Friday, December 31, 2010

Silk - Alessandro Baricco

"The year was 1861, Flaubert was writing Salammbo. electric light remain hypothetical, and Abraham Lincoln, beyond the ocean, was fighting a war which he was not to see finish"

Hervé Joncour, is a 32 year old silk breeder from small town of Lavilledieu in Southern France, When the epidemic stuck the plants in Europe, he had to rely on supplies from Syria and other Arab countries. While the young Scientist Louis Pastuer, continued his effort to identify the cause and find remedy, Hervé Joncour continued to engage in his thriving business of importing the silk worms from these part of the world, on advise of his mentor Baldabiou. The trip usually involves 3 months of voyage through the sea and the rest on horse back across the Arab countries, returning with Silk worms tracing the path back to reach to the gates of Lavilledieu on the first Sunday of April.

It is during one of his discussion with Baldabiou, the discussion of Japan came in. According to Baldabiou, Japan is a country in isolation with rest of the world and every attempt to engage with them in trade was always rejected and dealt with cruelly. Japan is one of the largest producer of silk and some of the islands are rich with Silk. Thus started his adventure to travel around the world to Japan in search of the hidden treasure. He starts his journey through Austria, Germany through Eastern Europe to Ukraine, crossing Urals, through Siberia, along the borders of China to the eastern most tip of the continent. Seeking the support of Dutch smugglers, he lands in one of the remote island of Japan. It here, he meets the local henchman Hara Kei,  "the most elusive man in Japan, master of all that the world contrived to carry off the island." More than HaraKei, its the girl who rests her head on his lap, the girl whose "eyes did not have an Oriental slant", that get his attention. Apart from the intense stare, there was no contact , whatsoever with this girl. But is to her was attracted, an attraction he is not able to explain, the rejuvenation of his love, his romantic self . They do not talk, never be in physical contact, but the image of the girl with 'no oriental slant" eyes, takes him back to the islands over and over again despite the trouble and the danger of ongoing civil war in Japan. He rediscovers the romantic in himself, even though he realise that the girl is beyond his reach ( I guess in his fourth trip), which bring about changes in his personal and family life. It is at this time, he gets a letter written in beautiful Japanese Characters, posted in Belgium, that changes his life fore ever.

Baricco uses the repetition of phrases and paragraphs, interestingly in this book. The one above is one such example. The other interesting thing is the way he describes the journey.  Over his five trips to Japan, the landscape takes a slight changes over the years. The Central Europe remain the same, but the changes starts from the eastern part of Europe, the Siberian paths, the bordering China and the wait for the pirate ship to take him to Japan. On each journey, Lake Baikal is different ( assumes different names from sea to demon). His journey changes being on foot, to horse and at the last on train. However, the arrival date remain same as first Sunday of April. There is also notable changes in his behavior to his wife and the surroundings. We understand that the couple does not have children and do not have the best of relationships. However, after each journey, there is changes in their relationship, to the last pages even after the 'beans are spilled'.

The blurb, says it as a erotic tour de force, and I am not sure why. Except for his attraction to the non-interactive lady of the Japanese Henchman, which pulls him back to the place often, and the so called in-comprehensive letter with Japanese Character which the old lady of the brothel translates ( which the vulgar more than being erotic or sensual), there isn't anything to call this as an erotic. Yes, there is an under current of slight sensuality, very subtle.

From the angle of a minimalist literature, this book is interesting. Beautifully written and cleverly deployed plots. More than what is written,  what is left makes it a better reading. The curiosity is maintained through out and finished pretty well. The book was having rave reviews and I can understand why. It indeed was a good read ( and a short one at 91 pages), but is not extra ordinary.

Silk ( 1996)

Alessandro Baricco ( translated from Italian by Guido Waldman 1997)

Vintage International

94 Pages

Rs 234
More : Wiki

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bastard Out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison

I came to know about this book in one of the discussion on the Southern Literature. It was during that time, this book caught my eye in one of the used book sale stall. It was otherwise difficult to get these books in India. Southern Literature, from the the states  of Texas to Carolinas. These states have many things in common, from civil war , the fight against slavery and the reconstruction of the union.

An semi-autobiographical novel written by Dorothy Allison, takes us through the early childhood life of  Anne Ruth ( called as 'Bone'). Book opens with the details of her birth. Her fifteen year old mother gave birth to the daughter after a serious car accident. She was named after her eldest aunt Ruth and was nicknamed 'Bone' on some comment made by one of her cousins. Her mother's attempt to get her birth certificate made was turned out to be a failure after she could not prove her marital status. As a result, the certificate declares the girl "illegitimate". She continued her effort with the authorities for the next two years, but the result was same, apart from some ridiculing talks by her co-workers. At the age of 17, she marries another man and produces another child with him. But he too did not last long, succumbs to a vehicle accident.  She again falls in love with Glen Waddel, the youngest son of a rich Dairy trader, and after two years courtship, marries him at an age of 21.

Glen, initially take to the liking of the kids, soon taking liberties on them. Bone, was at the receiving end of his physical and sexual abuses. After Anney delivered a still baby, unable to conceive any more, the attacks become regular. The fate turns against them as Glen looses his job, unable to control his behaviour. His anger against himself and his failures in getting a decent job,  makes him turns against the girl. The atrocities of the step father did not go unnoticed, as the closed-knit family of Bone comes to know this and Glen was physically handled by her uncles. Anney stay out of Glen with her kids for some time, but the family reconcile soon. The atrocities continue and for the second time Anney moves out with her kids but an angry Glen break into the house of her aunt and rapes Bone, blaming her for the break up and her mother's anger towards him. Anney comes to fetch the girl witnessing the scene and leave the place after taking the girl to the doctor, She leave the town forever, after meeting the girl one last time, handing her a genuine birth certificate, which does not have the 'illegitimate' stamp.

The Boatwright family clan is very entertaining , men with their drinking, fighting and womanizing and the women with their loose life and stubbornness. In spite of their differences, there is a strong relationship within the clan, often jump into the support of the fellow member. The reaction and responses are often extreme, and they are thus known for their notoriety. It is the same members come to the rescue of the young girl and take revenge.

On her part the mother is one who endures all. The need for love and support on one side, but her own love to her daughter on the other side, makes her to loose both in the end. The girl is impassive on her own suffering, but is more concerned about the mothers plight. She even advise the mother to go back to her father, because she needs it, but refuses to join them.

It is difficult to write from the child's point of view and the language. In many of the novel's I've read, the voice is inconsistent and the writer sneak in with his voice. But in this book, it was consistently brilliant and appropriate. While I do not think this is a great work of fiction, it indeed had some beautiful paragraphs and literary brilliance. Dorothy Allison, personal history is almost similar to the protagonist of this story. A fifteen year old mother, abusive step father and the like, hence the intensity of writing is very high through out. Sensitive, moving and intensive book. Good work of fiction.


Bastard Out of Carolina ( 1992)

Dorothy Allison

Plume Books

309 Pages

More : Wiki entry

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Opium Clerk - Kunal Basu

Opium trade in Asia was one of the major business controlled by Britishers. The famous Anglo- Chinese Opium War as a result of Chinese control over the British Opium Trade practices. Though Chinese lost the war, the trade continue to suffer both financial and diplomatic cooperation between the two nations. The Britishers continue to import opium from Indian soil, through various traders.

