Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Ice Palace - Tarjei Vesaas

What a way to finish the year. A deceptively simple yet stunningly beautiful short novel by this Norwegian master. A adolescent story of friendship , told in a magical lyrical language. At the outset, there is nothing appears great in this book. Unn, comes to a small town in Norway, orphaned after the death of her mother. She is aloof and does not mingle with the rest of the class in her school, despite the efforts of her classmates. Siss, the de facto leader of the gang tries to befriend her in her own way with no success. However, it was Unn who came to her asking to meet up in the evening. Siss, is happy but confused. Unn invites her to her aunties house with whom she stays after moving to this town.

Siss and Unn got on so fast, taking refuge in Unns room. Two young girls soon get on to know each other. They develop a very mystical comradery in a short while, sharing intimate details about themselves. Unn wanted Siss to stay longer and wanted to talk to her about something very personal and important. But Siss is worried as it was getting late, and was slightly embarrassed with the sudden development. The words are unspoken and Siss is intrigued by the unsaid secret.

Unn on part was equally embarrassed and could not muster enough courage to face her new friend. She decides to skip the school, but typical to students, she leve home but does not go to school. She decides to wander about near the Ice palace ( the formation of frozen ice during winter) formed at the water fall. Mesmerized by the visual, she set about exploring the wonder, but get trapped inside unable to come out and die due to Hypothermia,

The news of Unn disappearance spread and the town is in pursuit of search. Siss, is the last person in contact with her and the only clue to the disappearance has to be from her.
"What did Unn tell you ?" they ask her.
"It was only something I said !"

"I don't think so. I can see you know something. What did Unn say ?"

"I can't tell you."

"Why not ?"

"Because it wasn't like that, she didn't say it ! And she didn't say a word about hiding."
The search party slowly disintegrate after a couple of days and the town is resigned to the fact of her disappearance and things started to get back to normal. However, for Siss this has been a great shock. She is not able to comes to term with her closest friend ( despite being with her only for a couple of hours) and the indifference she find in others towards this. She make a promise to her missing friend not to forget her. Siss, now takes the place of Unn in the classroom, exactly trying to imbibe her lost friends behavior. She does not allow anyone come near her, and makes sure that the seat occupied by her friend is left open for her return. She stands in the same place and posture as her friend. All the efforts by her classmates , teachers and parents to get her back to the normal ways fails to yield any results. Even the plea of Unn's Aunt as she was preparing to leave the town haunted by Unn's memories, was not enough for Siss to change her resolve.

Siss, has build an Ice Palace of resistance with the image of Unn inside and refusing to come out. The time moved on and the winter paved way to spring and summer and the Ice Palace of the waterfall started breaking and cracking. The symbolic dissolve of Ice Palace has to happen in Siss mind as well.

Tarjei Vesaas build the palace of metaphor with some brilliantly constructed words. The entire book is written in simple language and easy. He cleverly uses the metaphoric symbolism to the tale with ease and naturality. Short and an easy read, but leave you with some everlasting memories. of the book. I find it difficult to writer from a child's view point and see the thinking of the elders appearing in most of the writings.

The book is about what is left unsaid, than what is said. Siss herself is tormented by the secret not spoken to her y her friend. Even in is writing, Vesaas is not verbose, he rely on the implied messages and understanding and gets his characters around that. Its about Siss, but the others tries to work around her in unison to bring her back to the normal life again. This is a tale of pre-adolescent friendship. There are others who see the subtle erotic, sensual connection of adolescence in it. Immediately after entering the room Unn and Siis decides to undress with the childish curiosity and giggle. They also share secrets and Siss is careful not to talk anything about it to the others.

An haunting story told beautifully, in a poetic language by Tarjei Vesaas. Truly brilliant.
The Ice Palace ( 1963 )

Tarjei Vesaas ( translated from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan 1966)

Peter Owen

176 Pages
Wiki Entry, Complete Review , rjdent, Independent

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

1Q84 Book 1, 2 & 3 - Haruki Murakami

I am not a great fan of huge books. It gives me logistic issues , more than anything. Difficult to carry to the places where I tend to read a lot. More over, I do not have the level of concentration, in the current circumstances, to read a large book in one go. This book, however, has been conveniently split into 3 parts, Book 1, 2 and 3 with 300 odd pages apart. That makes it easy to read a book per session and give it a break ( with another small book) and get back. To my surprise, I could finish the book in a month along with another 3 shorter books.

1Q84 has been the book of the year in 2011, with all the attention and hype around it. Already a best seller in the Japan, where it was published in three separate editions ( one book per release). The English translation, this year, had book 1&2 coming out earlier this year and the book 3 towards November. Interestingly, book 3 was translated by a different person from that of Book 1&2. It did attract all sort of reaction from being very positive to not so enthused among the reading public and critics. I did read his 'Kafka on the Shore' earlier this year, and was not all that impressed, considering the hype it created.
1Q84 takes cue from George Orwell's celebrated 1984 ( some quick search tells me, in Japanese 9 is written similar to Q). He do mention the 1984 book in this and do tries to establish a connection to the earlier work. In Murakami's book, 1Q84 is a new world akin to 1984 , where the 'little people' tries to control the things similar to the omnipresent 'big brother' in 1984. I guess the comparisons and similarities ends there. Well, not really, all these are happening in the year 1984.

1Q84, similar to Murakami's work tracks the story in 2 streams. Aomame, a specialized assassin , 30 years old, moved out of her Christian religious background in her early childhood, living a life of Physical Trainer in a health club. Tengo Kawana, a wannabe writer, maths wizard, 30 year old, works in a CRAM school 3 days a week as a maths trainer leads the other track. The book 1 starts with Aomame, in a cinematic fashion, gets about her task of eliminating one of her targets. Stepping out of the taxi, having stuck in a traffic jam, she climbs down from the elevated highway , on the advise of the driver, to a new road in order to reach the venue on time, she did not realize, that she is entering a new world ( metaphorically) where the life and rules of the games are different.
Tengo, with his numerous attempt to writer his own novel but manages to publish only a few of his stories, was asked by his 'publisher-editor-friend to rewriter the work of a 17 year old girl Fuka-Eri, whose novel 'Air Chrysalis' is being submitted to the 'Akutagawa prize' for the best young fiction. Mesmerized by the plot and the difference in the approach to the novel by this unknown girl, Tengo after the initial reluctance, agrees to re-write the novel for it to be better presented to the selection committee. No marks for guessing, that she won the prize and the book went on to be a best seller.

The trouble starts now. The girl, who wrote the book went missing, with her guardian uncle filing a missing person complaint with the police. Tengo starts getting threatening messages, initially trying to win him over with lucrative offerings. Despite the best efforts by the people involved in the publishing the book, to keep the ghost-writing issue hidden in wraps, this seems to have known to someone, who is not happy about the book published. It could also be possible that the events written in 'Air Chrysalis' is something happened in real and the 'little people' who is in charge of the religious sect 'Sakigake' is unhappy with events. Sakigake was earlier in the news for declaring themselves as a new religion, and their extremist outfit waging a war with the local police.

The plot gets complicated as Aomame is entrusted with the task of eliminating the leader of the Sakigake group. The connection is now established between the two narrative. Tengo by joining the forces in his capacity of writer, presumably trying to disrupt the world of 'little people' , and Aomame by eliminating the leader of the sect. The investigation also reveals the connection between Aomame and Tengo, as they were classmates 20 years back and an incident of comradery between them ( resulted in Aomame holding hands with Tengo) , continue to linger in their minds hoping for an eventual meeting again. Book 3, gets into the thriller part of the story with both Aomame and Tengo trying get out of the world 1Q84, one is aware of this and the other unaware. There are many other characters through out the narratives, some of them really does not add much to the plot.

