in the outskirts, have been molested by a group of soldiers, before the young Count F** , the lieutenant colonel of of the rifle corps, came to her rescue. The family, now in their country house, rejects the repeated request of Count F** to marry the widowed marquise. Sooner, she gets this odd sensation and get herself examined by the doctor , and a midwife. She is not willing to accept that she is pregnant and does not know how is this happened. Midwife answeres to her query of divine pregnancy as she is the only other case, after the holy virgin. Unable to accept the shame and the insult, the family discards her and make her leave the home. The newspaper advertisement comes thus, before the issue is settled and the family unites.

The earthquake in Chile is also talks about a lady of repute, gets pregnant by her tutor of lower origin and was condemned to death by beheading, while her lover was imprisoned awaiting his death sentence by hanging. On the day of the execution, a huge earthquake hits the city of Santiago and the city is destroyed. The turn of events get the lovers back together with their newborn kid. Planning to escape the city and to request pardon from the viceroy, the couple joins the other families who are spared from the disruption, attends the mass at the only surviving church, where they were identified and attacked by a group of people, accusing them of bringing the damage to their city.

The Foundling is about a wealthy businessman and his young wife, accepting an adopted boy as their son, in place of his own son who dies of plague during one of his business trips. As the folk tales go, the time and turn of events make the young man lead an anti-social life and gets killed by the old man after his sons attempts to seduce and force his stepmother to his desire. The old man is sentenced to death by hanging , but refuses to receive absolution. He wanted to go to hell, where he is sure that his adopted son will be, and wants to continue his revenge. " I do not wish to be saved. I wish to descend into the deepest depths of hell. I wish to find Nicolo, who will not be in heaven, and proceed with my revenge, which could only be partially completed here on earth" was hi slast words before climbing the scaffold.

As Milan Kundera said, you need to understand the era of the writing and the life and background of the author to understand the text well. Considering the time by which this is written and the turbulence this would have caused in his lifetime, these are interesting reads. Unlike the earlier style of translations of old texts, I found this translation to be very good and easy reading. This is an important read for serious book readers.

The Marquise of O-Heirich von Kleist - translated by Richard Stokes
Harperus Press
100 pages ( incl of introduction)
Rs 240/-

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Joy of Drinking - Barbara Holland

For a non-drinker, like me, this book is an interesting read. Having lived all my young age with room-mates who had the motto "never a dry day" , I always wondered what it takes people to get into the habit of drinking. Despite my moral and orthodox upbringing, I never had an inclination to try and get into this majority. I have also seen that most of the people ( atleast here) start their drinking more as a social / friendly compulsions. I have been witness to many of the after effects and pranks caused by excessive, uncontrolled drinking of my friends, which only increased my distance from alcohol.

Having said that, I have always wanted to know what it is , that attracts millions and millions to this. This has been there though out the humankind and most probably would have started with the first settlement ( after being nomads hunting the animals ). The leftover grains have fermented and our ancestors have found its soothing effect to the soul. Barbara Holland quotes from William Faulkner as " civilization began with fermentation" .

Mentions and descriptions of this can be found in most of the ancient literature, including the Vedic literature of India. The book examines the early days of alcohol, its variations at different parts of the world. Each region have found a way to ferment the grains and fruits found in abundance in that place into an alcoholic drink. Our own TODDY from coconut and palm trees , the famous Goan Fenny from the cashew , rice beer of China, GIN , wines, the Vodka from Potatoes. As the sophistication increased, and the exploration and travel on the rise, people start tasting drinks from various part of the world. the European conquerors in Latin America, The early settles in the US etc have brought their native drinks to the new territory, later started developing breweries in their new homes.
The taverns were also become a place for social get together and bonding. This has become the place of social and cultural activities of the towns and villages. Most of the development in literary , art and cultural revolution have began in such a place. While the popularity and acceptance of drinking grew to an extend that it had its own effect in the social and family structures and functioning. The first words against this started within the house hold. The stories of drunken father, beating husbands started gaining momentum and so the resistance against the taverns and alcohol in general. This was the beginning of prohibition and controls.

The book also discusses the issues of 'hang-over' and the remedies which have been there since the days of drinking. There haven't been a medicine developed to make the next morning fresh with zero after effects of the previous night. There was new movement to help the addicts to get out of this habit. Movements like Alcoholic Anonymous and similar came up to help those in need.

In the middle of the last millenium, came a new drink as a substitute to alcohol. It took less time to replace the famous taverns with the new COFFEE houses. The new drink offered a fresh new taste, with no after effects. It also had better social acceptability. Coffee become the craze in Europe so much that there were objections against coffee houses as well. One such described in this book is an interesting one. There was a petition files by a group pf women in London in year 1674, which said "'Now, alas, their old vigour was so decayed that they couldn't perform their marital duties. The occasion of which Insufferable disaster.. we can attribute to nothing more than the excessive use of that Newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called COFFEE".