Hiren , born in the year of Indian Mutiny, lost his father before he turned 1, killed in an accident run-over by horses in the park. His mother came back to her family in Calcutta from Patna. Young Hiren, now under the direct influence from his progressive uncle. It is here he developed his special ability of reading palms. His modern education and ability to adapt landed him at a job of Clerk at an auction house run by the mysterious Britisher Jonathan Crabbe. The company involved in dubious trade of Opium to other parts of the world. Soon, Hiren was invited to the house of Crabbe, for teaching him Sanskrit. Asked to help in adopting a child for the opium addicted wife of Crabbe, Hiren and his friend goes through the slums of Calcutta. Little did he knew that this is going to change his life forever.

The second part takes him on a long voyage to China to assist his employers in setting up their base withthe help of local viceroy. hiren find himslef being witness to the cruel massacre of the resistance forces by the British supported local ruler. The third and last part makes a forward leap to the adopted son in the remote Indonesian island, as an official of customs at its ports.

The writing is fascinating and Kunal is able to take us through the life of Hiren from the orthodox Brahmin family to the complex and notorious trade of narcotics, from the shores of Calcutta to Hongkong and South China. Often put in the middle of the conflicts, Hiren, introduced an Indian Prince was requested to get in the dangerous game of getting the rebels and the rulers in the path of surrender. The fate made him the silent spectator of the mass murder of many under the British and Chinese rulers.

The language is very vivid and descriptive and the subject is interesting. This is my second book of Kunal Basu. He is a good writer, with flowing language and very visual style of writing. Each topic developed from the historical events and expanded within its logical extensions. However, this book does not appear to me in completeness. Especially the continuity. The third part somehow did not connect with the narrative. And I am disappointed again with this one. Though this book is more popular, I think The miniaturist was a better book.
The Opium Clerk ( 2008 )

Kunal Basu

Harper Collins, India

309 Pages

Rs 295
More Read : McGill Reporter

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Abraham's Promise - Philip Jeyaretnam

Taking the phrase from the biblical tale, Philip Jeyaretnam brings out a good novel about a man's struggle in the independent Singapore.

Abraham Isaac, a Singaporean Tamil with his ancestral roots to Jaffna in Sri Lanka, lives through the transformation of the country after its struggle with the Britishers and Japanese. Like most of his contemporaries, he too was active in the country's journey to an independent nation, writing articles on self rule, pouring out his ideas and aspirations of a new nation. However, to his dismay, and to many of the others, he realises that the direction of the power and the rulers aren't aligned to their hopes. Though he was part of the political system and his party rose the the power of the country, he continued his efforts in the nation building with his article in the Strait Times. One of such article, wasn't accepted well with his own party bosses, resulting in removal of his license to teach ( for being a bad influence on pupil) and loosing the job. Now, left to earn his living only through private tuition, he looses his close friend and his wife to the friend. The novel begins with Old Abraham, managing to find a lone student for Latin, boy of a rich new world family.

The book starts of very ordinary, even till the midway through I was wondering why was this called such a good book. A typical old man's reminiscence of his life and the typical contempt for all that new and modern. The usual complaints of the new generation and the system, his inabilities to be in sync with the new world, and all that. However, as I progressed through the pages, the images that came out in front is very different. On a relatively plain and simple narratives, a profound work of literature is hidden, revealing subtly to the keen readers.

His sour taste of all that he had endured is evident in his perceived contempt to the new time, new ways of living and new ways of learning.

"I don't understand all these new restaurants, all these new tastes. No wonder young people are so confused today. They don't grow up on a steady diet . . . so they lack a clear reference point -- Jaffna cooking, Cantonese, whatever. It's just a jumble . . . Thai, French, hamburgers. No wonder everyone is so confused."

Victor smiles: an amused, tolerant and patronising smile. No one takes an old man seriously
Singapore as a society is multi cultural and multi ethnic. The influence of British Rule continue to linger in the society even after being a free . The citizen's of the new state is politically free, but how much of that is experienced by the cross section. As Abraham puts it , "I am not nor will ever be truly free. Why is it that I still feel this is a battle I might have won, when surely it was lost centuries ago?" It is this dilemma, the personal and political experience that Jeyaretnam brings out beautifully in this book.

Abraham Isaac, is always been on the wrong side of luck. Loosing his girlfriend to a Britisher in his young days, later loosing his job for his political views, his childhood friend, his wife and later his son ( or his love) , he endures them all not as a strong man, but one common man amongst us.

The style is very standard, the language is plain, the structure is not unusual though he deploys the multi period story intermixed effectively, and the story is straight. Inspite all this the book leaves a good impression with you for the strong underlying emotion. Even when everything goes wrong for his, Abraham is able to maintain his sanity and his self esteem. Philip Jeyaretnam, on his part get Abraham the character, the language, the sly humor and the voice aligned perfectly well. A very haunting novel, effectively written.

PS : This edition comes with a very bad front cover. The cover should do justice to the book.
Abraham's Promise ( 1995)

Philip Jeyaretnam

Marshal Cavendish

162 Pages
More Read : Post Colonial Web , USQ

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman

...But this is the tragedy; without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten... Oh, Martha, I don't know what I should do.'

' You should eat your supper', said Martha.

Part of the myth series published by Canongate, this book by Philip Pullman is already making some news. Looking at the most retold story of Jesus Christ, in a different angle, Pullman offers his version of the story. The back cover insists that "this is a story".

" I've always been fascinated by the two parts of the name of Jesus Christ, and by the difference between them. Another thing that's interested me for a long time is the way in which the Christian church began to formulate its beliefs and establish a canon of scripture: there were many more gospels than four, but why were those four chosen and others left out? When did Paul begin to write his epistles? Was what he said different from what the gospels say? Do the gospels even agree with one another? Was there a difference between Jesus and Christ? My version of the Jesus story doesn't attempt to solve these questions, but I hope readers will find it interesting " - from his website

Mary, young girl married off to an old carpenter Joseph. Joseph left the young Mary at home and was often away with his job. It was during this time a messenger came to her and told her about the divine life that is going to take shape in her womb. She was worried about the controversy, being pregnant while Joseph is away. As we all know, when the time arrived, fearing the rulers anger, Joseph takes his wife on a journey to Egypt and the give birth to Jesus in a make shift shed amongst the animals . Here is the twist to the story. Mary gave birth to twins, one was Jesus and the other Christ. The angels and the other omen pointed out Christ as the saviour of mankind. Jesus grew typical to any young boy, strong ,often naughty and hardly showing any signs of intelligence. Christ on the other hand was thin and frail, showing early signs of maturity and intellect. During the adolescent days Jesus runs away from home, and it was Christ who manages to bring him back with reasoning. The early stages of miracles were demonstrated by Christ.

However, towards baptism by John, there were changes in Jesus. He left home and spent time in the forest praying and identifying himself. As the rest of the story goes, Jesus now have a followers of himself. It was Christ who advises him on the importance of performing miracles, the need of healing the ills, the need to preach. During this time an angel in the form of stranger make an appearance to Christ and ask him to document all that is done by Jesus. Christ, follows Jesus without his knowledge and writes down all that is spoken and performed. At place where he cant reach, one of the disciple help him by recounting the events.

