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