Murakami, through out the narrative manages to keep the interest alive, and as a write, I guess that is plus point. The style and language is similar to his earlier work that I have read , profound at places and pretty ordinary at many places. He manages to move the story well with the dual narrative and to a potential link or cross over. I guess this is his forte. The use of a variation of 'magical realism' is interesting and I may be biased if I say, it did not appeal as good as it was with Marquez. the book also carry all the ingredients of a typical Murakami affair, the suspense, too many descriptive casual sex ( pretty poor at that) and fantasy characters and events.

I wouldn't say this is an extra ordinary book, but interesting none the less. Personally far better than his 'Kafka on the shore'. Some where the comparison came to the another mega book 2666 of Bolano. But the comparison ends at the size and the large canvas. 2666 was far superior to this. To many readers, the book 3 was sort of disappointment. After somewhat decent build up, and having the readers wait for the last part of the puzzle by delayed publication of book 3, he seems to have gone for an easy exit. May one hoped for some more intriguing finish, but he seems to have opted an easy way about it with a possibility of book 4, 5 and 6. Is it convincing or not, I am not sure. Did I like the way he finished the long book, I am not decided on a firm yes or no. Probably, I would go with the latter, as it seems to be a week surrender to the plot.

The novel is very clever, and tricky. He uses his characters well, often changing some of their outlook as it progressed. A timid young boy slowly gains confidence and stature, the hard and decisive assassin, looses some of that in between tending towards the softer side of woman in her, the dyslexic ( or presumably so) young girl displays a lot more foresightedness, the cunning detective.., Murakami is in control of his characters.

However, beyond the somewhat thrilling detective story, with his style of realism ( two moons, immaculate pregnancy, the little people of two inch height who emerge through the mouth and all that), there is no substance behind it. What it convey at the end to the reader ? Or is it falling in line with the description some one gave as "Harry Potter for adults".
1Q84 ( 2011 )

Haruki Murakami ( translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin ( book 1&2) and Philip Gabriel ( book 3))


925 Pages
More reviews : NY Times, Guardian, Complete Review , Independent

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Frida's Bed - Slavenka Drakulic

Frida Kahlo, the immortal painter of Mexico, who celebrated her physical and mental pains through the paintings in the first half of the 20th century. It was the movie named after her which gave Salma Hayek her Oscar, that got me interested in this painter. Through her 'self portraits' with vivid colors and disturbing images, she rose to fame during her life time.

She was born to a family of 4 girls to her German father and Mexican mother, she suffered from childhood polio and an accident that permanently made her crippled for life. She never recovered from her physical disabilities, to which she later lost her leg. It is the fight to survive, made her an interesting character. She had the guts to walk up to 'the best' mural painter in Mexico, showing him the drawing and seeking his advise. Diego Rivera ( the Maestro as he is addressed in this book) , the muralist, immediately recognized the talent and asked her to continue to draw, later divorced his existing wife and marries the young Frida, 20 odd years younger to him. However, the marriage gone through its own ups and downs, with the flirtatious life of Maestro, they had to break the relationship, only to get married again. Her active career in painting started after her own sister cheated on her with her husband. Its is from the pain of rejection, came some of her best artistic output.
For her the painting was not a hobby. Caught between art and Survival, she chose the latter.
She continue to find solace in her drawings, occasionally finding love outside her wedlock, while her husband tries to seek artistic and physical beauty with the numerous models that frequented his studio. As an active member of the Communist Party, she participated in the agitation along with the workers. It is this connection that attracted her to the fleeing Trotsky, who stayed back in Mexico trying to run away from Stalin, until the tragic end. Frida, despite her attraction towards the Communist leader, felt guilty and sympathetic towards the leaders wife, for her behavior. Slavenka Draculic, writes brilliantly here.

Here, Frida is the character and its her reminiscence of her life from her death bed. Its her quest to survive despite all the adversities that the life has thrown at her. We see a courageous lady, never ever complaining on the fate that has thrust upon her. Even when she was cheated by her sister with her husband, she tried to reason out their behavior. Some of her reaction might have come from her fear of loosing, and from her inability to live without some help. What makes her attempt laudable is the way she handles her protagonist. At no time, she tried to glorify the person she is trying to get into. Even when the narrative shifted from first person to third person , she does not loose control.

Narration constantly shift from first person ( on Frida's voice) to third person ( the writers) and an occasional commentary on her works in line with her life. The language is lucid, the thought process is clear and crisp, though a bit draggy at times and repetitive, it manages to keep you glued on to the book. Its monotonous, single sided, looking through the mind of Frida, hence it is difficult to gather the complete picture.

An extremely intelligent and well thought out book by Slavenka Draculic. It is not easy to pull off a great fictional work on a legendary , historical character , whose memory is still fresh in the mind of people. Brilliant stuff.
Frida's Bed ( 2007 )
Slavenka Draculic ( translated from Croatian by Christina P Zoric )
Penguin Books
162 Pages

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin

Out of the 50 odd books I read this year, only a few will remain with me in memory over the years. This one will be one of such for its brilliance and class. Every thing about this book is mesmerizing ; his style of prose, the narrative, the conversations the sentences and the appropriate omissions and structuring of the book. May be a novel with a gay love theme was disturbing during its publication, about half a century ago, and that shock value is over and one will not gauge the book for that. This short novel about a 30 year old White American , currently living in Paris ( James Baldwin was in Paris during the writing and publication of this book) befriends and later fall in love with an Italian bartender. Its his complex and dangerous relationship,

David, living in Paris on the meagre amount of money sent by his father from USA, befriends Giovanni , a bartender in a gay bar while his girlfriend Halla was away in Spain on a vacation. Struggling for fund and was thrown out of his lodge for payment outstanding, David meets one of his friend Jacques with a dubious reputation ( an old man living alone but likes to keep friendship with young boys), to get some money. The duo later ends up in the Bar run by Guillaume, where he meets Giovanni an Italian bartender. The atmosphere, the absence of his girlfriend and some clever maneuver by his benefactor, the foursome, spends the entire evening and the next morning in company. Giovanni and David, later ended up in 'Giovanni's Room'( claustrophobic, unkempt, dour, and threatening according to David) and happen to spend the evening together in bed. Nowhere to go, David stays back in Giovanni's room and the next couple of months they grow their intimate relationship and affection until the return of his girlfriend. Now torn between the love for his girl and the affection and the relationship with Giovanni, David had to make his choice. David's departure and the lose of his job at Gillaume makes Giovanni restless, takes him back to Jacques. The tale gets worst after the death of Gillaume by the hand of Giovanni , who was later arrested and sentenced to death. Tormented with guilt, David break away from Hella follows Giovanni through the trial and the place of his final sentence. We leave David in despair, in South France, at the town of the sentence, narrating the tale in "the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life".
David was not gay, except for an early days recollection of an experience with his classmate during school days. He had a steady relationship with his American girlfriend, until her travel to Spain on contemplating their marriage and future. His encounter with Giovanni was accidental and the sexual relationship thence has not been a result of his hidden desire. Even after the return of his girlfriend, he continued his normal living with his girlfriend. It wasn't the sexual desire that attracted him to Giovanni. It is something beyond that and David fails to express or really understand the reasons. He find himself responsible for all that has happened to Giovanni and wanted to redeem himself from the guilt.

