Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Library of Shadows - Mikkel Birkegaard

"Luca Campelli's wish to die surrounded by his beloved books came true late one night in October". But the life of his son, a successful lawyer in a reputed firm in Copenhagen is about to change. Estranged from his father after the tragic death of his mother, grown up hating him for over 20 years, Jon would never have expected to be invited for the funeral function. Luca is running successfully an antiquarian book stall for over half a century and Jon, being the only heir inherit the bookshop as natural choice.
Iverson, the long time companion of his father invites him to discuss the future and a new world is about to open in front of Jon. Slowly, he realises the existence of a bibliophile society, whose own life surround the library and and the is the regular meeting place of the members. It is here that he understand the power of reading, and its effect on human, including some of the extreme possibilities including death of individuals. It is thus possible that his father too , would have died by possible manipulation by some of his enemies.

The story now turns into one of the typical thrillers, albeit with the over cast of the library and literary settings. Jon, get immersed in the activity of finding the truth of the death and the truth about his own life, on the reasons of his mothers death and his obvious (now) alienation from his father. The writer then takes us through the typical thriller settings with every second person being a suspect, the two rebel groups of receivers and transmitters ( of the reading group - one who can influence the listeners by their oral powers are transmitters and those who can influence the reading by controlling the readers mind with the ability to manage their mind remotely) with each group blaming each other. A perceived underground organisation with history tracing back to the time before Christ and to an exotic location at Alexandria.

I am not a great reader of this genre of fiction and thus my excitement after reading this is limited. However, the writer have managed to keep the necessary suspense and maintained a fast paced narrative. I have not found the writing style to be impressive, which could be because of the translation if not for the general style of these type of novels.

A Danish thriller, a la Da Vinci Code, covered under the literally thriller camouflage. If you are a reader of these type of fictions, you most likely are going to go gaga over this as some of the reviews below.

The Library of Shadows ( 2007 )

Mikkel Birkegaard ( Translated from Danish by Tiina Nunnally)

Black Swan Books

430 Pages

Rs 325

Other reviews : Fantasy Book Critic , Thriller Fiction Suite

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In the Palm of Darkness - Mayra Montero

Victor Grigg, an American Herpetologist goes in quest of an elusive and under the threat of extinction, Eleutherodactylus sanguineus, in the remote hills of Haiti. Thierry Adrien, local guide, with his past experience of supporting such expedition is his company. Alternating two tales, one through the expedition coupled with his personal troubles and the other through the stories narrated by Thierry about his past expeditions, his family , his friends and the Haitian society. Victor is fighting a personal battle, with his continued alienation with his wife, who prefers to travel with her girlfriend to Tibet, and spend more and more time with her. His no so fond childhood memories in his fathers ranch amongst the Ostriches ( he remembers his wife's unhappiness of visiting the place) and his cordial relationship with his parents and colleagues.

Thierry on the other hand has gone through a very harsh childhood. His early childhood memories involve the gala party organised in his house and the unhappiness of his mother over certain visiting aunties. It was only question of time before the un-favoured aunty came into his family ( post his mothers death) , revealing more and more of his fathers un-holy relationship. Young Thierry, doing errands for his father, helping visiting foreigners as their tour guide, helping one to retrieve his lost wife from the mountains. However, the situation in Haiti is not so good, as the lawlessness and killing are rampant. One has no way to escape the turmoil and many of his brothers gets killed.

The expedition did not receive with the same enthusiasm with certain group in Haiti. Their threat was omnipresent and Victor and Thierry had to abandon their search in the Mont des Enfants Perdus ( near Port Au Prince) and move to more remote Casetache mountains. But the situation here too was dangerous, and they had only few days before they were to vacate this place as well.

Alternating narrative between Victor and Thierry , with Victor going through his troubled family life and the expedition diary and Thierry taking us through his life and family is an interesting mix. Victors wife Martha, is on her way out of the marriage often spending time with her girl friend, with Victor immersed in his research activities. Thierry on the other hand is re-living his eventful life to his master, in an attempt to redeem himself. His relationship with his own step-mother and step-sister ( before she was married by his brother), his involvement with the underground organisations, his association with a scientist and his girl friend - the Indian lady Ganesha the eventual fall of status and the turmoil in the country were all very rich, tragic and moving. Mayra Montero also get into giving us the statistical and scientifical detail about the extinction of species in the natural world.

