Friday, July 31, 2009

The same sea - Amos Oz

Amos Oz, Israeli novelist, brings out a beautiful book of love, abandonment, old age, seduction in a very peculiar and interesting way. Albert Danon, nearing sixty, recently widowed ( his wife Nadia died of cancer) lives in Bat Yam , a sea side town of Israel. His son, Rico has left home on a tour of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal , India, Bangladesh and later in Srilanka in search of peace leaving behind his girl friend Dita Inbar. Dita, an aspiring writer of screen play , was cheated on money by the wannabe director ( Dubi Dimitrov) of the film with her screenplay , and was left homeless. She manages to convince Albert to allow her to stay with him, until she find an alternate accommodation. While she manages to get a temporary job of a receptionist in a hotel, Albert manages to get her money back ( at least the assurance) and finds a place for her. Rico, now in travel ask Dita to find other friends, while he himself is having an affair with a Portuguese woman called Maria. Dito with her seductive postures and suggestive dresses, makes Albert uncomfortable. Bettine Carmel, a widow who lives alone and spends her weekends with her grand children, also an accountant, is an old friend of Alberts , visits him often and is genuinely concerned about him.

Every one here lives a life in isolation. The more they are trying to bring themselves to the others, the farther they are. The old memory of his early life come backs to Albert as he spend sleepless nights waiting for Dita's return. On Bettine's advise, he goes and meet a sorcerer who claims to help people to talk to the dead. But Nadia does not come back and talk to him, instead she appears in Rico's dreams and soon be his companion, sharing his grief.

There are different ways of writing fiction. I've read Manuel Puig's novels written as conversation between two people. There is one novel written in one paragraph. There are some where the entire novel is re-collection of incidents by various people. This one was a novel written in verse, unlike the epics , this one is with varying style and lengths in each page. Some pages ends peculiarly, incomplete , leaving the rest to the readers. The author himself appears in the story as a narrator, with whom, other confide in private.
The book is very poetic , as the style demand. That also makes a huge demand on the translation. Unlike prose, translation of verse is difficult. Amos Oz has done a great job in trying out the new style of writing, retaining the fictional qualities. At the end, one is left with sympathetic feeling towards each of the characters.

"I wrote this book with everything I have. Language, music, structure--everything that I have. . . . This is the closest book I've written. Close to me, close to what I always wanted. . . . I went as far as I could." Says Amos Oz in one of his interview. He also clarifies elsewhere that "I wrote The Same Sea not as a political allegory about Israelis and Palestinians. I wrote it about something much more gutsy and immediate. I wrote it as a piece of chamber music".

Very lyrical, melancholic novel, beautifully executed.
The Same Sea
Amos Oz ( Translated from Hebrew by Nicolas De Lange)
201 Pages
Read more: Complete Review , Yale Review of Books, Guardian , Spectator

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rishimoolam - D Jayakanthan

Rishi moolam , consists of two novella from the Jnanpith Award winning Tamil authour D.Jayakanthan. I understand from the prologue and the note from the author that it had created enough stir in the society when it was published in the 1960s. Subjects which were considered taboo and was not discussed in public , the theme associated with 'sexual repression' ( I am not too sure) and Oedipal love might not have been something which is well appreciated. He seems to have won the wrath of the traditionalists , and his erstwhile comrades in Communists for his writing.

Rishimoolam ( the origin of saints - as it can be translated to English) , the first of the stories follows Rajaraman, in his transformation to a saint. His new found exterior is an attempt to escape the torments he carry within him. The room where his parents sleep was always a place of curiosity for the young Rajaraman. Not permitted to enter the place, where his mother spend her entire day and night, with servant moving in and out with eatable, father sneak under the darkness of night made the place to be something special. One occasion, while his mother is in the bath, Rajaraman manages to enter the room, but was trapped before able to get out by the entry by his mother after bath. Hiding under the coat, what he has witnessed was to cause a lasting image in his life. The naked figure of his mother starts haunting him in his sleep since then. This followed him, when he left his home to Chidambaram to pursue his College studies. Now staying with the childless couple, a classmate and close friend of his father, these dreams start reappearing, with his mother being replaced by the new aunt. After his final exam and before his scheduled return to his home, he leave their house absconding forever, in search of peace. Wandering, under the influence of drugs, he was mistaken for a saint by many. He was brought back to the home village, by his sister who spotted him at Calcutta. The return did not help him to get over the guilt, as he leave again, when the aunt come home to pay a visit to him again.

