Saturday, December 26, 2009

The year of the hare - Arto Paasilinna

Vatanen, working for a local magazine in Helsinki, is not happy with his life. On returning from his work with his friend on the eventful day, his companion driving the vehicle, hits a hare on the highway. Vatanen, gets off and goes after the injured animal, finds him and nurse him. Angry colleague, drives off, in despair, not finding his friend. Instead of returning to the hotel and continue the life, Vatanen decides to travel in the opposite direction with the hare. Not particularly happy with his work - "The magazine succeeded, but not by transmitting information -- by diluting it, muffling its significance, cooking it into chatty entertainment. What a profession ! " - ,not happy with the family ( the wife reacts to the news with the usual "tell him, he will have it on his return", type) and his inability to be a successful in social order ( the only luxury he has is the boat on mortgage), he decided to give up all. Thus starts the eventful new  open, carefree, exploratory life.

He sets off with the hare through out the country side, selling the only possession he has ( the boat) for money. Meeting various people, doing odd jobs for various government agencies, living in the wilderness, often with the hare as the only company.  He and the hare gets the curious attention of people he meet. He also ended up in the Police Station on complaint by a resident, only to be befriending the Superintend, and ending up in the task force fighting the forest fire. He travels up north staying at various villages and the forest, doing assignment, living closure to the nature. The novel ends with a vengeful chase by Vatanen on a wild bear, across the snow which lasted days. During the successful chase, he crosses the border to the Soviet Union, and ends up getting arrested after the military Officer congratulating him on his triumph over the bear. He was charged for spying into USSR, and was deported to Finland on charges of 22 various counts.

Typical to many of the urban breed, Vatanen  is also fed up with the life he is leading, and the accident was the turning point in his life. As it happens to many, there are moments in life, that alter the direction forever. Vatanen, instead of choosing to return to the familiar, decided to pursue what is in the offing, exploring the new ways of life in the new open world.

The catalyst, of course, was the hare. The journey now begin, through the interiors of Finland , away from the civilization, at a pace set by himself, meeting various people, experiencing the reaction of varied kind ( the police station on a complaint by a resident, the taxi driver helping with the food for the animal, the official who gives him the authorisation letter to retain the hare on, the retired army man at the fishing, the chase of the bear across the borders), doing odd jobs at different parts of the country, travelling to the northern Finland with hare in his company. Usually content, the one time when the vengeance took over, he went on a hot pursuit of the bear across the borders.

There is a subtle humour through the narrative. At certain places, it become bit loud and obvious ( the bishop who shoot himself on the leg trying to kill the hare, etc). Vatanen is also get enough sympathy from the readers. Short

Beautifully written book. You may not call this a literary masterpiece, but a superbly told story make you want to read more of these kind.


The Year of the Hare

Arto Paasilinna ( Translated from Finnish by Herbert Lomas)

Peter Owen Publications

135 Pages

Rs 360

Further Read : Complete-Review

Friday, December 25, 2009

By Line - V K N

Published soon after his demise, in 2004, this is a collection of stories and various articles written in periodicals during the last decade of 20th century. Most of the writings are his political commentary over the national issues, mainly focussing on the Indian Naitonal Congress and the then ruling BJP and the government. Attired with his usual sense of humour, he observes the news events through his inimitable style.

There are a large junk of articles on the sports, covering cricket, tennis and some of the regional athletics events. Even here, it is the news beyond the obvious is interesting him. The social , economical and political issues are commented upon through the style and writing known from VKN. Being, set in the period of 1990s, one will have to have a fair idea of the socio-political scene of the country to appreciate these writings. While it has all the characteristic style of VKN - multi lingual writing, the contrived translation which he is famous for, and the satiric humour are in abundance - it is not as great a read, compared to his novels.


By Line ( ബൈ ലൈന്‍ )


Current Books

168 Pages

Rs 80


Saturday, December 19, 2009

By Night in Chile - Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolano has been getting considerable admiration in the English speaking world, after his translations are made available, in the past few years. There are comparisons of him to Marquez and Borges in stature. 2666, the book released last year in English, posthumously, was a huge success, with rave reviews around the globe. I too, did buy the copy of 2666, along with the rest of the world, but haven't summed up enough courage to start reading the mammoth book ( 800 pages only). Instead , decided to start of with a shorter one as an appetizer to the literary world of Bolano.

I haven't seen or read any other novel which is written in one paragraph. 130 pages of this monologue, is in one non-stop paragraph. Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, member of Opes Dei ( right-wing orthodox Christian group), a failed poet and a literary critic, on his death bed ( or so he believes) recounts his life, during the course of the night.

"I am dying now. But I still have many things to say" , begins, Urrutia, taking the readers through multiple disjointed often dreamy sequences of the important events of literary and political importance, witnessed by him. After the initial pages where he talks about his life and the introductions to the church ,

"At the age of fourteen, I entered the seminary, and when I came out again, much later on, my mother kissed my hand and called me Father..... I protested , saying Don't call me Father, mother, I am your son.."
His acquaintance with the literary world was through the literary critic, called Farewell (with homosexual tendencies) , at whose villa, he was introduced the greats like Pablo Neruda and other established and upcoming poets and writers of Chile. The discussions with Farewell ranged from the poets and novelists of Chile and Argentina to the Artists and Paintings of the modern Europe.

"What use are books, they are shadows, nothing but shadows. And I : like the shadows you have been watching ? Farewell: Quite. And I: There is a very interesting book by Plato on precisely that subject. Farewell : Dont be an idiot. And I: What are those shadows telling you, Farewell, what is it ? Farewell: They are telling me about multiplicity of reading. And I : Multiple, perhaps, but thoroughly mediocre and miserable".
A starving Guatemalan painter in the Paris suburb, the German writer and the representative of the nation in Paris, Ernst Jünger comes in the thoughts among many real and imaginary characters of Chile. He was also selected by the Opes Dei, to take a tour of Europe and study about the preservation of Churches and report back, during which he meets various priest across multiple countries, practising falconry to get rid of the pigeon, whose dropping can cause considerable damage to the architecture.

After the death Allende and the fall of socialist Goverment, General Pinochet took over the control of the country. Urrutia, was entrusted with the mission of taking secret classes to the Military junta, about the nuances of communism. His association with a wannabe writer Maria Canvales, who , with her American husband hosts extravagant parties at their residence participated by 'who is who' of the Chilean literary world. However, these parties did not last long after the fall of the regime and the revelation of the basement torture and interrogation camp conducted by the American for the Junta.

Fitting to the presentation of the novel ( a single paragraph), these thoughts and rants are continuous and jumping from one incident to other with no chronological sequence or structure. Even during these delirious rants, he is aware of the importance of silences..
''Yes, one's silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one's silences.'' His own silences, he adds, ''are immaculate.''
I thought, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix is an anti-ego of what Bolano is (I've seen reports that Urrutia Lacroix is modeled on a real figure, the priest and right-wing literary critic José Miguel Ibañez Langlois) . A right wing orthodox, collaborating with the Pinochet Regime, ranting over the various political and literary icons of Chile and Europe.

This novel is beyond the delirious rant of a dying man. It is more complex than that and Bolano, is not spending time discussing his personal side of the story. His target is elsewhere, could be the pretentious academia of literary world, or the establishment with their secret interrogation cells, where you unknowingly being part of. With the narrator going through his memoirs over the history of Chile , the quest for wizened youth linger.. "I can picture the wizened youth's face. I cannot actually see him, but he is there in my mind's eye." and "Where is the wizened youth? Why has he gone away? And little by little the truth begins to rise like a dead body."

