Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rice Without Rain - Minfong Ho

Four young students from the university arrives at a village during their summer holidays, wanting to spend their time with the farmers and to understand their life. The year had been bad, as draught hit the farmers with another low harvest. The livelihood has been on few roots picked up the nearby hills. There isn't the usual happiness around the harvest as they will be left with almost nothing after the rents are paid. The arrival of students with rice and fish, had been a welcome change at least to a few households.

Jinda, the daughter of the village henchman Inthorn, did not anticipate the changes that are about to happen in her life post the arrival of the students. Students won the trust of the villagers against their fear of them being communists, manages to put across their idea of social reform and democracy. So much was the effect, the villagers refused to pay the normal rent, which is 50% of the harvest. Inthorn, the headman, was arrested and was subjected to torture and humiliation in the town jail.

Its now left to Jinda to try for the release of her father. Only support she seems to have is Ned, with whom she, by now, develop a close friendship. Its on his invite she moves to the town, with a hope of seeing her father. Her sister, discarded by her husband, now moves in with the rent collector. However, the situation in Bangkok is very intense. Students are rebelling against the government and is demanding further democracy. Jinda, now show cased as the daughter of farmers resistance leader, gets into the group of activists planning the agitation under Ned. The preparation was in full swing, but the event turns a catastrophe, as the police starts fire as soon as Jinda starts her speech. Jinda is estranged and had to flee, Ned is overseeing the rescue operations, he himself injured. The death of her father, greets her on return. Dejected and lost, she returns back to her life back in village, to take care of the last rites of her father.

The story line is promising, but the writing and language is not powerful enough and is too disjointed. Somewhere , it reduces itself to an ordinary story, not elevating the readers to the level of literary excitement. May be it was addressed to the 'young-adult' ( as per amazon.com catalogue) and I am too old for that.

Her wiki entry says, Minfong Ho spent two years in Thailand and this novel is the result of her experience with the villagers she had worked with.

She left two years later for Chiang Mai University in Thailand, where she worked as a lecturer in English. The subsequent two years she was going to spend in Chiang Mai had a deep impact on her. Together with her students and colleagues, Ho spent several periods living and working in nearby villages, as part of the ongoing student movement to alleviate rural poverty. While the student leaders were preoccupied with organizing the peasants into a political group in their search for democracy, Ho became more aware of the emotional world of the women and children there. She later commented that there was "so much beauty and so much pain in the world" around her that she wanted to write about.

I haven't read any other works of her, but going by this book, I am not too impressed. As I said earlier, this might not have been addressed to my kind of a reader.

Rice Without Rain ( 1986)

Minfong Ho

Andre Deutsch

184 Pages


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Yalo - Elias Khoury

"Yalo did not understand what was happening. The young man stood in front of the interrogator and closed his eyes, as he always did."

Yalo( Daniel Jalu'u) being interrogated for multiple crimes, including robbery, rape and storing arms and explosives. Under trial he was forced to make confessions by the interrogator. Each time he makes his speech, he was interrupted by the interrogator, asking him to fill the gaps of his narrative as it is incomplete. Thus Daniel alias Yalo goes over his confession over and over again, giving us further insights into the character and his life. Repeating the often told story, Yalo under torture and interruption by the authorities, goes through the same story with its subtle variations and view points again and again.

Interrogation is not new for him. In his childhood, he remember his grandfather, a priest, forces young Daniel to confess of crime he did not commit. After his confession, the priest changes back into grandfather and beat up the child. The history is repeating now in the form of interrogator.

Yalos life is complicated. His father has left his mother after the insistence of his grand father that the newly wed should stay with him. His grand father takes control of their life, stopping the new found love of his mother. His grandfather, enrolls him in school as his own son and surname, mentions his mother as his sister. But Yalo insists that " His grandfather is not his father and his mother is not his sister."

Yalos spends long time in the Lebanon's sectarian civil war ( not a good soldier though), escaping to Paris towards the end living a refugee life. He was found and rescued from the basement by a rich Lebanese business man, who bring him back to be the bodu guard of his wife. Yalo, paid back to his rescuer by seducing his wife, and later using loop holes the Lebanese law, looted and raped innocent victims. The victims have turned up against him in the court of law, including Shireen, whom he loved and spent a lot of time together.

Yalo is a complicated character. Hence his narrative is also contrived and often contradicting. He does not give out the details in one instance. It becomes clearer and missing links were added of every repetition of the confession. Using Daniel (the alter ego) and Yalo ( the prime accused) Khoury presents the story of a city in real life.

The history of Beirut is riddled with war. The Syrians, the Kurds, the Turkish and the Arabs were all part of the people who invaded. People trying to hide their origins ( like his grand father who does not acknowledge his Kurdish ancestry), people trying to find their own identity. Story of Yalo is not an isolated story. Its the religious , political and historical back ground of the current day Beirut.

Elias Khoury's name has appeared in the Nobel speculation for this year. The book happened to attract my attention while waiting for the connecting flight. A brilliantly constructed novel, with some fantastic writing. Depicting the current life of Beirut. Though the story per se is very complicated and not detailed for a narration, the intricacies related the to the duality, and the unreliability of the person telling the story makes the reading very interesting.


Yalo ( 2002)

Elias Khoury ( translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davis in 2009)

Maclehose Press

344 Pages

More read : Quarterly Conversation, L A Times, Archipelago Books Review , Interview with Khoury

Friday, August 27, 2010

Purge - Sofi Oksanen

Meet Aliide Truu, living an isolated life in a remote Estonian Village in 1992. Her only daughter is moved to Finland an year ago and haven't visited her since then. The village is becoming less inhabited, as more and more people are leaving the country side moving to the city. Apart for a  few hooligans pelting stones at her house, there isn't anyone interested in her living in the country. To this setting, lands Zara, a young girl running away from her captors - the Russian Mafia men , dirty, bruised physically and mentally.

