Friday, December 31, 2010

Silk - Alessandro Baricco

"The year was 1861, Flaubert was writing Salammbo. electric light remain hypothetical, and Abraham Lincoln, beyond the ocean, was fighting a war which he was not to see finish"

Hervé Joncour, is a 32 year old silk breeder from small town of Lavilledieu in Southern France, When the epidemic stuck the plants in Europe, he had to rely on supplies from Syria and other Arab countries. While the young Scientist Louis Pastuer, continued his effort to identify the cause and find remedy, Hervé Joncour continued to engage in his thriving business of importing the silk worms from these part of the world, on advise of his mentor Baldabiou. The trip usually involves 3 months of voyage through the sea and the rest on horse back across the Arab countries, returning with Silk worms tracing the path back to reach to the gates of Lavilledieu on the first Sunday of April.

It is during one of his discussion with Baldabiou, the discussion of Japan came in. According to Baldabiou, Japan is a country in isolation with rest of the world and every attempt to engage with them in trade was always rejected and dealt with cruelly. Japan is one of the largest producer of silk and some of the islands are rich with Silk. Thus started his adventure to travel around the world to Japan in search of the hidden treasure. He starts his journey through Austria, Germany through Eastern Europe to Ukraine, crossing Urals, through Siberia, along the borders of China to the eastern most tip of the continent. Seeking the support of Dutch smugglers, he lands in one of the remote island of Japan. It here, he meets the local henchman Hara Kei,  "the most elusive man in Japan, master of all that the world contrived to carry off the island." More than HaraKei, its the girl who rests her head on his lap, the girl whose "eyes did not have an Oriental slant", that get his attention. Apart from the intense stare, there was no contact , whatsoever with this girl. But is to her was attracted, an attraction he is not able to explain, the rejuvenation of his love, his romantic self . They do not talk, never be in physical contact, but the image of the girl with 'no oriental slant" eyes, takes him back to the islands over and over again despite the trouble and the danger of ongoing civil war in Japan. He rediscovers the romantic in himself, even though he realise that the girl is beyond his reach ( I guess in his fourth trip), which bring about changes in his personal and family life. It is at this time, he gets a letter written in beautiful Japanese Characters, posted in Belgium, that changes his life fore ever.

Baricco uses the repetition of phrases and paragraphs, interestingly in this book. The one above is one such example. The other interesting thing is the way he describes the journey.  Over his five trips to Japan, the landscape takes a slight changes over the years. The Central Europe remain the same, but the changes starts from the eastern part of Europe, the Siberian paths, the bordering China and the wait for the pirate ship to take him to Japan. On each journey, Lake Baikal is different ( assumes different names from sea to demon). His journey changes being on foot, to horse and at the last on train. However, the arrival date remain same as first Sunday of April. There is also notable changes in his behavior to his wife and the surroundings. We understand that the couple does not have children and do not have the best of relationships. However, after each journey, there is changes in their relationship, to the last pages even after the 'beans are spilled'.

The blurb, says it as a erotic tour de force, and I am not sure why. Except for his attraction to the non-interactive lady of the Japanese Henchman, which pulls him back to the place often, and the so called in-comprehensive letter with Japanese Character which the old lady of the brothel translates ( which the vulgar more than being erotic or sensual), there isn't anything to call this as an erotic. Yes, there is an under current of slight sensuality, very subtle.

From the angle of a minimalist literature, this book is interesting. Beautifully written and cleverly deployed plots. More than what is written,  what is left makes it a better reading. The curiosity is maintained through out and finished pretty well. The book was having rave reviews and I can understand why. It indeed was a good read ( and a short one at 91 pages), but is not extra ordinary.

Silk ( 1996)

Alessandro Baricco ( translated from Italian by Guido Waldman 1997)

Vintage International

94 Pages

Rs 234
More : Wiki

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bastard Out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison

I came to know about this book in one of the discussion on the Southern Literature. It was during that time, this book caught my eye in one of the used book sale stall. It was otherwise difficult to get these books in India. Southern Literature, from the the states  of Texas to Carolinas. These states have many things in common, from civil war , the fight against slavery and the reconstruction of the union.