This book demand a second read , may be after getting familiarised with Bolano. This may not be the best of Bolano, but an important book and a fantastic introduction to an outstanding writer.

I haven't read a novel in one paragraph ! And of course, the end was great : " And then the storm of shit begins."

By Night in Chile
Roberto Bolaño ( translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews )
The Harvill Press
130 Pages
Rs 600 ( phew !!)

Further read : NY Times, Guardian

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Land of Green Plums - Herta Müller

As it was the case over last few years, this year too, the Nobel for Literature was a surprise selection. Over the regular names in discussion, a relatively lesser known writer ( in these parts of the world) was selected to be the recipient of the coveted award. Herta Muller, Romanian born German writer, "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed", said the committee , in its announcement.

There were no books available in India, until the last week of November. Having heard some rave review by people familiar with her writing, I was eager to get a copy for myself. I am not disappointed, but was not overwhelmed by this book.

Book talks about five youths under the Communist Regime of Ceausescu, living under constant fear. The narrator , an alter ego of the writer, looks at those days observing the oppressor and the sufferer through the same eyes. The policemen, the all enduring old people, holding on to their memories of glorious past ( of Hungary , Germany and else where) in an effort to remain sane, the collaborators, the mothers constantly complaining about their back pain, and communicating the real issues between the lines, the co-worker and friend who turns to be a traitor, the inspector and the dog with te same name, people waiting at the gate of the jail waiting for their beloved to return ( who is dead and buried long ago) etc to give us the gruesome picture of the society.

"When we don't speak, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves" starts the book.

Lola, a village girl, studying translation in the university, who carries the peasant smell, was found dead , hanging in the toilet. Lola, was subjected to abuse by the men working in shift as well as the system. The party expels her posthumously, for bringing disrespect to the country and the party. Her dorm mate and fellow student ( the narrator ) gets on the wrong side of the regime. Along with her friends Edgar, Kurt, Georg she was tormented and was put under surveillance by the state, often interrogating them and accusing them being anti-social. They were sent to different parts of the country after their education on jobs, but soon find themselves loosing their job. While the interrogation and threat continued, the contemplate escape from the land.

"Because we were afraid, Edgar,Kurt,Georg, and I met every day. We sat together at a table, but our fear stayed locked within each of our heads. We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always found an out. If you control you face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on your voice, it would slip through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by"
But for a society living under fear over the years, the emancipation is not immediate. The fear is so deep rooted, that even after successfully emigrating to the west, it remain with them..

"Edgar and I talked on the telephone, we didn't have enough money to visit each other. We didn't have enough voice for the telephone, either. We weren't in the habit of giving out our secrets over the phone, our tongues were tied by fear."
Interestingly, in her acceptance speech at the academy ( the famous hand kerchief speech), many instances from this book is talked. This book, thus could be the closest to her personally.

One morning I came to work and found my thick dictionaries lying on the floor of the hall outside my office. I opened the door; an engineer was sitting at my desk. He said: People are supposed to knock before they enter a room. This is my place, you have no business here"
My mother sat there locked up the whole day. The first hours she sat on his desk and cried. Then she paced up and down and began using the handkerchief that was wet with her tears to dust the furniture. After that she took the water bucket out of the corner and the towel off the hook on the wall and mopped the floor. I was horrified when she told me. How can you clean the office for him like that I asked. She said, without embarrassment: I was looking for some work to pass the time. And the office was so dirty. Good thing I took one of the large men's handkerchiefs with me.
One can not stop admiring the language and style. Many beautiful passages, often poetic. Short and simple writing. This is my first reading of Herta Muller and one can not judge the calibre of a writer from single book. Very good book, but not extra ordinary.

The Land of Green Plums
Herta Müller ( Translated from German by Michael Hoffmann )

Granta Books, London

242 Pages

Rs 399

Further read : Nobel Lecture , NY Times review

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

In the Name of Salomé - Julia Alvarez

Based on the life of Salomé Ureña, the national poet of Dominican Republic, during its independence from Spain, and her daughter Salome Camila , a scholar and professor in United States. The novel alternate between the life of the mother and the daughter, one from the birth through the years until the demise and the other starting at the early retirement in 1960 chronologically reversing to the time of her childhood, thus converging the tales at the birth ( so to say).

Dominican Republic has been through umpteen rulers since its initial independence from Spain. It was conquered by the neighbours at Haiti, fought independence and became a colony of Spain for the second time, got independence again in 1865, only to be ruled by various dictators ( Trujillo being the last and longest). Into this chaos is the patriotic poems of Urena, written under a pseudonym ( the secret code between the daughter and the seperated father) comes in, which become a rage among the people. The identity of Herminia revealed and Salome Uruna became the name of the household. Her influence did not diminish, even after the independence and a home rule was established. She was named as the national poet. Soon she marry the young dynamic Pancho , who is nine years younger to her ( member of the positivist movement) , who had fallen for her poems and wsa instrumental in getting her poems published under the auspices of 'Friends of the Nation'. The marriage lasted almost two decade wsan't a smooth ride. With Pancho constantly on the wrong side of the rulers, trying to establish the education system with his mentor and associating with various factions in the political power, had to live a life of being in exile or on look out. He manages to get out of the country on a scholarship to Paris, to pursue his study in medicine, while Salome takes charge of the upliftment of the education system opening the first school for girls. The life wsa on a dark side, with the ever demanding husband from Paris, and the news of his closeness with a French women coupled with her own deterioration of health owing to consumption ( as it was called for tuberculosis). Return of Pancho did not help things better, as the strain in the relationship and the physical condition worsen. Against the wishes of the doctors, Salome gets pregnant again with Camila, following whose birth signalled the eminent death of the once famous poet of the nation.

On the other side of the story, Camila herself is fighting the thought of her being the reason for her mothers untimely death. Her not so good relationship with her stepmother ( the nurse-assistant to Salome during her last years, whom Pancho marries soon after his wife's death), living in exile in Cuba and in the US, her life as an independent woman against constantly changing world around her were make her an interesting person. Her more than close relationship with an American Marion ( whom she taught Spanish during her initial days at the Vassar College), which oscillated between staying together and seperation at regular intervals. During 1960, she decided to retire from her high paying job and life in US, to come back to Cuba to help the new regime to establish the education system. Camila's detachment is with the countries she live in ( she refuses to stay in a decent accommodation, preferring to the attic ; not wanting to be part of the US culturally, deciding to return to Cuba before coming back to her country of birth towards the end of her life) , with the people she has relationship ( Marion , long lasting friend , the painter in Cuba, the White house attendant) , her family ( with her stepmother, her father , the siblings at various parts of the world) and herself ( with the self abandoning way of life).

While the narration is on the mother and daughter, the novel covers the entire family of Urena's ;  mother a famous writer, father, the President of the country ( albeit for 6 months) ,  a famous brother Pedro Henríquez Ureña ( A writer , critic ), daughter educationist and professor. This also covers various countries, Dominican Republic, Cuba ( in exile), France, Mexico, Argentina and US.

To write fiction based on real life people are challenging. On one hand , it has to do justice to the real events and personalities and on the other, it should satisfy the needs of fiction writing. One does not feel bogged down with the historical element and aspect while reading this book, nor does the characters come out and glorify themselves. Interestingly constructed, with one life progresses from childhood and the other from the retirement towards the childhood in reverse chronological order. The history of a turbulent country through the eyes of a poet and a scholar, looking from the feminine angle.

Beautifully written, introspective journey of two celebrated women of Dominican Republic.


