Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Government inspector ( Play) & Five stories - Nikolai Gogol

Chanced upon an old book published by Raduga Publishers (when the erstwhile USSR had an influence in these parts of the world ), with a relative of mine. Interesting combination of one of the famous play ( The Government inspector) and five of the popular short stories of one of the most popular writer in the 19th century Russia, Nikolai Gogol ( along with Pushkin and  Checkov ).

The Government Inspector, written in 1834, is supposed to be written after an anecdote by Pushkin, takes on the St.Petersburg aristocracy and the government machinery in general under the Tsar's rule.  After the first performance of this play in 1836, the Tsar Nicolas I, supposed to have commented "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!"

A remote town bureaucracy, is shaken one day by the news that a government officer under disguise is arriving in the town. The clandestine operation, the feared, is to witness and report the corruption and wrong doings of the officials to St.Petersburg. The who and who, of the bureaucracy under the leadership of the local mayor had an emergency meeting to take the necessary steps, to welcome the unknown visitor. This includes, hiding their petty crimes of corruption, cleaning up of the town, making sure that the prominent places like the jail, the school, the local hospital , the court etc are in clean and presentable.

Soon, it was reported by two local land owners ( Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky) that the local inn have a distinguished guest, with suspicious behaviour. They have concluded that , he is the inspector, and a delegation under the leadership of the Mayor goes to receive him. The guest, Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov, a St.Petersburg clerk is having a tough time with the inn-keeper, for not having paid any money for this stay and food so far. The inn-keeper refuses to feed him and threatens to take action. To this scene comes the Mayor and team. On Mayor's insistence Khlestakov, agrees to stay in the house of the Mayor as his official guest. Having realised that he was mistaken for some senior official, he decides to play along and make merry. In the brief time in the house, he manages to collect a large sum of money from various people, flirts with the Mayor's wife and daughter ( promising to marry her) , and fled the place taking the best horses available.

The five short stories collectively called as "St.Petersburg Stories". Like the play above, here too, Gogol focussed his satire on the St,Petersburg society.   Nevsky Prospekt talks about the glitter and glamour of uptown St Petersburg and the temptation of two youths. Piskareve, a young artist, falls in love with a beauty who turns out to be a prostitute. He commits suicide in the end. While Pirogov, the lieutenant survives his life after his love with a German immigrant, only to be despatched by her husband.  Second story 'The Nose' is  absurd and funny. Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, realises one morning, that he has lost his nose. The place where it belonged, is now empty and ugly. His attempts to find out and get the nose back in its place is the event of the story. Kovalev, has seen the nose walking on the streets and he failed to collect him and get him on its original place. His attempt to put an advertisement in the herald was rejected, for the fear of public by the editor, his attempt to file a complaint at the authorities was also failed. In the meanwhile, his barber finds the nose, in his soup the same morning. He was unable to recollect any incident while shaving him the previous morning. 

The Great coat and the Portrait are the best of the stories.  Akaky Akakievich Bushmachkin, is a short man, and is the target for his colleagues jeer and ridicule. All day he sits at one place in the office and copy papers. His only materialistic need is to have a new coat. His existing coat is so old and worn out, that the threads are not able to hold together. his tailor refuses to fix the coat saying any attempts to correct this will only make things worse. He suggest that a new coat be made.  So, he starve and collect money from his meagre earning and finally the coat is made. His happiness was short lived as he was robbed of his coat. His desperate attempt to seek help from the authorities failed as "the important personage" was not willing to listen. Despair and cold lead to his death. Poprischin, of Diary of a madman , is like the characters of the other stories, is poor and insignificant. But he wonders why there is so much unjust in this world. Why is all the good things goes only to the generals, he asks. This in fact is the crux of Gogol's writing. Gogol, looks at things from the poor man's angle and uses his writings to ask the questions to the society and the authorities.


The Government Inspector & Five Short Stories ( 1834-1840)

Nikolai Gogol  ( translated from Russian by Christopher English & Gordon McDougall )

Raduga Publishers , Moscow

318 Pages


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Baldwin

"The Word was fulfilled one morning, before she was awake. Many of the stories her mother told meant nothing to Florence; she knew them for what they were, tales told by an old black woman in a cabin in the evening to distract her children from cold and hunger. But the story of this day she was never to forget; it was a day for which she lived. There was a great running and shouting, said her mother, and as she opened her eyes to the light of that day, so bright and cold, she was certain that the judgement trumpet had sounded. Bathsheba shouted ," Rise up , rise up , Sister Rachel, and see God's deliverance ! He has brought us out of Egypt, just like he promised, and we are free at last !'