Cuban born Puertorico based author, writing about Haiti. Translation was by Edith Grossman , which prompted me to take this book up. US based herpetologist, coming over to Haiti mountains, in search of an endangered frog, being helped by a local guide. Alternating the narrative between the Scientist and the guide , one going through his domestic troubles and the other telling his life story of survival, violence, the underground society. Very exotic setting, but not delivered beyond that. Pretty weak,overall.


In the Palm of Darkness ( 1995 )
Mayra Montero ( Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman )

Harper Flamingo Publications

183 Pages
Other Reviews : Angel Rivera , Washington Post ,

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani

'In the spring of the year, a comet launched itself over the skies. It was brighter than any comet we had ever seen, and more evil. Night after night, it crawled across our skies spraying its cold white seeds of sorrow".. Villagers have noticed mysterious signs and the misfortunes caused by the comet. Plague had stuck northern Iran, an earthquake rattled the earth, rare insects invaded the fields and destroyed the corps.. '

Our protagonist, a 14 year old girl, un-named, lived happily with her parents this time. As every family in her village, they had a good life, with father working at the fields, and she learning the great art of making the carpet, mixing the paints, and doing errands at the family. The ill-effect of the comet stuck her family too, in the form of death, taking away her father. Sudden demise of her father, toppled her hope of getting married ( as she is already 14) and a decent living. The family left with no one had to move to Isfahan ( the capital city of Shah) to her uncle who is the chief designer of Carpets at Shah's court. Everything wasn't as good for the mother and daughter as they were housed in the servant quarters, and having to work in the kitchen for a living, often eating the left over of the family along with other servants. However, the girls interest in carpet designing got the curiosity of her uncle and he was willing to help her. The uncle-niece relation has now been moved into a guru-disciple relation, she learning the trick of the trade under his guidance.

The luck had taken a positive turn as one wealthy horse trader, recently widowed, seeking her under 'sigheh' ( temporary marriage contract - prevalent in Iran during those time). Compelled into accepting the contract, for the want of money and the commission for a large carpet, she is now had to prepare herself for his summon and surrender to his needs as a wife. The contract , which lasts for three months, had to be extended for the flow of money, and had to be remain a secret for her future. The initial relationship, soon changes into one of the raging sexual and physical encounters between the two, only to be extended by the beneficiary. Unable to conceive and convinced that he will not legalise the contract by marrying her ( as she is from a poor family from north), she discontinues the contract at the end of 3rd season. The fact that he had married again, to her close friend had influenced her decision. The break of contract did not go well with her adopted family, and soon the mother and daughter was thrown out of the house. Nowhere to go, and no money to survive, they moved into the slums with another poor family. The situation get worse with the mother falling ill, to the brink of death, and no money to neither feed her nor to get any medicinal help. She had to turn to the street begging, often returning empty handed. All that begins well ends well, with she finding her midas touches with her carpet being chosen by the ladies of Shah's harem and a reconciliation with her uncle.

Medieval Persia is interesting place with its rich culture and arts. Persia with its age old tradition of oral narrative (Scheherazade), the famous Persian Carpets and the age old custom of 'short term marriage contract' are wedged together into this novel by Iran-American writer Anita Amirrezvani. While the author had done a decent job in combining the 3 facts together with considerable effect, the novel by itself does not deliver beyond the obvious. It remain in the ordinary narrative and does not turn into a tour de force. Average novel.


The Blood of Flowers ( 2007 )

Anita Amirrezvani

Little Brown & Company

378 Pages

Other reviews : Popmatters, Persia Mirror ( Interview with the author)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Book of Chameleons - José Eduardo Agualusa

Félix Ventura , an Albino, living in Angola, has an interesting profession. He make a living by dealing with memory, by fabricating past for people. His clientele , includes the ministers, the neo-rich, the aristocrats, the diamond smugglers and other prominent personalities.  His business card reads : 'Felix Ventura. Guarantee your children a better past’.  He is a thorough professional. The past of his esteemed clients are created with meticulous details, including photographs, references, the family tree, relevant documents, establishing credentials.

