Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Prague Cemetary - Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco's latest novel, the most discussed releases last year along with 1Q84 ( in English), is the build up of the early 20th century document , The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which reveals the plots by Jewish people to dominate the world. This document, which confirmed later to be fake, supposed to have had a great influence on Hitler, apart from causing widespread political and religious repercussions across Europe. Umberto Eco, takes cue from this to build a case for his new novel, with reasonable success.

Using an unnamed narrator , a voice to be precise, who works through the notes and diaries of his protagonist, Simone Simonini a half-Italian half-French now in Paris. Chronologically going through his life from child hood till the last years of 19th Century, he builds from the various conspiracy theories and historical, political and literary events of Europe.

Simonini grew up in Piedmond, the kingdom in Italy bordering the French borders, under the guidance of his grand father, who blamed Jews for every bad things that happened on earth. He was taught by Priests who saw the bad influence of Jews on the Society every where. Growing up among the people obsessive about the growing influence of Jews in the world, he was mentally tuned to their way of thinking since early days. After graduating in law, he set up to work with a reputed lawyer, known for forgery and hideous practices. Developing his skills as an apprentice and applying them on his own superior, Simonini, arrived at the world as a master in forging documents and signatures.

Now working for the authorities, he was asked to accompany the ship carrying Alexander Dumas , on its way to Sicily, for a meeting with Garibaldi. Entrusted to do espionage and use his skills to the advantage of his superiors, spreading false rumours, eventually ensuring Garibaldi's advancement is halted from conquering Italy. After various activities of sabotage and attempts in Italy, he escaped to Paris, fearing for his life. It is at Paris, he grew into a full-time conspirator, working with various governments, living through the days of revolution as creator of fake evidences and documents leading to the famous document of Jewish conspiracy. Majority of the notes and diaries are about his adventures in these lines and his various assignments and his associations with people across the continent.

19th century Europe, from the rise and the eventual fall of Napoleon to the beheading of Luis XIV, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Garibaldi, Communist Manifesto,was a century of great upheaval. Eco, build his tale through these historical events cleverly integrating and using them as the ingredient in his well researched book. The rise of anti-Semitism, was routed deep in the psyche of the people since early ages. 19th century saw it at its pinnacle, resulting in the creation of the so called fake Protocol, culminating with various wars. The subject is tricky the discussion and narration borders around the venomous terrain of hatred. Culture, literature, politics and religion are involved in the deep rooted conspiracy and every one from rulers to writers to artist were involved at various stages in building and nurturing these to their personal favour at various times. Building on the conspiracy theory, his protagonist see a hand of Jews in every thing that happened around the Christendom. The rise of Napoleon, the French revolution, Communism, raise of various sects in Christianity ( including freemasons) are thought and alleged to be the handiwork of the Jews. It was so much that under every act of sabotage, a mysterious hand of Jews were suspected. History, religion, politics and military intermix each playing their part in the overall flux and complexity in the geo-political structure of Europe.

The fine line of fiction versus reality is blur at many places. Most of the incidents are taken from the history and is colored with his insight and fictional skills. Umberto Eco, in one of hie interview says

The Prague Cemetery is a story in which all the characters except one—the main character—really existed. Even the hero’s grandfather, the author of a mysterious actual letter that triggered modern anti- Semitism, is historical.

The book is full of sumptuous description of foods at various Parisian restaurants. " I gave Simonini food instead of sex. And I gave it in enormous quantities. The names of the dishes are so beautiful, even from a linguistic point of view, that a lot of people fell in love with those foods." says Eco in this Interview. The book in general is full of crime and treachery as he moves from one to the other collaborating once and getting rid of them in the next moment. Umberto Eco also treats us to an interesting end with multiple possibilities, which I found pretty fascinating.

This might be one of the easiest novel of Umberto Eco to read. Despite the repetitive plot after plot of forgery, deceit and crime this is an engaging read. Despite the chronological narrative, he deploys few good structural complexities, with an introduction of his alter ego. The book is a fast gripping read with lot of actions all over. However, I wouldn't consider this to be better than Foucaults Pendulam, Name of the Rose or Islands of the Day before. Interesting and informative nonetheless.
The Prague Cemetery ( 2010)

Umberto Eco ( translated from Italian by Richard Dixon 2011)

Harvill Secker

437 Pages
Wiki Entry, Guardian, NY Times, Telegraph, Paris Review ( Interview) , Washington Post, Tablemag Interview, Open Letter Monthly

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Distant Star -Roberto Bolaño

Bolano, in his preface refer to the final chapters of 'Nazi Literature in America' as one of the reasons of this book. ;The story of Lietenant Ramirez Hoffman of the Chilean Air Force. I haven't read that book, hence I could not connect. However, Bolano and his Chilean friend Arturo B , got together to wrie a full version of it.

"So we took the final chapter and shut ourselves up for a month and half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel."

Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, a timid young wanna be poet of the young Chilean generation influenced by Neruda, was first encounterd by the narrator during the early 70s at a poetry workshop in southern city of Conception. The early memories of Tagle was not very impressive, being friendly to the woman folks and maintaining a courteous distance with his own gender . However there were a few who believed he is going to be the new distinct voice of Chilean poetry, despite having no success with his art form. The days were Allende's government were short lived and the military coup took over the country under Pinochet. The university was ransacked and the news of arrest, murder and disappearances of 'people of words' were on the rise. Our narrator himself was arrested and was detained in an open prison.

