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