Saturday, April 30, 2011

Red April - Santiago Roncagliolo

21st century Latin American literature will be known for the new genre of writers who excel in modern literary thrillers. Red April, in the news again for nominated to the 'best translated works' is one catching attention among the readers all over the world. Having read Soldan ( turing's delirium) recently, I guess the new age writers may be moving away in style and substance from the boom generation of yesteryear. The period is 2000,in the new century, past the peak of Maoist insurgency and the regime of Alberto Fujimori ( 80s and 90s killing nearly 70000 people in Peru) , Set in the provincial city of Ayachuco, this murder mystery, crime thriller from the young Peruvian writer is already a super hit in the international market.

Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar , is transferred to Ayachuco, on his request to be in the place of his mother. He is recently separated with his wife and the only emotional support is from his dead mother, whose memory he keep alive, rebuilding the room as he remembered during his young days. Asked to investigate some unnatural murders in Ayachuco, he immediately realises that there aren't many who shares his interest in the same. Unable to get support from the police or from the surgeon , he decides to find his way to the story. He suspect and find hits about the involvement of 'shinig path' an outlawed terrorost organisation , dormant for almost 20 years, behind the new set of murders. The deeper he is into the investigation more isolated he become. However the authorities had another task for him, to go and monitor the on going election in one of the remote part of Peru. Now deeply into the case, he gets into unearthing the true story, without the support of the authorities. As he finds his way to more and more people to link and connect the issues, he gets into another issue. All those whom he interview or meet, ended up victims and ended up dead. as he himself puts it :

"All the people I talk to die, Father. I'm afraid. It's ... it's as if I were signing their death sentences when I leave them."
The week long festival is on and the town is full of visitors from various part of the world. The atmosphere is tense and imminent violence is in the air. Chacalnata, is in the thick of the things. More deaths and suspects . The novel takes the typical twist and turns of suspects and allegations. The literary element is slowly moved away with the frenzy of things and action.

Red April, started very well continued till the midway in line with the expectation I had. However, soon, this too took the typical crime thriller turn and ended up in the common genre. On his part the writer keeps manages to keep the suspense on until the end. It is an easy and fast read. As I said, initial parts I find very well written, vivid and unhurried. Characterisation of Chacalnata is done pretty well, from a simpleton, vulnerable and lost in his new assignment to one who is cunning and intelligent is very subtle and good. May be there is a symbolic use of the image of mother, which escapes me. As a socio-political crime thriller, the book is good. If there are any comparison to Mario Vargas Llosa's "Death in the Andes" ( almost on the similar theme), I would cast my vote for the Nobel Laureate.
Red April ( 2006)

Santiago Roncagliolo ( translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman in 2009)

Atlantic Books

271 Pages

Rs 399
Other Reviews : Guardian , Complete Review, Independent, Seattlepi

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising - Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar

The Uprising in the year 1857 , triggered by the Indian soldiers under the British Army, later supported by few kingdoms in the mid-north of India is considered as the first 'organised' struggle for Independence against the British Rulers in India, by many historians. More widely known as "Sepoy Mutiny" in the school history books are known to every Indian student. The names Nana Sahib, his deputy Tantya Tope and the legendary Queen of Jhansi, Lakshmibai are few heroes in the freedom struggle in the 19th century.

While the history text book gives us the story of these leaders and the struggle in detail, they are all have been the result of various studies and set to appease the Indian masses. Here is more closure account ( though I refrain to say accurate) of the events as they are unfolded to the traveller in those part of India during the turbulent times.

Vishnu Bhatt, a poor Maharashtra Brahmin, undertake a journey to the North (Hindi speaking areas) with his uncle, to participate in few religious ceremony at the rich and rulers thus earn some money to help the staggering debts that the family endure at the point of time. Little did he know that nhe is going to witness one of the most significant milestones in the history of India. With a promise to his weeping wife and brother that he will return within an year, the eventful journey took him nearly three years to retun back home safely.While Vishnu Bhatt did not participate in the struggle directly, he was also been part of the receiving end more than a couple of times, by the victorious British soldiers, and been mugged on a few occasions by the thugs on his way.

