Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lizard Tails - Juan Marsé

The suburbs of Barcelona, 40s of the turbulent Spain. Elsewhere in Europe, the World War II is affecting the people. Hiroshima is bombed. Its the civil war or the defeat of the civil organisations against the regime of Franco. David Batra's father, an alcoholic and works for the resistance organisations is a political fugitive and is on the run. There is no information about him for last 6 months. His mother, who used to work as a school teacher (lost her job during the war and for being the wife of a revolutionary), is pregnant with his younger brother and is in constant trouble both medically and physically. Young David, 14 yrs , is out of school and spends his time with friend Paulino, son of a barber who is molested both physically and sexually by his traffic policeman uncle, collecting lizard's tails, to be used as a medicinal cure for Paulino's piles and watching matinee movies of Hollywood Western.

Comes the Inspection Galvan , into the scene investigating the disappearance of his father. He keeps a close vigil of the mother hoping to get some clue on the whereabout of David's father. As Inspector continue keep trail of the lady, David, now in his adolescence takes up the responsibility of protecting his mother from the advancing policeman. The close surveillance move way to regular visits to their villa, as the widowed policeman, is infatuated with the read haired ,beautiful mother, resulting in stand off between the son and the suitor. The frequency of the visit increased so is the duration, not only helping the lady in distress, but also supplying the essential provision. He continue his investigation, camouflaged under the pretext of help, to the dismay of young David.

David, carry the images of his injured father escaping through the gully, with a slit buttock, leaving blood trails on his way. It is this image that stays with him through out the narrative, even as he converse with the man missing in his dreams. The narration of real and surreal events takes some interesting direction here. David continue to have hallucinations ( he complains of hearing various sounds in his ear , resulting in listening to various voices), and continue his conversations with his father ( who disappeared 6 months ago) , to the poster hero of his room ( a RAF fighter pilot who died in action), the dead dog , his elder brothre who died long ago and his younger brother ( still in foetus inside his mother).

The fight for one-upmanship continue between David and the Inspector, with the Inspector manages to get rid off the dog Crispi, that David fosters, on account of aging and ill-ness. David seek his revenge by stealing his 'Dupont' lighter and trying to malign his image with his mother. Inspector also manages to distance Paulino from David, putting him up in the Juvenile Home, for his alleged shooting of his uncle, who continue to abuse him. Mother delivering an underdeveloped baby, dies in the event, leaving David and his brother in the custody of her sister.

To me, the narrative style that makes this book different from others. Despite the constant change of voices from David, his mother and the inspector the whole lot of conversation that David develop within himself with various living and non-living people is fabulous. The fine line between realism and surrealism is very minute and crafted brilliantly. The story is fairly simple and straightforward of an adolescent growing up , but it is these devices that deployed within the schemes make it interesting. This keep one guessing on what is actually happened and what is developed by the boy in his own mind. Very lyrical, very engaging and often symbolic ( severing of lizards tails, the old dog as watch guard being killed, the speaking foetus) writing. Fascinating work.

This Catalan writer ( writes in Spanish), won the Cervantes Prize ( called Spanish Nobel) in 2008, is not as widely read in English. I couldn't find many references of this book in the web. Nick Castor, who translated this book says "Marsé was under-read in English. He was fashionable in the 70s when he was translated quite a bit … but then he fell out of favour in translation,"

PS : The only complaint I have is the font size. One need a magnifier to read these pages , printed in font size < 1.
Lizard Tails ( 1988)

Juan Marse ( translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor 2003)

Vintage Books

231 Pages
World Without Borders

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Secret History of Costaguana - Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Joseph Conrad is struggling to come up from his debts and his creative lull and need to write a book that bring him back to the literary scene. Its his 1903 book Nostrono, which he set in the fictional republic of Costaguana in the Latin America. However, the person supposed to have assisted Conrad in the writing with his novel ( Jose Altamirano, who visited London to answer few questions by Conrad, ending up telling his life story) is now feel cheated ( 'You've eliminated me from my own life. You, Joseph Conrad, have robbed me.') and wants to set things right to the " Jury of the Readers" by retelling the real story.