Slavery is banned, and the back people are 'liberated'.  However, there is no change in their living condition. The community is still isolated and have their own world of living. The white man is still an evil. Their livelihood is still depended on the work provided by the white folks. The year is 1935, and it is half a century past the the declaration and the situation is not improved greatly. Some of the people moved up ( those subject of this novel), migrating from the hard affected South to the 'greener pastures' of the North, without any great difference.

I had not heard his name until recently and after reading this book, I will definitely put him along with the other Black American Writers I have read. This book was published in 1953, his first book. Spanning over a day and a night mass, this emotional, spiritual and partly gospel book takes us through the emotional liberation of three elders and a spiritual awakening of the young John Grimes. John Grimes,  goes through the spiritual baptism on a Saturday night mass, lasting the whole night. The atmosphere is so powerful that his parents and aunt who kneel next to him in the prayer, goes through the process of redemption. Their sinful(?) pasts, their history hidden beneath the surface for a long time and their internal anger and fear, all come out of the closet. One after other they recounts and re-validate their life against the spiritual and moral measures of the church and goes through the process of cleansing. John Grimes, on whose 14th birthday, when the mass is organised, collapses at the end and goes through delirious fits and visions. However, he seeks the help of the God to take him through and emerge as blessed.

The crux of the narrative is the second part which belongs to Gabriel, Elizabeth and Florence. Florence, is the first to rebel the household. Decided to leave the house and ailing mother in custody of Gabriel, she moves to New York. While her life hasn't been all that great, she maintains her contact with the family. Gabriel, after the death of the mother was living with Deborah, elder to him, who in her younger ages was raped by a group of white men, was his emotional and moral support, through the troubled years. After the death of his wife he moves to New York, and marry Elizabeth, who already have a son from Richard. Richard, a nice young man was accused falsely, commits suicide on his return from the Police. As their life is , the relationship is also as fragile, as you see in the first part. Gabriel, always angry make his family suffers from his moods. John, who carry a perpetual hatred for his step-father. Gabriel's own son in Elizabeth, Roy, constantly gets to fistfights at the neighbourhood and comeback with stab injuries. Gabriel himself had a son in one of the young lady, where he used to work. But his own prejudice and the circumstances, prevent him to accept them into his life, sending the pregnant lady away to the north and to eventual death.

The final pages, rich and complex in narrative is on John going through his trance. Baldwin uses some fantastic writing here as John experiences divine vision and prophetic words, and seeking the help of this friends and dears, he comes out successfully. However, as the mass ended, and the tears dried from reconciliation with the God, they return back to their lives, to their fragile relationships, to the world of irony and poverty.

There is a constant undercurrent of 'rage'. This rage is so into their daily system, that it comes out against their own folks, on themselves. Some of the folks turns anti social element, while the rest take refuge in the Jesus. The spurting of churches and masses through out the black community is an effort to direct this towards prayers. However, there is no escape. The constant struggle between the temptation and redemption is route in their culture. Every individual fights this battle. The self doubt on sinning, the inability to fight the temptation ( both sexual and social ) , the rage within, and the redemption , all goes hand in hand. On this day of salvation, every one has to goes through the torments of their sins. Everyone of them have to re-live their life in front of the altar. 

James Baldwin writes a profound story. Very powerful and hard. Without being vocal and rough and violent, he is able to get the portray the anger very effectively. The language is beautiful, the style and structure is not of a novice. There are many references to the ancient text and situations, and my limited understanding of those, might have hampered by reading to a certain extent.


Go Tell in on the Mountain ( 1953 )

James Baldwin

Penguin Modern Classics

256 Pages


Read More : Shigekuni , Wiki

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Not Not While the Giro - James Kelman

Considered as one of the leading exponent of Working class literature, James Kelman's first collection of short stories, published in 1983 was a huge success. Stories about these working class people, who live an abandoned life in rented cottages and the dreaded factories. The work in the day time at stupid conditioned, the evening usually spent in the pub over a pint, some gambling. The concerns of every one is the same. The hand to mouth kind of living, no luxury whatsoever. Most of them live out of the weekly unemployment money they receive or the meagre wages, spending the money in first couple of days on 'pint' , on gambling ( dog races, horses, on cards, on pool table) often defaulting on the rents, living last few days starving.

Most of them are alone, living in small cottages, along with co workers , isolated from the near and dear. Few occasions of being near to the fairer sex, they are often confused and does not know how to proceed ( Stories like 'Ten  guitar, the hitch hiker and Jim Dandy').