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

357 Pages


Monday, November 30, 2009

Ghatikarangal Nilaykkunna Samayam - Subhash Chandran

A devastating earthquake stuck the district of Latur and surrounding districts of Maharashtra on 30th September 1993. Images of destruction and suffering were displayed in various media, to the terror of the readers. There was one image of a watch/clock shop with all the watches stopped at 4:00am, was one of those images still recurring to my mind. Subhash Chandran, combining this image and another news story of a lost child looking for his parents into a beautiful story which carries the name of this short story collection, Ghatikarangal Nilaykkunna Samayam ( when the clocks stops ). The local thief Thukaram, spares the shop with repairs and sells clocks, where he spends his night, from his usual targets. One dreadful night he sees witnesses the fury of the nature as buildings after buildings collapsing, people leaving the towns and villages. Holding one clock which is removed from the rubble of the fallen shop, Thukaram starts his journey. Listening to a soft cry in the destruction, he manages to rescue the young infant. Towards the end of the night he realises that the life beating under his dress ( in the form of pendulam) had ceased and the clock stopped displaying 4:00am, before he along with the lives he rescued descends to the depths of the planet.

I also observed that Death is one recurring presence in every story ( except one, if I recollect correctly) appearing in the form of suicide, murder, natural disaster, dead body etc. Book consists of eight stories, apart from a forward by M T Vasudevan Nair and an excerpt from an interview with the writer.

Subhash Chandran, as observed by M.T.Vasudevan Nair in his foreward, uses the language to his best ability and outstanding effect. Some of the clever use of idioms, the symbols and the structural joining of words are highly effective. However, apart from the main story and another, the rest of the stories in this are very ordinary. Clever use of language and the structure alone does not necessarily give you a good story.

Ghatikarangal Nilaykkunna Samayam ( Malayalam )
(ഘടികാരങ്ങള്‍ നിലയ്ക്കുന്ന സമയം)
Subhash Chandran
D C Books
94 Pages

Friday, November 27, 2009

The House Gun - Nadine Gordimer

"Something terrible has happened" said the messenger on a dreadful night. For Harald ( director of Board in an Insurance Company) and Claudia ( a working doctor of repute), the world is about to change. Their son has been arrested for murdering his friend and house mate, shooting him. Importantly, he has admitted the crime to the police.

Duncan, 27, staying in a cottage of the house in which three of his friends are residing had murdered his friend. His girlfriend, whom he had rescued from committing suicide some time ago, was found making love to the deceased, the previous night. This was cited as the motivation behind the murder. Duncan is now in prison awaiting trial, and Hamilton Motsamai, a black lawyer has been hired to defend him.

As the planning and preparation begin, for the defence of the case, many unpleasant truths are out in the open. Natalia, whom Duncan have rescued and was brought back to life is now not able to bare the weight of obligation. Though she spent her night with Duncan, the relationship is far from what is being called a true love. More over, the house mates among themselves lead a gay relationship, to which Duncan was also a participant until recently. Is this the sexuality and the related jealousy the reason ? Duncan, don't seems to be bothered about the incident of witnessing his lovers love-making to his friend. Hence, it is important to know the real motive, the circumstances that made Duncan to perform the gruesome act despite his nature ( he does not exhibit any tendency towards violence) has to be extablished.

For Harald and Claudia, the trial is on them. They share the guilt along with their son. Apart from being looked at as the parents of a murderer, they also have to endure the process of trial in the court. They seek among themselves and find out incidents which could have made the behavioural changes in Duncan. Parents starts suspecting the upbringing, their love and guidance and their own relationship with their child as well as among themselves. They also have to reconcile to the fact that a black lawyer is going to take up their son's defence, despite their prejudice. There is also debate in the society against 'death penalty' and that decision will also have direct impact on the fortune of their son. As the trial begins, and the curtains of individuals life as well as the social structure opens up. Motsamai, on his part has done a commendable job and manages to reduce the sentence to the least possible in the given circumstances.

This book was written just after the end of apartheid. One should approach this book in that context. The house gun, is a symbol of the larger social issue of lawlessness and violence, prevalent in South Africa. It is also interesting to note the changing social order, with the black lawyer defending the white middle class family. Harald and Claudia have to come out of their usual white middle class background, to accommodate the need to have the black lawyer to save the life of their child, but also have a foster son (albeit for a short period) in the form of Khulu ( one of the house mate and a friend of Duncan) to give them emotional and moral support, through out the period of trial.

Nadine Gordimer's use of language and the style is very good. However, the second part of the novel with the elaborate court room drama , however important it is, was not something I liked. I found this book also testing the relationship at various level. The husband and wife, the lovers, the society and the government, the white and black ; I would say she has walked this delicate path admirably. May not be the best of books by the Nobel laureate,but an important one, nonetheless.

The House Gun
Nadine Gordimer
Penguin Classics
294 Pages
Further Read : , Salon Interview with Nadine Gordimer, NY Times

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ape in the Corner Office - Richard Coniff

Its a jungle out there..

Workplace behavior is a topic for many a books. It is interesting to observe on how we behave in various situations in Office and what drives those behaviour. Richard Coniff , in this interesting book, tell us that most of those traits are carried to us as the part of the evolution. These traits are common in the animal kingdom. Taking us through various examples and relating these characteristics to the animal, mostly to the closest to humans, the Apes tends to exhibit similar characteristics.

The social hierarchy, the power politics, the fear of failure, the need for nurturing and cajoling all are very common in the primates. They also behave to the set patterns of responses, to the order of the society as we do. The intimidation, the need for reconciliation after a spar, the tendency to follow the herd etc., are as prevalent in the other world as it is in the office environment.

Richard Coniff, does his research in an outstanding manner. There are ample references to the business world, to the research world of animals. The references and co-relation are very good. The outcome of reading the book is that, from now on, I start looking at my colleagues and their reactions in a new light. It might also alter few of my won responses. Very easy and entertaining read, with many real life examples ( few on the organisation where I work) and comparisons make this book worth reading.
The Ape in the corner Office
Richard Coniff
Crown Business
341 Pages
Further read : HR Magazine, HBS Review

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Four Plays - Gunter Grass

I havent read any works of Gunter Grass and he is not famous for his plays. Nonetheless, I have this book with me and it had been a while since I read a play. Gunter Grass started his writing career as a poet and a play write prior to his popularity as a novelist. These four plays were written during the 50s , as Germany was recovering itself from the WW II.

Flood: Noah with the help of his co-sister are trying to rescue what is the only valuable he has from the raising flood. His daughter and her boyfriend are on the floor above unconcerned about the events down frolicking and multiplying ( as Noah puts it), waiting for the flood to recede. Still above in the on the terrace are two mice, staying hungry. To this comes Noah's estranged son and his friend, for a temporary relief from rain. Against the natural disaster is where the team trying to cop up with. There is anguish, there is also hope of the stop of rain with receding of flood. 4 pairs are in act against the odds affecting their life. For Noah and his co-sister, it is recovering what they have earned over the years, for Yetta and her girlfreind, it is time to be together, waiting for the sunshine days, for the rat couple it is the survival , for Leo and his buddy, it is the temporary halt from their adventure, to start again from where it began.

Mister, Mister : Loosely based on a serial killer, who gets himself tormented by the innocence of childhood. Cunningly, constructed, moving from scene to scene with Broilin playing his acts of a murderer. It is in front of the youngsters where he is out of his wits, unable to handle the questions of two teenagers.

