Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Life's Music - Andrei Makine

Scene one: You ( the narrator) are waiting in a railway station at a distant Siberian town, waiting for the train to Moscow. It is snowing heavily , in the vast expanse of Siberia including the station. There is an announcement that the train is delayed by 6 hrs. There is nothing to do, but watch the fellow citizens in the station , a cross section of Russian society, whom we call homo sovieticus , citing an exiled Sociologist Aleksandr Zinovyev.
Slowly, in the coldness and the wetness, while every thing else is at a standstill you hear a soft music through the air. There is something in this music, some melancholy , reminiscence something lost, which attracts you. You don't realise that your legs are already taking you towards the origin. You cross the platform stepping over those travellers sleeping crisscross on the platform, climb the wooden staircase, open the door silently as not to disturb the person and peep in. The place is dimly lit, all you can see is the silhouette of an old person against an old wooden piano. The light reflected off the snow is flashing on the old face. You move closure to the person producing this beautiful music. His fingers are thick and does not resemble to that of a musician. His movements are clumsy. He is so immersed in music and two streams of tears are rolling down his cheek. You don't want to disturb him ,and retract back to the door. But in the dark, you stumble upon something and the noise interrupts the flow. You are so embarrassed and apologetic, so is the old man. He too is waiting for the train.

Scene two : Young Alexei Berg is walking down the road of the mill, proudly looking at the poster of a young man in his twenties. The poster is announcing his piano concert in the same premises in a week. The poster is transparent, as it is wet by last nights rain, and he can see through, the previous poster. He remember the days when his parents at the same place with their theatre troupe.
Alexei and his parents have just come out of one of those terrible period of their life, which lasted 3 year. They had to endure the wrath of the authorities, for no apparent reasons, and was living an isolated life, fallen out of favour with all. The life is just coming back to normal and the untouchability is removed slowly and they have been accepted as regular citizens. However, it did not last long. On the eve of his maiden performance, as he returned from his rehearsal, one of his neighbour crossed his path and murmured to him, that 'they are already there' and don't go home.

Alexei flees to Ukraine to his uncle and lived hiding for some time before Russia was invaded and attacked by Germans. Leaving the hiding post, Alexei walk around the battlefield, and join the army using a false identity of a fallen soldier. Post the war, working as the driver of a wartime General, he was the attraction of the general's daughter, who wanted to teach him to play piano. On the engagement party, having introduced as a student learning from the would be bridegroom, he was asked to present what he had learnt from her. His better sense fail and the result was being caught and sent to Siberia.

His multiple attempts to sneak back to Moscow was a failure and was forced to live the majority of his life in a place "where 12 months are winter and the rest spring".

As the train reaches the city of Moscow, the story of an unusual endurance and un-fulfilled life's journey has been revealed to the narrator and to the reader. The novel ends with a music concert, with the readers 'camera' focused on Alexei, sitting in the last corner seat lost in music and in himself.

This is one of the best novels I have read this year. Spanning a mere 100 odd pages, it has magic of writing in every pages. Very poetic, very intense style of writing. Very rich in imagery and emotion. The writing and description is very picturesque as if we are watching a movie.
Gem of a novel. Highly recommended.
A Life's Music
Andrei Makine ( Translated by Geoffrey Strachan)
Spectre Paperback
106 Pages
(bought in a sale)
Further Read : The Guardian , The telegraph , Sydney Morning Herald , Andrei Makine

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Victoria - Knut Hamsun

At the first read, this is another tragic love story, set in the predictable surroundings. A poor miller's son with his childhood infatuation on the rich girl from the Manor. Love, separation, play act of flirtation and indifference, tragedy in life and the eventual death of one of them, writing a farewell letter. It all seem too familiar love story with a tragic end.

However, this short novel is considered a master piece and one of the best love stories told. Knut Hamsun , arguably the best writer from Norway ( after Ibsen), has written a rather simple love story ( in 1898 ) immediately after his marriage. He has named his daughter , born in 1902 , Victoria.

Johannes, son of a mill owner, and Victoria , daughter of the rich land owner lead a life of unfulfilled love. Hewas destined to love Victoria from a distance. The class system does not allow them to be together. Johannes leave his village to study in the town, but the love for his beloved follows him. Smitten, he starts writing poetry and novels. Soon become a famous writer with international repute. Victoria, on her part continue to torment him with hot and cold response. She even manages to invite him to the castle to a party, despite his class difference and honour him with praise in public. The manor and its people are now with dwindling fortune and to protect themselves from ruins her father decides on her engagement with the son of a rich lord. But the luck was against them , the young man die hit by a bullet during a hunting expedition. The tragedy completes with her father immolate himself and Victoria succumbs to cancer at a young age.

While it is another tragic love story what makes the book different from the usual love stories is in the expertise of Knut Hamsun in handling his characters and the portrayal , its lyrical prose and its unassuming simplicity. There is a subtle melancholy through out. None, Vicotia , Johannes and others are happy. They are continuously hurting themselves and each other.

