Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Balthasar's Odyssey - Amin Maalouf

Year 1666 is speculated as the "year of the beast". Jews, Christians and Muslims have their own theories and fears about the imminent end of the world. However, one of the answer seems to be in the mysterious book titled " The hundredth name", which legends says reveals the name of the GOD unknown to people, that can save the humankind from the imminent apocalypse. Balthasar Embriaso, 40 year old widower of Genovan origin, a curios and books dealer at Lavantine town of Gibelet, takes us through a journey for over an year in pursuit of the book. Balthasar, had the book for a brief period before being forced to sell the same to the emissary of the King of France. Though Balthasar doubts the authenticity of the book, every one who laid hand on this book , seems to have gone through some mysterious fates. Idriss, the old man who handed over the book to him, was found dead the next day. The emissary who took the book to Constantinople with him was ship-wrecked. But that did not stop him from chasing the book. The eventful journey, thus begun from Gibelet , to Tripoli , Allepo, Constantinople, Genova , Lisbon, London and France before he come back to Genova.
Balthasar document his experiences and his feelings in his note books ( 4 journals abandoned at various places) and through this he narrates the happening of the eventful year. He befriends various people during his journey and these form the various sub-plots of the book. There are Jews, captains of the ship, a prince from Persia , a Genovan aristocrat, a lady shop owner in London , each with their on views and idea adding to the story of the end of the world.
Martha, a village lady from Gibelet, whose husband is at large since their wedding joins them in the journey. Balthasar, being forced to introduce her as his wife ( a clever ploy by his nephews?) , slowly gets attracted to her. His effort to end her misery by obtaining the document which sets her free to marry him takes a beating after they find her husband. He is crest fallen and was deported to Genova leaving the nephews and his assistant at Smyrna. His efforts to locate the book materialises at London, but every time he opens the book to read, his health deteriorates and he become temporarily blind. The misfortune did not end, as London is now under fire. As the city streets are burning, Balthasar escapes from London, and comes back to Genovo, towards the end of the year. Though the World did not end, 1667 brings a new beginning to the life of Balthasar after an eventful year. He will start a new life in his ancestral city.
The novel is about his quest to retrieve the book, as he travels from place to places on the Mediterranean cost and to places as far as London and France, over a period of 16 months. Interesting read, with many sub-stories and incidents to spice up the journey. There are many characters portrayed in this book, who come in with their own religious views ( some extreme and some moderate and intelligent) and vanishes without any trace. There are other important characters, like his nephews and Martha, who too are given a very odd treatment in the book. Barring that, he maintain the interest of the reader through out the journey. Notwithstanding , few narrative shortcoming, this book is very good and a captivating read.
Balthasar's Odyssey
Amin Maalouf ( translated by Barbara Bray)
Vintage Books
391 Pages
Further read : NY Times , Guardian

Monday, January 19, 2009

Death Etc. - Harold Pinter

Death Etc. , is a collections of his previously unpublished works. Contains few of his speeches, few short plays and few poems. His speeches and an open letter to The Prime Minister are very open and clear in his criticism against the US and British governments and the war in Iraq.

Almost all of the poems in this book are on the Iraq war (first and second), and he uses very blunt and hard hitting language. These are political poems and thus aren't of any great poetic values.
Few samples;
Well, there was no problem.
All the democracies
(all the democracies)
were behind us.
So we had to kill some people.
S what ?
Lefties get killed.
Just kill them.
Well,my wife wanted peace.
And so did my little children.
So we killed all the lefties
to bring peace for our little children.

(from The old days )

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
Praise the lord for all good things.
We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.
(from American Football)
There are few plays, which are pretty interesting. The common theme in all of them are on the atrocities committed by those in power and the helplessness of the common man. Naturally, its the 'power' does all the speaking, and the victim is 'silenced' in most of the time, barring few feeble one liners of submission.

Its a good read if your political views are in line with that of the writer. Otherwise, its another rhetoric against the war on terror. But it does, confirm to his style of writing and his convictions.

Death Etc

Grove Press , New York
125 Pages
Rs 380
Further read : Timeout review

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Crossroads - Niccolò Ammaniti

Niccolo Ammaniti, in his latest book "The Cross Roads" , portray a disturbing picture of the present day Italy. Heralded as the new voice of Italian Literature, this is the third book being translated to English, and the first book that I have read, of this writer.

Rino Zena, lives with his son Christiano, does odd jobs at a construction site and is an alcoholic with inflammable temperament. His other friends Danilo Apera , a middle aged divorcee ( wife leaves him after the tragic death of their daughter-chocking on a shampoo bottle cap) and Corrado Rumitz ( called as Quattro Formaggi after his favourite food), crippled after a huge electric shock, where he is almost electrocuted . The three some are contemplating a plan to rob a bank and to live a life of their dreams.

