Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Insatiable Spiderman - Pedro Juan Gutierrez

"He doesn't like your books."
"He says that they're indecent."

Years ago, I'd read "Dirty Havana Trilogy" of Pedro Juan Gutierrez. I distinctly remembered the overdose of sex and filthy writing about sex through out that book, Presented as the Havana neighborhood in its actual glory of poverty , of desire, of sex and the alcohol in its true colors, the book caught the attention of the worldwide readers, despite the overdose of all that was said above. The instiable spiderman, is the return of the old theme with the same protagonist , his own alter ego, Pedro Juan.

Now living a simple life( after being removed from hs job as a journalist) amongst few novels in publication and his other interests of women and painting, 50 year old Pedro Juan is doubting whether he is loosing his interest in life. His relation with his wife is in the decline ( he can not bring himself to kiss her, let alone having a nice time with her). Reminiscing in his attic, during the day while his wife is away at the Pizza joint to work ( because that pays more than her qualification as a microbiologist), the lonely writer, painter have the memories of his earlier adventures ( especially with women) in his company. Between alcohol , cigarette and ogling the enormous rear of black women, he doubts himself of his capabilities as a man. The person whom he confides his issues re-assure him that this is natural at this age, but he himself managed to retain his potent until 76 years. Spending his time between his unsatisfactory wife and his gossipy mother( as he often visits her) while not writing or painting, Pedro Juan , reflects on the present day Havana and its poor/middle class population.

This is not a plot driven novel, nor it has any pretense of a mega novel of Cuban existence. The 160 pages of fantasy , desire and sex - despite the claim of 'slice of Cuban Life' , does not really impress you. Various caricatures of people who make a short visit in the novel are interesting, but they are all peripheral to the central character and his general boredom with life. The possibilities of sex is everywhere. Book starts with a rape scene in NY, there are orgies in the park, a quicky round the corner, prostitutes, every second person he meets in the way had some relation with him in the past ( some for 3 years, some much longer and some for a few hours), there are visiting expatriates, people who come to Havana from other part of Caribbean looking for rum and dance, masturbation and whole lot of dreaming all associated with sex. To the "Insatiable Spiderman' who is on prowl through the streets of Havana, every thing revolve around the possibility of sex and desire. Sex is substitute to every thing. In a society under oppression, a society living in constant poverty and moral degeneration, sex , alcohol and dancing are the ways of bringing out the hidden anger and anxiety in public.
"Don't be stupid. Wake up, you're in Cuba. The poverty we've got now will be the same in twenty years, in thirty years. This chit doesn't ever get sorted out."
I'm not a great fan of filthy writing, which is abundant in this book, may be a little lesser extent to "Dirty Havana Trilogy" (Dirty Havana Trilogy was much more complete that this as a book). However, whenever he is out of these area of filthy writing, we see a brilliant writer trying to show his mettle. There are many fantastically written paragraphs at many places, which leaves one bewildered, on why hasn't he used this capability to some better effect.
"..bacause you are looking to shock and you are boring. You always write about the same shit, about poverty and crap like that."

The Insatiable Spiderman (2002)

Pedro Juan Gutierrez ( translated from Spanish by John King in 2005)

Faber and Faber

163 Pages

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Chancer - James Kelman

James Kellman's books aren't an easy read. Most of them around the working class life in Glasgow and around are gloomy in general and hardly with any optimism. His heroes while being part of the larger working class fraternity, are loners and and aloof. This is my third book of him and I was more prepared to this time with his style and the overall outlook.

Tammas, is a twenty something compulsive gambler in Glasgow. His world , after leaving his job, revolve around betting dens. From race courses, to Casinos, to Dog racing tracks and often with cards. Typical to the stories in such cases, he win occasionally and looses more often. Usually, with no money, he lives with his sister and brother-in-law, often being at the receiving end of their displeasure on his indecisiveness in life. Its the alcohol and the betting that drives him through out the day. His couple of attempts to get back to normal way of living, by joining the factory did not last long - less than a day in his last attempt. The closed environment of the factory set up suffocates him, making him leave that for good.