Under this pretext, starts the tale of a country that was in turmoil for over 60 years in the middle of the Americas. The tiny land strip of Panama Rapublic. Originally part of Columbia, this merely 100 km wide land connect between two continents was of strategic importance of the nations of the world. The trading of goods from the Europe and other part of the world to the West cost of the US, or the rich minerals and metals from Peru and Chile to Europe has to go through the southern Cape of South America, which was a great loss of time and resources. The Spaniards tried to find a way from the Atlantic Coast of the Isthmus to the Pacific Coast. the narrow strip wasn't an easy one to conquer. the early days of moving the good through these jungles and difficult terrain was met with lot of difficulties and loss of man power. The idea of building a rail line came from this experience. An American names Aspinwal won the deal and the rail road was constructed amidst great loss of people. The workers brought in from various parts of the world succumbed to the tropical deceases and the hard labour. Unable to withstand the hardship , people started commit suicide ( especially Chinese), the Irish workers abandoned and had to be moved to New York However, Aspinwal and Company succeeded in completing the 50+ mile "Panama Rail Road Company" after much delay and huge loss of human lives, amidst multiplied cost. Though this had improved the movements of goods with considerable ease, it stil had its own issues. The ships have to be unloaded and loaded to the rail road wagons and had to be reloaded again at the other end. It is at this time, the Frenchman de Lessip and his team successfully completed linking Mediterranean sea to the Red sea in the Middle East, thus reducing the time travel to the Far East, in the form of Seuz Canal. He was invited to study the feasibility of a similar Canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Panama Canal , under the auspices of de Lessip and his French team has thus began. However, they had to face all those difficulties that the "Rail Road Company had to undergo. Losses mount, the progress next to none, the investors in the company is not satisfied, the political and civil unrest lead to the famous 1000 days of war etc hampered the canal, resulting in the abandonment of progress and the return of the French. Panama was still in unrest. Despite multiple set backs and hanging of their revolutionary leaders , they fought for their independence from the mainland Colombia. At this opportune moment, US steps in and supported the break away republic, only after securing the rights to build the canal, which eventually completed a decade later.

Juan Vasquez, build his story around this history of Panama from the 1850s to the first decade of 20th Century ( until 1905), through his characters. José Altamirano, a bastard son born in Bogota, learns about his father as he was turning twenty and come to Panama in search of him. He meets his father in Panama, who is unaware of the existence of his son.The rest of the book is about his relationship with his journalist father Miguel, who in continuation with his support to the Rail Road company and the Canal Project writes article in the leading news papers and his wife ( a French widow who looses her child and her Engineer Husband to the tropial Yellow Fever) and daughter. His personal history in connection with the history of the republic is intermixed as both goes through the same level of turmoil.

Juan Vasquez walks the fine line of fiction and history with some clever writing. A little knowledge of the history of the Rail Road Company, the Panama Canal Project and the Independence of Panama will be essential if you want to get into this book. I had to discontinue my reading and get back after I did some parallel reading on the above. While he is a brilliant writer, and this book is a product of meticulous research and planning the heavy historical content that overshadow the fictional element make this a non-fiction read at many a times. The initial pages however was brilliant writing.

Jose Altamirano is a great protagonist. While he claims to set the facts right, most of the narrative is not about him, but about the birth of the republic whose fortunes were interlinked with his own. Its a country risen from great losses of individuals, including that of his own. Thus it is also a a confessional narration, apologetic to his daughter,Eloisa. Vasquez has combined many a things in his narration. Colombia, having to loose control over one of the most important area of world commerce, having suffered the humiliation by the mighty powers, The Panama, having to suffer the fate only because of its strategic geographical position, whose ill fortune did not end after the independence ( its trouble continued years after its secession from Columbia , as late as 1989 when the US Marines invaded the country to arrest the ruler). The book is multi-layered. There is a Columbian view as the protagonist and his father are from Columbia, there is world view of its importance of the Rail Road and Canal, the Conrad angle, the subtle love of a husband and father forced to go through personal losses resulting from political upheaval.

The modern day literary revenge ( he not only takes on Conrad, but the general literary tendencies ) set in the midst of historical turmoil, intelligently and cleverly written by one of the new voices form Latin American Literature. Very good book.
The Secret History of Costaguana ( 2007 )
Juan Gabriel Vasquez ( translaed from Spanish by Anne McLean -2010)


309 Pages
NY Times, Guardian , Independent

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Little History of the World - E H Gombrich

Originally written in German, this book was translated into manhy many languages. Yet, it took more than 70 years to have the English translation available. History is interesting and bit confusing with all the dates and names. History over the millennia is created and recorded by the conquerors hence what is told is only one side of the story. However, what we have is derived out of the coherence of various form of data inputs, facts retained (through legends, tales epics), preserved ( by nature in various visible forms) and progressed ( languages, tools, methods and living style) over centuries. Personally to me, it is a very interesting and often contradicting subject.

It is difficult to have a grasp of the history without remembering dates and names of people and places. There are various names of historical figures known to us, but seldom do we get the connections right. Hence for a common reader, it is important to know these connections established by chronologically and by civilisations to appreciate reading historical works. This book has done that part tremendously. Without getting too sophisticated ( often too simplified for a serious history enthusiast), getting history to be an interesting read to the adolescent as well as the grown up, he managed to cover the vast history of human civilisation in a few concise chapters. Starting from the stone age days he covers most of the important landmarks of human development until the end of WW I ( remember , the book was originally written in 1935). The Englsih Version has a last chapter, which looks at the events post 1930s including the rise of Hitler and the Atom bomb with his view of the modern world.

