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