The story converge on one dreadful night. "It had only taken one night and everything has changed", Quattro Formaggi remembers the eventful night. Their meticulous planning of the act of robbery takes a setback as the region is flooded and the storm that hit the region has taken every thing out of control. The river is flooded, trees are uprooted, roads empty and the rain is relentless. Ideally, or in a filmy style , this is the best day for such an act. As Danilo waits for Quattro Formaggi, and Rino having second thought on the whole plan waiting for his companions to come over, preparing his excuse to differ the action, there is a gruesome murder takes place at the woods. Quattro Formaggi, driven by the image of Ramona, an actor from the American porn movie, attempts rape on Fabiana Ponticelli, a beautiful girl high on drugs and alcohol returning home from her friend's house. His inability to carry out his wishes ( as he visualised as in the porn flick) and the shame of his impotency gets him to commit the murder breaking her skull with a stone. Frightened and shocked by his act, he calls Rino for help. Blame it on the fate, Rino suffers brain haemorrhage while attempting to clear the body, collapsing at the same site, however manages to call his son just before getting into coma. Quattro Formaggi, fled the scene, worried, but quite relieved. Christiano, Rino's 13 yr old son manages to take his father home and calls for medical help, while managing to keep the dead body disposed in the swollen river. The Danilo, in the meantime grow desperate over the delay, sets of to do the robbery on his own, meeting a horrible death by crashing his vehicle to the wall.

The situation is now tense. The only person who can explain the story apart from the murderer is Rino, who is in coma in the hospital bed. Christiano thinks its his father who has committed the crime. The only person he can go to is Danilo, who is not taking his calls. There is also a Social Worker, who is working on Christiano's well being. He too goes through an eventful night. After an illicit affair with his friends wife, he hits an African migrant worker on his way back, almost killing him. His quick pact with God, seems to show result as the person lying on the road shows signs of recovery and miraculously gets up and escapes to the unknown.

While the story is about the adultery, rape, murder and cruelty, I guess , Ammaniti is trying to portray something beyond this. To me the highlight is the alienation of the individual from the society and the fragile family life. Each of the characters suffer from the rejection of their beloved. Rino is staying with his son, Danilo's wife is deserted him and stays with the owner of the shop where she works, Quattro Formaggi has his own frustration, and take refuge on porn movies. There is also the attractions to be rich, for those fancy cars , spending in shopping malls, as done by the rich. Christiano, in one spur-of-the-moment, takes a knife and flattens the bike tyre of one of the rich kids, an action he does not find any valid reasons for doing so. He accepts the repercussions without any ill feeling.

Having said that, the novel spent and focussed too many pages on the events of the night. The overall appeal of the book with respect to the build up take a back seat and the event and its descriptive nature seems to take control. "It wasn't me. It was God. I didn't want to do it, truly I didn't...It was God who made me do those things. It's nothing to do with me." as Quattro Formaggi, confesses to himself towards the end, the novel seems take its own course, as if driven be an external force. I read elsewhere that the book's Italian title is "Come Dio Commanda " roughly translated as ,"As God Commands". May be that explains it. However, there are elements of warmth and comradery among the tough, abrasive behaviour which the characters exhibit. Rino's only purpose of living is to provide better future for his son. He comes about as a loving father at heart. So is Danilo, living on the hope that one day he will be able to open a lingerie show room for his wife, and will live with her again.

Very contemporary book, depicting the current state of affairs in the modern Italy. Very detailed and very visual writing of events, mixed with sly humour, with subtle underlying soft emotions of the characters who project a rough exterior. An easy fast paced read, with very lively characters ( including those with passive participation), makes this book a good read. That makes the book different from the other so called 'thrillers'.
The Crossroads
Niccolò Ammaniti ( Translated by Jonathan Hunt)
Canongate Books
406 Pages
Further reads : FT , Guardian , Lizzy

Monday, January 05, 2009

Esther's Inheritance - Sándor Márai

"Lajos is coming back !" , Esther shouted to Nunu, the old help , who is nursing the plants in the garden. She received a telegram from Lajos, the "only man she has ever loved", announcing his return after twenty years.
"We will arrive in a car, ther will be five of us" the telegram continued."We'll stay till the evening".

Lajos, was introduced to the family by Esther's brother Laci, who were friends and classmates. Soon, the entire family had fallen for his charm, despite his habits of treachery. Esther was the only person resisted his influence for some time, before falling in love with him. However, the turn of the events saw, Lajos marrying, her sister Wilma for reasons not known to her ("maybe because she was prettier, maybe because that day the wind happened to be blowing from the east") . The marriage was short lived, when Wilma died after the birth of the daughter. Soon after, Esther leave that house and come back to stay in her ancestral house along with Nunu.