An semi-autobiographical novel written by Dorothy Allison, takes us through the early childhood life of  Anne Ruth ( called as 'Bone'). Book opens with the details of her birth. Her fifteen year old mother gave birth to the daughter after a serious car accident. She was named after her eldest aunt Ruth and was nicknamed 'Bone' on some comment made by one of her cousins. Her mother's attempt to get her birth certificate made was turned out to be a failure after she could not prove her marital status. As a result, the certificate declares the girl "illegitimate". She continued her effort with the authorities for the next two years, but the result was same, apart from some ridiculing talks by her co-workers. At the age of 17, she marries another man and produces another child with him. But he too did not last long, succumbs to a vehicle accident.  She again falls in love with Glen Waddel, the youngest son of a rich Dairy trader, and after two years courtship, marries him at an age of 21.

Glen, initially take to the liking of the kids, soon taking liberties on them. Bone, was at the receiving end of his physical and sexual abuses. After Anney delivered a still baby, unable to conceive any more, the attacks become regular. The fate turns against them as Glen looses his job, unable to control his behaviour. His anger against himself and his failures in getting a decent job,  makes him turns against the girl. The atrocities of the step father did not go unnoticed, as the closed-knit family of Bone comes to know this and Glen was physically handled by her uncles. Anney stay out of Glen with her kids for some time, but the family reconcile soon. The atrocities continue and for the second time Anney moves out with her kids but an angry Glen break into the house of her aunt and rapes Bone, blaming her for the break up and her mother's anger towards him. Anney comes to fetch the girl witnessing the scene and leave the place after taking the girl to the doctor, She leave the town forever, after meeting the girl one last time, handing her a genuine birth certificate, which does not have the 'illegitimate' stamp.

The Boatwright family clan is very entertaining , men with their drinking, fighting and womanizing and the women with their loose life and stubbornness. In spite of their differences, there is a strong relationship within the clan, often jump into the support of the fellow member. The reaction and responses are often extreme, and they are thus known for their notoriety. It is the same members come to the rescue of the young girl and take revenge.

On her part the mother is one who endures all. The need for love and support on one side, but her own love to her daughter on the other side, makes her to loose both in the end. The girl is impassive on her own suffering, but is more concerned about the mothers plight. She even advise the mother to go back to her father, because she needs it, but refuses to join them.

It is difficult to write from the child's point of view and the language. In many of the novel's I've read, the voice is inconsistent and the writer sneak in with his voice. But in this book, it was consistently brilliant and appropriate. While I do not think this is a great work of fiction, it indeed had some beautiful paragraphs and literary brilliance. Dorothy Allison, personal history is almost similar to the protagonist of this story. A fifteen year old mother, abusive step father and the like, hence the intensity of writing is very high through out. Sensitive, moving and intensive book. Good work of fiction.


Bastard Out of Carolina ( 1992)

Dorothy Allison

Plume Books

309 Pages

More : Wiki entry

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Opium Clerk - Kunal Basu

Opium trade in Asia was one of the major business controlled by Britishers. The famous Anglo- Chinese Opium War as a result of Chinese control over the British Opium Trade practices. Though Chinese lost the war, the trade continue to suffer both financial and diplomatic cooperation between the two nations. The Britishers continue to import opium from Indian soil, through various traders.

Hiren , born in the year of Indian Mutiny, lost his father before he turned 1, killed in an accident run-over by horses in the park. His mother came back to her family in Calcutta from Patna. Young Hiren, now under the direct influence from his progressive uncle. It is here he developed his special ability of reading palms. His modern education and ability to adapt landed him at a job of Clerk at an auction house run by the mysterious Britisher Jonathan Crabbe. The company involved in dubious trade of Opium to other parts of the world. Soon, Hiren was invited to the house of Crabbe, for teaching him Sanskrit. Asked to help in adopting a child for the opium addicted wife of Crabbe, Hiren and his friend goes through the slums of Calcutta. Little did he knew that this is going to change his life forever.