A theme on gay love affair and extremely sensual in nature, James Baldwin does a phenomenal job of balancing his writing with extreme control. For me this reading was more rewarded as compared to Go Tell it on the Mountains. There seems to be the perfect coordination between the length of the book, the sentences, the paragraphs and conversations. Some of the paragraphs were so brilliant and I had to read them again and again. At no point, this was vulgar or repulsive ( most of the sex writing what I read of late are so bad), and the emotional side of the relationship is dealt with sublime quality by this marvellous writer. Great book.
Giovanni's Room ( 1956 )

James Baldwin

Penguin Modern Classics

159 Pages
Wiki Entry, Things mean a lot

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Minisitry o Pain - Dubravka Ugrešić

One of the after effect of every great war is that they redraw the geographical boundaries, and give birth to newer nation states. Both world wars created whole lot of newer states even as far as Asia.  The recent Balkan war, post the disintegration of the mighty soviet Union,  too gave us 6 new countries. The separation was bloody and was painful. People who share common culture, history and national agenda,  are now fighting fiercely for their territorial independence.  The once common Yugoslavia split itself into 6 division each declaring independence from the former Communist State.

Tanja Lucic,  having fled Yugoslavia during the war, worked as a care taker for an American Family in Berlin, accepted a temporary assignment as a lecturer in Amsterdam University. She was in charge of teaching "Serbo - Croatian Literature". Her class consists of students from erstwhile Yugoslavia, still coping with the aftereffects of the bloody war. For them this is an escape from their 'refugee' status and the more respectable 'students visa'.  They work "At the Ministry" in their spare time, to earn a living. 'Ministry' as it is known is the factories which makes sex toys and other equipment for the Amsterdam Red light District.  As a community they were never been able to mingle with the alien society they were subject to adapt.
   'The first thing they did when we came was to put us in refugee camps and -- you know the ways of the Dacer folk by now -- give us psychiatrists. Well, our psychiatrist turned out to be one of 'ours', a refugee like us. And you know what she told us ? "Do me a favour, will you, everybody ? Find a little crazy streak in you. Think up a trauma or two if need be. I don't want to lose my job." '
The class, already traumatized by the war, can not see eye to eye ( a cross section of students from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia among them), is now left with the teacher who still nostalgic about the dreamy past. Her attempt was to bring out the  'Yugo-nostalgia"  among the students. She started off at a wrong side, trying to rekindle their memories which one tries to forget.
"I realized I was walking a tight rope: stimulating the memory was as much a manipulation of the past banning it. The authorities in our former country had pressed the delete button, I the restore button; they were erasing the Yugoslav past, I reviving the past in the form of everyday minutiae that had made up our lives.."
While there were no violent reactions or any vocal protest, students seems to be going along.  There were dissents and strong sentiments in their writing such as "Yugoslavia was a terrible place. Everybody lied. They still lie of course, but now the lie is divided in five, one per country." While every thing seems to be going smoothly until the end of first semester, however depleting the number of students in her class. But the short vacation at the end of the semester, turned hostile. one of the student commits suicide. His father was a Serbian Military leader and was under investigation. There was a complaint to the Head of the University about her way of teaching and she was reprimanded by him.  The situation seems to be moving tense and  she switches her style back to the serious academic study of literature.  Her relation with her students also suffers as a result of this , with some bitter exchange of words at the end
"Tell me , has it occurred to you that all that time you may have been torturing us? Has it occurred to you that the students you forced to remember were yearning to forget ?.,.....and the memory game you forced on us! In a few years all that nostalgia crap is going to be a big moneymaker. "
The style and language is detached and emotionless, suiting to the subject. The sense of loss is all over the book in general it is gloomy.. Tanja on her side looses her home country, her ethnical back ground of Croatian, her boyfriend at Berlin, the trust of her students and her superiors. She takes this also part of the humiliation they were expected to endure. The students, who shares a common culture a while ago are now trying to identify themselves as a new citizen ( a Croat, a Macedonian, a Bosnian) in a distant country of living.  The language is now formed, injecting local dialects and words into the official language. Tanja's attempt to build the past for herself is for the entire diaspora of the migrated populace.

The book gives insights to the effects of Balkan diaspora around the world post the war. While the world continue to debate and try the culprits at the international courts, there is a vast number of common people still living through the memories of the war. Thrown out of their home countries, they wander around the world living the life of a refugee as a second citizen.  Dubravka Ugrešić in thie very cerebral novel, managed to bring out these dilemma of these people pretty effectively. However as a fiction, this is far too complex and do not justify the billing.

The Ministry of Pain   (2005)

Dubravka Ugrešić  ( translated from Croatian by Michael Henry Heim 2006)

Harper Perenniel

257 Pages
More reads : Complete Review , Independent, Booksqwak

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Independent People - Halldor Laxness

After working for the Bailiff for 18 years under near slavery, Gudbjartur Jonsson, is now the owner of his own croft. His eighteen years of previous experience is enough resolve for him to be independent man. Now known as Bjartur of Summerhouses, running his farm with multiplying numbers of sheep, he now determined to preserve his status as an independent man. Plain and simple, he has no two ways of thinking nor any polished way of communicating his feeling. Anything that comes in between him and his perceived independence, he is fight with all his might. The place acquired by him is no great shakes. It is believed to have been haunted. The spirits of Kolimkilli and Gunnvor ( from the Icelandic saga) , is believed to be the owner of these wastelands and does give torrid times to the people, unless they made pact with them with offerings. Halldor Laxness starts his epic with the reference to the myths and legends of Kolimkilli and Gunnvor and continued the subtle references to this from time to time.

Even in the face of one mishap after other, Bjartur is unperturbed. He has decided to face the repercussions for his belief. His wife, dies after giving birth to a illegitimate daughter. His second wife with whom he had 3 sons, also did not live long to serve him. His sons, one after other desert him ( either perish or migrated to other pastures). The famine stuck many times, His fortune with sheep oscillate like a pendulum, from great years to being lost all due to some illness. The croft remain the same despite his promise to build a mansion to his daughter. He stood firm despite all the backlashes and the sacrifices, being an independent man. The only soft corner in his mind was towards his foster daughter Asta Sollilja (born to his wife and Bailff's son). But, when she was pregnant ( illegitimate again) , he did not think twice in expelling her from his house.

Its a sad story. One can not but sympathise with Bjartur, despite his stubbornness and thoughtlessness. He had clear ways of behavior and looked at everything else as a plot to put him back in debt. He did not give a damn to the church or to the authorities, neither thought it is important to educate his kids in the traditional way. He found all those a waste of time.

We Icelanders have never had any great respect for kings … for everyone is equal before God; and as long as a farmer can call himself an independent man and no one else’s slave, so long can he call himself his own king.
Despite his stubbornness and the rejection of all the believes, Bjarthur at time display his conciliatory side to the myths. He even offered a cease-fire with Gunnvor and Kolumkili , albeit momentarily. However, he remain critical to the church.

Tragedy stuck one after other in his life. However, he managed to complete the promised house, but only after the daughter was thrown out. But, he did not have the chance to live in his dream, as he lost all his properties, succumbed to the debt and clever ploy by the mighty ( they had forced him the loan for the raw material and the labour in building the house)..

Against this backdrop, the book addresses a lot more basic questions about the human survival. Despite his initial success and the shear ability to stay out of the water. The noose is always hanging above them. The politician and bureaucracy is strengthening their hold on the poor , looting them and pushing them down the debt track. People loose properties and all their belongings.

The World War 1 has a great significance in this novel, as it did for Iceland. Though it is not participated in the war, for geographical reasons, the repercussions are felt even at this distant land. People keenly follow the happenings as it changes their fortune, mostly favourably as the demand for raw material and meat was increased. There is also reference to the death of CSAR and the raise of Communism, as people are eager to learn the outcome of this experience. Laxness was known for his affinity towards Communism, and the subtle hints of new regime of people in that country is mentioned as a new light at the horizon. There are workers agitating, some of them even taking the path of looting the rich ( only the bread and milk ). There are proposed strike against the authorities for wages and their rights. Their resolve was firm despite the news that the authorities are expected to use force on them including firing squad. At the end despite all the setbacks and tragedies, Bjarthur stands tall, and the books ends with the reconciliation of the family and beginning of a new life with the hopes of new era for Iceland.