Anticipation and preparation for his visit is on. Laci, Endre and Tibor( other friends and associates), all of them are victims of his dubious game earlier. Lajos, and everyone who are associated with him, life became a dangerous, exciting adventure.
"he was indebted to everyone in some way, with money, with promises, with oaths! He is coming back to face the past.."

Esther is very clear of his intentions and was prepared for the same. Even though she suspect she might be sounding happy to others after the news of his arrival, she checks her actions and keep her composure. "I knew Lajos had come because he had no choice, and that we were welcoming him because he had no choice, and the whole thing was terrifying, as unpleasant, and as unavoidable for him as it was for us."

Lajos, is a big show man. He makes his appearance dramatic and the rest of the day is staged to a preplanned design. " People don't turn away from Lajos, because his little shows are full of surprises that he himself enjoys but does not prepare. Even now, in the very moment of his arrival, he was directing, presenting, and speechifying with transparent pleasure. "

It was after the lunch when the much anticipated meeting takes place. Lajos has meticulously planned the whole thing. He sent his daughter first, before appearing by himself in front of Esther. He apologises, admits his lies and broken promises, pleads guilty, blame her for not being courageous enough, wants her to be his moral compass.. Esther plays along, but makes him aware that she is not falling to his games , as she says:
" There are times I think you're an absolute genius..the genius of lies. All the time I know you are lying, that you have always lied, right from the first moment. Your life has been one long lie. I dont even believe in your death: that will be a lie too. Oh yes, you are a genius all right."

But the visit has to have a purpose , " I have a demand. You must come away with me, with us." Was it as simple ? No.

Written in 1939, this is the fourth book to be made available in English by this awesome Hungarian author. For those who have read the earlier works, this is similar to Embers and Casanova in Bolzano. Those dramatic set up, return of a long lost lover, friend or acquaintance, the lengthy verbal dual, the unexpected ending all there. As this article talks about, for Sandor Marai, the novel is a stage, each characters are performers fulfilling their role as a theatre artist.

There was no suspense maintained here. It was made clear at the beginning of the novel that "he came and robbed me". There was no clear reason for the actions of the participants. They are all seems to be playing along to complete the pre-determined out come.

As said earlier, a strong resemblance to the Embers and Casanova in style of writing ( "The rebel" was a bit different from a narrative style) and similar construction. Though not as great when compared to Embers, I liked this novel as well.

Esthers's Inheritance
Sandor Marai ( Translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes )
148 Pages
Rs 673.20
Further read : Complete Review , L A Times

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hardboiled & Hardluck - Banana Yoshimoto

Few years back, I have read "Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto. Happened to notice this short book in one of the local sales and have picked it up as she is considered one of the new faces of Japanese Literature.
Two short novellas compiled into a small book. Hardboiled, A 'ghost' story , where the nameless protagonist experiences the presence of her now deceased room mate and girlfriend, on her first death anniversary in her dreams, and a face to face interaction with a ghost in the ill fated hotel room on the same night. The narrator find herself walking on the mountain roads, where she realises the spot when she had dropped her girlfriend a year back, on her request, post her decision to move out of the common house to stay on her own. As she realises that this day is the death anniversary of her friend, the various events happening to her on that day , including her trip to the mountain roads and the local inn where she stays that night, gets clearer to her. The story ends after the eventful night where she goes through the nightmares and returns back. It is an interesting subject for a story, it did not appeal to me much at the end.

In hardluck , again the protagonist, coming to terms with her sisters medical conditions ( she is in coma with brain dead, life being extended with the supporting devices). Her sister has been engaged to a young man, who on knowing the current status, refuses to come and visit his fiancee in the hospital and leave the town to stay with his parents. However, his elder brother, takes interest in this case and visits the hospital regularly to the initial displeasure of the family of the sick person. Our lady, the protagonist, develop a stronger sense of companionship with the new man, while keeping guard to her sister in hospital in her last days as her family comes to terms with the eventuality of the death. As it happens in every disaster, there is an increased level of closeness among the survivors. Slightly better story compared to the first with certain emotional and relationship undertones.

In both the stories, the central character is a nameless young woman, who is coming to terms with the loss of something close to her. Both the stories are grim, of internal disarray and coping with the personal tragedies. Death is the common factor in both, in one she is trying to get over with loss of her close friend, while in the other she is trying to overcome the imminent death of her sister and confidante with the external support.

Reading two books might not give me the authority to judge her calibre as a writer. However, I should say, I have found them pretty ordinary.
Hardboiled & Hardluck

Banana Yoshimoto ( translated by Michael Emmerich )

148 pages

Purchased in a sale for Rs30 !
Read more: Interview with the translator