The rest is known to all. The growing popularity of Jesus is not welcomed by the authorities. To their dismay, Christ defeats the arguments of the Law makers at multiple times. His followers belongs to every walk of life, from whores to taxmen to the people of meagre means. Unlike the biblical story, it was Christ who betray Jesus here, Of course under the instruction form the angel. The crucification and the resurrections are then described in very realistic terms , may not be to the agreement of the believers. It was Christ , who appears in front of Mary of Magdela and to the disciples. It was his version that then discussed and spread amongst the believers.

While I am not a great fan of such novels. It leaves a lot for debates and discussions and the freedom of the writer to deviate from the known story. This book too suffers from the influence of the original. The necessity to abide by the flow of incidents that is of importance, but the need to include in his version of narration, it looses some of the initial steam in middle. However, he finishes this brilliantly. I found the passages of Jesus contemplating his actions and their results, and his doubts on the God and the role he has to play, written beautifully.

Fast read, large size print ( lesser strain to your eyes) and short chapters make it easy to finish. Very average book, except a few brilliant passage and two twist to the tale ( the twins and the concet of Christ betraying Jesus). If you are interested in these kind of books, I would recommend Nobel Laureate, Jose Saramago's Gospel According to Jesus Christ to this one.

The Good Man Jesus and The scoundrel Christ ( 2010 )

Philip Pullman

Penguin Viking

245 Pages

Rs 499
Other Revirews: Wiki , Guardian ,

Poory Made in China - Paul Midler

Known as the world's factory, China is the epicentre of every manufacturing activities of the universe. China's undisputed growth to the leader of the manufacturing had been carefully and methodicaly orchastrated over the past 30 years. There are many economic and financial studies available on this exponential growth, most of them written by academics. However, there aren't many that gives us the inside story of the phenomenon. Paul Midler, who spent a large part of his early career in South China - the hub of the manufacturing activities- tells us a story of the typical manufacturing business and their relationship with the western world.

Off shore manufacturing is now inevitable for every business, if they want to remain in business and be profitable. Midler, stationed at Guangzhou, working for various US and European corporates as their consultant, takes us through the interesting journey of his experiences with some of the manufacturing companies and their clients.

One of the initial question which pops up the mind of the readers is why China. ? Many of the other south Asian economies are equally competitive if not cheaper.
"One of the questions many were asking was: Why China? Why weren't importers looking to other markets ? The answer most often given was the low cost of labor, but that was only part of it; factory labor in other economies was actually cheaper. Speed and convenience were two other important areas where China performed particularly well."
He also says ( with a soft 'below the belt' remark on India ) the difference between Chinese approach to the business and interaction with foreigners to that of some of the other economies..

"China was exotic, but it was not bizarre. Chinese did not dress in native costumes, they wore no headdresses or long robes, they did not go around in sandals. They did not have the habit of sitting on the floor. Chinese did not bow or require that visitor make unfamiliar hand gestures, and the people were pleasantly irreligious...The Chinese were traditional, but not fanatical. They did not paint their faces or tattoo or pierce their bodies. Such colorful native traditions made for interesting tourism, but people or business were not vacationers."
Getting into the thick of the action, he explains some of the methods used by Chinese Manufacturers to win business. As one of his client wondered, how are they manage to produce them so cheap. Its only later he realise the terrain he is getting into. To win business, the enterpreuners are willing to go to any extend. However, once the manufacturing contract is signed, the ball is now on the importers court. The original specification is often tampered with , without any consultation and confirmation from the client. It starts with the packaging, the quality of the bottles used, the measure and quality deviations, etc. Quality cost then passed on to the importer. The importer is now in a fix. Sitting on a larger order from the retail chain in the US, he is now forced to concede. Any changes to the original plan is to be paid by the importer. By now, the manufacturer has already know the 'product specification' and can be reproduced on his own. He could eve by pass the importer and deal with the retail chains directly. The game of one up-manship continues until the importer concedes and often goes out of business.

Some of the smarter ones gets into a joint venture agreement with their Chinese counter parts. This is often turns out to be a bigger mess. Invariably loosing money in the JV, while the local manufacturer continue to build newer factories at the expense of is global JV partner, it usually ends in bitter separation.The local authorities and the law aren't very supportive, hence most of the fooled ones wind up their operations and return.

There are issues of counterfeit, the perennial issue of quality, the arrogant attitude once the business is secured, managing the books of accounts, the fear of bypassing the importer; issues are many. "Chinese manufacturing had serious issues, and these were not very well understood while looking at them from a great distance."

But, why is that the world is still going to China for manufacturing. Mostly because, there is no alternative. Moreover, it is now globally accepted that goods made in China is the cheapest. As he mentions..

If an item was quoted at 65c and made in the USA, the buyer figured it could be purchased somewhere cheaper. When the same product was quoted 65c and was said to have been made in China, the buyer figured it could not be found for any less.
The extra focus and development in the manufacturing leaves lot of the other areas a lot to be desired.

At one time, China had a reputation for innovation, having invented paper, gunpowder and the compass; but in more recent centuries, that spark of discovery was replaced by an instinct for copying - not just technologies, but also entire business model"..
He says this model is not sustainable. "No economy could ever win a race by merely catching the wind off another's sail.."

Having said all this, where are they headed. Midler says, over the years it will be difficult to sustain the same level of growth. Domestic consumption is heralded as one of the alternate growth story. There are other political and economical issues and related tensions between states. But there is no change expected in the near future. On a long run, Milder says it could be "The rise and fall of China ?"..."More like the rise and stall of China"

Very very interesting read, very curious for me as an Indian. Fast paced, funny and and easy read.
Poorly Made in China ( 2010 )

Paul Midler

John Wiley & Sons

242 Pages

Rs 395
Other read : INSEAD , Danwei

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Aatujeevitham - Benyamin

There hadn't been many novel that caught the readers attention in the recent years as this one. Many have been recommending this to me over the last one year. It is only now, that I could get hold of a copy. This book was again in news after it won the prestigious Kerala Sahitya Academy Award.

Fictional account of a real life story of Najeeb, one of the millions of Keralites in the Middle East. Like many , Najeeb was also offered a Visa to go to the Gulf by one of his friends relatives. The relatively large sum of 30000 was managed with the help of well wishers and friends, and he reach Saudi Arabia, leaving behind his anytime expecting wife and mother. Hakeem, a young boy from nearby town to his company. The wait at the airport was long, and the Arbab ( his sponsor) did not turn up at the arrival terminal. The wait was long, until they saw an old, almost into pieces, truck arrive and the driver jumps out. They were put behind the open truck, without any communication and drove out of the city and the crowd into the wilderness of sand.

In the midst of the desert with no visible places of habitat, they were dropped at two separate places. It was night and the stench coming out of the place was unbearable. The rest is one very disturbing tale of survival. Forced to look after goats and camels, with near nothing to eat and no proper accommodation, The only other human, who was at the place while when he arrived, went missing the next day ( it was much later, he discovers the bones and torn dresses buried in the desert). With one days experience of managing the herd, Najeeb starts his eventful life with the Animals to communicate. There was no other human in the vicinity and the only contact wih the outside world was limited to the weekly truck that arrive with fodder and water. Najeeb endures the place, the beating with the belt, the often uncontrollable animals. The rare hopes of escape was ruthlessly crushed by the Arbab. The servile life continued more than 3 years ( there is no count of days and months in desert) until he was rescued by travelling Arab who brought him to the city.