The second part takes him on a long voyage to China to assist his employers in setting up their base withthe help of local viceroy. hiren find himslef being witness to the cruel massacre of the resistance forces by the British supported local ruler. The third and last part makes a forward leap to the adopted son in the remote Indonesian island, as an official of customs at its ports.

The writing is fascinating and Kunal is able to take us through the life of Hiren from the orthodox Brahmin family to the complex and notorious trade of narcotics, from the shores of Calcutta to Hongkong and South China. Often put in the middle of the conflicts, Hiren, introduced an Indian Prince was requested to get in the dangerous game of getting the rebels and the rulers in the path of surrender. The fate made him the silent spectator of the mass murder of many under the British and Chinese rulers.

The language is very vivid and descriptive and the subject is interesting. This is my second book of Kunal Basu. He is a good writer, with flowing language and very visual style of writing. Each topic developed from the historical events and expanded within its logical extensions. However, this book does not appear to me in completeness. Especially the continuity. The third part somehow did not connect with the narrative. And I am disappointed again with this one. Though this book is more popular, I think The miniaturist was a better book.
The Opium Clerk ( 2008 )

Kunal Basu

Harper Collins, India

309 Pages

Rs 295
More Read : McGill Reporter

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Abraham's Promise - Philip Jeyaretnam

Taking the phrase from the biblical tale, Philip Jeyaretnam brings out a good novel about a man's struggle in the independent Singapore.

Abraham Isaac, a Singaporean Tamil with his ancestral roots to Jaffna in Sri Lanka, lives through the transformation of the country after its struggle with the Britishers and Japanese. Like most of his contemporaries, he too was active in the country's journey to an independent nation, writing articles on self rule, pouring out his ideas and aspirations of a new nation. However, to his dismay, and to many of the others, he realises that the direction of the power and the rulers aren't aligned to their hopes. Though he was part of the political system and his party rose the the power of the country, he continued his efforts in the nation building with his article in the Strait Times. One of such article, wasn't accepted well with his own party bosses, resulting in removal of his license to teach ( for being a bad influence on pupil) and loosing the job. Now, left to earn his living only through private tuition, he looses his close friend and his wife to the friend. The novel begins with Old Abraham, managing to find a lone student for Latin, boy of a rich new world family.

The book starts of very ordinary, even till the midway through I was wondering why was this called such a good book. A typical old man's reminiscence of his life and the typical contempt for all that new and modern. The usual complaints of the new generation and the system, his inabilities to be in sync with the new world, and all that. However, as I progressed through the pages, the images that came out in front is very different. On a relatively plain and simple narratives, a profound work of literature is hidden, revealing subtly to the keen readers.

His sour taste of all that he had endured is evident in his perceived contempt to the new time, new ways of living and new ways of learning.

"I don't understand all these new restaurants, all these new tastes. No wonder young people are so confused today. They don't grow up on a steady diet . . . so they lack a clear reference point -- Jaffna cooking, Cantonese, whatever. It's just a jumble . . . Thai, French, hamburgers. No wonder everyone is so confused."

Victor smiles: an amused, tolerant and patronising smile. No one takes an old man seriously
Singapore as a society is multi cultural and multi ethnic. The influence of British Rule continue to linger in the society even after being a free . The citizen's of the new state is politically free, but how much of that is experienced by the cross section. As Abraham puts it , "I am not nor will ever be truly free. Why is it that I still feel this is a battle I might have won, when surely it was lost centuries ago?" It is this dilemma, the personal and political experience that Jeyaretnam brings out beautifully in this book.

Abraham Isaac, is always been on the wrong side of luck. Loosing his girlfriend to a Britisher in his young days, later loosing his job for his political views, his childhood friend, his wife and later his son ( or his love) , he endures them all not as a strong man, but one common man amongst us.

The style is very standard, the language is plain, the structure is not unusual though he deploys the multi period story intermixed effectively, and the story is straight. Inspite all this the book leaves a good impression with you for the strong underlying emotion. Even when everything goes wrong for his, Abraham is able to maintain his sanity and his self esteem. Philip Jeyaretnam, on his part get Abraham the character, the language, the sly humor and the voice aligned perfectly well. A very haunting novel, effectively written.