In forty short chapters, he take us through the journey of human, covering every aspect of the modern day making. As I said before, most of the chapters describe the rise and the eventual fall of the civilisations/ dynasty or the colonial power. Largely centered around the Mediterranean region, which saw some of the largest and most powerful kingdom flourished through conquest and force, surviving centuries before another one takes over. The Roman, the Macedonian, the Greek, Phoenicians , the mighty Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of the present day Iran, the Germanic tribes and the Austrian Empire, we get the glimpse of all these powers in their making and breaking. Some names like Alexander the Great, Julias Ceaser, Hammurani, Gengis Khan, places like Carthage, Jerusalem, various Greek and Italian Cities, you name it, appear in their chronological importance. He also minutely touch upon the rise and spread of various religion during these times, the Jews, Christians and the Muslims each found their grooming ground in these areas.

While there are passing remarks about the other part of the world , like Buddhism in China, the Chinese emperor who build the Great Wall, King Porous of India who fought gallantly against the world conqueror Alexander, the Spanish conquistadors in Latin America, the book largely centered around the European region. There are no mention about the Incas, the Mayans and various other societies who existed around the world, may be for lack of references. Despite all that, this is a commendable book and highly recommended to every enthusiast and students. The language is simple and easy and the read is fast. Except in the final chapter, he largely stay away from making judgmental remarks on the events. There are no glorification nor denouncement of any of the event.

This brought the memories of reading 'A Brief History of Nearly every thing' by Bill Bryson. Somehow, I would recommend this to the young readers over the former. Now, I shall look forward to reading "The story of Art".
A Little History of the World ( 1935)

E M Gombrich ( translated from German by Caroline Mustill in 2005)

Yale University Press

284 Pages
Guardian, Wiki Entry

Saturday, March 10, 2012

ചുംബനശബ്‌ദതാരാവലി ( Chumbana Shabda Tharavali) - Indu Menon

Another disappointing read in Malayalam. I did not have any great expectations in the first place, but was hoping to hear a different voice and see some class which stands out in the new generation story tellers. However, this too moved through the usual cliched style of narrative and subject. Barring one, rest of the stories were bland and lacked any character. She had a theme and title brilliantly chosen, and invariably woman were the central characters in all these stories. There was this strong voice of rebel, the voice of angry reporter on crime and atrocities against woman.The self made liberator who goes after the so called attackers with a vengeance. But it stays just thee. To me, this failed to create any literary ripples in me as a reader despite having some great control on her language.

The book starts with a petty dedication ( to her husband and daughter) and the descriptive "dictionary of Kisses". The 'dictionary of kisses' itself was a bit odd. Might be intended to create a tickle in the adolescent mind, but for serious readers, this had no real meat. I remember reading a similar attempt by A L Kennedy in her short story collection "Now that You are back", where she experimented with the form of story telling in " 'Mouseboks Family Dictionary", which was pretty interesting.

The next two stories made me think differently . " Chaklian" was a good story, attempting to rebuild a fathers woes in bringing up a girl child. Unable to suffer the humiliation , all he did was what is expected of a father. The next, 'raktakalee, raktakalee' is the best of the compilation. Innovative mixing of myths, fantasy and the contemporary theme, she created a good story of revenge. Suffered from what is called as a dual personality disorder after the death of her sister, Kamala has been having dreams of the mighty goddess kali. She metamorphosed herself into the reincarnation of kali, sowing and spreading the 'small-pox' ( as the myth goes) and 'chicken pox' seeds. Her vengeance is complete only after the death of her sisters murderer and rapist, years later. The rest of the stories are mediocre. "Pithavum Kanyakayum talks about a father seducing his daughters friend to his bed, while on the other hand, she being the only virgin in her class was eager to join the rest of the class , which include his daughter. 'Oru Extra Nadiyude Aathmakatha' ( and you can guess the story), athmarahasyam, chumbana shabda tharavali ( yes, another story with the same name) and the rest are all in the same league.