Ten minute to buffalo, is a short play about two engine drivers, in their stationary wagon, with the illusionary speeding across the landscape.
Wicked cooks, talks about the remedial recipe, to bring back the days of glory of the set of cooks. The Count, is supposed to have the secret. They will go to any extend to get it. They are willing to separate the lovers Sheen and the Nurse to achieve this. All the plotting and planning to get this does not yield result, even after sending the nurse to tender to The count as his lady. But the effort ends with the suicide of the count by shooting himself and the nurse ( presumably, as there were two shots heard !), with only input, that the ingredient of a good recipe, is "experience of a lifetime".

Four absurdist plays from the initial days of the writing career of a prolific author of twentieth century. Typical of plays, use of the minimum use of words, each sentences carry its own power and weight.
Four Plays ( Flood, Mister Mister, Only ten minutes to Buffalo, The wicked cooks)
Gunter Grass ( Translated from German by Ralph Manheim and Leslie Willson)
Harvest Books
289 Pages
Few reviews about the on stage adaptation of these plays ; mister,mister ; flood ; the wicked cooks

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Professional - Subroto Bagchi

Most of the management and career oriented books are originated from the US. While I agree with the ideas in general, they at times differ from the established social and moral point of view in these part of the world. The social environment, the education and upbringing , the moral standards and ethical view points are different from other places and that makes these books irrelevant in these environment.

Subrato Bagchi , co-founder of Mindtree, has brought out a good book, explaining the nuances of being a professional to the young Indian working population. Citing examples from the daily walk of life, and from the field familiar to us, he examines various aspects of a professional behaviour and conduct. Without getting into management or personality development jargons , usually found in such books, this book have a feel of one to one communication. The language is simple and straight forward, easy to understand and the examples are easy to relate to from an Indian context.
However, the book tends to be a bit preachy ( as he himself admit in the foreword ) at times. Besides, the second half of the book reads like a 'business conduct guidelines' of a company.

Very good book for every new professionals, for shaping up their career, and for the experienced peopl ein their respective field to look back and make amends wherever necessary.
The Professional
Subroto Bagchi
Penguin Books India
217 Pages
Rs 399/-
Further read : The Hindu Review

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The immoralist - Andre Gide

Reading classic novels are very different from reading contemporary novels. There are already been many readers and many interpretations of these classics. There are various in-depth study on each of them. Having read the Andre Gide's "The immoralist" , I was going through some of the critics and analytical pieces. To some this is a novel of self-destruction, to some it is about self realisation, to others is about inner and outer journey. It is in effect all of these and more.

Michel send a letter to three of his close friends ( they are friends from their school days) requesting a meeting urgently, to seek help. Three friends reach to help their troubled friend, not knowing what is in store. Michel, thus starts to tell his story over one night. The novel is this story as told by Michel.

Michel, Parisian aristocrat and an scholar, is suddenly orphaned at the death of his father. Forced to marry Marceline, another orphan with no parents or relative, to fulfill the wishes of his father, he found himself with a new wife, whom he does not even know properly, let alone be in love. As is the case with most of them, Michel and his new wife starts their honeymoon journey from Paris, through Marseilles, take a ship through the Mediterranean islands to the Northern Africa. The disaster stuck as Michel is diagnosed with tuberculosis leaving his newly wed wife to tender him. Two individuals forced to marry in a hurry now seek and try to accommodate each other; love is still at bay. She take sympathy of the downtrodden , poverty stricken arab kids , nursing them and offering them food and support, bringing them to the place of their residence. Michel, fall fancy to the good looking young boys and prefer to spend time in their company. He also, manages to go for his walks in order to meet them and bring them to play with. As his health improved, and bored with their nomadic life, they decided to return. One incident involving a drunken carriage driver, where Michel had to intervene and rescue his wife in a personal and public show of his recovery, the realisation of love for his wife comes to him. That day they sleep together, first time after wedding. After returning through Italy and the couple decide to settle in one of their old estate in the country side, far away from the crowd at Paris. Michel take a love towards the agriculture and the estates, getting into the daily routine of the workers and their family. Again he shows his fascination towards the handsome young boys, making every effort to be with them. Marcelene is now carrying and the fatherly responsibilities, make Michel to spend more time with her.

His academic responsibilities , make the couple to move back to Paris. soon, bored with the usual set of visitors, and by his nomadic nature, the couple return back to their country estate. This time, Michel spend more time with the low-lives partaking in their ways of living, sometimes against his own interest. Another disaster stuck as Marcelene had a miscarriage with almost devastated her. It was also revealed that she is in the spell of tuberculosis, caught tending to Michel when he was ill. Now the turn changes, and in order to improve her health, they decides to take the journey back to the tropics. In a reversal of events, they traces back the route, this time Michel taking care of his wife. however, she succumbs to the decease during the journey in Tunisia, leaving Michel with the questions he seek help to get answered.

This book has a lot of similarities to the real life of Andre Gide. The decease, the sale of the estate, the incident with the drunker carriage driver, the journey through northern Africa and the Italian and Swiss towns are all part of his own life. Michel , in this case is a character with questionable qualities. His suppressed homosexuality, his uncomfortable with the people of his own nobility. The ability to relate to people of the lower rung of the society all making him question his own life. He is also a man of contradiction. He wanted to safety and power of the nobility, but also the excitement of living the life of others. His own suspected sexuality, while his obligations as a husband with his wife. His need to excel in the academia with his research papers, but unable to remain there continuing his work and presentations. Micheal is trying to identify his real self, he has a reputation as a scholar and has certain social standing. He has the obligation to behave to those norms, which he he try to unshackle. In the process he looses his wife, his job, his wealth.

Andre Gide, writes a book with multiple possibilities and interpretation. It question the basic belief on morality, sensuality and the way of life. The writing is very descriptive and deliberate. A simple straight forward narrative and a brilliant short novel.
The Immoralist
Andre Gide
( translated from French by Stanley Appelbaum )
Dover Publications
99 Pages
Further Read : Andre ,

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I, The Supreme - Augusto Roa Bastos

I the supreme dictator of the Republic order that on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapitated; my head placed on a pike for three days in the plaza de la Republica, to which the people are to be summoned by the sounding of a full peel of bulls.....

I The Supreme, gives us the story of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, self-professed Dictator for Life of Paraguay ruled from 1814 till 1840 ( until his death). Unlike the usual form of fiction, this is presented in form of dialogues, soliloquies, his writings, entries in notebook, his orders, apart from facts from the journals and other documents. The Supreme, on his death bed, recollects the events of his lifetime as the Dictator for Life of Paraguay, through his rants, memories, his reflections to his long standing secretary Policarpo Patino.
"When I dictate to you, the words have a meaning; when you write them, another. So that we speak two different languages…I want there to be something of myself in the words that you write."

There aren't any violent description on torture, of assassinations or brutal force. There are no dissident voices. There are no glorified propaganda machinery in place. However, the arrogant, all conquering , maneuvering and smart political and military leader is omnipresent. Pages after pages his persona rules the readers mind. You are left with awe and admiration for this cunning and manipulative politician. A compassionate leader, with keen interest in the welfare of the people of the country. Shrewd economical brain, negotiating with powerful neighbours and the foreign traders. Managing a country of the size of Paraguay against the Buenos Aires based Spanish and the Brazil based Portuguese and the Britishers isn't an easy task.

The history and survival of the republic of Paraguay is unveiled through these pages to the reader. The otherside of the person behind the uniform is not revealed much. His dubious past , the uncertainty over his parents ( he even reject the last minute plea by his father to reconcile from his death bed) are mentioned in passing remarks.