This collection has some fantastic stories. Not Not while the Giro the story carries the name of the collection, is the best for me. Over the perennial wait for the Giro ( the unemployment benefit), the lavish living over the weekend, the struggle for the last 4 days, before the next payout. But he never stopped to dream of his life out of this. He is not happy with the free money, he has his on dreams and plans

    Seriously, I am fed up with being fed up. What do I wish

             I shall not entertain day dreams
             I shall not fantasise
             I shall endeavor to make things work
The situation is so bad, that there is a scene, where he suck his own thumb, hoping for some traces of nicotine taste.

Acid, a one paragraph, half a page story talks about an accident in a chemical factory, where a young worker falls into a tank of acid, screaming for help before he succumb to death. There is nothing can be done to save him, when an old man comes over using a mopping stick to push the still floating head the remaining down to the acid, who happens to be the father of the dead.

In the house of old women, we see three young men in a newly rented house, fighting over small comforts and see the deterioration of the friendship. Jim Dandy, contrary to his image seems to be struggling with himself when the opportunity arise. Nice to be nice is one story took ages for me to complete. Written completely in the local dialect, had be reading it for four hours. 'Ten Guitars', 'The hitchhiker' and 'Double or clear plus a tenner' are other important stories.

There is an undercurrent of anger, by the writer while the up front is detached. The society, in general and the authorities in particular aren't in sympathy with them. Though they do not rebel against the system, they do so in the ways and means they are familiar with.

James Kelman uses the swear language liberally in his writing. I was amazed at my first reading of this writer ( A Disaffection) on the number of four letter words per page. I heard form othere too that the initial reaction for them wasn't any different. But as you get used to his style and his writing background, you starts appreciating this writer. In this collection too, the people are the working class, and they have the right to speak the language and Kelman uses it to its best effects.

Acclaimed collection of short stories, one of the first to be published by Kelman, who later went on to win the Booker in 1994.

Not Not While the Giro ( 1983 )

James Kelman


207 Pages


Friday, March 05, 2010

Links - Nuruddin Farah

"All you can get from me is war.

If you want peace, go away from my Country"
                                              - Sayyid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan

His name has been in prominence in the Nobel discussions for a while, and there had been few rave reviews about his books. While, I could not get the more famous works of him, I did manage to find this book in India. In this recent novel written in 2004 ( knots , written in 2007 is the last novel) , Farah once again look at his country after the US peace keeping forces withdrew from Mogadiscio.

Jeebleh, an exiled Somali man returns to his homeland, to pay homage and make peace with the spirit of his mother ( and with himself). Like every expatriates, he is also haunted by the image of his homeland and cant stay away from his own past linked to this place. An incident which almost brought him near death in NY street ( taxi driven by a Somali driver run over him) could have acted as a catalyst to bring him to his home country. He has also heard of the abduction of the niece of his close friend Bile, and wanted to help him in whatever way possible.

He was welcomed at the makeshift airport by a sight of random killing of a young boy for sport, by three unruly youth. Al-Laafe, an unknown man was sent to pick him up from the airport by someone ( again unknown t him). It was obvious that some one is tracking him in his journey and he can feel their presence through out his stay.

Once you are in Somalia, you cant stay out of what is happening, around you. You get dragged into the quagmire of clan rivalry without you realising it. He offended his own clan elders, acted against the religious belief, by saving a dog from a mad boy. Someone sneaked into his hotel room, only to be killed by the hotel securities, and he always found himself being followed and watched from close quarters.

"Truth was one of the first casualties of the war" says his friend. As he realises that there aren't anyone you can trust, there are no friends, "we don't think of 'friends' anymore. We rely on our clansmen...sharing ancestral blood.".. "Times were when we knew who was bad and who was good. Such distinctions are now blurred. We are at best good badmen or bad badmen".

His pursuit for finding out about his mother and the two kidnapped kids is what the book is all about. He does manage to do what he came here for ( to make peace with the spirit of his mother), and the revenge he schemed secretly.

The book does bring out the bitter truth of the war, the American Soldiers in Mogadiscio, the money in play through UN relief funds, other international agencies and their operatives in Somalia, the misappropriation of the goods shipped in for the Somalis , the stolen cars market , the human organ trafficking ... The business interests of keeping the clan rivalry on.. Farah does some tough talk here. That is what this book all about. Very loosely held incidents and weak plot, unconvincing most of the part.

Many of my friends were talking about the poetic language used in his novels( while talking about secrets and maps), but not this one. It had pretty hard and plain language. It did have few political and social analysis, but far from being poetic. The fact that the book was written originally in English by Farah, could possibly have hampered his free use of language ( and the help of translators).


Links (2004)

Nuruddin Farah

Riverhead Books

336 Pages


Further Read: Guardian , Penguin