What is important to us is that he documents ( from memory and after 24 years of the events) the journey and the actions as he is witnessed to the rest of the world. As it is already known, the revolt started after the roumer that the new ammunition and guns procured and distributed by the British Army to the soldiers ( of Indian Origin) are "greased with cow fat and lard from Pigs". This agitated both the Hindu and Muslim soldiers for respective reasons, and the thought that "this was a deliberate ploy by the cunning white rulers to first get them to disgrace and pollute themselves by breaking the religious taboos and after they had been debased and cast out of their religion, to try and convert them to Christianity". However, the Britishers did not understand the reason of resentiment by the soldiers and they were pressed and forced to take up these arms. Refusal was treated with harsh punishment. The collective sentiments against this caused the uprising, at various part of the country starting at Meerut, Kanpur and Calcutta.

Large number of soldiers left the barracks and were wandering in the vastness of the region, who was looking for a leader to guide them. Tantya Tope, the ruler of Bisthur, thought it is his obligation to protect the religion and the state and was ready to lead the assault. The team had a few success initially, managing to defeat the white army at a couple of battles. As we are now aware, the trend soon reversed and eventually most part of North India coming under the control and rule of British East India company.

Jhansi rani Lakshmibai had different reasons to join the fight. The royal family deprived of a legal heir was refused permission to adopt a boy and thus to continue the regime. The king married thrice ( Lakshmibai being the third) died at an early age, leaving the kingdom at the hand of the resident British ruler. Being restricted to the inner circles of the palace, and having to obey the Britishers triggered the rebellion in the Queen, who soon declared herself as the ruler and started gathering troops. Joining forces with Tantya Tope and Nana Sahib, she continued the fight against the white leading the battle from the front, until her sad death in the battle.

Now, the book is not written as a history text. This could be called a travelogue or a memoir. He is not a 'qualified writer' and that reflects in the text and narration. While he was travelling in these part of the country, not every event is from the eye witness. Many are based on the hearsay by fellow travellers or people whom he meet. There are also evident of exaggeration of few numbers and amounts ( at least that is what I felt) and glorification of feats. Barring that, this is a good read and gives us the glimpses of the events from closure quarters.

Vishnu Bhatt is a keen observer and a listener. He is able to recall the events after many years to the precise details. He do not hide his admiration to the rulers and his meetings with Jhansi Rani and the other rulers are that of a typical brahmin looking for monetary favours and stomach full of delicious food. He also wanted to demonstrate his skilled and knowledge in religious scriptures and test himself against the scholars. He is also intelligent and calculative. His learning from the events and his analysis are very insightful and not that of the typical of the poor brahmin looking for daily food ( though he claims to be a wandering sadhu at many places).

He also captures some of interesting facts about Jhansi Rani, which are not seen much earlier. Rani likes to dres in man's attire ,trousers and jackets ( this was her attire during most of her battles) and used this as disguise while travelling in the country side. On the other hand, her husband likes to cross dress in woman's dress and spends great amount of time in the women's quarters.

Mrinal Pande's translation is worth mentioning. She claims to have translated this from the original text in Marathi and used the occasional reference to the earlier Sanskrit translations. The book reads with out much hiccups or difficulties to a non-hindi / marathi speaker and not using many of the local idioms. The language and style was maintained closure to the orignial ( to the kind of language and narration you see in the books from 19th century).
1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising ( 1907)

Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar ( translated from Marathi by Mrinal Pande in 2011)

Harper Perennia

229 Pages

Rs 250
Other reviews : Mumbai Boss , Pioneer

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Woman Who Waited - Andrei Makine

What was the longest wait for the love in the literary world ? Marquez made his hero wait for "53 year, 7 months and 11 days" in Love in the Time of Cholera for his love.