There is no real motive in his life and he has nothing to look forward to. The wandering from pub to pub, from one race tracks to Casino is what tick him along. His friends, are now taking serious steps in life, one leaving for Hull city to play in their Club, while another is migrating to New Zealand, yet another planning for his eventual move to Manchester, where he is expected to get jobs in the mills. All these do not affect Tammas, nor is he persuaded to join them. He is also passive to his girl friend Betty and avoids her. The 'Giro' that comes in the weekends are hardly enough and he is usually 'skint' by Tuesday. He then has to pawn his 'suits' or any other items from his sisters household to run the rest of the week, until the next Giro.

The book progresses through these lines, slightly getting repetitive and dull to some extend. This book is not plot driven nor it is a great story telling. It moves through the life of Tammas at uneven pace. It is only in the end pages, that Tammas likes to take his chance with life, after he falls in love with a lady whose husband is in prison.

This book will bore most of the readers, unless you are familiar with James Kelman's style. There are no events unfolding which are significant. There are no dramatic moments. The writing is different and the page is full of swear words. The language is with Scottish dialect ( I am used to this after reading Kelman and AL Kennedy) .You often get a feeling that the writer has abandoned you with his protagonist and you both are left to find your own way. Once you are used to this, you find the reading much more relaxing. Having said that, I preferred his short stories to his novels , from what I have read.
A Chancer ( 1985)

James Kelman


308 Pages
Read: Here is a profound essay on James Kelman, and particularly on A Chancer.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sophie's Choice - William Styron

Many World War II based novels, that came into prominence in the later part of 20th Century are mainly from Europe, especially that are on the the theme around holocaust. Most of the stories are similar with various degree of suffering and survival. You find many of them are repetitive and predictable to an extend. When I picked up Sophie's choice (after gathering dust for good 10 years) , I was prepared to read yet another holocaust story. But this was surprisingly different in its approach The protagonist is an American, young wanna be writer in his early twenties and the victim or sufferer is not a Jew as is in most of the cases. Hugely successful upon publication, this was later adapted into an Oscar winning movie, with Merryl Streep winning the best actress portraying Sophie, the holocaust victim.

Year 1947, America is recovering from the great depression and the aftermath of a long war. Stingo, upcoming writer employed with McGraw Hill ( similar to William Styron's own early years),loses his job and moved in to a Brooklyn new house run by old lady. The Pink house,as he call it, also has other inhabitants of various cultural and economic background. Stingo was in particular attracted to a a pair and it took no time to befriend them. Mercurial , short tempered Nathan, who works at Pfizer doing some major research according to him and his possible girlfriend Sophie, who a polish born holocaust survivor. As the tale progresses, Stingo get to know them better and the infatuation or lust towards gorgeous Polish beauty and his instinct as a writer, get his to know the past of Sophie through various drinking sessions and other meetings,

Sophie, already married twice and given birth to two children, before being retained by the German's for allegedly taking meat to her ailing mother. Her father, Professor at the Warsaw University, strong anti-Semite, whose rhetorical and writings causes enough disharmony in the society was also not spared by the Germans. All the academics of the university, that include her father and husband, was shot during occupation. Her knowledge of short-hand ( learned to support her father and her knowledge of German, helped her to get a job at the commanding officers quarters, her son being send to the Children's camp. Her attempt to reunite with her son ( we are yet to understand the plight of her daughter) , she tries to seduce the German Officer. Despite the promises, she was denied the meeting and was taken back to the camps.

However, the relationship with Nathan goes through major swings, due to his sudden shift of moods. Its either the all night noisy sex, or the abuse and insult and him packing off to his brother's. However, for Sophie, its only Nathan left in this world. An anemic, frail Sophie was rescued, treated and fed by him on her arrival to the country. Nathan, as is revealed later, is addicted to drugs and and a suicidal maniac , and the mood swings are a result of these extreme reactions. On an eventful night, Nathan quarrels with Sophie and Stingo, and leaves the place threatening to kill both of them. Fearing danger, Stingo and Sophie escapes travelling to his country farm in the South. Concluding the her story after giving Stingo a night to remember, Sophie return back to New York to be with Nathan and to the possible death.