This is a fabulous book, and what is impressive is the detached tone of language and its simplicity. The narration never takes over the plot, nor the characterisation is exaggerated or typecast. He is the representation of the society , who would like to stand on their own without dependency of the authorities be it bureaucratic, papal , ideological or even familial. The "independence" for him does not merely an economic means, but on every aspect of his life, including his personal interactions with his wives and children. This does not mean he is not in love with them. He shows his softer side, by composing verses for his daughter, by looking out for his estranged son, allowing the youngest one to leave him and migrate to America.

Independent people is an outstanding novel. Originally published in two parts in the year 1934 and 35, it was published in English in1946 and Laxness went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1955. Though long and slow moving, it never leaves your attention to the narration. Despite the general feel of the book, it never come across as a gloomy , grim and sad novel, even while we are sympathetic to the protagonist. Carefully crafted and progressed, cleverly articulated ; Great read and a master piece.
Independent People ( 1934-1935)

Halldor Laxness ( translated by J A Thomson 1988)

Vintage Classics

544 Pages
Read more : Scandinavian Books, Dannyreviews , npr , Wiki Entry

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Short Letter , Long Farewell - Peter Handke

This is my first book of Austrian Writer Peter Handke. I would have preferred to read his more celebrated works like "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" or "The Left-Handed Woman". He is a prolific writer, albeit his recent controversies regarding the Slobodan Milosevic issue. He had published large number of books ( almost 2 per year for the last 30 odd years) and was considered by many as one of the potential candidate for Nobel. Short Letter, Long Farewell is more read like a travelogue than a full fledged fiction. There are no clear plot and is have left more unanswered questions. It is a plight of an abandoned husband in search of his destiny triggered by a letter from his estranged wife. Upon receipt of a letter from his separated wife from the US, a young Austrian come over to the land of dreams, land of abandonment and a land of escape, the United States. Following the clues from the letter and later from the hints and chances, he follow her track through the width and breadth of US. From NY to Philadelphia to Chicago to LA. Little did he realised that the table is turning reverse. It was evident that his wife is now chasing him and following him through his journey. Soon the hunter became hunted with she drop evidence of her being at the place of his current stay. At one instance, she even put some goons on him and rob him off his cache and other belongings. The showdown was inevitable, as they cross the country in trail until the place of encounter.

What is left unsaid, is more than the spoken words in this book. The style and prose is crisp and controlled. However, it does not go beyond the beautifully crafted words. The entire story is not convincing, neither it gives anything to ponder. While it might track an individuals isolation and his quest for the 'unknown', it fails to create an 'escape' theory. Wait, may be that is what is the intention. May be it is planned to be so. To depict the failure of the individual to find peace with himself as he drift from one place to other.

It can be read as an autobiographical story, or a travelogue, or a crime thriller. This is my curtain raiser to the world of Peter Handke's writing. But this book was disappointing.
Short Letter, Long Farewell ( 1972 )

Peter Handke ( Ralph Manheim 1974)

NYRB Classics

167 Pages
Other Reviews : Bookslut

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Door - Magda Szabó

I heard this name in one of the discussion about Hungarian Literature. Only four of her books have been translated to English and only this book is currently available in print. What impressed me about her writing is the the intelligence and the command over the style and language . It is not easy to write about a domestic affair into a full length novel and be successful about it. The other I can think of is the Spare Room by Helen Garner.

A young writer, struggling with her priorities as a writer and her home responsibilities, hires a domestic help on recommendation from a friend. ,Emerence to her physical appearances of tall lady with broad shoulders and erect posture ("powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and radiating strength like a Valkyrie”), turn out to be a hard talking stubborn, at time no respect for the means and ways of her employers and even sound a bit crazy. As it is the case in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe I guess, she has the authority to appear at her convenience and finish the work. It took less than a week for the employers to realise the real character of her.The initial apprehension slowly turned into admiration for the lady for her hard working ways and no nonsense approach. "She made demands, more than I had expected, but she also gave a lot," The interdependency grew as the time progresses, with both making adjustment to each other. However, any attempts to get closer to her is reciprocated with a strong rejection. She stays alone and the only connection she seems to be having with the external world is her nephew who visits her once in a while. Even he was only received outside her house and the door to house ( and life) was shut to every one.

The strange love-hate relationship between the writer and Emerence continued for over 20 years with many incidents in their life. The writer, now learnt to appreciate the differences, tries to understand and alanyse the person whom she has observed from close quarter. Behind the idiosyncrasies and the solitary living , has a body and soul that endured sufferings of a life time. It is through the bits and pieces of information that she gathers, the previous life of Emerence , emerge ( albeit in patches) to the writer and us. The tragic death of her siblings, the resulting suicide of her mother,mostly obvious death of her father during war, her job as domestic help at an early ages of fourteen are unveiled in front of us as a fairly tale. Her previous employers a Jewish family leave every thing behind to the care of Emerence including their daughter Eva during the years of War. To the promise to them , she keeps every thing that were entrusted to her with utmost care waiting for their return. She even had to suffer her reputation to protect the girl. Except fot the dog Viola and the 9 cats she grow inside her closed house, none seems to understand her, and any attempts were blocked by her unfriendly behaviour.

The story takes a definite turn with her illness and her stubbornness against getting medical admission. As the pressure mounted, she shut herself inside her house, only after regulating her will and the works that needed to be complted by individuals in the event of her death. The attempt to break into her house and "rescue" her to the medical help seems to be a violation of the understanding. When the only person who could convince her , the writer herself, failed in that duty, and the smell of decay and human excrete become unbearable, the authorities broke into her house, with the help of the writer. Emerence responded strongly to the breach of trust by refusing to even look at her let alone talk to her. Feeling guilty and tormented for the cause of her death, Magda Szabo, brings out one outstanding work of fiction to the readers. In an interview published in Hungarian Daily, Magda Szabo confirms that every thing that is described in the book had happened in real life. "Yes, literally. The model for Emerenc was my housekeeper, Juliska. Everything is true, including the dog Viola, who died here in my flat at the age of fourteen."

Brilliantly written, very articulate and measured in her writing, always poised and diligent in her narration Magda Szabo appears to be a very sensible and intelligent writer. The portrait of Emerence is balanced not to get carried away by the melodrama of the affairs. Towards the end one is left stunned by the quality and sustenance of her prose in style and substance. Insightful novel about the intimate relationship ( or the lack of it , thus the book) between a young writer and her domestic help by one outstanding writer.
The Door ( 1987 )
Magda Szabó ( Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix)

Vintage Books

262 Pages
More read : Guadian, A Common Reader, Independent , Blogcritics, Wiki Entry

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather - Gao Xingjian

I have read his novels as they were available in India soon after he won his Nobel for Literature. I always wondered about his selection as a candidate for Nobel Prize, with only a couple of major works available. It is only recently, I could get a copy of his short stories, which are originally published in China before his exile. A collection of 6 stories, specifically chosen by the author himself , originally published in Beijing before he moved to France , says the translator in the introduction.

There are not stories per se, these are more notes and observation of trivial things happening in our daily life. Each of the six stories are short in time frame, but have a large picture of the social set up. The canvas is present and is visible to the observer. The narrator in each of the story is one who either participate or witness the event , trivial in most of the cases, takes place. It is through these visuals, Xingjian gives us the glimpse of the society.