Boris Koptev 19, left to the froniters during the last days of WW II. He was part of the troops that went for the final rituals of defeat of Berlin. However, he was reported missing in action from the frontiers, As a truthful fiancee, Vera 16 year old, is waiting for his return. The narration is in the mid 70s, and the wait is 30 years long. Living in Mirnoe, a hamlet of old widows ( mostly of the soldiers of WW II), Vera lives her life taking care of them and teaches few students left in the village at the nearby school. "That blessed Vera ! she is still waiting ! still waiting ! She will wait forever"

Our nameless narrator, an artist from Leningrad, to study and record the local customs and folklore ( and to gather material for anti-soviet satire as advised by his friend), comes to this place up-north in Russian wilderness near the white sea. 26 year old, counter revolutionary, active with the Leningrad clandestine group, in Breshnev's Russia known for their disdain for the leadership. His initial curiosity towards this mysterious lady ( now in her mid forties) moved way to awe and admiration for her selfless work in this village. The meeting and acquaintance and his attempt to learn more about this lady gets more intriguing and complicated. Drawn to her ways of life, and not able to get into her mind, frustrates and challenges the young man.

"She is a woman so intensely destined for happiness and yet she has chosen, almost casually, it seems, solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to love.." begins the novel, as noted by the narrator.

He was ready to leave and return to Leningrad, but some charm hold him back to the place. He build stories in his own mind, creates possible plots and try finding a reason by himself ( and for himself), but not able to break the code into her thinking. All he manages to get was few glimpses of her past life, only to reaffirm the ever growing stature of the lady. As Otar the driver puts it,"You know, may be she is right, after all, that Vera.. in any case it's not for me, or you for that matter, to judge her",

Andrei Makine writing has the wonderful feeling of being so close to real time experience, while keeping a safe distance from the plot. The descriptions are vivid and unhurried. The plots are not in big canvas , neither it is studded with characters. Even here, apart from the protagonist and the lady in discussion, there are only a couple of characters worth attention. like the other works of this writer, Very moving without being overtly sentimental or emotive , he bring about an extremely poignant story of love , loss and longing.

A rather simple story line is transformed into a rich, lyrical and beautiful work of art by this fantastic writer.
The Woman Who Waited ( 2004)

Andrei Makine ( Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan in 2006)

Arcade Publishing

182 Pages
Other Review : Telegraph , Washington Post, Guardian

Saturday, April 09, 2011

I Curse the River of Time - Per Petterson

“I am 37 years old. . . . The Wall has fallen. And here I sit.” For Avid Jansen, life has come to a breaking point. The confident youth of the 70s moved by the dreams of new world is now on cross roads, Year is 1989 and the the Berlin wall is collapsed and the hope of a large generation including himself is in shatters. His marriage of 15 years is in ruins and his wife is about to leave him. His mother is diagnosed with cancer and she is off to her 'home' in Denmark. In other words the world around him is collapsing.

Following his mother, with whom he was never very close, from Norway ( where they live) to Denmark ( their vacation home) , he tries to win one of his loosing battles ( being a responsible son , he wanted to make sure that she is alright). However, things aren't as easy as he wanted it to be. He wasn't welcomed with any enthusiasm. Even here, he was timid and vulnerable as he had been through out his life.

Taking the title from a poem of Chairman Mao, quoted below by Avid:
"Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time, thirty-two years have passed."
Avid likes these words because, “…it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt how time was battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with me and run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.”

As he recounts his life and childhood during his journey to Denmark. His troubled relationship with his parents and siblings. The early life infatuation towards communism, which made him abandon the education to work in factories, his girlfriends and the childhood days in their vacation home. He was always the one struggling to find his footing in life. “I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it"

Dark, gloomy novel about abandonment and isolation. His characters are cold, aloof and cant get out of the shell they create themselves, tending towards existentialistic. They can never get warm to others or to themselves. Emotions are kept close to themselves and to the reader taking us through their struggle making us a part of them. However, they are likeable and stays with you even after the book finishes. While there is an overshadow of negativism in writing, there is never a dull moment. Petterson's writing leaves more unsaid, to the reader. It is not loud, silently grows in you as you go through the pages, leaving you with a tender feeling. Very good.
I Curse the River of Time ( 2008)

Per Petterson ( translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund in 2010)

Harvill Secker

233 Pages

Rs 550/-
Other Reviews : NY Times, Guardian, Complete Review , Norden