PS : This edition comes with a very bad front cover. The cover should do justice to the book.
Abraham's Promise ( 1995)

Philip Jeyaretnam

Marshal Cavendish

162 Pages
More Read : Post Colonial Web , USQ

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman

...But this is the tragedy; without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten... Oh, Martha, I don't know what I should do.'

' You should eat your supper', said Martha.

Part of the myth series published by Canongate, this book by Philip Pullman is already making some news. Looking at the most retold story of Jesus Christ, in a different angle, Pullman offers his version of the story. The back cover insists that "this is a story".

" I've always been fascinated by the two parts of the name of Jesus Christ, and by the difference between them. Another thing that's interested me for a long time is the way in which the Christian church began to formulate its beliefs and establish a canon of scripture: there were many more gospels than four, but why were those four chosen and others left out? When did Paul begin to write his epistles? Was what he said different from what the gospels say? Do the gospels even agree with one another? Was there a difference between Jesus and Christ? My version of the Jesus story doesn't attempt to solve these questions, but I hope readers will find it interesting " - from his website

Mary, young girl married off to an old carpenter Joseph. Joseph left the young Mary at home and was often away with his job. It was during this time a messenger came to her and told her about the divine life that is going to take shape in her womb. She was worried about the controversy, being pregnant while Joseph is away. As we all know, when the time arrived, fearing the rulers anger, Joseph takes his wife on a journey to Egypt and the give birth to Jesus in a make shift shed amongst the animals . Here is the twist to the story. Mary gave birth to twins, one was Jesus and the other Christ. The angels and the other omen pointed out Christ as the saviour of mankind. Jesus grew typical to any young boy, strong ,often naughty and hardly showing any signs of intelligence. Christ on the other hand was thin and frail, showing early signs of maturity and intellect. During the adolescent days Jesus runs away from home, and it was Christ who manages to bring him back with reasoning. The early stages of miracles were demonstrated by Christ.

However, towards baptism by John, there were changes in Jesus. He left home and spent time in the forest praying and identifying himself. As the rest of the story goes, Jesus now have a followers of himself. It was Christ who advises him on the importance of performing miracles, the need of healing the ills, the need to preach. During this time an angel in the form of stranger make an appearance to Christ and ask him to document all that is done by Jesus. Christ, follows Jesus without his knowledge and writes down all that is spoken and performed. At place where he cant reach, one of the disciple help him by recounting the events.

The rest is known to all. The growing popularity of Jesus is not welcomed by the authorities. To their dismay, Christ defeats the arguments of the Law makers at multiple times. His followers belongs to every walk of life, from whores to taxmen to the people of meagre means. Unlike the biblical story, it was Christ who betray Jesus here, Of course under the instruction form the angel. The crucification and the resurrections are then described in very realistic terms , may not be to the agreement of the believers. It was Christ , who appears in front of Mary of Magdela and to the disciples. It was his version that then discussed and spread amongst the believers.

While I am not a great fan of such novels. It leaves a lot for debates and discussions and the freedom of the writer to deviate from the known story. This book too suffers from the influence of the original. The necessity to abide by the flow of incidents that is of importance, but the need to include in his version of narration, it looses some of the initial steam in middle. However, he finishes this brilliantly. I found the passages of Jesus contemplating his actions and their results, and his doubts on the God and the role he has to play, written beautifully.

Fast read, large size print ( lesser strain to your eyes) and short chapters make it easy to finish. Very average book, except a few brilliant passage and two twist to the tale ( the twins and the concet of Christ betraying Jesus). If you are interested in these kind of books, I would recommend Nobel Laureate, Jose Saramago's Gospel According to Jesus Christ to this one.

The Good Man Jesus and The scoundrel Christ ( 2010 )

Philip Pullman

Penguin Viking

245 Pages

Rs 499
Other Revirews: Wiki , Guardian ,

Poory Made in China - Paul Midler

Known as the world's factory, China is the epicentre of every manufacturing activities of the universe. China's undisputed growth to the leader of the manufacturing had been carefully and methodicaly orchastrated over the past 30 years. There are many economic and financial studies available on this exponential growth, most of them written by academics. However, there aren't many that gives us the inside story of the phenomenon. Paul Midler, who spent a large part of his early career in South China - the hub of the manufacturing activities- tells us a story of the typical manufacturing business and their relationship with the western world.