Rocking Chairs, is about a middle class orthodox family of a widowed mother and her 4 grown up children , each of them employed with reputed profession. The actions takes place at the dining room with rocking chairs, each of them occupied with one character. Alankaravalli Ammal, the mother rules the house with iron fist, and controls each movement of her children as we do for the school going children. Janaki, the youngest tries to get out of the shackle, attempting to get married to a photographer classmate, she has support only from the eldest of the sons ( already married , but was back in the nest of his mother, predictable). But the efforts are not good enough to cause a break in the system, to which she eventually succumbs. The rocking chairs, continue to rock.

Jayakanthan is a brilliant writer, and I guess some of the effects would have lost in translation. The conversations between the characters were interesting. There were references of psychological undercurrents and influences of Freud in his works , both in the introduction and in some related studies of his works as we see here.
"..but in stories such as Rishimoolam ( Origin of Saints) and Rocking chairs , Jayakanthan freely and daringly probes sexual repression and incest without the help of Western theoretical apparatus. Of cource, references to Freud is inevitable and enriching , but the stories are not dependent on these references."

Translation , according to me is not helpful for the general English reading enthusiasts. Even the Indian readers from other parts of the country will find this very difficult to comprehend. The use of Tamil phrases and words are abundant. This has been one of the complaints I have about the English Translation of fiction written in Indian languages. They lack the global appeal. Even if one has to recommend these books, to the attention of larger audience, poor translation comes in way as a huge shortcoming.

One need to read these short novels with the social and historical background of the stories and the time. The relevance of these at the time of the publication would have been different from that of now. In that context, this book is not something which has eternal relevance. The quality of fiction and the story by itself is nothing to classify as a tour de force.

Jayakanthan ( Translated from Tamil by K S Subramanian )
Indian Writing Publication
139 Pages
Rs 150

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gould's Book of Fish - Richard Flanagan

As I tried to pat out the book's flaring edge I noticed some of the words illuminated by the flames. I the firelight I read some sentences that made no sense whatsoever, ...................... Then the flame leapt up the page to my hand & the page, already loose, fell into the fire.... I then read what was now its beginning, a half torn page, the first legible words of which were:
"....for I am William Buelow Gould. sloe-souled, green-eyed, gap-toothed, shaggy haired & grizzle gutted, & I mean to paint pictures of fish & capture in them one more soul like mine.."

A fake painter and art dealer,Sid Hammet, living in present day Tasmania finds an old book written by a Tasmanian convict named William Buelow Gould. His interest in this was diminished as every one he approaches tells him this is fake and there is no such book. It is dubbed as another of those 'Australian literary fraud'. Fascinated by the book, he now starts rebuilding the story ( he claims it is from his memory as the book is lost) from the page 41 of the manuscript.

The story of Gould is based on the history of the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on the West Coast of Tasmania. Convicted and sent to the isolated penal colony for reason not apparent - he commits few petty crimes in England ( My real crime was seeing the world for what it is & painting it as fish. For that reason alone, I was happy to sign a confession of guilt.) and in and out of the prison ( after multiple failed attempts to escape) , Gould resorts to drawing the images of fishes in the Tasmanian sea , on the advise from the Doctor for the Royal Society for survival.

During the drawing of fishes ( 12 of them in total), Gould narrates the story of the island and the prison camp to as it appears to him. The commander , who took charge of the island on a clever manipulation by erasing the details of his own past , under a new name , rule the land at his whims and fancies. On receipt of letters from his imaginary sister from Europe, he set upon changing the face of the small Tasmanian Island to match to those described by the letters. He trades the resources with the Japanes and Chinese for income , sets up a railway station and a circular railway line. Build an auditorium , seen never before.

The life of the convicts are as bad as anyone could imagine. Torture, murder, illness and various forms of abuse are a way of life. Those who attempt unsuccessful escapade are treated cruelly and murdered brutally. People are put in solitary cells where the water levels increase to the level of their neck during tides. Gould describes the initial scenes of his arrival at the prison..
Even before alighting, even before we saw anything up close, our noses were assailed by the effluvium of death. Death was in that heightened smell of raddled bodies & chancre-encrusted souls. Death arose in a miasma from gangrenous limbs & bloody rags of consumptive lungs. Death hid in the rancorous odour of beatings, in the new buildings already falling apart with the insidious damp that invaded everything, was seeping out of sphincters rotting from repeated rapes. Death was rising in the overripe smell of mud fermenting, enmities petrifying, waiting in wet brick walls leaning, in the steam of flesh sloughing with the cat falling, so many fetid exhalations of unheard screams, murders, mixed with the brine of a certain wordless horror; collectively those scents of fearful sweat that sour clothes & impregnate whole places & which are said to be impervious to the passage of time, a perfume of spilling blood which no amount of washing or admission was ever to rid me. And perhaps because everywhere was death, life has perversely never seemed so sweet as what it did when I first came to Sarah Isaland.
Gould escape this routine with the help of the island doctor Lempriere , a fanatic for natural sciences, agreeing to draw him the scientific illustrations of various fish of the island. He also extends his relative freedom by taking up paintings for the great Mah-Jong hall for the commandant , and silly landscapes for the Constable Pobjoy.

