Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Successor - Ismail Kadare

In 1981, Mehmet Shehu, the prime minister and the designated successor of Enver Hoxha , the dictator of Albania, dies in mysterious circumstances. He was found dead by a gun shot, in his house, supposedly committed suicide. It was unclear whether it was a suicide or murder, and was a news for the rest of the world for some time.

Ismail Kadare's book 'The Successor', is based on this event and its aftermaths. He play along the line of speculation of suicide or murder, looking at the events through the eyes of various stake holders. Successor, recently fallen out of favour with 'the Guide ( supreme leader of Albania), after the engagement of his daughter to one of the rich families of Tirana, thus tainted as a traitor, foreign agent and a bourgeois.

Kadare looks at this event from various perspective, trying to understand the motives and the effects of the same. After the initial rumours the political and civil society of Tirana is hoping to hear from the Guide, to formally come out with explanation. Guide on his part, keep the suspense on, giving indications of clearing the deceased of his committed crime and re-instating his past glory. The family of the Successor was bundled into a van and was taken away to internal exile. The others in the polit-bureau are not spared. The next in line, whom the rest is expected to be named as new Successor, was also trapped by some clever manipulations by the Guide. With more people biting the dust, the Guide himself seems to be not in control. He is ailing, with diabetes and loss of vision.

Kadare, in his typical satirical style, manages to bring out the fear and paranoia affected the society, effectively. None, including the Guide is not away from that. The Successor himself speak from his grave ( post the death of Hoxha), talking about the fate of Albania. The end pages have some fantastic writing by Kadare.


The Successor

Ismail Kadare ( translated from the French of Tedi Papavrami by David Bellos)

Arcade Publishing, New York.

207 Pages

Other reviews: Complete Review, Guardian , Wordswithoutborders , The monthly

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

84 year old Nikolai, recently widowed, announces to his daughter that he is planning to marry a 36 year old Ukrainian lady. Apart from the other domestic support and help he is expecting, she is intelligent and can discuss Nietzsche and other intellectuals with him; also the honourable mention was her large bosom ( to the discomfort of the daughters). It is not as simple. One, he is just been widowed and it is not easy to get the daughters to agree with him. More importantly, the lady herself is married and she has to obtain the divorce certificate from her current husband, an intelligent man who is a director of a technical school. Nikolai, an exile from Ukraine over half a century is also been thrilled by rescuing another family from the hopeless state of affairs in that country. For Valentina to remain in Britain, she needs to obtain a visa and the only way to get one is to marry someone of this country.

Things soon progresses and without the involvement of the daughters, they get married.  Young voluptuous lady, soon gets into her real motives. She continue to torment the old man for her petty needs, buying various attractions of the west for them , including cars of various make. The inability of the old man to go along the demand makes her angry and to physical abuse, including locking up in room.

The sisters now get together and plan to rescue the father from the mess. They approach the authorities to deport her back, to get the marriage null and void, to make sure that there is protection for the old man.. but to no great effect. However, the situation improves after an incident in a hospital and they manages to get the lady out of the house, but the threat and exploitation continue. With some smart maneuver they manages to get the divorce and her deportation orders.

The old man , an engineer wanting to write a book on the evolution of tractors ( thus the name of this book) manages to complete the book and present it to the husband of Valentina, whom he befriends. The extract of the book being written is given at various chapters of this book.

Two sparring daughters ( over the distribution of wealth after the death of their mother) get together to rescue their father fro the clutches of a cunning and manipulating Ukraininan lady, while trying to understand their own past and roots in history.

Often witty, and easy flowing, the book will have your attention till the end. However, beyond that cheap thrill of 'what next' this book is pretty hollow. The description of tractors and the family history during their days under World War II does not seems to be getting along with the main theme.


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Marina Lewycka

Penguin Books

326 Pages

Read More : Complete-review

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Inquisitor's Manual - Antonio Lobo Antunes

There are certain books, when finished leave you in a state of void. You need time to sink it in and realise.  They continue to haunt you for a while by their sheer brilliance.  This one is one such book. I have been pondering over it ever since I have finished it - a good ten days back. I have completed another two in the meanwhile.

His name have been going round during the Nobel speculation of last year. Honestly, I haven't heard his name before that. The book, I could get hold of was this ( after some mention about this in dictator novels). I must say, this writer has amazed me with his style, language and ability to create an atmosphere of brilliance in writing.

