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