There was a whole class, he explained, a whole new bourgeoisie, who sought him out. They were businessmen, ministers, landowners, diamond smugglers, generals -- people, in other words, whose futures are secure. But what these people lack is a good past, a distinguished ancestry, diplomas. In sum, a name that resonates with nobility and culture. He sells them a brand new past.

But all that is going to get a little complicated, with the arrival of a foreigner seeking his service. " I'm a photojournalist. I collect images of wars, of hunger and its ghosts, of natural disasters and terrible misfortunes. You can think of me as a witness."  He is nameless and need Felix to build his past. "I've had many names, but I mean to forget them all. I'd rather you were the one to baptize me."

The foreigner, now named José Buchmann, managed to convince Felix with a tempting offer of money, half in advance and the rest on completion. The task was done as usual with precise details and made up characters. However, the situation turned a bit creepy, as Jose Buchmann, goes in search of his ancestors and seek convincing evidences of their real existence. He travels across the globe, as described in the document prepared, collecting further details and confirmatory documentation to the surprise ( and  shock) of Felix. The fiction is turning into a reality.

A relatively straight forward story now takes a different turn with the arrival of another young lady photographer ( Angela) and an ex-agent of Ministry of State Security (Edmundo Barata dos Reis - "I'm the very last communist south of the equator" ) comes into the scene. The simple tale is now get into a serious political thriller, a murder mystery and a budding love story. Angola, the war-torn former Portuguese colony has a hidden past of turmoil  beneath the relative recent calm. Centuries old oppression and the recent histories of abduction, cheating and torture have to be re-lived once again through the stories and buried forever with appropriate act of redemption.

Interestingly, the narrator here is a gecko. A lizard, Eulálio, an re-incarnation of a human soul, trying to re-live his past through the co-habitation with human, witnessing and recounting everything he sees. The writer tactically, indicates that the lizard is indeed human, by starting with an epigraph by Borges  " If I were born again, I'd like to be something completely different". In an interview which is given in the last pages, he says this book is in tribute to the great writer.  Gecko , not  a silent spectator in this novel, he lives his own past life through the pages ( including a passage about his death), have dreams and also confide with Felix in his lonely life.

Felix on his part also goes through his past of poverty and humble living,  while creating a past for others. His dreams and childhood memories continue to haunt him.
"The priest talked of angels, and I saw chickens. To this day, in fact, of all the things I've seen, chicken are still the ones that most closely resembles angels. He talked of heavenly joy, and I saw chickens scrabbling away in the sun, digging up little nests in the sand, turning their little glass eyes in pure mystical bliss. I can't imagine Paradise without chickens. I can even imagine the Great God, reclining lazily on a fluffy bed of clouds, without his being surrounded by a gentle host of chickens. You know something -- I've never known a bad chicken -- have you? Chickens, like white ants, like butterflies, are altogether immune against evil."

There are umpteen references to living and past writers of word stage. From Marques , Borges, Kafka, Burton, JM Coertzee, Montaigne and  Eça de Queiroz, comes in his discussion. Felix's father was a second hand book dealer. Eca, he said, was my first crib. Having lived with books in his early life and acquainted with characters of various fiction, have helped Felix in his profession.

 "I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature," he told me conspiratorially. "I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into a reality."

A beautiful narration, fantastic use of style and language. A political thriller, a murder mystery all combined in one beautiful exposition by one very talented writer. 

While the translation is of first class, I am not too convinced about the title used for the English translation. I understand that the Portuguese title is called, O vendedor de passados , and a literal translation ( a seller of past histories ?) would have done more justice.


The Book of Chameleons (2004)

José Eduardo Agualusa (  translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn )

Simon & Schuster

185 Pages

Other Reviews : Guardian , New Int , Quarterly Conversation, Complete Review , Independent