While the incidents are real, Benyamin asserts that he morphed himself with the real Najeeb while writing. The sequence stay to the truth, but a fiction can not be a biographical essay. To his credit, Benyamin, does this job brilliantly creating a beautiful novel.

The narration is simple and very ordinary. It does stay to the emotional and sentimental side of the readers. There is a detached style of writing, with the humour of a defeatist. He is able to look at things with such an open mind with no regret or anger. The structure, language and method is not something that of a masterly work , however the novel connects with the readers at very personal level. One of the better Malayalam novels I read in the recent past.
Aatujeevitham ( 2008)


Green Books

212 Pages

Rs 130/-
Other reviews : webmalayalee

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Conversation in the Cathedral - Mario Vargas Llosa

Month of November is for reading the newly crowned Nobel prize winner. Unlike the last couple of years, this time it wasn't some one new to me. Having read 10 odd books by Mario Vargas Llosa, I wasn't looking forward to a new revelation of an author. However, there is many of his books, I haven't put my hands on. That could be a lie, if I talk about this one. Having bought this in 1995 and started a couple of times, but never going beyond few pages ( I do not abandon books, but this book was an exception). The reason for putting it aside was not because it was not interesting or I do not like the writer, but was some stupid house moving etc. The announcement of Nobel Prize, thus became an inspiration to take this up again.

Written as conversation between two people on one afternoon in a local pub, this giant book of Mario Vargas Llosa, take us to the 50s of Peru under the dictatorship of Manuel Odria. Santiago, an editorial page journalist with La Cronica, goes in search of his missing dog on the insistence of his wife. The dog was forcefully taken from her by the dog catchers, who are paid by the authorities by the count of dogs. It was during this recovery of his dog, Santiago met with Ambrosio, an old time associate and driver of his politician cum Industrialist. Over the next few hours they discuss the period of the dictatorship and their life during those times over few bottles of beer at a shady pub known as the Cathedral.

Young Santiago, an idealistic young boy in his early twenties, move out of his house with differences with the family and their association with the power, leading a nomadic life there after. He gets into trouble with the authorities with his involvement with the Communists and APRISTAS ( members of APRA another rebel outfit who ruled Peru before Odria) and soon get disillusioned with politics, gets into the life of a journalist.. "My whole life spent doing things without believing, my whole life spent pretending""And my whole life is a lie, I don't believe in anything." His low paying job is just enough to make his ends meet , but he refuses to take any support from his super rich family.

Through Ambrosio's narrative, Santiago understand the complex and dangerous life his family is leading. At the high level of political circle, no one is safe. As he explains, his father has business interest than political. Having dependency on the Government orders for his business, he was suddenly left to nothing when these were suspended by fellow minister. The political quagmire and the unrest in the society lead to the elimination of many a powerful leaders changing the fortune of the family

This is a book on Power and Politics. This is not about dictatorship and cruelty, It examines the life of people closely associated with the power and however close you are to the power you are not any different from the people on the street. Every minister is corrupt, some of them run prostitute ring, they are low in morality and often spend evenings with their mistresses and wild parties. Political manipulations and repression is rampant and most of the close associates of the powerful men do the dual roles ( chauffeur as well as henchman ). To his surprise Santiago realise the involvement of his father in a murder and his unnatural sexual tendencies. Despite his trouble relationship with his family, especially his mother, his relationship with the father was always courteous and with respect. His father was always concerned about him, while respecting his decision to be independent, while the rest of the house consider him as a looser.

There is depth in every character and the interlink is strong and methodical. Be it the wife of Ambrosio, the cook in the family of Zavalitas or be it the mistress of the ministers. Llosa deploys a very complex structure of narrative. There are 3-4 conversations simultaneously, between different people at multiple places and different time period. Hence it is demanding on the reader. The book is long and fine printed. But this is very engaging, and never a dull moment. The secret or the story is revealed gradually and the build up is done phenomenally brilliant. Llosa's mastery in story telling is at the best. This book is considered by many as one of his best works.

Conversation in the Cathedral ( 1969)
Mario Vargas Llosa ( translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa 1975 )

Faber and Faber

601 Pages

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Tipping Point - Malcom Gladwell

Last month, in an educational program, we were running a simulation of a sales call. My team, consists of 5 people from 5 different nationalities( Korea, Taiwan,Thailand and Indonesia), were seemingly ahead of the rest of the groups. After converting each of the so called leaders there were roars of success and high fives. The early stages were very difficult and halfway through the task seems to be easy and the conversion happened at a faster pace. The professor , peeped in to check our progress, muttered 'tipping point'; and vanished. Next day, we were given this book for being the best among the rest.

Not that I haven't heard of this book earlier. I am not a great reader of management ( or similar genre) books. Few of my collegues ( Tobby , especially) was very vocal on this book. That prompted me to read this after a heavy dose of Mario Vargas Llosa.

Malcolm Gladwell says that in the acceptance and implementation of every idea, product, decease or service, the graph follow the 'early adopters, majority and laggards curve. However, during the phase of its journey comes a stage where the 'conversion' become an avalanche ( a word of mouth epidemic). This point, where the rate of conversion become the fastest, he calls 'the tipping point'. Citing numerous examples from Hush Puppies to the Aids Epidemic, he explains his theory in detail in this book.

Connectors are those with innumerable contacts. They are sociable and can recall many names at any instance. They are extraordinarily good at making friends and acquaintances. Mavens are those with lot of information and with a mind set to help others. He reach out to others to solve their problems. Sales men are capable of negotiating and getting what they wanted. They manage to get people agree with them.

There are three rules of the tipping point : the law of the few, the stickiness Factor and the Power of context , which explains us the cause of the epidemic. Law of the few says that there are exceptional people who are capable of starting the epidemics. He catagorises them into three : The connectors , the Mavens and the Sales Man.

It is not only important to have the right people as your front end guys ( the connectors, mavens etc). The idea has to stick , it has to be compelling and should have value. The lessons of stickiness is the same. There are simple way of packaging information that, under the right circumstances , can make it irresistible.

However, the whole thing has to be looked at with "the power of content". The human behaviour is to a considerable extent influenced by the environment . The epidemics are" sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the time and place".

The concept is very good, so was the delivery. However, the book is very verbose, with too many examples, some of them wasn't connected that greatly with the subject. Probably a bit too long. Otherwise, this has been an interesting reading.
The Tipping Point ( 2000)

Malcolm Gladwell


279 Pages
More : Wiki

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tomorrow is One More Day - G Nagarajan

In line with the world literature during 60s, there had been many writings in Indian Languages with their influences. Some of the young writers who started writing during those ages weren't free from those leftist, realistic and existential influences in their writing. G Nagarajan, I understand is one of the proficient writers in Tamil during those years. Tomorrow is One more Day originally written in 1974, has been one revelation to me, thanks to the recommendation from JP.