The fate takes a decisive turn for Gould after the mysterious death of Dr.Lempriere , for which Gould is accused and put in solitary cell. His adventures leads him to the central library, where the Danish Record Keeper Juergen Juergenson maintain all the historical data of the place and the convicts. This adventure was also short lived after being caught by the Dane, and the incidents that followed caused the death of the Dane, and his yet another escape.

This time he is determined to find Matt Brady , an escaped convict, who run a parallel kingdom in the island, often threatening the officials with his attacks. The records that carried by him might find some real use to all those convicts there if he manages to send them to England and only Brady can do that for him. The long walk across the plain reunite him with the aboriginal lady with whom he suspect to have had a baby. But the journey was tiresome and suffering from clold, hunger and nakedness fighting hallucinations, he end up caught by the search team for the final time.
Gould's world is not what we have seen in the history books and in the official records. Hence it is necessary for the authorities to deny them as fraus. It is gruesome and cruel beyond our imagination. Flanagan let Gould to invent the story as it pleases to him and let the narrative take the course of its own. Going back and forth, a glimpse here and another there. There is rich creativity and imagery here.
I was a vile piece of cell-shit.I smelt the breath of my fellows. I tasted the sour stench of their rotten lives. I was the stinking cockroach I was the filthy lice that didn't stop itching. I was Australia. I was dying before I was born. I was a rat eating its young. I was Mary Magdalene. I was Jesus. I was sinner. I was saint. I was flesh& flesh's appetite & flesh's union& death &love were all equally rank & equally beautiful in my eyes.

He also structure his tale very interestingly, without detailing much into his personal deeds. He also make a great spectacle of events of torture and death.

Despite all the hardship, Gould is not loosing his hope on the world. "Why,"he says , "when all the evidence of my life tells me that the world smells worse than the old Dane's bobbing corpse, why is it that I still can't help believing that the world is good & that without love I am nothing?"
This is not an easy book to read.The language is on a harder side, I had to refer the dictionary often. The events are jumbled and often are with no chronologic order. It is hard to distinguish between the real and the hallucinations as many of the characters are fake and are introduced by the re-teller, some connections are also lost. The last 100 odd pages are superb and make up for the lack of concentration in the middle pages.

Flanagan uses a language and style befitting to the narration. The changes from the early pages ( present day) to the story of Gould of the early 19th century is remarkable. A very good novel by this Australian writer.

Gould's Book of Fish - A Novel in 12 Fish
Richard Flanagan
Grove Press
404 Pages
Further Read: Complete Review , Guardian

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Living Room - Graham Greene

Multi-storied building, where most of the rooms are closed, currently occupied by three old people. Two sisters ( Theresa and Helen)and their wheel-chaired brother James ( a Priest by profession), assisted by Mary a paid per hour servant.

Rose, a twenty year old, is brought back to her aunts and uncle after the death of her mother by a friend of her father(died long ago). What receives her here are the closed rooms and the catholic aunts with closed mind. After the death of any member of the house the room is closed permanently for reason not known to any; ( Quote: " I always think of ghosts, the dead who cant sleep"). The entire action takes place in the one available Living Room.

Rose, and Michael , post the funeral of her mother had chosen to stay at the village for the night before coming over to her aunts, having a little affair. Michael , nurturing an unhappy marriage, finds love in the young Rose against the Catholic believes of the aunts. Rose wanted to leave the house with Michael, and by various cunning tactics in the pretext of religion, Helen manages to stop them. She makes Theresa ill, forcing Rose to stay on until she is recovered, later brings the wife of Michael to the house causing a scene, playing with the vulnerabilities of people. Defeated, Rose commit suicide , consuming sleeping pills left over by Mrs. Michael. The Living Room is also has to be closed now, after the death of Rose. Limiting the free movement of the remaining people to the constrict of two rooms.

The play is short and covered under 4 acts. The first 2 acts of Rose's arrival with Richards one evening and the next morning and the second a similar afternoon and the next morning after three weeks.