This is not a traditional novel. The story does not flow in sequence, not does it comply to any of the norms of story telling. As the name suggest, its a collection on events, reminiscence, and history unearthing the story to the reader. Circling around Francesco, a minister in the Salazar's regime which ruled Portugal over 50 years, the story looks at the events that followed the fall of the regime and a socialist government is taken control.  Francesco, in his farm house far from Lisbon, where he conducted his official duty, where he received the who and who of the regime, including the regular visit of Salazar himself, accompanied by the militia. Now, the place is deserted, he sending away all the support staffs from his house.

The story is build very slowly, through various people going through their association with Francesco , often getting into their own life rather than that of Francesco ( their past, present and dreams). The unknown narrator, of present day, prepares his manual with interviews , rhetorics  of individuals who are revealed gradually to the reader as his son, his foster daughter, his maid, mistresses, his wife, his driver and others.

Now, dispossessed of his stature, lying in the hospital bed, being controlled/abused by the nurse ( "Wee wee, Senhor Francisco, time for wee-wee, you dont want to wet your nice clean pyjamas, do you, Senhor Francisco?" ) , he is no more the once feared cruel ( who sent his team to kill his estranged wife and her lover) individual. As his daughter recounts " my father without any majesty, whom no one consulted on how to run the country, whom no one asked "And what Minister, should we do about Europe at this time? "

The power and arrogance of the landowner, his brutal rise and fall. His disappointment over the failure to become the successor of Salazar, the fear and torture of the people under the dictatorship, his lack of class ( often ridiculed by the people of higher society), his eccentric choices of mistresses (a girl half his age who wasn't pretty, or even cute, or even very clean, a girl you wouldn't even notice if you passed her in the street, a bit dumpy, a bit awkward, a bit lethargic, I can't imagine what the man saw in her, if at least she were intelligent or charming, but she wasn't, she was a bashful dishrag, a frightful blob... ) and the funny way of lovemaking .. Antonio Antunes makes a powerful story of a dictatorship through the example of the minister.

Book is often funny.. very subtle dark humour at most places and occasional silly ones ( the soldiers taking positions and shooting in the directions of clouds, because a rain drop had fallen on the face of Salazar). While tragic in nature, the writing has a detached style in it and it does not get to the reader as open as it is. On the negative side, I found most people reminisce in the same way, bitter and sarcastic. There are clever use of repetitive sentences, abruptly ended hanging sentences through out the book, including the ending of the novel
how can I say this, how can I make it clear, please tell my idiotic son that I may not have been but that, tell him that I may have made mistake but that,
tell my idiotic son, do you hear, tell my idotic son

please don't forget to tell my idotic son that in spite of everything I

Unique writing style, rich in vocabulary, deep and engrossing novel.. fantastic..


The Inquisitors Manual ( 1996)

Antonio Lobo Antunes ( translated from Portuguese  by Richard Zenith )

Grove Press

435 Pages


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Zen and the Art of Falling in Love - Charlotte Kasl

Could not find more apt book to read on a Valentine month. But it wasn't worth the effort. Once again, I was fooled by the title and the blurb , which said " ....draws upon a range of spiritual traditions - from Christianity to Buddhism - to reveal how we can forge lasting , meaningful relashionships...". So was the credentials of the author.

Zen and the Art of Falling in Love, as the title suggest is a guide to all those seeking relationship. However, there isn't anything spiritual about it apart from the initial pages. The book divided into 6 parts, and only the first part that really deal with the spiritual and religious aspect of life and love. For me that was the only interesting part of the whole reading. There are lot of references to the Buddist and Sufi way of living with lot many anecdotes and stories. The rest of the part follows the typical 'how to' guides of dating , engagement , first encounter, love at first sight kind of discussion. The book is intended to the western and American audience, hence there is little that make sense to this part of the world. Here there is still a strong influence of the family and society on the individuals life and their partners. Some of the inhibitions of the western individuals may not be applicable here to the same degree of relevance.

To retain the spiritual nature of the work ,there are quotes from the verses of Khalil Jibran and Jalaluddin Rumi, through out this book. However, that alone does not make the book a better read. May be I am the wrong reader for this kind of books.


Zen and the Art of Falling in Love ( 1999 )

Charlotte Kasl

Bantom Books

268 Pages