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