The Temple, first story of this collection talks about a newly married couple on their honeymoon, decides to step down from the train in an unknown station only to create some adventure to their trip. Having understood that this town , typical to any other town, does not boast any attraction except for a temple on top of the hill. "In the park" , written as conversational piece, has two middle aged man and women ( likley lovers prior to their marriage and family) meets in a park and talking. They observer a young lady in one corner of the park crying. They contemplate and debate about the causes of her depression and about helping her. They probably see their own past and the lost opportunity in the troubles of the young lady. Xingjian do not provide any solution, neither does he conclude. We never know the reason of the lady crying, nor whether the middle aged couple managed to shake off their current life and re-unite.

A swimmer developed cramps and nearly drown in the sea at an unnamed resort, barely managed to escape. In his return to the hotel in all excitement to announce the news of his miraculous escape, he find no one interested in him. He wanted to live desperately and to be with the rest of the world. He finds that his escape and excitement does not matter to anyone and the loss of an individual goes unnoticed in this world. As he walks back to the shore dejected, the writers takes our views to a couple of boys running to the water leaving behind a crippled girl on the shore.

"The Accident" tracks the similar line. an accident involved a father and son in a crowded street and its after maths to the street ( note: not to the family) and its momentary occupants. The government machinery goes through the pre-determined process including shifting the body to the hospital, removing the debris and even cleaning the road and the blood stains. The world here has come back to what it was a while ago. "Of Course a traffic accident can serve as an item for a newspaper. And it can serve as the raw material for literature when it is supplemented by the imagination and written up as a moving narrative: this would then be a creation.

The story that bears the title of this collection is about a mans buying a fibre glass fishing rod for his grand father, who we ( the reader) realise later had died long ago. He wants to keep the rod away from his son, for fear of damage, and plans a trip to his ancestral village and realises ( the whole thing is in a delirium) that the place and the world has changed beyond recognition and he will be in no position to find the house and streets he grew up with. Whether he takes up the journey in real sense or not, he takes up an emotional journey through his past and the days with his grand father bringing him close to the place he wanted to be.

Nothing extra ordinary happens in any of the stories, What is impressive and catches your attention is the ease at which he is able to create an atmosphere of familiarity and thus the triviality. I found 4 of these stories very interesting, portraying the loneliness of the individual and the near zero value and impact of him in this vast world.
Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather ( 2004 )

Gao Xingjian ( translated from Chinese by Mabel Lee 2004)

Harper Perenniel

127 Pages
Other Reviews : January Magazine, Guardian, Pop Matters, Wiki Entry

Saturday, October 29, 2011

9 - Susmesh Chandroth

Deepak, retuning back to the place of his growing years after a gap of 9 years, to attend the funeral and last rights of his maternal grand father. Unable to adjust to the new found closeness and the extra affection from his relatives, he decides to stay in a guest house post the funeral for a few days of retreat. The next 9 days, until he returns to the family home to do the post funeral ceremonies, he decides to stay out of his busy schedule as a fashion photographer in Chennai, away from the crowd , away from the girl who lives with him in Chennai. This sets the book for next 200 pages of his nostalgic remembrance of his place.

From here, until the last few pages, Deepak reminisce about the life and times of the small town 'Thoovanam" in the high ranges of Western Ghats ( Idukki District of Kerala). From the history of early settlers and their descendants from Travancore to the new age materialistic progress of the place over the 30 years since 1970. You see various interesting characters appear through the narratives, often slipping away from the main thread ( of Deepak and his family and his childhood). You see street magicians, traders, farmers, ladies with dubious deeds and reputation, hunters and anti social elements, people who appear for 6 months and then abscond for the next six, the nature in its fury, the naxalites during the 70s, madmen et all. Deepak recollects various incidents that etched in deep sentiments in his young mind during his growing up  years. his own struggle with poverty, with ever wandering father and decaying family fortune of the grand father, despite his high standing social strata.

To me, all it talks is about the life in the high ranges through few individuals. They are described in detail through their life and death. While at few places the narration is very absorbing the story line is feeble and not very convincing. The protagonist is not one that remain with you after the reading. I haven't found anything that is extra ordinary in this book. Well, in the construct of a novel , this fails to impress me despite having some good writing at few places. It lacks in the story line, in the wholesomeness of a novel. Good writing alone does not make a good novel. No characters are rounded or near completion, they are all pedestrian in the narrative. They do not seems to have made any influence of the story. Both the beginning and end chapters are mediocre to say the least.

Susmesh Chandroth is a good short story writer and his first novel "D" have won the DC Books Novel Carnival award ( I haven't read that). But, this is not one of the books I recommend to others.
9 ( 2008 )

Susmesh Chandroth

D C Books

Rs 120/-

223 Pages

Sunday, October 23, 2011

To Bury our Fathers - Sergio Ramirez

It has been said that the trade of writing is the best in the world, though more ancient ones exist. Or perhaps not. The need to tell, and to be told, begins that magic moment in which someone is not content with the direct perception of the reality that surrounds him, and with his mind wanders beyond the real limits of his world, where what is visible ends and darkness filled with anxiety for the unknown begins.”  - Sergio Ramirez ,  lettre-ulysses-award

Sergio Ramirez is one of the leading figures in the Central American Literature. He was the Vice-President of the Nicaraguan Republic for over 15 years under the rule of Daniel Ortega. This book considered as a major work of fiction coming out of Central America. Written during 1973-1975 while he was in West Berlin, under a scholarship.

Sergio Ramirez takes us back to the years of 1930 to 1960 under the rule of Samoza ( 'el Hombre' as he is referred in the book) afte the fall and death of Sandino. The multi layered narrative follows the harrowing experiences of the revolutionaries often under arrest and torture and most of the times in exile at Guatemala or Honduras running away from the military. The 30 year period is too broad to detail, hence he is written tis book through the experiences of soldiers, revolutionaries, musicians, prostitutes, and other insignificant Nicaraguan people. However the theme circles around three friends, two of them initially part of the National guards and later defected. Jilguero, whose grand father contested the only election for the President of Nicaragua, won by huge margin only to have the election disqualified by el hombre. Larios ( known as Indio) was part of the national guard, who helped the colonel Catalion Lopez during one of the difficult period, only ot be paid back by treachery is now in exile at Guatemala. The along with Taleno ( son of a rich merchant joined the military academy and was part of the national guard , who was later arrested and was put in a cage near a tiger in the Presidental zoo. The threesome, gets their revenge later by kidnapping Colonel Lopez in Guatemala. On another thread we read the return of Larios' body from Guatemala to his home land by his son which could have been the reason for the name of the book. I understand the Spanish title " ¿Te dio miedo la sangre? " has a meaning "Were you afraid of the Blood".

The book moves through reminiscence of people, monologues or retelling of stories witnessed or heard by various participant in the present or past. In the end it all comes down to the struggle between the dictatorship of Samoza ,supported and financed by the US who control both economical and political fate of all of those tiny Central American republics. and Sandinista rebels( eventualy they won and formed a government under Daniel Ortega)..The narration does not have a flowing story line, its random and kaleidoscopic, taking the reader to a level of frustration.

One of the issue with the narrative is that it is presented jumbled up to the reader. For the intial pages it is very difficult to get t grip of the tale as the space and times are often intermixed with atleast 6 threads of narration are on. Without the help of the chronology at the end of the book I wouldnt have managed to get a hold of the narrative. This was helpful through out the reading, in order to get the time and place accurate, but on the otherside it was too distracting to the flow of reading. The story is summarised in the two paged preceding the chapter 1 and in the last 2 pages mentioned above. His style and language is impressive and the structure though confusing at first, once you have a grip , is good and engaging. However, the book lack in some sort of completeness. It does not have any definite conclusion, may be as intended by the writer. Nonetheless, a very intelligent work of fiction.
To Bury Our Fathers ( 1977 )

Sergiop Ramirez ( translated from Spanish y Nick Caistor 1984 )

Readers International

249 Pages

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Spy Princess : the Life of Noor Inayat Khan - Shrabani Basu

Typical persons you associate with a spy is what you see in movies. For most of them, I guess, the famous Mata Hari provided the benchmark/guidelines. I am not a great reader of spy novels and was apprehensive about this book, even though this is a biographical book. My fear was that the fictional or the element of glorification take the upper hand in the narrative. However, it wasn't so, at least evidently in this book.