One of the outstanding novels I have read this year. Personally, I place this over the other two favourite 'dictator novels' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The text is extremely dense and rich, the narration is in monologues, the conversations are as perceived by the dictator (in continuous writing without any space or linebreaks), the language is dreamy and metaphoric at times. The construction and style demands higher level of concentration from the reader. The large array names and places and the regular use of guarani phrases makes it challenging. Complex novel about absolute power and power of language.

This book was written during the regime of another dictator Alfredo Stroessner, with whom the publication wasn't well received. Bastos, spent a larger part of his life in exile (Argentina and later France), returned only after the fall of Stroessner's regime.
I The Supreme
Augusto Roa Bastos ( translated from Spanish by Helen Lane )
Dalkey Archive Press
424 Pages
More Read : L A Times, , NY Times Article by Carlos Fuentez

Monday, October 19, 2009

The File on H. - Ismail Kadare

This novel by the Albanian master is set in 1930s , the Albania under the rule of King Zog. Two researchers of Irish - US background , Bill Norton and Max Roth, takes up a journey to Albania. The Homeric scholars are in search of the oral tradition of epics, still prevalent in these part of the world. Their mission is to establish facts on the origin of Homers epics, which are now a hot topic in the academic circle. There had been debates in the academia on Homer ; is he the 'poet genius' or ' a compiler or editor' of the existing folk lore and rhapsodies of the region.

Their enthusiasm and eagerness to travel did not go well with the Albanian Authorities. Suspected being spies, the authorities were put on high alert. Albania, under constant troubles with its neighbours, is an isolated and remote country. Every foreign national is looked upon as someone who has come on espionage and was put under constant surveillance. The two scholars were also were monitored.

Along with their arrival at the small town M_, they were watched for every movement of theirs. The 'tape-recorder' , the new invention at that time, they were carrying did not make it any easier for them. There were numerous stories and rumours about the two in the local gossips. As they set about to work, staying in a remote Inn, which is frequented by the travelling rhapsodists, the suspicion grew. Though they were successful in getting many singers for their projects, their eventual debate with a Serbian Monk over the originality and superiority of Albanian Folk Songs over the Serbian ones, lead to the tragic consequences and the abandonment of their visit.

Witty narrative, to the extend of being ridicule, Kadare makes a point to picture the state of his country through this satire. But, whenever the narration is on the project and on the visiting foreigners, it turns very serious and analytical. It also brings out some of the interesting aspect of oral tradition of epics, which I found very similar to what was happening in India. He talks about the highlanders of the Albanian mountains, who preserved the tradition through their poems, it was more structured and taught in India since the Vedic period. The question of attributing the epics to one person is also questionable, as these would have gone through multiple changes generations after generations.

The book is an interesting and easy read. however, the characters lack depths and superficies , barring Daisy, the wife of the local Governor, who fantasise of having an affair with the English speaking foreigner. This may not be the best work of this genius, but an important one, nonetheless.

Ismail Kadare, is a prolific writer, s a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, especially after he was awarded the Man Booker International in 2005. This book was written, after his meeting with Americal Folklorist Albert Lord, who had travelled to the Balkans in the 30s to record and research on Homeric traditions.

The File on H.
Ismail Kadare ( translated from French of Jusuf Vrioni , by David Bellos)
Arcade Publishing
202 Pages
Further Read: David Bellos on translating Kadare.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Diary of a Djinn - Gini Alhadeff

Diary of a Djinn is a story of a woman, leading a wandering life as though directed by a djinn. The narrator ( alter ego of the author ?) was born in Egypt and grew up in Japan and Florence( where she did the schooling). She worked for a design house in Milan before moving to US.

In a rather disjointed narrative, she recollects her early ages, the school days, the life in Milan and New York. In Newyork, where meets Hare, already married, staying aloof. His mother, referred as princess, is suffering from cancer, is undergoing treatment. Befriending her and taking care of her during the course of her treatment, takes up the larger part of her narrative.

I did not see any connection in the overall story and everything sounded isolated. May be that is the intention. I have also failed to connect to the story and needless to say, did not enjoy this read. The book had been praised by many , including Susan Sontag, which prompted me to buy this.
Diary of a Djinn
Gini Alhadeff
Pantheon Books, NewYork
214 Pages
Further Read : NYTimes

Thursday, October 08, 2009

At heaven's gate - Sunil Gangopadhyay

I have read this book years ago, when this was published in Bengali and was translated into my language. The book had impressed me immensely then, and I am left with the same feeling after reading the English translation of the same after all these years.

Sunil Gangopadhyay is one of the prominent living writers in India and is the current chairman of National In. I was told that he is known for his poetry in Bengal than his novels.

At heaven's gate revolves around three characters over one afternoon till the next day. Ranjan , young professional working in a prestigious company in Kolkata , and his beautiful wife Bhashmati ( or Sati as he calls her) are on their annual vacation in a remote country side village in Madhyapradesh. Caught in the rain in the open with no protection and difficult terrain in an unoccupied hill, they were rescued by a nomadic youth Prosenjit, staying in a makeshift tend among the poisonous snake that he catches and sells for living.

Forced to accept his offer to host them for the night, until the fury of the nature subsides and be able to cross the river, the couple spends their night in the hill. They had to accept the pyjama and banian that is offered, the food which is cooked by him and the cot and beddings. Indebted to the young man, Ranjan is determined to make amends, owing to his middle class prejudice. Prosenjit , however has other needs. Unable to take his eyes off the beautiful lady in the temporary dress, insufficient to conceal her beauty. Bhasmati, on her side has to fight the morals and prejudice of a middle class wife, and ensure the safety of their lives, rejecting the unwarranted advances made by Prosenjit. Prosenjit, who does not hide his attraction towards her both verbally and physically, goes to an extend of threatening her with the life of her husband, in order to subdue her to satisfy his lust.
The schemes, plots, and actions by the love deprived, isolated young man and the fights by the young lady to remain within the social and personal moral, while trying to make sure of her as well as her husbands safety, the obligation of the couple to the young man for his help , creates an environment which is very dramatic. As the narration moves from one angle to the other, through out the night and the early next day, each character trying to outlive the challenges in their own way, make this an interesting reading.

To me the book makes an excellent choice for a play ( living room and who is afraid of Virginia Wolf comes to my mind), albeit the rural settings. The conversations and the plots were written very dramatic. The underlying emotions, the untold truths of the relationships between husband and wife, the vulnerability of human at unfavourable conditions , the fight of moral and the fight of lust... there is enough for interpretation. Fantastic short novel, translated amicably by Sanchayita Chatterjee.
At Heaven's Gate ( Shorger Niche Manush )
Sunil Gangopadhyay ( translated from Bengali by Sanchayita Chatterjee)
Rupa Publications
158 Pages
Rs 195
Further Reads : Tribune India Review

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Firmin:Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife - Sam Savage

Somehow, I am not a great fan of literature where an animal is the central character and the narrator. But, the initial reports on this book was good enough inspiration for me to buy and read this book. An intelligent rat, born and lived in a bookstore, having to eat the book for survival, develops a taste for literature. Reading classics after classics, Firmin now develops the intelligence of a human , but trapped in a rat's body. Soon, he find himself to be a misfit among his tribe and forced to live a solitary life in the book store, his heaven and the local cinema where the classic movies are shown 24 hrs a day.

The attempt now is to develop a method of correspondence with humans, like whom he started thinking. Norman shine, the owner of of the bookstore has become his initial admiration. Observing Norman and his clientele, Firmin tries to attract his attention. However, his fondness towards Norman turns into a nightmare, after the attempted poisoning by Norman to get rid of him.

Firmin however, manages to get the attention of a solitary, fantacy fiction writer, who frequent the bookstore. Injured and abandoned on the street, he was rescued by the writer and was looked after by him for a long time, before the tragic demise of him.