Kandan is a simpleton, lives his normal life. This short novel takes us through one day in the life of Kandan. His day starts with a beautiful dream of the vision of Goddess. To him she had the features of his mother. Kandan is a small time pimp, an agent or a middleman. The fate hadn't been too good on him. He does not remember his father, his mother died and the small property had was taken from him . He sold it, but was cheated. But, soon he had to go work for the same person, who cheated him. . He now lives in the slums, with his wife. We understand that his son ran away from home, his girl died in the government hospital, after the local remedies and the astrologer failed to save her. However, Kandan is indifferent to his fate and his current conditions and does not carry any ambition in his life.

"What is your goal in life, anne ?", Muttuswamy asked.
"What do you mean" ?
What do you want to achieve in life ?"
Kandan laughed. "What did I want to achieve in life when I happened to be born to Sornattammal ?"

The set up is typical Tamil Nadu village. All the characters you see in the daily walk of life appear in the novel.  As the day begins, he search for few pennies to have his days first fill of Alcohol. Sending his wife on 'duty' ( he does not have any regrets, neither does she), he flirts with the local lady. Their fortune depends on the business done by his wife, and most of the days, they survive by the grace of the local shop keeper. The day progresses through various errands, but happens at an arms length, with Kandan participating with a level of self detachment.  All days are similar to him, with nothing worthwhile happens in his life.  "Wherever you looked there was development; wherever you looked there was a change. Only in his life, it seemed, nothing at all changed."

However, as the day ends, Kandan witnesses a murder, the murder of Solai Pillai, his well wisher.  The reporter/witness now was framed as the murderer. The inability to garner support or the financial difficulties to get a proper legal help gets him into prison. As Kandan tries to explain himself at the court, making himself a laughing stock to the 'educated' in the court room. He was cheated again and was duly sentenced.

The book comes with a detailed introduction by David Shulman, giving us the glimpses of the life and times of the writer. Book is translated by Abbie Ziffren, and for once I found an Indian book with amicable translation into English. Strong influences from the western existentialists and the communist belief ( Nagarajan was a member of the Communist party at the time of this writing) is evident in the writing, as he is called Tamil Camus.

A surrealistic short novel of pathos, indifference and about the marginalised section of the society, people who matters only in the ballot boxes.  Very moving and very touching..
Tomorrow Is One More Day (1974)

G,Nagarajan ( translated from Tamil by Abbie Ziffren with A Julie)

Penguin Books

99 Pages

Rs 199
More read :  Deccan Herald , Jayaprakash

Sunday, October 31, 2010

For Pepper and Christ - Keki.N.Daruwalla

The arrival of Europeans to India began with Vasco Da Gama, landing near Calicut in 1492. The quest for pepper and other spices turned the tradesmen to rulers for the next five centuries. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Arabs and Chinese were doing the trade for centuries and their activities were restricted to trade. However, the Europeans had other interests, they want to control the trade and own the resources. The rest is known to us.

The search for a way to reach the land of pepper was very active by most of the European nations. The trade with India were controlled by Arabs who bring the goods the their shore, move it by land to the Mediterranean shore and take them to the Italian ports for further trade. It was estimated that the price appreciated more than 10 times, between the purchase at the source, to the time it reached the European Market. Spain and Portugal, two of the pioneers in the sea voyage were the front runners of this. Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, mistook it for India, Amerigo Vespucci reached Brazil ( later he found the northern part of America), trying to find a new path to India.

It was during this time, Vasco da Gama, decided to find a way to India. All they knew was the way to cross Africa, through what they called the Cape of Good Hope. Europeans need the help of Arabs to reach India. Vasco da Gama's team was small and was more of an expedition to find way, than to to trade. It was equipped with few soldiers and armoury. The team also consist of Brother Figueiro, a young priest, who is one of the protagonist of the novel, looking for the legend of Pester John and his Kingdom. The novel was set at 3 locations. apart from the voyage- Calicut , Cairo and Lisbon. Three protagonist, looking at the eventful journey through their point are the priest, Taufiq , the sailor and Ehtesham, an artist in Cairo.

Taufiq, who now studying inear Cairo, had been to India with his father at a very young age. They had even lived near Gujrat for a while before returning to their land. It was here that he was introduced to the legendary sailor Ibn Majid and learned and sailed with him. It was this experience , that got him the job of taking the White men across the sea to India.

Their arrival wasn't received with enthusiasm. The request for meeting wasn't heeded early, the wait was long. Even the meeting with Zamorin was a damp affair. Their gift to the King was ridiculed. The influence of Arab traders were overwhelming. The situation turned worse after some skirmishes with the local traders. There was attacks on the visitors and they had to retreat in a haste. As we know , Vasco da Gama, lost his brother and many of his sailors. However, they reached back to Lisbon, to give the good news to the King. Taufiq, was retained at Lisbon, to guide them in their next journey. Admiral Kabral, who lead the next expedition was prepared. A fleet of 23 vessels, with many soldiers and ammunition was an eventful journey spreading venom and destruction on its way. The situation at Calicut was no different. They were welcomed by the angry mob and was refused trade permits. The situation turned violent and the Portuguese turned to revenge on the Zamorin and the people of Calicut. The bombardment and slaughter was enough to destroy the kingdom, people including the Zamorin escaped to the interiors. The localites was ill equipped to face the superior armory of the White. They had not used to guns and other explosives..

Taufique had the toughest time, on one side, he was the guide and sailor of the Portuguese, on the other side, he did not like them. His heart was in Samina, the local girl at Calicut. Though he had to return with Gama the second voyage saw him deserting the Portuguese and taking shelter in the land of his beloved. He continued to be tormented by his involvement in the attack, and for bringing the Portuguese to India. In the end, he console himself by saying “They would have come in here all the same, by sail ship or steam boat, via Madagascar and Milind or through the Suez. And the darkies would have gawked at them as they walked down the gangplanks, in doublet and hose or coat and tie . . .”

The powers are divided between three worlds, the Europeans , the Arabs and the Zamorin ( or the Eastern civilisation). This novel also examines the thin line between religions and societies. To the Portuguese, every one who is not a Muslim is Christian. They believe the Zamorin to be a Christian King and the people to be Christians. They were puzzled by the monk from Ceylon, who claims to be a Buddhist. En route, they expect the African kings to obey the rule of the lord, and they take the papal blessing for every endeavour of theirs. The Muslims population of Cairo ( and in general) are always been attacked. Various rulers through out the Arab world have ruled them , and was often attacked by the Turkish ( even before Ottoman), Italian and Greek forces. Ghengiz Khan and the Mongols almost captured them. The social fabric hence is very fragile and any unconformist behavior was thought to be an attempt to de-stabilise the kingdom and was dealt with cruelly. The informers and spies we controlling the life.

Ehteshan on his part was caught in this tussle. An artist, and a lover boy, he was on constant observation and had been warned for his work. Creation is reserved with the God and mortals are not allowed to imitate him. Accepting to paint the Church, however secretly ( even his wife did not know it) did not save him. Forced to abandon his town and his wife he escapes the place just in time leading a nomadic life until he board the unlucky vessel MIRI.