Born to the royal lineage of the legendary Tipu Sultan, daughter of hindustani classical Musician Inayat Khan and his American Wife Ora Ray Baker in Moscow before moving into Paris, Noor had her initial schooling in French. The house full of musicians and Sufi sect followers ( her father was a Sufi Practitioner and teacher), she had an upbringing which were very unlike of the others of her generation. Her early years after the schooling began as a wrier. She wrote children's stories for French Magazines and had the famous Jataka Tales translated and Published into French. It was during this time she lost her father and the responsibilities of running the family fell on her as her mother withdrew herself into a solitary living confined to her room. These were the years of financial struggle for her. Just before the situation improved and they were back on their own foot, the war began. Germany with its ambition to conquer attacked France and annexed French Territory. Boor and her family like many other Paris residents, left home and were on the road. With some miracle, they entire family managed to escape to London and its here her new life started.

She was not some one who can pass as a spy. Fragile, very beautiful and vulnerable. Her only qualification was her training as radio operator, which she was fast. She made less errors. Her training process was long and she was given non favorable recommendations by almost every one who interviewed her or trained her. In the selection interview regarding a question about Indian Independence, she spoke in support of the Indian Leaders almost jeopardizing her selection. Her training period was also not so remarkable. She failed miserably at the mock drills/tests and practice interrogations ( her religious belief did not allow her to lie). The only positive in her profile was her ability as a radio operator and the hard work she put in apart from her proficiency in French.

After almost two years of training, she was asked to go to the action field. She and her colleagues were dropped in the French soil. She was asked to join one of the groups in Paris. The fate played spoil sport again. Within 10 days of her arrival , the entire team was in disarray after German's managed to crack through the squadron and arrest most of the senior leaders of the team. With no equipment to transmit and no leadership, she survived the days , slowly building up her service. the next 3 months, she was the only available radio operator in France working for the British and that put her in a difficult position. It was easy for the Germans to track her down through her transmission and that called for short transmission and constant shifting of her place. Wtih an equipment of that size, she managed to avoid the ever approaching Germans for almost 4 months supporting her bosses with information and holding position single handed.

She had a couple of narrow escape, but eventually by treason she was fallen into the hands of the Germans. Even under captivity she did not succumb to the pressure and never uttered any word that could be useful to the enemy. She made three attempts to escape the captivity, but failed in all. This put her under the category of 'dangerous prisoner' and she was treated with such hatred and was constantly kept chained even within her solitary cell. Even the long 8 months of jail terms she withstood the torture and constant pressure by the Gestapo, before transported to the concentration camp at Daache where she was shot dead after a long night of torture and molestation.

As a spy and operator, she was active only for over three months period. What made her different is her determination to stay focussed and her inner belief in her ability to hold on, while most other prisoners broke down and confessed. Despite her initial vulnerability and her fragility, she proved to the world what she is capable. Both British and French Governments recognised her contribution to the cause and have awarded her the highest military honours : The George Cross ( UK ) , and the Croix de Guerre ( France ). A very shy and family person who was very close to her brother, it was not very clear what prompted her to attend the selection process and join the SOE.

For me this book gave glimpses of the secret agent operatiives and the methods during the World War and some of the unsung heroes of the time. There are elements of suspense and thriller and the final pages are read like a fast page turner. As the introduction clarifies, "Noor was an unlikely spy. She was no Mata Hari. Instead she was dreamy, beautiful and gentle, a writer of children's short stories. She was not a crack shot, not endowed with great physical skill and a far cry from any spy novel prototype "

It is not easy to write about some one who is as elusive as Noor Inayat. She hasnt left many marks and there aren't many details available apart from what is available.She had very few friends and was reclusive most of the time. Considering all that, Shrabani Basu has done a lot of work to get the book into a near complete story of Noor, to her credit. The book is easy to read as a fiction and is chronologically arranged typical to a biography ( family background, her birth and childhood, upbringing and the early years of her life). Good attempt to bring light to a mystical and mysterious Indian princess who actively participated in the world war II.
Spy Process : the Life of Noor Inayat Khan ( 2006 )

Shrabani Basu

Roli Books - Lotus Collection

234 Pages

Rs 395
Other Reviews : Sawnet Review , BBC Gallery, Wiki Entry

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Helmet of Horror - Victor Pelevin

"I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself together with anyone who tries to find me - who said this and about what?" , Ariadne starts the thread in an internet chat room. The eventful journey through the labyrinth of internet chat room, of virtual reality experiences, of physical phenomenon and psychological labyrinth of existence, thus begin. Each of them ( 8 to 9 of them with typical wacky names) find themselves locked in an identical looking room with a similar computer screen and keyboard , dressed in similar ancient Greek tunic. None of them sure of how they reached this place. While they all are aware of their existence in the virtual media through their own handle (avatar) the rest are as obscure and oblivious to the outer world.

The build up of the chat conversation is through the dreamy or hallucinating experiences of the participants during the 24 hrs. They find themselves being remotely controlled by an unknown, the keystrokes take shapes to words and sentences as if they are pre-determined ( the swear words and personal information are automatically censored and replaced with xx) . The experiences are fabricated ( or so it seems) and fed to their world. The world of virtual and real often smudged and it is difficult to understand what is real and what is the creation of their mind. Each of them goes through their personal experiences in their captivity and tries to find a meaning with the help of their comrades in the chat room. Each of them brings about their own personal labyrinth and shares with the rest to find their way out, witnesses extra ordinary creatures and humans such as gigantic figures and dwarfs who appear in various forms to each. Some see them in their dream, some see them in the labyrinth outside their room for someone it is in the form of a maze in the windows screen saver. Some hear their voices, some experiences their power.
The reference to the Minotaur comes up and they are in the labyrinth of Minotaur. All they are waiting for is the Theseus to rescue them. Are they being manipulated to believe this. Are they the product of their own created labyrinth ? Who is controlling their view, their thoughts and their existence here? Is the culprit ( and the savior) among them ?

Published by Canongate, as part of their myth series, Victor Pelevin, one of the prominent new voices from Russia,merges the myth of Minotaur and Theseus into the modern day internet settings. Theseus had the help of the princess to get back safely through the labyrinth after his triumph over Minotaur. Pelevin hints at the need of a new Theseus, to get them out of the hold of Minotaur and navigate safely through the labyrinth.

Entirely told through internet chat transcript, Victor Pelevin attempts to bring out the self made labyrinth of the individual, where the hapless individual tries to find his way out. He creates the eery environment with ease and manages to retain the suspense and the perceived terror through out. The concept and build ahead of the "Helmet of Horror' is interesting and a bit confusing ( the helmet of horror is in no way the one thing that is, it is also one of the multitude of things that are not) , but it may be a regular affair to a science fiction reader.
Writing is tricky and too clever. He bring too many things together with too many jargons. he brings references to holy church, the cryptic messages to be decoded, little bit of romance running along side and many uses of symbols. The attempts is brave and is something new but I felt it was too ambitious and clever to my comfort.

The Helmet of Horror ( 2006 )

Victor Pelevin ( translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield 2006)

Canongate Books

274 Pages
Other Reviews : Guardian , Complete Review

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

"On my fifteenth birthday, I'll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library. It sounds a little like a fairy tale. But it's no fairy tale, believe me"..