Knut Hamsun ( Translated by Oliver Sallybras)

Rupa Publications

170 Pages

Rs 195
Further read : Damien Kelleher

Saturday, April 18, 2009

African Psycho - Alain Mabanckou

"I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29", declares Gregoire Nakobomayo as the narrator in this "American Psycho" inspired novel from the young Congo-Brazzaville born author. Gregorie, small time car mechanic , a petty criminal and a wanna be killer is trying to emulate what his idol Angoualima a legendary serial killer, to clean the street from the bad elements.
His routine visits to the grave of his idol, and his small attempts of criminal activity does not get him to the league of Angoualima. He has only ideas and plans, but none , barring few petty cases, gets him where he wanted to be , to the displeasure of his idol. Hence the decision to do something big. To kill his girlfriend, who satyed with him during the last couple of months, and he believes, she is one of those girls of the street.
The story also takes us through his troubled childhood, where he had been an adoptive child to various family, each time he runs away. The author also takes us through the criminal records and the end of Angoualima, his idol. He make a fool of himself in every attempt to be a villain, be it an attempted murder, rape , rob or whatever he does. The D Day has arrived and the preparation is at its peak. But the girl does not return home at night, spoiling his party. The next morning report on TV carry the news of the murder of the girl, and who could have done this ?
My first impression of this book was very negative. I do not see any compelling story in it. Every thing is loosely held. The characterisation is not strong and is not convincing. More apt for a short story, dragged to 164 pages with some flash back of Angoualima and the his child hood memories.
The attempted humour and the satirical take on the press etc are interesting, but not seems to be making any impact. The use of the names like , He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot and sort also making it rather puneasy to read. I am sure he was attempting to write a satire, if not the book is extremely disturbing with the crime scene, the corruption and the other social destruction of values.
I think I have taken this book quite seriously. If I remove the literary pretensions , and look at it again, then it is a simple witty narrative, with a social satire. If you are able to laugh at the protagonist along with the author, this is not a bad work of fiction. Having said that, I am sure he has got potential and as this profile in FranceToday tells us, he has written more acknowledged books.
African Psycho
Alain Mabanckou ( translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley )
164 Pages
Rs 395
Further read : Book Slut, Wordswithoutborders , NY timeout

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book on Prof Vazhakunnam

The history of organised magic in Kerala is very short. Though we have enough legends and folklore about various forms of magic, this as a developed art form has taken ages before the current genre of performers. Professor Vazhakunnam as he was popularly known was the father figure of the Magic in Kerala. With his on the spot improvisation, with his quick, short & simple delivery, his natural ( for a Namboodiri) humour and the unassuming style all had contributed to his legendary success in the major part of the 20th century.

Njayath Balan is famous for his biographies of some of the most popular Kathakali masters such as Sri Ramankutty Nair and Kalamandalam Gopi, has attempted another on the life of Professor Vazhakunnam. Sadly, all he has managed to gather and compile was the already known and in circulation legends about Professor Vazhakunnam. Barring the initial pages, where he has attempted to get some information of his initial learning days and his interest in the science of elephants ( he was supposed to be an expert in Matangaleela , a knowledge he used notoriously in causing trouble and disturbances and later controlling by himself. He had to stop practising it by his father on a pledge). Most of the stories and incidents narrated here are part of the already popular legends and there was no authenticity ( I am not questioning the purpose of the stories or the effectiveness of the myths & legends).

If one is claiming this to be a biography, a bit more effort should have gone in the preparation and presentation. This book falls short of the promise, or the subject it is capable of delivering what Njayath Balan is capable of.
Vazhakunnathinte manthrikalokamNjayath Balan
D C Books
68 Pages
Rs 40

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Road - Carmac McCarthy

Post apocalyptic time , in USA , a father and his young son, walks through the ruins across America, towards the south coast. As they cross the mountains, the plains, the deserted cities, fighting their own personal tragedies, the few left over scavengers in a world where all the living creatures have disappeared. There are no foods, there are no cloths, just a pistol to defend ; the nature is hard , it snows and rains relentlessly, ashes sprays across the landscape in wind. '

Where are they heading ? To the coast, to south.. from the cold and breezy winter to the warmth of the south and sea beach. They cant stay at a place, fearing other 'still surviving' people ( however rare it is), who would do anything for a piece of meal , a piece of cloth, including cannibalism. So, they walk , confiding in each other. Talking to each other in mono syllables, telling stories of the good time, all the while looking for a place to shelter , avoiding the roads and potential places of danger ( of meeting fellow travelers). They have to eat whatever is found on the way, often breaking into abandoned houses , department stores. Their conscience prick them. They need to console themselves that it is natural and not unethical. They keep reassuring themselves that they belong to the "Good People" and there are good people remaining in this world. The boys mother, unable to endure this gruelling time, ends her life before the story begin.

The journey continue until they reach the coast. What next, where do you go now ? There don't seems to be any escape out of this. The writer does not give any false hopes. The father coughs and coughs blood, and the tragedy is imminent. There is only a belief that the world is not over yet and there will be 'few good people' among the survivors.

An absorbing tale of the aftermath of the tragedy that hit the planet. The author does not get into the details of the disaster. What matters is the scary , gray and dusty days after the event. While this has been an absorbing and shocking read, I found it a bit repetitive in the middle as they move from one incident to another ( kind of "well, what next" feeling). The narration is simple, unattached and clear. No exaggeration of events, no glorification of the pathos and struggle. But it does leave a lasting impression on you. An impression of fear, of helplessness, of eternal hope of goodwill. McCarthy's prophetic novel is successful in creating the necessary shock to the readers. Brilliant stuff.

The Road
Carmac McCarthy
307 Pages
Rs 237
Further read : NY Times