A historical novel is neither history nor fiction, Or, perhaps it is both" clarifies the author in the prologue. One of the issue is with this is written with the foreigners view point and there is none from the Calicut or the localites. It also takes a de tour with the story of Eshtehan, the artist which do not have any direct consequences in the story, except for the in the sea mishap of the MIRI and being a friend of Taufiq. Notwithstanding the short comings, I think Keki Daruwalla has done a good job. The writing style is clear and sensitive, as you can expect from a poet. The language ( even while using some of the localised wordds) and styling is interesting, the description and emotive content is appropriate to the protagonists view. This book is highly recommended.

For Pepper and Christ ( 2009)

Keki N Daruwalla

Penguin Books

354 Pages

Rs 399
Other Reviews : Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Warwick Review , Tribune India

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yoko Ogawa

Old Professor, add to the woes he has lost to remember things, due to an accident way back in the 70s. His current memory last only 80 mins, and he can not remember anything beyond 80min. The near time memory is as of 1975 just before his accident.

The house keeper was assigned to help this doctor after the 9th person left the job, by her agency. The sister- in- law of the professor, who live the next door, gave the instructions to the new housekeeper and asked not to be disturbed. The routine is fairly simple, to keep the home clean and cook food for the professor, who spent majority of his time in the study.

The initial interaction was very interesting, asking for her date of birth and linking to the day and noting that these two are 'amicable numbers'. The initial curiosity grew into learning about the wizards, who spent his time, solving puzzles for International magazines, winning prices ( but never cashing them). Through her inquisitiveness and the professors interest, the new world of mathematics is opened in front of her, A school drop out, she now try solving puzzles herself..

Soon her son joins her in the evening on the insistence of the professor, (a young boy should never be left alone in the house) , whom he calls roots, for the flat surface of the boys head, Now, the professor has a company, whose return from school he waits in anticipation. There are definite progress in the professors life, having a hair cut and look clean, learning table manners, and most importantly, developing few human feelings. The homework is now the joint responsibility.

But, the going is not smooth as it seems.. the doctor fell ill following an outing to a baseball match. She was unceremoniously ousted from that place and was replaced by a new house keeper by the agency on the advise of the sister-in-law. Well, the rest can be guessed by anyone...

While the book was interesting in the initial pages and soon it got into the predictable path. I found bored beyond 50 odd pages of the same sequence. While the premise is exciting and the subject is great, somehow the book did not strike a chord with me. I have heard high recommendations for her books, but this was not the case with this book. I prefer "Uncle Petros and Goldbach's conjecture' to this one.


The House Keeper and The Professor ( 2003)

Yoko Ogawa ( translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder 2008)

Vintage Books

180 Pages

Other Reviews : Complete-Review , NY Times

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme - Andrei Makine

This book, the third of the famous Russian Trilogy ( Dreams of My Russian Summers; Requiem for a Lost Empire) is again set in the WW II Russia. The war is at the decisive phase, with Stalingrad was under siege and the out come of this war decide the future of World War II ( as we all understand later). The trains carrying soldiers - singing and playing accordions- are moving towards the western front, while those injured with broken limbs and broken spirits are returning eastwards in the silent slow trains. Alexandra, a nurse,is helping the injured soldiers arriving in these trains in the outskirts of Stalingrad.

Jacques Dorme, a pilot with French Troupe in the WW , was arrested after a heroics in which he shot down an important German Flight in one of the calculative and intelligent maneuver. He managed to escape the German Cap with two of his fellow Polish prisoners. Wandering through the battlefields of Poland and Ukraine he ended up in the Soviet Camp, wanting to fight the Germans. It was during this journey, he came to the place Alexandra. The encounter too was dramatic, shouting and pushing among the burning trains. The initial interaction gradually moved to admiration and love, though it lasted only a week. Jacques was posted tothe Eastern Siberia and was entrusted to fly aircrafts in the Alaska-Siberia route, transporting the US aircrafts to the use of Soviet military. It is among these vast snow clad mountains , he met his death.

Alexandra, a French by birth, came to Russia marrying a Russian Soldier, whose husband was killed by the authorities, in one of the trials as traitor and was now helping the young children in an orphanage, where the narrator spends his childhood during the early 60s. Young boy, whose father was killed by the authorities as a traitor, slowly acquaint Alexandra, and spend his vacation in her library, learning French and reading books. It was then, he came to know about the story of Jacques Dorme, which he investigates and write about years later.

The novel is set in three time zones. The WW II era of Jacques Dorme and Alexandra, the early 60s with the protagonist in the school where he is aquainted with Alexandra and the writer ( now grown up and is settled in Paris) who is attempting to recreate the life of Jacques Dorme. In the very moving end chapter, he meets the brother of Jacques Dorme , after making a trip to the mountains in search of the wreckage of the flight that made the last trip of Dorme.

This is my third read of Andrei Makine.I am as impressed as I was with the first book. The language is poetic, very picturesque and very moving especially while the writings are on Alexandra or Jacques Dorme. Beautifully written.


The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme (2003)

Andrei Makine ( translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan 2005)

Arcade Publishing

206 Pages

Othe Reviews : The Age , Guardian

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Letters to a Young Novelist - Mario Vargas Llosa

Umberto Eco talks about the craft of writing novels in this short book. Written in the form of letters to an un-named disciple, he explains the nuances of writing the novel. This is not an analytical book, nor it looks at the literary genre 'novel' in any different light. Its a short book and the scope is limited. I find this an interesting book and can give us some insight on the craft of writing fiction. He uses the examples from the masters of fiction from medieval writers, to the superstars of 20t century to explain the points he is writing in his letters.

The rest of my writing will be in the form of study notes for my quick reference.

