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
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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