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