In the meanwhile, uptown Boston, where he lives is all set to change. The area has been marked out for urban rebuilding and all those shops and establishment including the book store will have to be closed and removed.
Book is pretty unique in his approach and style. Its funny at times. But, beyond the initial curiosity, I did not enjoy the read. Having said that, this book have been appreciated by lot many readers and critics.
Firmin : Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife
Sam Savage
Phoenix Paperback
232 Pages
Rs 295/-
More read : Telegraph

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The year of Miracle & Grief - Leonid Borodin

Deep in the Siberia lies the second largest , and the deepest lake on earth, called Lake Baikal. When the 12 year old arrives at the small town on the banks of the great lake, when his parents got transferred to the Railway School there, he was amazed and was taken by the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains. Once this initial astonishment yielded to the inquisitiveness of the place, he began exploring the area on his own.

His encounter with the grand old witch Sarma at the high mountains, and the imprisoned Prince Baikolla and his beautiful daughter, is all set to change his life for the next one year in a big way. Through the stories of the young girl, whom he falls in love at his first meeting, the legend of lake Baikal and other places in Siberia reveals to the young boy. Sarma, the old witch, a descendent of the Great Sibir ( from where the name Siberia derived) had the prince Baikolla and his daughter captive , avenging the death of her son, killed by Prince Baikolla while attempting to flee with his daughter. Sarma also destroyed the kingdom, flooding the valley resulting in Lake Baikal. According to Sarma, only the weak and who can not revenge the injustice forgive and did not entertain the request of the young boy to set them free. But, the childish innocence and persuasion worked. Sarma was willing to release the girl on a condition, that the sufferings of her will have to be burdened by the young boy. Smitten by adolescent love and the promise to Prince Baikolla that he will look after the girls well being, he agrees to the conditions. The girl is now with him, in the same class as he is, without any traces of her knowing the past. As warned by Sarma, the young boy is tormented and suffer. Loosing focus on studies, on friends and on himself, the days are passed, until the summertime, when they were expected to part for vacation and his eventual transfer to another school.
Like the great Lake Baikal, the people and surrounding goes through the changing fortunes and moods with the changing seasons. The boy and the ageless Sarma goes through the changes. Nature, is the main character of the tale. The expanse of Lake Baikal, the snow covered plains, the mountains, landslide which catches the boy on its way, are part of the story as the others are.

Mixing the real life and the fairy tale fantasy beautifully, Leonid Borodin develops a place which is vivid in the memory of the readers. Use of the myth and legends and the innocence of a small boy, while retaining the fictional elements, Borodin brings out a nice book. Written as the first person narrative of the boy, the initial excitement, the exploration of lake and the mountains, the witch and fairy tale and the myths and legends of Siberia, it gives a freshness to the reading experience.

Leonid Borodin, like many other writers was sentenced by the regime twice and was sent the prison camps at Siberia , from 1967 to 1973 and again from 1982 for 10 years. His works have been smuggled out of Russia for publishing.

The year of Miracle and GriefLeonid Borodin ( Translated by Jennifer Bradshaw)
Quartet Books
185 Pages
Further Read : NY Times Review

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Rape of Sita - Lindsey Collen

'Once upon a time, there was a woman called Sita'
'So why did you say "Once upon a time" then?'
First and foremost, this is a feminist novel. Not that it stand against it. The book had caused a controversy and was banned within three days of publication for insulting religious sentiments in Mauritius. Sita is the central character in the Hindu epic, "Ramayana" and a divine goddess to many. Using Sita as a metaphor for the universal struggle of womankind, Lindsay Collen has brought out a brilliant book. Sita, in the epic was abducted while she was in exile, by Ravana , and was rescued by Rama in an epic war. Sita has to suffer the humiliation and have to come clean through 'baptism by fire" at the end of the victory, to prove herself.

While this novel has no direct reference to Sita of the epic, some of the characters have names resembling to the epic. Sita's husband in the novel is Dharma ( for Rama) , his brother is Lutchman ( for Lakshman) and the villain of the story ( the accused, is Rowan - for Ravan) and Dharma's father is 'Dasharatha' as in the case of Ramayana. To me, this novel is as appealing without these references to the Ramayana.

Sita, in this tale is tormented by an incident that occurred 9 years ago. She had buried the memories for all the years after deliberating over it for a while. But, all of a sudden, there are sprouts at the buried land. She recounts the time and events that leads to the eventful day and her internal reaction to the same during and after that incident. Though she was able to bury the bad feelings and been able to continue her life, it come back strongly after all these years. Sita is no common woman. She is a political activist (along with her husband), and the leader of the Women's Movement of Mauritius. So has the moral responsibility to be the spokeperson of all the women in Mauritius , in Africa and for the world. As she construct the article, pertaining to rape and humiliation of women, going through case by case, she looks at the philosophical and psychological and social aspects of rape.
Very interestingly, the narrator here, is a man ( Iqbal, the umpire - Iqbal was a man who thought he was a woman) who re-tell the story for Sita. Towards the end, Iqbal himself, is asking the question..
And I once again, intervene. How did they come to this decision, this group of ordinary men and boys? And how did they perform? Did they stand in a queue beforehand? And what did they do afterwards? These are the questions we all have to answer, dear reader, for what if we were one of those men? Would we be among them? Would we be like them? Would we be them? Are we, by any chance, them?

This book brings the novel of Virginie Despentes to mind ( which was published in 1999, 6 years later). Virginie Despentes book is a porno-fiction to me with no substance. Rape of Sita, on the other hand deal the issue at a higher intellectual level. Though at times, these discussions tends to be monotonous and superficial, which is one of the short coming of the novel.
The initial part of the novel before it gets serious on the aspect of rape, is extremely well written. The tales and legends of the people of Mauritius, the various characters of the novel, the history of their ancestors, the freedom struggle and the story of the narrator himself provides a good build up.

A very well 'constructed' book, with some interesting take from the feminist angle.
The Rape of Sita
Lindsey Collen
The Feminist Press @ the City University of New York
232 Pages
Here is an interview with the author discussing the book :

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, a hugely acclaimed novel by Jean Rhys was eluding my list for a long time. Now that I found the new Penguin Classic copy, it was time to pick this up and read. Now, this book is supposed to be a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This novel is an attempt to fill the character viod of Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Here is a comparitive study..

This book was published in 1966, after a very very long gap by Jean Rhys. Her previous works, written between two world wars, are out of circulation. Publishing of 'Wide Sargasso Sea' has lifted her sagging literary career to greater heights.

The novel starts with the childhood days of Antoinette. Slavery was banned in the British Empire, recently. The life of erstwhile slave-owners, predominantly the whilte planters are in disarray. They are looked upon with contempt and distaste. Most of them have left the caribbean and returned to the homeland. Those remained had to cop with the changing social order. They are isolated from the rest of the society and live under pitiable condition. Antoniette's widowed mother, struggle to bring up the kid and accepts to marry a wealthy planter. Soon, she succumbs to mental disarray and was confined to an isolated stay supported by a couple of servants.

Antoniette was married off to a young British, Rochester, for a large sum of dowry. The second part of the novel, set in her ancient estate, goes through the systematic alienation of Antoniette, with Rochester, and the rest of the world. Her attempt to get back with the world , to reconcile, is not yielding any result. This add to the suspicion of Rochester about her mental imbalance, prompted by her so called co-brother in a letter and subsequent meeting with him. Soon, she was taken back to England and was forced to lead a life similar to that of her mother.