Off shore manufacturing is now inevitable for every business, if they want to remain in business and be profitable. Midler, stationed at Guangzhou, working for various US and European corporates as their consultant, takes us through the interesting journey of his experiences with some of the manufacturing companies and their clients.

One of the initial question which pops up the mind of the readers is why China. ? Many of the other south Asian economies are equally competitive if not cheaper.
"One of the questions many were asking was: Why China? Why weren't importers looking to other markets ? The answer most often given was the low cost of labor, but that was only part of it; factory labor in other economies was actually cheaper. Speed and convenience were two other important areas where China performed particularly well."
He also says ( with a soft 'below the belt' remark on India ) the difference between Chinese approach to the business and interaction with foreigners to that of some of the other economies..

"China was exotic, but it was not bizarre. Chinese did not dress in native costumes, they wore no headdresses or long robes, they did not go around in sandals. They did not have the habit of sitting on the floor. Chinese did not bow or require that visitor make unfamiliar hand gestures, and the people were pleasantly irreligious...The Chinese were traditional, but not fanatical. They did not paint their faces or tattoo or pierce their bodies. Such colorful native traditions made for interesting tourism, but people or business were not vacationers."
Getting into the thick of the action, he explains some of the methods used by Chinese Manufacturers to win business. As one of his client wondered, how are they manage to produce them so cheap. Its only later he realise the terrain he is getting into. To win business, the enterpreuners are willing to go to any extend. However, once the manufacturing contract is signed, the ball is now on the importers court. The original specification is often tampered with , without any consultation and confirmation from the client. It starts with the packaging, the quality of the bottles used, the measure and quality deviations, etc. Quality cost then passed on to the importer. The importer is now in a fix. Sitting on a larger order from the retail chain in the US, he is now forced to concede. Any changes to the original plan is to be paid by the importer. By now, the manufacturer has already know the 'product specification' and can be reproduced on his own. He could eve by pass the importer and deal with the retail chains directly. The game of one up-manship continues until the importer concedes and often goes out of business.

Some of the smarter ones gets into a joint venture agreement with their Chinese counter parts. This is often turns out to be a bigger mess. Invariably loosing money in the JV, while the local manufacturer continue to build newer factories at the expense of is global JV partner, it usually ends in bitter separation.The local authorities and the law aren't very supportive, hence most of the fooled ones wind up their operations and return.

There are issues of counterfeit, the perennial issue of quality, the arrogant attitude once the business is secured, managing the books of accounts, the fear of bypassing the importer; issues are many. "Chinese manufacturing had serious issues, and these were not very well understood while looking at them from a great distance."

But, why is that the world is still going to China for manufacturing. Mostly because, there is no alternative. Moreover, it is now globally accepted that goods made in China is the cheapest. As he mentions..

If an item was quoted at 65c and made in the USA, the buyer figured it could be purchased somewhere cheaper. When the same product was quoted 65c and was said to have been made in China, the buyer figured it could not be found for any less.
The extra focus and development in the manufacturing leaves lot of the other areas a lot to be desired.

At one time, China had a reputation for innovation, having invented paper, gunpowder and the compass; but in more recent centuries, that spark of discovery was replaced by an instinct for copying - not just technologies, but also entire business model"..
He says this model is not sustainable. "No economy could ever win a race by merely catching the wind off another's sail.."

Having said all this, where are they headed. Midler says, over the years it will be difficult to sustain the same level of growth. Domestic consumption is heralded as one of the alternate growth story. There are other political and economical issues and related tensions between states. But there is no change expected in the near future. On a long run, Milder says it could be "The rise and fall of China ?"..."More like the rise and stall of China"

Very very interesting read, very curious for me as an Indian. Fast paced, funny and and easy read.
Poorly Made in China ( 2010 )

Paul Midler

John Wiley & Sons

242 Pages

Rs 395
Other read : INSEAD , Danwei