While there are no obvious bad characters here, most of the characters are very sharp and distinct. To me Helen stands out. She acts according to her belief routed in Catholic practices and does not approve love and affair outside the marriage. The Fact that Rose is a 20 yr old and Michael is a 45 yr old married man, does not stand good in the court of religious justice. She does not approve their relationship and plots everything possible to thwart the same. She send the maid Mary to Spy on them at their secret rendezvous place at every afternoon, she manages to inform the wife of Michael and stages a show of suicide and cries, gets Theresa to believe that she is sick and falling and need nursing by Rose to prevent her from leaving. While her acts looks very villainous, her intentions were pure and in accordance with her religious belief. The fact that Michael is not a Catholic can only add more vigour to her acts.

Michael is another difficult character. An unsatisfied husband, no love with his wife after the death of their child. Works as a Lecturer of Phycology in the University , where "he can understand the mind, and not love the mind". Rose was a seduction for him on the night of the funeral. As the 'executor' of the will, and the friend of her father, he also had the proximity and authority to her, however the family tried to stop him. But he also realises, that he is not able to abandon his wife. He consoles himself that 'she will not do anything stupid, she will be at home' after her dramatised attempt to commit suicide. While his love for Rose is strong, he is unable to take any bold decisions in its favour. The closest he is coming is to take time till "the day after tomorrow".

Father James, is the less Catholic of the three old. He is more in the realistic world and is considerate to both Michael and Rose's feeling. But he does not loose his believes. He is also not happy about the closed rooms where the ancestors are died. He does not subscribe to the reasoning of Helen. He is able to think more clearly in both religious and philosophical way. He is the only one who can engage in conversation with every other character.

Theresa is a lost soul. All she can do is sympathise. He existence depends on the support of Helen. Helen decided her actions. She takes the responsibilities for the undue behaviour towards Rose. "..I seemed to frighten her. It's a nice house. We aren't bad people. I don't know why there should be so much fear around."

Rose, is young and live. She is at an age where she is not intelligent, and she is not the raw. She need help and she need love. She fails to get any from all. To Michael she is only a passing seduction. For the Aunts, she is the protection of the family values and name. Father James, can only advise her to prey. She gets followed and spied on. She gets accused of breaking up families. She is an orphan in all senses.

Fantastic play in mere 80 odd pages. As Director Perter Glenville explains in the introduction, "This play is not for or against Catholics , it's about them - or rather about certain individuals Catholics who find themselves in a terrible dilemma; a dilemma pushed to its farthest limit ". As Father James remarks , "You see it's nearness to God that withers a man up. We are all such long comfortable distance away."

While this play was a huge success in London, where it ran for 38 weeks, it was failure at the broadway according to this report. The first play by Graham Greene , is an outstanding piece of work.

The Living Room
Graham Greene
Penguin Books
87 Pages
More Read : Guardian

Monday, July 06, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders - Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of short stories , are woven around the feudal hierarchal Pakistani society. This book of eight stories are all around the same theme. Loosely around the Land Owner, Political bigwig , rich and famous K.K.Harouni and his family, each of these are distinct stories. The name K.K Harouni is only a representation of the feudal land lord , it could be any name.

Most of the stories are not directly about the rich and their ways. It is about those who make a living out of serving the rich. The only thing that is common is their dependancy of the big family. The financial and social shelter they enjoy. For most, association to the rich is a status by itself within his/her own community or of those lesser privileged.

The valet, the cook, the driver, the sweepress and the estate / property manager are common in most of the stories. Barring a couple of the stories, every thing else is around this theme. Young maidens falls in love ( out of necessity for survival) to the next-powerful of the house ( mostly the manager/ the right hand man of the lord) , or in some cases to the land lord himself. Their needs are not large. It is their need of daily living. Even in this practised love, there are moments of truths and longing. Sadly, we see each of them failing and they are shown the doors ending up in prostitution and in beggary.

In Nawabdin Electrician, local electrician, Nawab working for K.K Harouni, is sort of local hero. Apart from his job of mending and running the pumpsets , he also helps the locals by manipulating the electric meter , thus running the meter at lower speed saving them few rupees. He still struggles to keep the family of his wife and 13 children with his meagre income. Saleema, falls in love with an older servant, only to be dumped for his family , to be left with his baby. Provide,Provide is also in the similar lines. The young maiden was abandoned after the death of the old land lord whom she was serving as a mistress. 'The lady in Paris' and 'Lily' (to a certain extent) are two stories different from the others.

The language is beautiful and unpretentious. The characters are raw and living as they are. There is no forceful twist and the narration is clear and fresh. These stories are already published in Newyorker, Granta or other periodicals. One of the draw back is that many a stories are of the same pattern and the characters in each stories are behaving in the same predictable ways.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin
Random House India
247 Pages
Rs 395
Further Read: The bookslut, Washington Post