Was it the afterthoughts of prohibition or the quest to experiment, did create the cocktails like martini and others. Though there are different version of the origin of Martini and cocktail, what it did was to revolutionise the industry. Not every experimentations stayed , but what was accepted became a rage. Prohibition never worked anywhere in the world. It always made a new opportunities for the people to make illicit ways of producing liquor. Many Indian states are into the prohibition bandwagon in and out, often causing larger damage by people relying more on the illicit liqour. More than 200 people died this month in such an inciden in Bangalore and neighboring districts in Tamilnadu.

Over the centuries, we have also found out the medicinal use of alcohol and it is still a practice in many countries to have an alcoholic home remedy for many of the diseases. The famous brandy+hot water medicine for the common cold , is one I remember followed here.

Towards the middle of 20th Century, Alcohol was replaced by a larger menace. Many youngsters in the US and Europe, drifted towards drugs, for faster and stronger results. There was a different culture developed and it took decades to reduce its influence in people. It is still an issue being fought, but to a considerable lesser extent. End of 20th century and the early years of 21st century saw a new craze for health and fitness among the corporate citizens and the new generation of youngsters. They spent their evenings pumping in the gym instead of having a drink or two with colleagues and friends. Soon alcohol was projected as health hazard and dangerous. Adding to the restriction imposed by the authority limiting drinking and driving, it become less and less popular and confined to the 4 walls of your home. Now, there are studies and research papers being published , proclaiming that a small amount of alcohol per day reduces chances for heart-attack, depression, diabetics and what not. However, if this report in the latest outlook magazine is right, the story in India is different. More and more people are getting into the habits and the sales of Alcohol beverages are on the rise. So much that in many states, the state Govt does the collection and sale of alcoholic beverages. In most of the Indian states, Excise Duty on the alcohol sale is a substantial income to the treasury.

This is an interesting book, written very well without getting into the research or historical style. This is full of stories and anecdotes , few poems and other interesting articles. Her style and the subtle humour adds to the reading pleasure. One such story on George Washington is interesting. Apparently, he lost his initial election to the local body, later realised the power of alcohol in the electoral battle. This time he invested in 144 gallons of rum,wine and beer handing out to the voters. In India, it is a regular affair in the election , from the local bodies to the supreme Parliament, that supply of Alcohol does impact the result of the election. I recall one of the cleaning staff in Office telling me as " he gave me Rs150 + 2 packets ( of local arrack) and I voted for him where as the other candidate gave only 100 and one packet ".
An interesting subject and one can write pages after pages on this subject. However, the book is well structured and short.

My last thoughts on this are, if this is so much fun and entertaining , am I missing something ?
US $ 14.95
Bloomsbury Publications
148 Pages
More read :

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Truck Stop Rainbows - Iva Pekarkova

Novels and literature from erstwhile communist countries have always been popular in the west and when I bought this book, I considered it as another one in that category. however, this book has taken me by surprise. Instead of the expected banter of the regime and their struggle to escape the iron fists and hard rules, this gives more human angle to the same, alienations of individuals within the society and within the family.

Fialka , is a young rebelleous woman of Prague , 25yrs , still has a university student pass where she is enrolled for psychology, likes to overcome the monotonous urban communist life by doing nature photography for the local magazine. Her friend Patrick, who is crippled and bound to the living room and clutches was into photography as a hobby and a plumber as a profession.

She escape from Prague on every possible opportunity , on hitchhiking trips to the interiors to photograph wild flowers and engages in many one-night affairs with the czech truck drivers. After Patrick is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the waiting time for wheel chair is 6-7 years according to the authorities, she takes up the task of getting some hard currency to buy him a wheel chair on her own. She starts picking up the western truck drivers en-route to the eastern exotic destinations , selling herself for money and the adventure. She falls in love with a Swedish truck driver, for whom Prague become a regular stopover on her onward and return journey. She rejects the offer by her lover to move in with him to Sweden , but not before securing the precious wheel chair for Patrick.

While that is the plot of the novel, Pekarkova examines the state of the people through the complex portrayal of her narrator - young , rebellious, adventurous and angry. A fresh look at the Czech society, under the communist regime, under decay and soviet influence. Her parents and only sibling are killed in an accident which the authorities have closed as a drunken driving case. During one of her later visit to the accident sites ( while hitchhiking) she gets to know the truth from a local shop keeper as a Russian military truck is involved in the case. Using her sexuality as the only tool to fight against the system, Fialka tries to come out of the shackles. In the process, she goes through major changes both physically ( in terms of her dressing , appearance and makeup) and mentally ( she is surprised at her ease to get adjusted to her new way of living) , before a she realises the effects on her. Though immune to all that is happening around him, Patrick too gets attracted by the eastern philosophy and re-incarnation before deciding to call it quits.

All of us are in search of the rainbows in our life. In this fascinating novel by the czech author Iva Pakarkova, it has used as a metaphor of something not within reach. A very feminine novel, beautifully written and thought provoking.

Truck Stop Rainbows
Iva Pekarkova Translated by David Powelstock
266 Pages
Vintage Books