  • What is the origin of this early inclination, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I'm convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, or the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creation of their imagination and dreams.
  • All fictions are structures of fantasy and craft erected around certain acts, people, or circumstances that stand out in the writer's memory and stimulate his imagination, leading him to create a world so rich and various that sometimes it is impossible to recognize in it the autobiographical material that was its genesis and that is, in a way, the secret heart of all fiction, as well as its observe and antithesis.
  • Writing novels is the equivalent of what professional strippers do when they take off their clothes and exhibit their naked bodies on stage. The novelist perform the same act in reverse. In constructing the novel, he goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination. 
  • The novelist does not choose his theme, he chosen by the them. He writes on certain subject because certain things have happened to him. In choise of a theme, the writer's freedom is relative, perhaps even non-existent.
  • The separation of form and content is artificial; it never occurs in reality, since the story a novel tells is inseparable from the way it is sold. The way is what determines whether the tale is believable or not. 
  • To equip a novel with power of persuasion, it is necessary to tell your story in such a way that it makes the most of every personal experience implicit in its plot and characters; at the same time, it must transmit to the reader an illusion of autonomy from the real world he inhabits. 
  • Good novels - great ones- never actually seems to tell us anything; rather, they make us live in it and share in it by virtue of their persuasive powers.
  • Style : Novels are made of words, which means that the way writer chooses and orders his language determines whether his stories possess or lack the power of persuasion.
  • "Reading 'One hundred years of solitude' or Love in the Time of Cholera' we are overwhelmed by the certainty that only in these words, with the grace and rhythm, would these stories be believable, convincing, fascinating, moving; that separated from these words they would not have been able to enchant us as they have: his stories are the words in which they are told.
  • For practical advise, I'll give you this: since you want to be a novelist and you cant be one without coherent and essential style, set out to find a style for yourself. Read constantly, because it is impossible to acquire a rich, full sense of language without reading plenty of good literature, and try as hard as you can, not to imitate they styles of the novelists you most admire and who first taught you to love literature....Imitate them in everything else; in their dedication, in their discipline, in their habits; if you feel it is right, make their convictions yours. But try to avoid the mechanical reproduction of the patterns and rhythms of their writing, since if you don't manage to develop a personal style that suits your subject matter, your stories will likely never achieve the power of persuasion that makes them come to life.
  • Basic Structure of the novel consists of Narrator ,Space,Time ,Level of reality
  • The narrator ( the person who tells te story) must not be confused with the author( the person who write the story). This is a vey serious error, made even by many novelists who, having decided to tell the story in first person and deliberately taking their own biographies as their subject matter, believe they are the narrator of their fictions.
  • The narrator is always a made up character, a fictional being, just like all the other characters whose story he tells.
  • The first problem the author must resolve is who will tell the story. There are many possibilities, but in general terms they can be classified into three: A narrator character , an omniscient narrator outside and separate from the story he tells, or an ambiguous narrator whose position is unclear.
  •  If the narration is in the form of an I ( or we in some cases), the narrator is inside the narrative, interacting with the characters. If the narrator speaks from the third person singular, he is outside the narrative space. An omniscient narrator is modelled on an all-powerful God, since he sees everything.
  • Time : There are tow kinds of time, chronological and psychological. The time in the novel is based on the psychological time.
  • Time in all novel is, a formal creation, since in fiction the story unfolds in a way it never could in real life; at the same time, the passing of fictional time, or the relationship between the time of the narrator and what is being narrated, depends entirely on the story's being told from a particular temporal perspective.
  • Qualitative Leaps : A shift is an alteration in any of the points of view.This may be spatial shift, temporal shift or shift in the level of reality.
  • Given the existence of innumerable levels of reality, the possibility of shifts is correspondingly immense, and writers of all era have learned to exploit this very versatile resource.
  • A narrative undergoes a similar transformation when a radical shift in the point of view in terms of reality occurs, constituting a qualitative leap.
  • Chinese Boxes : Another technique of narrative is to construct the novel like those traditional puzzles with successively smaller and smaller identical parts nestled inside each other, sometimes dwindling to the infinitesimal. Eg: The thousand and one night ... 
  • The Hidden Fact : The hidden Fact, or narration by Omission is another technique employed by many authors, It is vital that the narrator's silence be meaningful,that it have definite influence on the explicit part of the story,that it make itself felt as an absence, and that it kindle the curiosity , expectations and fantasies of the reader. According to Llosa, Hemingway was one of the strongest exponent of this technique, most of his best stories are full of significant silences.
  • Communicating vessels :Two or more episodes that occur at different times, in different places, or on different levels of reality but are linked by the narrator so that their proximity or mingling causes them to modify each other, lending each, among other qualities, a different meaning, tone, or symbolic value than they might have possessed if they were narrated separately: these are communicating vessels.

This book, as I mentioned earlier has a treasure of references and explanations from the classics, most of them are very interesting. What impressed me most was the take on the famous one line story called "The Dinosaur" by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso. "When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there." This book is fun to read and fairly simple.However, as a parting note Llosa gives the best advice possible to his friend ( and readers ) :   
My dear friend: what I am trying to say is that you should forget everything you've read in my letters about the structure of the novel, and just sit down and write. 
If you are an aspiring write, you will find this book useful.

Mario Vargas Llosa ( translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer )


136 Pages

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Meerasadhu - K R Meera

Contemporary Malayalam Literature has some interesting writers. K R Meera's name had been one of the prominent young women writers for some time.  That prompted me to check out this book.

Meera Sadhu's are those women, living in the Vrindavan at Krishna Temple ,Mathura ( the place of Krishna's childhood), abandoned by their relatives. They are considered "married to Krishna" and have been living out of the meagre pension ( Rs 10 per day) given by the temple authorities as charity. Their life have been of rejection and are forced to earn their living by begging in the streets. Often molested by thugs, with no one to take care , living in dreadful rooms with many stuffed into one, many sick and almost all dirty. Adopting the name  from the legendary poet/singer Meera who spent her lifetime singing in praise of Krishna, the new age meerasadhus, flock the Lord Krishna temple chanting his name.

Tulasi, an IIT first Rank Holder, ends up in the 'galis' of Brindavan as a meerasadhu after going through some torrid times in her married life.  Tulasi, during her final years of IIT, acquaints Madhavan, an enterprising journalist , during one of his visit to write an article. The acquaintance become friendship to a level that he started influencing her decisions in life, including her own marriage. The love grew, in spite of her realisation that Madhavan boast of having an affair with 27 girlfriends, All those were not lasting, as they had been approaching him for help. Tulasi, run away from home on the eve of her wedding with old friend and another IIT-ian Vinayan, now an working in the US.

The initial days of marriage was filmy and the couple settled in Delhi where Madhavan now works, and soon she delivered her first kid. It did not take long, for the old Madhavan to come out of the shell, and the visit of one of his erstwhile girlfriend caused the initial drift in the family. Forced to lead a life of housewife, Tulasi now isolated from her family and husband ( who spent more and more time in Office), taking solace in her two kids.  The final nail in the coffin of the failed marriage came in the form of a request for divorce. Tulasi's revenge starts at this point. She poisons both her kids and the ending up in the mental asylum before her final destination of Brindavan.

This is a novel of love and revenge. The vengeance is turned against her husband, take a form of self inflicted insults, torturing herself, causing damage to her own self-morale, thus executing her revenge on her husband. While she claims moral victory over her husband, by refusing to visit him at the hospital ( while in a very filmy style he returns to her in the end), in reality she succumbs to revenge that continue to torment her. 

One of the issue of this book could be that it feels like an extended short story. Instead of attempting to write a full-fledged novel, she seems to have attempted to tell a story, into 56 pages. As a result, some of the characters that could have been interesting and possibly developed ( Vinayan for example) did not get enough attention and thus become pedestrians in the whole system. While the language is brilliant and maintains the same tone of anger and frustration ( converged in the form of revenge), that alone does not make this a good book. This short novel does not remain in the memory of the reader for too long, for its narrative sounds  forced with no depth whatsoever.

I have the second edition of the book, and I don't understand the cover. Apart from causing some curiosity,I doubt if it depicts the real character of the book.

Meerasadhu ( 2008)

K R Meera

D C Books

56 Pages

Rs 40
Other Reviews : Cutewriting

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Now That You're Back - A.L.Kennedy

A L Kennedy's ( Alison Louise Kennedy) name have been coming up in my reading circle for a while and I haven't  read any of her works. This book, one of her early writings was the one I could get hold off. A collection of short stories as the blurb say "exposing and exploring the sinuous undercurrents of violence, anguish and love" is a good introduction to this gifted writer.

