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