Appearing now as a flight officer under the Pinochet's regime, Tagle, soon came to the limelight with his acrobatics in the sky, where he writes verses with some clever and dare devil maneuvers with his plane of World War II fame to the witnessing crowds at various city scapes.While the poets in ground failed to create any impact and were muted, Tagle, under the new name of Carlos Wieder, writing nationalist slogans in the air to the delights of the authorities.

Bolano's narrator, now released from prison, unable to come to terms with the new regime, exit Chile doing odd jobs in Europe. Now settled in Paris, he tries to reconnect with his old contacts trying to follow their fortune through various forms of correspondence and information that is available. Asked by a Chilean private detective, seeking his help to track Wieder down, he gets into the task of reconstruct his tales of adventure, his cruelty and survival through those troublesome years of oppression. It is through these searches, Bolano ( through his narrator) gives us the tale of missing people, gruesome murder, detention, torture and exile of the large number of poets and other writers from Chile. Before exiling himself from chile Wieder plans and sxhibition of his photographs, where he displays some of the gruesome pictures of torture and murder during the regime. Now out of Chile, living under disguise, Weider or his resemblance seems to have appeared at various places around the world at different times, writing and publishing in many neo-fascist journals. The task of identifying the 'hand behind' these writings as Weider is what is entrusted upon the narrator, helping to track down the fugitive.The investigative thriller now takes over to a typical finish.

Mixing politics and poetry together, Bolano weaves a story together. Rich, filled with sub-plots and mere descriptive journalistic writing, he creates an impressive tale. Short novel , in the size of 'One night in Chile', comes out in his impeccable style, used to a regular Bolano reader. Despite multiple diversion and a rather soft plot, this was an interesting and engaging read.
Distant Star ( 1996)

Roberto Bolaño ( translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews 2004)

Vintage Books

149 Pages
Other Reviews : Guardian, Complete Review , Telegraph, Biblioklept

Saturday, February 11, 2012

മറുപിറവി (Marupiravi) - Sethu

Story of the port city of Muziris, is known to most of the school students in kerala. Once a thriving center of trade between Kerala and the rest of the world, the natural port of Muziris lead the way over other towns as the centre of attraction. The pride and popularity of the place is available to us through the 'Sangham Literature'. Partly due to the great flood of of river Periyar in 1341, Muziris was more or less wiped out of the map and newer towns and port cities emerged , Kochazhi ( Kochi) taking prominence.

Even before the celebrated and recorded arrival of Vasco De Gama in 1498, India was engaged in business relationship with the Europeans. However, due to the various political and religious trouble in the Arab world, this path was cut out for the Portuguese , Spanish and Roman kingdom, which resulted in the new route, round the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, thus nullifying the need of Arab support to reach India. However, we later saw the traders turning into colonists and trying to control the continent for their greed. The trade partners turned to be the colonial poweres controlling the assets of this part of the world.

Sethu's celebrated new book on Muziris, looks at the place and surroundings area through the time known to us. From the glory years 2000 odd years before Christ to the 20th century, through the various people and stories of the town. inspired from a recent excavation of the place where the reminds of some of the evidences of the life under influence by the erstwhile Greeko- roman empire, Sethu's protagonist, arrives in his home town from Mumbai to spend his new found free time after retirement. The letter from the professor of Archeology from Tanjavur was indeed an added inspiration. Reaching his hometown from the chaos of the Metro, it did not take long for Aravindan to switch back to the old school boy/college student frame of his homeland. Knitting information and stories from relatives, friends, well wishers and the scientists, it turned out to be natural for Aravindan to pen them down in a piece of paper to keep them for reference. Little did he realise that those tales and stories varied from style , substance and time be the ingredients for a book. The destiny, and the inspiring feedback from those who read his initial pages, got Aravindan to complete what he had begun in Chendamangalam.

Sethu does this mixing of current day protagonists with the everlasting nostalgia of an expatriate for his home to the invented and created possibilities of the tale, to a great effect. As the narration switches between Aravindan and his story which goes from the 'yavana' traders, to the floods to the Paliyam Agitation of 20th century, mixing of myths and recorded history, Sethu crafted a good work of fiction. The parts which is the 'novel within a novel' is more interesting and give justice to the prowess of Sethu as a writer. On the whole, rebuilding history of his town through characters taken from the history and characters invented and crafted on basis of the available information, this is a great attempt.

The style, as discussed, is of double narrative. As Sethu handles his protagonist 'Aravindan' , it is Aravindan who carry the burden of taking the story to the next level. Interesting mix of languages as appropriate to the time and place of narration, the various element of social and religious structure during different time of the era, the subtle undercurrent of the changing social and cultural aspect of Kerala ; Sethu has done the homework well. Despite a few dragging and irrelevant narrative, the book is beautifully crafted and delivered.
മറുപിറവി ( marupiravi - reincarnation)


D C Books

374 Pages

Rs 200
Reviews : Deccan Chronicle, The Hindu , Interview with Sethu