The collection of 13 stories has its own draw backs. Most of the stories are of people living in isolation, trying to find their own feet within the society and within themselves. These are not the characters you feel closeness or sympathy. There is a level of detachment and possibly that could be one of the inhibition in approaching this book. The later half of the book, I somehow found to be more interesting especially stories like 'Mixing with the folks back home  ( about a serial killer), warming my hand and telling lies ( a retired writer ), and friday payday ( about a prostitute) .  She has also experimented with the form in 'Mouseboks Family Dictionary'.

She has incredible style of writing and with sly humor. The prose is very moving at places and seldom loud. I find each emotion, be it anger, love or friendship is treated tenderly with balanced approach. This alone is enough for me to hunt and buy one of her full length novel. 

Unlike James Kelman (another Scottish writer), I find her characters away from the mainstream society. Personally I find more closure to Kelman's characters than to this one.

Now That You're Back ( 1994 )


Vintage Books

248 Pages

Rs 525/-
Other Reviews : Independent 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco

The subject of memory loss has been discussed over many books and movies ( Aki Kurismaki's masterpiece 'A Man without past' is one that comes to mind).  What was interesting to me is that Umberto Eco is taking up this as the subject for the last novel he had written, thus far ( I understand a new novel is expected this year in  Italian and it will be a while before we could get it). I had the book with me for four years and it was only now,  I could take it up for reading.

Yambo ( nickname for Giambattista Bodoni) , nearly sixty , dealer of ancient books in Milan,  suffered a stroke and loses his memory. However, he manages to remember all that was words and he had read and his daily routine. He is able to quote from the books he had read with precise memory, but unable to recall his own name. He does not recognize his wife, his children and grandchildren ( he was very fond of them according to his wife). Every thing that are autobiographical and personal to him is erased. He is now educated with the fundamentals of his past by is wife. But the  wife, friends, subordinate, and children are nothing but the names for him, unable to relate emotionally with them.  He also understand about his business, and his probable affair with his assistant, Sibilia, which he says "I made an advance, and she put me in my place, kindly, gently, firmly. She stayed because I was a gentleman and behaved from that day on as if nothing had happened.''

Advised by his wife, he retreats to their ancestral home at Salora, which still has a large number of books , papers, Gramaphone records and the photographs of his family, with the hope of regrouping himself.  Now abandoned, this will be the perfect place for Yambo to bring back the memories childhood days he had spent there, in building up his own . Though the initial days haven't been of any great help, slowly the place and its abundant collection of memorabilia, takes him to the days of his upbringing.

Yambo, opens up boxes after boxes, goes through the old newspapers, magazines, writings. Slowly he gets immersed into the task of learning the past of his family and himself. Those school days, his secret infatuation for his classmate Laila, who during the schooling left Italy and migrated to Brazil with her family.. He is apparently looking for the same face in every women he meet ever since. His own involvement in the resistance movement, his guilt of witnessing something unpleasant to a child and the fragmented memories of those days are now coming back to him.

The book is filed with illustrations, posters , book covers, poems, cartoon characters. Eco takes us through the days of his childhood, Yambo, tries to find his own identity through these, while connecting the missing points in his personal recovery.  The name of the book itself is adopted from a picture book.

Umberto Eco takes us through the days of second world war, with people living out of fear. Fear of both the allied forces bombing and that of the suspicious eyes of the 'black shirts' ( Mussolini's police). His family themselves had soft corner towards the internal resistance forces and the people secretly nourished a hope of allied forces arriving and ending the war. This has some of the best writings in this book, including few poems.

Dear Papa, my hands are shaking some,
but you will understand what I am saying.
It's been so many days since you left home
and yet you haven't told me where you're staying.
As for the tears that trickle down my cheek,
you can be sure they're only tears of pride.
I still can see you smile and hear you speak,
and your Balilla waits for you, arms wide.
I am helping in the war, I am fighting, too,
with discipline, with honour, and with faith.
I want this land of mine to bear good fruit,
so I tend my little garden every day
( my own war garden!) and ask God each night
to watch you, to make sure my dad's all right.

Yambo suffers another attack and his delirious time, bring him back to the life that he lived in his young days. It is also becoming clearer to him as the 'fog' that covers the truth is now clearing.

Interestingly, the language and style changes in each of the parts. The first part, with Yambo in his present with loss of memory , Yambo through the pages at Salora and the last part with Yambo back in Coma but able to comprehend and remembers everything clearly; each written with a style suitable to the part. Typical to Eco's book, this too appeal more to your intellect, that to your emotive side. Brilliant , nonetheless.

Here is an interview with Eco where he talks about this book.


The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004)

Umberto Eco ( Translated from Italian by Geoffrey Brock)

Vintage Books

458 Pages

Rs 429/-

Further read : NY Times ReviewTimes

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Invitation to a Beheading - Vladimir Nabokov

Cincinnatus C. ( sin-sin-at-us?) has been sentenced to death by beheading , for some crime classified as "gnostical turpitude". As is the customs, the judge whispered the sentence in his ears with all smile. The smile was in the room and nobody seems to be bothered in particular. Cincinnatus has now been moved into a fortress for his confinement until his head is placed on the 'chop-block'. The wait as no time limit. It is now for the authorities to prepare and execute the order. In the solitary cell, Cincinnatus is trying to come to terms with the surroundings. All he wanted to know is how much is the time left.

However is the attempt by the prison warder, the librarian, the fellow jailer to bring him back to the reality does not yield result, he refuses to get into the routine of their life. The appearance of the 'executor' as a fellow prisoner, to acquaint with his 'victim' ( some pages of faster reading), does not make any impact on him. All he ask is for a few blank sheets and the pen. In confinement, he thus starts writing. But he is not sure if he will be able to complete all that he wanted to say. Even before he was taken to the final destination, all he ask is three more minute to complete what he writing.

Within all these, he refuses to believe the system and the existence of reality. There is nothing he wanted from the meeting of his family. He even refuses to talk to Martha, his wife, rejects her offer to perform whatever he wanted, as he has already been away from all these.Even at the moment of the axe falling on his neck, his real self has already been departed and 'with a clarity he had never experienced before".

Invitation to a beheading is a difficult novel to read. Very Kafkaesque ( though Nabokov denies in the foreword , of having any influence by him) world where the individual is not able to fit himself in the society that is being forced upon him. In his world only he is real and the rest of the cast is a parody and living false life. The attempt to mingle and be part of that is extremely difficult. Nabokov, would have written this possibly with respect to the new Soviet society in mind. State runs and controls everything, the individual has no reason to be, but a part of the society.

"when I first understood that things which to me had seemed natural were actually forbidden, impossible, that any thought of them was criminal."

On the other hand, he is the prisoner of his own fortress. The alternate world that he is building in the self imposed confinement, is the one which crumbles in the end along with the execution of his ego. The build up collapses, the surrounding looses it significance, the people becoming two-dimensional. "Every thing was coming apart, every thing was falling. Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood being akin to him".

Nabokov is a master of writing, and it is obvious in his prose. Having said that, this book somehow failed to connect me with the 'hero' and the theme in general. Haven't read any other work apart from Lolita, which stands much above this one.

Invitation to a Beheading ( 1939)

Vladimir Nabokov (translated by Dimitri Nabokov 1959)

Vintage International

223 Pages

Rs 485
Reviews : Conversational Reading,