Antoniette, who is a creol, is equally unacceptable to the black community ( who call her white cockroach ) and to the whites ( called her a white negro). Her trouble upbringing, with the servents, especially Chrisophine, who believed to be practising obeah (similar to woodoo) and whom Anotoniette approaches towards the end to help her to come out of her current state of affairs, are all lead to the degradation of her mental illness.
Jean Rhys, uses the method of alternating between Antoinette and Rochester. The book has been heralded as one of the first post modern - post colonial novel. While the book is superbly written and the new penguin classic edition is with a 27 page introduction and a detailed afterword, I was missing something. May be I need to read Jane Eyre to fully appreciate this book.
Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Penguin Books
151 Pages ( plus 27 pages of introduction and notes)
Rs 299

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Golden Age - Tahmima Anam

Dear Husband,
I lost our children today

Rehana tells her husband at his grave stone, when she looses the possession of her children, on a court rule. She has been widowed recently, and court and her brother-in-law (who is childless) decides that she does not have the means to look after the kids. They are flown out of Dhaka to Karachi to be with Faiz and Parveen until she has enough money to bribe the judge and for the tickets.

Years passed. For the past 10 years, Rehana celebrates the day of their return among her close circle of friends. Little did she know that the 10th year is going to be the one that change their lives for ever. Within few days, the tanks roll into Dhaka and the 9 month long ordeal of war, separation and suffering begin.

The long struggle for the independence of Bangladesh has begun. Mujibur Rahman has been elected as the prime minister, but the powerful West Pakistan rulers refuses to accept the victory. Mujibur Rahman declares the independence of Bangladesh, and thus the war begin.
'to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?' East and West spoke different languages, followed different religions, lived different lives. West enjoyed political and economic supremacy; East was a poor relation, neglected even during the cyclones and floods that plagued its delta planes. Some kind of fissure was almost inevitable."
The ruling army is on a rampage. Tanks on the streets of Dhaka, destroying and damaging civilians and properties. Her children ( Sohail 19, and Maya 18 ) could not keep themselves away from the happening. The University where they study is the nerve centre of the resistance. There was widespread attack and hindus , especially was targetted ( operation searchlight ). Rehena's tenants ( her only income) Sengupta's decides to leave Dhaka and take refuge in their ancestral village. The vacated house, now become the place of revelutionary activities. Sohail declares his intention to join the resistance, and leave house with his friends to join 'Mukthibahini'. Rehana, too get pulled into the midst of activities in a small way by stitching clothes for the people , storing medicine, providing shelter to the rebels. Sohail comes back one night and let his mother know about his plan to bomb one of the International Hotel, to get the global attention to their struggle. After an unsuccessful attempt, the team return with an injured 'major' whom they leave under Rehana's care. Reluctant at first, Rehana soon develop a bond with the silent 'major' , turning into mutual affection and love. Rehana has some one with whom she can reveals her most hidden secret.
Maya leave for Calcutta to write article and participate in refugee relief. Rehana was also involved in getting the release of the neighbors son-in-law ( a defected military man), to the praise and accolade of the resistance force. All these activities cast shadow on her life and there was constant threat looming over her. He had to flee Dhaka and join her daughter at Calcutta ( returning to her birthplace and to her childhood memories). Spending two months with her daughter in near poverty with a comfort of a refugee, she was actively participated in the relief efforts of the Bangladeshi refugees, where she meets her old tenant Mrs.Sengupta.

The family return to Dhaka as India declares support to the Independent Bangladesh and engaged in a fully blown war with Pakistan, defeating it ending the 9 month long struggle.
"The war will end today. Niazi will sign the treaty and I will walk into the streets. Your daughter will hold my hand. There will be a pressing crowd on the pavement but Maya will elbow us to the front. A boy will sell flags for two taka and every one will wave and crane their necks to see the road. Coloured paper will sail from buildings; fists will wave in the air ; there will be dancing, a man on flute , a woman beating the dhol slung across her shoulder. Someone will think to plug a megaphone to the radio. The roads are flat and dusty ; we are spellbound , love-bound , home-bound , singing 'How I love you , my golden Bengal'. The sky is pale and iridescent and today the war has ended, and today I clutch my flag, hold my breath and wait for our son."
Often, the human side of any struggle are brought out by the fiction. What we hear in the news and what we read written by the historians are only the political truth. There are truths beyond these letters which are often misrepresented or ignored. It is through the literary works one get acquainted with the real issues. To me, this is one of the few literary works I have come across on the independence of Bangladesh ( There might be many written in the local language, which I am not aware of). To her credit, Tahmima Anam, manages to bring the human side of the struggle during the war without getting carried away with historical facts and the war itself.
This is the story of a mother trying to retain her children against all odds. She had lost them once (even if it is for two years) , and she carry the hurt in her for not being able to protect her children. But this time she is not going to let that happen. She had sacrificed many of her personal needs for her children. She has committed many unforgivable deeds for the sake of her children. Her participation in the struggle was also for her children. Her acts of heroics, were driven by the love of her children that the war and independence.
"The war that has taken so many sons has spared mine. This age that has burned so many daughters has not burned mine. I have not let it."

Impressively written book, despite getting carried away on the emotional side occasionally. I haven't read any book by a Bangladesh author, and this may not be the best representation of Bengali Literary tradition. However, this book is worth reading for its attempt to bring about the human side of the war, through the eyes of a mother.

A Golden Age
Tahmima Anam
John Murray Publishers
276 Pages
Rs 295
Further read : Guardian

Monday, August 31, 2009

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf - Edward Albee

Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf , is one gem of a piece. Very powerful and emotional, extremely disturbing at the same time. A play in 3 acts over one night among two couple, one middle aged and the other young. Nick and Honey comes to the house of George and Martha as guests one night, after an evening party hosted by Martha's father and the owner of the institution where George and Nick works. As the night grew over them, and the alcohol consumption, the game of humiliation and insult and the internal struggle among the families are brought forward in all its dirty form. As it takes turn from one participant to the other to be the victim of the hour, bringing people to the verge of breakdown and physical abuse. A night long battle, betrayal , confrontations and mental torture makes every one exposed , and reconcile as the day break upon them.

Both Martha and George has to let out their accumulated bitterness of life. They both carry a huge burden of their past. Martha, a fathers daughter, grown up without her mother. Every attempt of her life to come out of the influence of her father failed. A failed first marriage, the compromise marriage with George who is six years younger to please her father and her subsequent failure in realising George to challenge her father. She wanted George to be smarter, take the reign of her fathers empire, to stand up to her father. To her disappointment, George failed to grow to that stature. Their inability to conceive and have children, which is her last resort in settling with her father only adds to the pain. George on the other hand has his on baggage to get rid off. His parents are died ( I killed them , he says) when he was young. Taking the moral responsibility of the death, he even writes a novel with this as a theme, only to be ridiculed and trashed by his father-in-law. His emotional and physical impotency plays a major role in his relationship with his wife and the world. In the end he invents a "son" for them and kills him in an accident as he has written in his novel, to decisively conclude the issue of potency and child with his wife and to succumbs to the fate. Even under this circumstance, we can see the glimpses of the fondness and affection between them surfacing often.

I cry alllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And George cries all the time, too. We both cry all the time, and then, what we do, we cry, and we take our tears and we put 'em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they are frozen and then...we put them ... in our drinks.

The insult and abuse does not spare anyone. In the second act, it turns towards Nick and Honey, exposing them with the bitter truth of their life. The story of Nick and Honey is not very different. They too are fighting the battle of of their own. Honey doesn't want a child but to remain a child herself. They know each other from childhood, and eventually marry each other. As the act progresses, they too comes out vulnerable and unhappy over the turn of things. They are not only witnessing the war between the other couple, but the're witnessing their own future unfolding.