It was made obvious to the readers that the young girl, running away from the Russian Sex Trafficking Mafia, after going through some of the worst time of her life since leaving her home at Vladivostok. But, how did she end up at this remote village ?  It is not by chance, but there is some definite connection between the old lady and Zara, which is not revealed to Aliide. The girls speaks very crude form of Estonian, "Older, yellow and moth eaten". Zara produces an old photo of Aliide and her sister Ingel, without explaining how she happen to possess it, only to receive the denial from Aliide, about having a sister.

But, this photo triggered, the chain of thoughts in Aliide, taking us to the days of German siege, end of World war and the occupation by Soviet Forces. This parts takes us through some of the best writing in the book. The upbringing of the sisters, the rebellion against the soviet militia, the underground resistance organisation which they are either part of or supportive of, surviving torture and humiliation. Both Aliide and Ingel fell in love with the same person, Hans Pekk , member of the resistance organisation, but it was Ingel who won his heart. The situation soon turned worse after the Russian invasion,  Hans had to escape to the woods evading which hunt. The sisters spread the story of his death around the village, but the authorities are not convinced. They were summoned often to find the whereabout of Hans, and the authorities didn't even leave the young child, torturing and abusing them hoping to find a slight variations in their stories. Against all the rapes, beatings and torments, they stood tall. However the story turns bitter after Aliide, marrying Martin, a member of the Communist Party and the eventual extradition of Ingel along with her daughter. Aliide, under the cover of a communist husband, continued her clandestine support to the resistance organisation, sheltering and providing the necessary means to Hans, trying to win back her long lost lover.

On her part Zara's story is no different, as she seeks her own independence and financial freedom, but ending up tortured and humiliated by the new masters using her in their sex trade. After enduring horrible life as a sex-slave in Germany and other part of the new world, she manages her escape, killing one of her client. But she is certain that she will be traced and taken back to the cartel. Expecting the black luxury car to take her back, she is terrified of any noise that heard in the compound.

The arrival of Zara, would have provided Aliide with some redemption. Making amends to her action, which probably would have ended up Ingel and her daughter in Siberia, by providing shelter and protection to the grand daughter of Ingel.

Alternating the narrative between the early Soviet Occupation of Estonia, and the Newly separated Estonia, Sofi Oksanen, brings out a fantastic tale of a society continued to be occupied and humiliated under different time and regime. The book can be read as a thriller ( there is enough suspense till the end) or as a historical and political novel.

Estonia has to suffer the after effects of both the invasion and the collapse of Soviet Power. During the initial days of occupation they had looked towards west. To help them from the German Occupation and then against the Russian invasion. Hans, was very sure, that British or the US will come and save them.
     "Roosevelt will come !"
     "Roosevelt's dead."
     "The West won't forget about us !"
     "They already did. They won, and they forgot."
     "You have so little faith."

Its the same story after the independence from USSR. To the power vacuum came in the new Russian Mafia. The new generation of Estonians are leaving the country ( or the country side to the cities) leaving the interiors left to the older generations. The writing isn't graphic with the descriptions of torture and humiliation, but powerful enough. There is no judgment nor any biased views.

Originally staged and a play in Finland, later developed by her into a full-fledged novel. The book is brilliant and highly recommended.

Purge (2009)

Sofi Oksanen ( translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers )

Atlantic Books

490 Pages

Rs 299/-

Other Reviews : Complete Review , Wordwithoutborders

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Consequences of Love - Sulaiman Addonia

The streets of Jedda resembles a black and white movie. Men in White 'thobes' and women in their all covering black ' abaya'.  Into this Black and White streets come in the pink shoes, symbol of love. The colour not only symbolises the love, but that of danger.

Young Naser, Eritean migrant working in a small car wash shop, does not have the means and mind to take vacation like his other friends. The only place he wanted to go is to his mother, back in Eritrea. Whiling away his time, during the long in-active days, by taking a nap under the tree. In one of such days, he finds a piece of paper being dropped by the moving column of black abayas. And that was an invitation to the world that was forbidden. A love letter, from some one unknown. The letter continued to come in various ways, taking him into a world of thrill, excitement and danger.

Against the odds, the restrictions and the omnipresent religious police, lo ve itself find ways to prosper. Through the 'pink shoes', the exchange under the pertext of accompanying the Imam for his weekly sermon at the women's university, taking advanced step of escaping to the  open 'westerner's free zone' and to the extend of disguising as a women wearing 'abaya' and getting into her room. As in every love story, this too has to end. It wasn't long before he was caught, cheated by his close friend whom he seek help for getting forged passport for permanent escape.  The torture and interrogation continued, imminent death by stoning was on the cards, but some timely intervention by his well-wishers got him a relatively lesser punishment of deportation.

A society, where young boys like him are often used for the carnal satisfaction of the men ( 'you be my boy until my marriage), where the migrant workers are exploited by their sponsors and the other powerful men. Naser himself was a victim in his young age. A refugee from the war tron Eritria, brought into Saudi Arabia by his uncle from the refugee camp in Sudan. Sulaiman Addonia, himself had an early life very similar to Naser. Born in Eritrea, he was brought up in Jedda in his early years, before settling in London.

A regular love story, had it been in any other part of the world. But this is Saudi Arabia, and he is a migrant. Addonia, using very controlled language, with out getting into the glorification of the sacrifices manages to tell a story pretty well. The writing and language is good particularly towards the end. He is able to get me beyond the usual 'curiosity factor' and into the shoes of Naser.


The Consequences of Love ( 2008)

Sulaiman Addonia

Chatto & Windus

346 Pages

Rs 534


Other Reviews : Independent, TimesBook Around.