Now that, I am citing references to A L Kennedy, I cant resist in comparing the observations of the writing. It says, AL Kennedy in her writing "exposing and exploring the sinuous undercurrents of violence, anguish and love". Indu Menon on the other hand, focusses her energy on the women and the general atrocities of the society against women in general. Her attempt to portray her characters as a victim of various forms of aggression and in most of this stories, they seems to be taking decisive action by themselves. Dr.Mini Prasad , in her afterword( a short study) claims that Indu Menon's characters are build on the 'male centric social set up where the woman are are treated as mere consumable. The writer here, fights against this perceived world order through her characters, says the review. however, to me, that is a generalisation. A story has to be appealing to the reader, irrespective of the ideology or the thought process it attempt to convey. Sadly, these stories does not go beyond the often chewed cliches and thus fails to create any favourable impression in general, barring a couple of good stories.
ചുംബനശബ്‌ദതാരാവലി ( Chumbana Shabda Tharavali- 2011)
Indu Menon

D C Books

120 Pages

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Primeval and Other Times - Olga Tokarczuk

The importance of having friends of similar interests from other parts of the world is that you get to know of books and writers, you otherwise tends to miss or overlook. Over the past few years I have been the beneficiary of some great recommendations from a few. This had been another strongly recommended book and I am grateful to him for this. Reading authors from Hungary and Poland , of late, I am surprised by the talents emerging from the old Eastern Block countries.

Olga Tokarczuk, paints the picture of a small town polish village ( pirmeval as the name given - which always existed and always will be) , over the 70 plus years through both world wars and the communist regime that ruled the country in the second half of 20th century. "Primeval is the place at the centre of the Universe" , satrts the novel. Located strategically between two rivers, The Black river and the White River which merge at the end of the village loosing their respective characterisitcs, and by four archangels protecting or rather watching ( as they hardly intervene in the affairs) the inhabitants of the place. The neighboring towns provide the necessary goods for living, and the lone church completes the remaining apart from the all absorbing and protecting forest.

Michal is out on war during the World War I, leaving the mill to the care of his wife Genowefa. The Tsars Soldiers came one day and took him with them. Their baby girl is born while he was still at war. Angels were present at the birth of the girl giving the mother all the support. Genowefa, running the house and the mill had her on way of flirting, but the hope of her husband's return controlled her. Michal returned from the other end of the world, he said, the other end of Russia at the eastern sea. The time of peace did not last as the German Soldiers came in and settled in their village. Half the villagers were loaded in trucks and sent to Germany for being Jews, while those resisted were killed. The German atrocities continued, raping villagers and looting things. It is then the Russians came in as liberators. Village Road now become the line of separation where continuous fighting and firing across the streets continued, until the retreat of the falling Germans. Post war control came into the hands of Communist regime.

This is the story of the place, of the people and told by them. Each has his own 'time' and they live their times in their own way. It has bad people - bad man, who nobody knew from where he came , who walked into the forest, lost his words and only howls and Cornspike lives a nomadic life sleeps with anyone in the village, later moves into the forest and submit her body at the will of badman, but continue to maintain her contact with the village, squire Popieski and his family. Michal , Genowefa and their descendants -Misia and her numerous children. Each has their own 'times' and their points. There are Kurt, the Nazi Officer, e Philosophical Russian Ivan Mukta, the drowned, the dead, the nomads, the Gods and Angels, animals living their part of the history,

The viewpoint changes from one chapter to the other. Moving it from people, animal, forest, the occupiers. However the voice does not change. It continue to be the writer's and with a strong feminine voice (not that I am complaining ). The issue in it is that the flow is not as seem less as it is in the other cases because of the change of handle. It takes a lot of effort to move the story along with out loosing its continuity. However, despite few crossing, the story in general is moved very well.

The initial part, until the end of World War II, the narration is very vivid and baroque. Not sure if this was intentional, but I found it changed a bit and dry in the later part. It is where the country being occupied by various forces, come under the control of its own, albeit being remotely controlled ideologically and politically by Soviet union. The people in general had been very passive to these forces. Be it being forced to move into the jungles by Germans, Jews being evacuated and loaded into trucks -few loosing their lives, or when the Russians came and occupied their home. They never resisted, suffered the humiliation in silence. They continued the same during the regime post the World war. On the flip side, the struggle is internalised. With the river, with the Gods, with the surroundings. Each character live in their own world.

Primeval ( always existed and always will) is a representation of any place where the land, weather, people and animal alway lived within its rules. There had been 'times' of every one in their own way, and in conjunction with the rest. There had been and will be period of oppression and difficulties. While the life goes one from one 'world' to the other as the 'times of the game' tells us , where not only the GOD but the rest of the nature takes different forms and shapes. However the core virtue of the life remain the same.

Interesting set of characters live and die in a Macondo'-ish small vilage, spanning seven decades. While the story is around few central characters, it is the wholesomeness of the village and its people give this a completeness.Its lyrical, its magical and it is moving and its comes out with a freshness. Little disappointed towards the end, but very well written, nonetheless.
Primeval and Other Times ( 1996 )

Olga Tokarczuk ( translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2010)

248 Pages