This is one play with multiple interpretation possible. It could be a family drama or anger, frustration and despair, where the hidden feelings are brought to the open by the situation. There was also one interpretation here comparing it to the cold war era, the stand off between US and USSR. One of the idea could be to bring out the conflicts, turmoil, hope and despair of the people, hidden beneath their appearance, thus giving them the relief. At the end, as everyone is bruised and battered, the life opens to a new dawn.

One fantastic book, and regret not giving enough of my reading time on plays over the years.
Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf ?
Edward Albee
Pocket Books
242 Pages
Here are two superb essays on this book by Bill Johnson and Shirley Galloway

Friday, August 28, 2009

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door ; the TV is always on in the other room. Tell the others right away" No I dont want to watch TV... I'm reading. I dont want to be disturbed"

Ok, all set. Let us begin... Hey, there is a mix up. The second chapter of the book is not in continuation, but a repeat of the chapter one. Its seems to be misprinted. Reader, you have to go back to the bookshop and get a replacement. Well, you are not alone, there is another reader, a young lady with the same request. The book seller admits, that there was a issue from the printers. What you have read was from a Polish writer. You get your replacement book, is an entirely different story and you want to discuss this with your co-reader. On this pursuit, you tumble upon various books in the form of printed matter, manuscripts or translation. Each discovery leads to another, moving from the first chapter of one novel to another , from writers of one country/continent to other. You are not alone, the girl, with whom you form an alliance, to a level of falling in love with her. People associated with the novel and publishing industry are all part of this journey. The book seller, who gives you one misprinted book after other, the publisher who adds to the confusion with yet another set of manuscripts, the university professors of various language department fighting for the ownership of the book and writer, the translator who not only controls the outcome of the novel, but also indulge in fake literature in the name of translation ( which he operates in a different country), the writer himself reclusive, worrying about the reader ( and his interest) and the other writers ( to a point of jealousy) . There are also authorities trying to put clamp on literature by banning the books, confiscating and arresting the reader who carries the book, by circulating fake books instead of the original translation.

In ten chapters, you ( or the reader ) goes through the experience of his life time with the complexities of the books, reading, writing, translating and publishing quagmire. A post-modern novel by one of the masters of 20th century literature, is a demanding read. Switching between the protagonists experience of reading and seeking, the resulting first chapters of various novels in varying style, Italo Calvino creates a world of frustration, intellect and admiration to the readers. Each of the ten pieces were brilliant in its own way, modelled around some of the well known literature available at that time. Brilliant satire on the publishing industry and the various genre of literature writing.

It isn't an easy read. It does demand the readers attention and time. It takes a while, before you start getting a grip of things. After that, it had been an interesting and unputdownable read. A clever novel demands a second read in the near future; I don't think I could understand everything what Italo Calvino has to convey.

We are discussing this master piece at length in our book group. You can read them here.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Italo Calvino ( translated from Italian is William Weaver )
Wintage Books
260 pages
Read More : Matt.Todd

Friday, August 21, 2009

Snakepit - Moses Isegawa

" We all have things to regret; it is the human condition, General. Maybe you more than I. I have one rule in life: I don't look back. That is how I have survived to reach this age. Somebody blasts me, I blast back. If I don't, I have myself to blame. If one day you become president, send a whole battalion of your sharpshooters to arrest me. If you send boys, I will kill them all, and you wouldn't want to begin your reign with burials, would you? "

It is the common story of all the countries under military dictatorship. We have heard similar stories in many forms. The actions are the same, only the name and country differ. Military coup, followed by mass murder, exodus, violence, loot, abduction, missing civilians, torture, rebellion, which invariably ends ( or restarts) with yet another coup.

Uganda was in the forefront of the news in the 70's and for the notorious ruler called Idi Amin. Arguably one of the most murderous of the rulers in the second half of the 20th century ( 3,00,000 to 5,00,000 people were afraid to have been killed during his regime).

Moses Isegawa, an Ugandan born writer, takes us through the Uganda during the 8 year old regime. This is not a recollection of historical event, but a novel set at these times. Bat Katanga, newly graduated from Cambridge returns to his homeland in search of job and fortune, to serve the new regime. He believed, that the newly emerging Uganda is more lucrative for his career to the safe havens of west. It took less than a week for him to land in a dream role under the ministry of power controlled by General Bazooka. A government mansion on the lake side, envious sports car, a powerful job , he had all that one looks for early in life. Soon, his name was the talk in the higher circle , for his efficient way of handling the business, his intelligence and dedication. Other ministries was in need of him, permanently or on a short term assignment. The pride of General Bazooka, soon become his worry. Victoria, a close confidante of General Bazooka was soon entrusted with a task of shadowing him and tracking him. Victoria and Bat soon fallen for each others charm, and 'barren' lady become the mother of Bat's child.

But the situation is not all that safe for General Bazooka. Once the second in command, the right hand man of Marshal Amin, is now not in favour of the Marshal. A British mercenary called Robert Ashes, had better access to the Marshal, and was given the all important role of anti- smuggling unit , taken away from General Bazooka. Robert Ashes influence of Amin is increased day by day, so is the power struggle and rivalry between him and General Bazooka. Each fought a proxy war of abducting and torturing, each others men.

Bat's relationship with Victoria soured after the entrance of Babit to the scene. Soon, Victoria was thrown out of the house, replacing her with Babit. In the power struggle between the General Bazooka and Marshal Amin, Bat is taken as prisoner for his alleged involvement in corruption in an equipment deal involving Saudi Royal family. While the detention and torture continued, Bat gets his release after 6 months, after the intervention by his friend, a member of British Parliament, giving a moral victory to Robert Ashes.

"How does it feel to be back?" the Professor asked.
"Feels like f***. I dont have a job to wake up to, no home, no guards. I am a bit afraid of soldiers now. I am a bit afraid of you. I am a bit afraid of myself. It is great, isn't it?"
The situation turns worse in Uganda, after Bat's brother aligned himself with the revolutionaries, and start bombing key locations and blowing up the cars of prominent people, including that of the wife of General Bazooka. Victoria has her revenge by sending people to kill Babit. Though caught and tried under civilian court, she was left free with the intervention of General Bazooka. As the unrest increased in the country, General Bazooka sets the trap for Robert Ashes, partially succeeding. Though he could not finish his rival as planned, Robert Ashes escaped the attempt and flee to South Africa, settling in his farm. General Bazooka too ends his life after he lost his wife and children ( disappeared without trace), while the fearsome Marshal Amin leave the country and new regime takes control.

This is not a story of Amin, not a story of Bat Katanga or about General Bazooka. It is the Uganda in the 70s under Idi Amin, and all these characters are replica of the real events that might have happened there. That is the positive and the short coming of the novel. While the author is able to portray the life of fear and uncertainty, keeping the reader on the edge, the fragmented narration moving from one character to another ( as the centre of action) does loose the continuity or flow in the story. For a while the story was around Bat and his experience, soon taking it on the power struggle between General Bazooka and Robert Ashes , into the fortune teller Dr.Ali and Marshal Amin.

Action packed, horror filled tale told in crisp pace and fluid use of language. Marshal Idi Amin is an omnipresent figure in the story ( rarely appearing himself) but the rest are characters derived/adapted from real life people. Very powerful, dark and intense novel of Uganda portrayed brilliantly.

Moses Isegawa
Alfred A Knopf, Publisher , NewYork
259 Pages
Read More : Complete Review, New York Review of Books