Karuki Murakami's name has been put forward by many enthusiast as one of the potential Nobel candidate in the near future. After his runaway success with the translation of Wind up Chronicle and the rest, there are many who have fallen for his style of writing. The recent release of his magnum opus 1Q04 ( English translation is expected any time), his popularity among serious readers have gone up dramatically. I have been holding on to this book for over 3 years and have decided to pick it up for reading during the 'nobel speculation'.

First things first,I'm not a great fan of huge books. While I appreciate his style and writing, my comments about this book is rather reserved. I am not as blown away as some of my friends are over this book. Midway through the journey I even felt bored and thought of hanging up. More over the book to be resembled more European than Japanese to me. Which also signifies the shift in the modern writing in the Easter Part of the world.

The novel is about a 15 year old boy running away from home leaving his sculpture father behind. He escapes to a remote corner of the country taking refuge in a private owned library working there in part time. There is a parallel thread which is to merge ( or come close) towards the end talks about an old man suffered irreparable damage ( to his memory ) during an incident post the WW2. After a long time spend in hospital post a mass hypnotic effect ( as we read through the X-Files of US military intelligence), he looses his power of comprehension and gains the knowledge of the languages of the cats. After working in a carpenters for 30 years, he is now retired and living on the grand provided by the district governor. The story of the boy Kafka Tamura as he identify himself, goes through his life in the library where he befriends Oshima , a 21 year old transgender who is the keeper of the library and who assist Kafka to settle and hide from the world. A magestic lady who presumably the owner of the place called Miss Saeki, with a mysterious present and past - as a singer pianist who had a sold out album with a smash hit titled Kafka on the Shore. And Kafka's one night friendship with Sakura a 21 year old beautician,who helps him during his troubled time.

Nakata spent his time locating and retrieving lost cats for the neighborhood houses using his ability to speak to cats. The meagre amount of 'thanks giving' money he keeps for himself. It is in one of such sojourn he bump into Johnnie Walker ( yes, with hat and stick) who kills cats and eat their soul. To protect the cat he has to secure and return, Nakata had to kill Johnnie walker in his den. His admission of guilt at the local police station and the prediction of a 'rain of fishes' was not taken seriously. He embark upon a long journey , not knowing where and how, by hitch hiking across the highway.

In the meanwhile the murder of the famous sculpture Tamura by stab wounds are out. Its all over the news. The only clue police had the mysterious man claiming to have killed him and that his 15 year old son had ran away from home a day before. Nakata continue his journey as he felt and asking the driver to help him cross the huge bridge where he need to get the "entrance stone". Nakata's life has a meaning now and he need to execute what is written for him to perform. With the help of his new found man friday ( truck driver Hoshino) , he set about getting access to the 'Entrance stone' and the library where he meet Miss Saeki as scripted. Soon both Miss Saeki and Nakata leave this world, leaving the rest perplexed ( and us the readers). Further continuing the riddled narration Murakami takes us to the shore with a rather obvious ending.

The book evolves around the riddles and Murakami is not trying to find the answer for you. He keeps us guessing ( the obvious) without revealing it clearly, letting the reader to his own conclusions. Is Miss Saeki his real mother ? Is Sakura his sister ? Is the sculpture his biological father ? there are no answers ? What is Nakata's role in this ? Is he fulfilling what the destiny asked him to do ? Why was the truck driver Hoshino part of the plot and what was he trying to find for himself ? That also brings an interesting observation about this book. It is these peripheral characters that makes it interesting to read. It is they which adds color and content to the story. Miss Saeki , The truck driver Hoshino, the transgender Oshima are the ones that make this an interesting read.

There are cats talking to people and among themselves , the text is intermixed and often take the surreal path. There are souls of living people wandering at night even making love, there is johnnie walker and Sanderos of KFC ( works as a pimp as well as a guide in finding out the entrance stone), You also find the boys alter ego called "The boy called Crow" talking to himself ( Kafka means Crow in Czech language, apparently). Its a quagmire of images and concepts and Murakami is trying put all that into one place. It is confusing at first and intriguing as you read through. But the whole puzzle falls in place as you continue reading. In the end, I guess you will be rewarded for your patience, albeit the puzzle is not solved entirely for you. Murakami puts it as "Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction, the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader."

The book is a fast page turner and I had a rather fast read of a 600+ page book. I still find it a little too long with a lot of dragging pages. While this is a prelude to reading 1Q04 ( I am not likely to go for any of his other books judging by this read), and a good introduction to his writing. Not a bad read, but not exceptional as I was made to believe.

Kafka on the Shore ( 2003)

Haruki Murakami ( translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel 2005)

Vintage Books

615 Pages
Other Reviews : Wikipedia, Contemporary Literature, NY Times, Guardian, Newyorker, Complete Review

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Tunnel - Ernesto Sabato

Ernesto Sabato, one of the masters of 20th century  Latin American Literature died last April, two months ahead of his 100th birth day. The tunnel, originally published in 1948, has been heralded as one of the pioneer in the existentialist novels. This is my first reading of Ernesto Sabato and I am still under its spell.

Juan Pablo Castel, a modernist painter, killed his only friend in the world, Maria Iribane, whom he loved and longed. From his cell, he recalls his days of love and the events that followed until the murder.

It would be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribane. ..... You may wonder what has motivated me to write this account of my crime, and why I want to publish it..
He gives no specific reason, " I want to tell the story of my crime: that and nothing more."

The met, or more accurate to say, he saw her in one of his painting exhibition. According to him, she was the only one who recognised or understood his painting. The accidental meeting later the week made him follow her to the building she worked or came to do some errand in the neighborhood.  The attraction turned mutual and on his part, it has become obsessive. Obsession changes him. He grew possessive and suspicious at the same time. He cant live without her presence near, despite knowing she is married to a blind man and she most likely have another lover in the country side. Maria on her part plays along exhibiting similar traits and wanting to suffer from his hand until she was murdered at the hand of Castel.

Castel is a compelling character, though he is not one you will want to be familiar with. He thinks in the probability theory on every aspect of their relationship. He substantiate his thoughts with his own theory and try to extract responses and behaviour from her that conforms his theory. Under suspicion, every thing she does is looked through microscopic scrutiny and the negative thought developed over and over makes him nervous and tormented. He wants to escape this path and goes back to his own, but  continued to be pulled back. Even when they are together, he is not able to have normal conversation and he fails to express himself to her despite his best effort . He confront himself and her, trying to figure out all the possible reasons of her actions and the possible options that exists for him , trying to analyse them logically. Each move from him is one of the possible outcome, which may not seems convincing to the rest of the world,  including his conviction of killing her.

Not surprisingly ( well, thinking about it now) this book was praised by Albert Camus and Graham Greene. Critics says, this book also reflects the isolation of an urban Argentine youth and explores the irrationality and dark side of the modern metropolis. You may also want to read this as a political novel as Argentina at that time was under the rule of  Peron. It is intersting to note that Sabato was the chairman of the commission that investigated the murders committed during the dictatorship ( which of course was much later in 1984).

The language is impeccable. Short and controlled sentences. Clear in communicating and displaying the emotion they convey. It is also non pretentious and surprisingly narrator is calm and collected in his thoughts. He conclude saying "There was one person who could have understood me. But she was the person I killed".

Brilliant novel, I am sure will have to read a couple of more times to fully appreciate this.
The Tunnel ( 1948)

Ernesto Sabato ( translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden 1988 )

Penguin Classic

140 Pages
Further read : Guardian 1, Guardian 2, independent , Wiki

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Day - A L Kennedy

Working as an extra in a war movie, being shot in Germany post the World War II, Alfred Day trying hard to get back to the mainstream life which seem to be alien to him. His life as he recounts in bits and pieces isn't been one that he would look back with happiness. Early days of life with his alcoholic father physically and mentally abuses his mother bore the memories of his troubled childhood. It is to escape this situation at home, he decided to join the RAF during the war. He volunteered to be part of the Airforce and was happy to take the position of a tail-gunner.

