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)

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Koruvanathile Poothangal - Prakasan Madikkai

What I observe in the new  Malayalam writing, is their new found love for myths, history and the language, mixing the contemporary issues. Be its politics or socio-economical changes, the creation of the atmosphere often goes through these fundamental elements. This is an interesting trend, taking us back to the style of 60s and 70s before the arrival of post modern stuff.

Mixing myth, history, folklore,cultural rituals and local beliefs with reality Prakasan builds an engaging tale of destruction to the eco systems and to the society with the arrival of the quarry in the village. The quarry is the living place for most of the dginns or the dead souls.  They live their peaceful existence mingled with the local beliefs.  With the arrival of the quarry, they were evicted from there by the powerful exorcist Arjuthan who managed to contain them in a pot and sealed and buried them deep under. With this , the quarry started their operations and according to the local Communist LEader and member of the Panchayat, came labour to the large number of the villagers. However, this was only the beginning of the worse.  The political lobby would want to start a theme park in the village, adjoining the river and the small island. The balanced ecosystem of the villagers , the nature and the numerous elements of supernatural power thus breaks. Every break in the system does destroy the place and the ill-fate befall the village, which witnesses unusual deaths of his various inhabitants.

Prakasan's novel is a political as well. Without getting into the political debates, he manages to sketch the changing face of politics, from the all enduring humanist communist to one being manipulated by the rich, and later itself become the rich by means of its business interests. It is the same with religion.

Language, especially its control on the narration is one that makes this a different reading. Language with its local fragrance and simplicity can be an extremely powerful tool. It removes the elements of forced writings and build in the reality. The expressions are shorter and crisp. They do not need explanation ( may be translation in certain cases).

The village Noonjiyur, is the typical hill side village in the north Kerala. It has its own variety of "Theyyams" and the legend associated with each. Yatheesan, the youngster, who is supposed to be playing the " Chamundi Theyyam" at the Temple. But the previous night visit to the local prostitute and the alcohol gets him out of control and  in the end looses his right to be a theyyam. Its the hunter Ratnakaran, who comes to his rescue. However, Ratnakaran who with his double barrel gun and cruel mannerisms scared the locals, died when a wild boar lost its senses and ran all over him. Similar fates awaits lot more characters. The Quarry owner Kurian, local secretary of Communist Party, the theyyam artist Kotharmman, Comrade Kumaran, The local exorcist and witch doctor Arjuthan, Pokkan who send law suits to al of the village on various reasons,  the carpenter Ambookkan, the madman Cherooli Raman, the Temple oracle Kandan etc are some of the many active and interesting characters that you meet in the tale. This mosaic style of characterisations  forms the overall picture of the village. Because of this, the tale looses a central character around which the story move and that is one huge reason for its not becoming a full length novel, from its current length.

It is interesting to see Magical realism still has takers. While the story line is not the strength of this novel, and the canvas itself is short, Prakasan overcome these deficiencies through his brilliant use of language and the construct. With the coexistence of history , myths and rituals , he creates a a world of fantasy often making it difficult to differentiate the real from the imagery. While magical realism might be out of fashion in the literary world, it still has its effects here in this short novel.

Winner of the 2010 Green Books award, this book is heralded as one of the new voices in Malayalam Literary scene. Prakasan Madikkai, indeed has a strong voice and a style that is powerful as well as effective in getting his points across. The book is short and the story line per se is not great. What he did is to create a effect with sublime use of his resources. Very good effort by this debutante.
Koruvanathile Poothangal ( 2010)

Prakasan madikkai

Green Books

111 Pages

Rs 80