He camaraderie with his bomber mates were to compensate for all that was missing at home. Even that seems to be short lived after a crash and him being detained as PoW. His accidental meeting and the love that budded with joyce, a married woman whose husband apparently missing in action in the east somewhere, is the only colour in his life, which he again looses on his return post the war.

Unable to find himself in the society, he find himself a job as an extra in a movie. Its here again, he find himself alone. Effort to be in connection with fellow artists ( a Ukrainian wanting to migrate to UK) also ended up in bitter physical fight.

A L Kennedy is able to recreate the sentiments and the after effects of war on individual. Dark and gloomy and often hopeless plight of individuals are brought out pretty well.It is only at the PoW camp ( even if it is a mock set up for a movie ) he find his place. Day is a internalised , non socialising , tormented man and the style and structure of her writing depicts the exact nature of her protagonist.

Her style is not easy to cope with. Its extremely demanding and require utmost concentration. In that way, the reading wasn't very pleasant. It moves from first person narrative to second person ( you, type) and the third person in the same paragraph/page. The writing is abstract and stingy. Once you get over these obstructions, the book is pretty good and intelligent.
Day ( 2007 )

A L Kennedy

Vintage Books

280 Pages
Other Reviews : Independent , Guardian , NY Magazine

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Ancient Garden - Hwang Sok-Yong

If you were shut in a cell for nearly two decades in the 80s and 90s, the years that saw huge shifts in the economical, technological and political scenes of the world, you will be bewildered by what you witness in the world. Oh Hyun Woo, a political prisoner, sentenced for life was released after 18 years of prison life is struggling to cope with the changes as he was released out of prison in the new millenium. He realises that the situation now is different, and what he and his friends fought for and sacrificed their youth and their life has no meaning in the changed time. Nothing new to look forward to and age at the wrong side of him, all he has is the old memories of love and friendship. But the only memory that remain fondly despite the gruelling years in jail, of meeting his love of life, which he soon realises, is no more. Yoon Hee, his love ( an affair lasted mere six month but remained forever) has died three year ago succumbs to cancer.

Broken and tormented, Hyun Woo, recedes to the small house in Kalmoe, where he and Yoon Hee spend the time during his hiding, leaving him with fond memories of rare happiness. He relives his life during those troubled times through the notes she left for him, through her diaries and the paintings. He rebuilds the life, trying to find a meaning for those days of revolutionary, and of his life in general.
"Here in Kalmae, as I've met the remains of Yoon Hee, I have found a partner, I can exist concretely through her. What was locked up in solitary confinement was not Oh Hyun Woo, but number 1444..Now I am returning to the world outside through my partner."

Written at the backdrops of the Kwangju ( or Gwangju ) civil demonstrations, which was brutally crushed by the military government of Chun Doo-hwan, Wiki says, In May 1980, civil demonstrations took place in Gwangju against the newly installed military government of Chun Doo-hwan resulting in hundreds of civilians being killed by the Korean Military. The demonstrations were suppressed by military forces, including elite units of the Special Operations Command. Most commentators agree that the suppression was characterized by its egregious brutality, including several incidents where military forces fired automatic weapons into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Gwangju is sometimes called "the shrine of Korean democracy" because of this incident, which is known today as the Gwangju Democratization Movement. After civilian rule was reinstated, a national cemetery was established honoring the victims of the incident.

Hwang Sok-Yong recalls those days through the tale of a love and sacrifice. Hyun Woo and his friends are on the run fearing arrest and torture. As in the case of every revolutionary movement, there are underground operations, the propaganda work, the arrests and torture leading to more revelations and more arrests. The strength of ideology and will power of the youth continue to create ripples in the society and causes trouble to the government, until every one them are arrested and put behind bars. Hyun Woo, suggested as the king pin by the authorities manage to avoid arrest for a longer time, eventually falling into their hand. The days of torture and interrogation saw him sentenced to solitary confinement which continued for over 18 years. Looking back he says, "We knew we would fail, but we believed that the truth would be revealed, even if it took a long time, and we believed in a future where the world would be transformed into a righteous place"

Yoon Hee, an art teacher who is entrusted with the task of proving shelter for the fleeing Hyun Woo, find herself attracted to the man under her protection. Their love is recreated through the letters and other pages she wrote, and left behind for him, once diagnosed with illness.She even rebuilds the house as it was during those days anticipating his return, to its precise details. It is through these writings and the reminiscence that triggers in Hyun-Woo that brings the picture of the story in flash backs. Yoon Hee continue to sympathise with the movement post the arrest of her lover, by helping the others while studying and teaching paintings in Seoul, without being an activist.
The narration shifts between periods and locations as deemed fit, from the revolutionary days of Hyun Woo as an activist, to the notes and diaries of Yoon Hee, the solitary prison days of Hyun Woo, the present day after his release and the days spent at Kalmae in company of each other. I thought the writing of Hwang Sok-Yong wre at its best in these pages, until I think the narration fizzles out and loose some of its steam.
In the later part of the book, Yoon Hee spends a lot of time in Berlin pursuing her studies in art. It was during the decisive years of changes that shook eastern Europe. It was during this time, the changes of political thoughts and and direction to the obsessive left enthusiasts across the globe. These changes reflected in the thoughts of the erstwhile students and workers agitation leaders as well as Yoon Hee. What is interesting is the hidden parallel the author draws between the fall of the Berlin wall and the unification of Germany to the Korean Peninsula. Closely observing the behaviour of the erstwhile East Germans, who come over to the West to experience the new world, with the 'stipend' they receive at the border. In a similar way, Yoon Hee and her friend entertain a North Korean student strayed ( against the permission the North Korean Authorities imposes on him) into West Berlin and host him for a couple of days and helps him to return safely.
Hwang Sok-Yong's political thoughts and sympathies are obvious through out the novel. He was arrested and sentenced for alleged visit to North Korea in the 90s. In that sense, this is a strong political novel, where the intensity drops down ( as in the real case in South Korea) towards the end period. By then Korea has ousted the military Dictators and have progressed economically in a very significant way. The changes in the world political system is reflected in the thoughts of the Koreans as well so is in the novel.
Hwang Sok-yong also wrote for the theater, and several members of a company were killed while performing one of his plays during the 1980 Kwangju uprising. During this time Hwang Sok-yong went from being a politically committed writer revered by students and intellectuals, to participating directly in the struggle. As he says: “ I fought Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship. I worked in the factories and farms of Cholla, and I took part in the movements of the masses throughout the country . . . in 1980, I took part in the Kwangju uprising. I improvised plays, wrote pamphlets and songs, coordinated a group of writers against the dictatorship, and started a clandestine radio station called “The voice of free Kwangju"

While there book announces itself as a love story, it examines sympathetically the students and workers movement giving it a legitimate voice. Hwang Sok-Yong is a brilliant writer and it is visible in this book. However, this books drags too much towards the end, drifting from the main theme loosing the continuity. It also charts the often drafted paths of melodrama with the daughter and re-union ( he handled them beautifully though) which is too much of a comfort to me. Otherwise it was a good read in spite of the old fashioned style of narrative ( even though it is written in 2009) through flash backs.
The Ancient Garden ( 2009 )

Hwang Sok-Yong ( translated from Korean by Jay Oh 2009)


543 Pages
More read : NY Times, Korean Herald , London Korean Link, Korean Society ( film review)