On completion of reading this mammoth book, what stuck me first was the flawless execution of the book. Its constructed brilliantly and narrated fabulously. The use of flashbacks, the bits and pieces of information that arranged as perfect makes this a good read. The three parallel threads - the tale of Nathan and Sophie , Sophie's reluctant reminiscence of her life in Poland and the concentration camp , Stingo's own personal battle with manhood after two miserable encounter with women, and his lust on Sophie - were aptly paced and placed.

One of the drawback of this was that the story is as told by Stingo and his understanding of Sophie's life. At times, this seems to hamper the power of her life. Even the crucial moment of her life, where she was made to decide between her two kids (You may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?) upon arrival at the concentration camp, wasn't very moving. Only when she tells later " Suppose I had chosen Jan to go . . . to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?", you see the impact of the earlier part.

Sophie is ashamed ot her own past, her fathers writings and being part of it in someway ( noting and later typing) she carry the guilt in her. She is also trying to get rid of those suppressed guilt of unable to save her children and about the choice she had to make between her children. She later tries reason it out and console herself saying - "Suppose I had chosen Jan to go . . . to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?". Nathan, is the most interesting character. A Jew, continue to be tormented over the events across the ocean, like most of the youths, succumbs to depression and drugs. Living a life hidden from the outside world ( he even lies to Sophie about his job), Nathan confronts his own demon and always under psychotic tension. Stingo is the alter ego of Styron. A young apprentice in the McGraw Hill in New York, writing his first novel ( which comes in the book which Nathan does the initial reading and praise him for their quality) living in a rented place.

Its these vulnerability of these individuals and their peripheral characteristics make this a strong case for a book. To what extend William Styron manages to capture these subtle changes can be debated. But to me its a well crafted and well executed book.
Sophie's Choice (1979)

William Styron

Vintage Books

632 Pages
Other Essays : London School of Journalism, Book Slut , Wiki

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Closely Observed Trains - Bohumil Hrabal

It is amazing how such a short book can create such a profound impact on the readers. In mere 90 pages, Czech writer Bohumil Hrbal create a magic that refuses to leave me even after 10 days. I would have read this book 4-5 times, in complete or in parts, so much for its impact on me. I realise, such was the general opinion of the readers of Hrbal. I havent seen the movie, but its visual adaptation, came out an year after the books release, had caused a similar reaction to the movie lovers.

Year is 1945 and German's are loosing grip on the Word War II. The allied forces are winning, and the Soviets are advancing in the Eastern front.
"By this year, the year forty-five, the Germans had already lost command of the air space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact , and for that matter, the whole country"
The continued bombardment and other disruption causing delay in the functions of the rail system ;"Morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening". One for the German flight was shot down over the town and soon its parts metamorphosed into "little roofs for rabbit hutches and hen houses, leg guard for motor-bikes and other useful things by the town people. 20 year old Milos Hrma, is an apprentice in the towns railway station, strategic and important for its position. They are expected to make sure that the trains carrying the returning German Soldiers, devastated from the Eastern front, have a smooth transit. Milos Hrma, lives in his on fantasy world , fighting his own battle. We understand, that he just returned from hospital from a slit wrist, attempting to commit suicide, after a disastrous first sexual experience. He is fighting the battle of his own impotency , while living the tale of his own supervisor's adventurous life in the station with the "Telegraph operator", where she was found with the Station stamp all over her backside on the station masters couch. 

German trains are important and had to be closely watched for their safe and uninterrupted passage. A failure to which might get the attention of Gestapo. Working on the monotonous task of clearing the train signals, the book now focuses on Milos Hrma and his growing up to manhood. It is important for him to erase his past and gain confidence on himself. The process is not only with the girl , but to the society that ridiculed him. What we see in a superbly built climax is just that, where he confront the train load of Nazi munitions in a singly executed rebelleous act of sabotage.

Its a simple story, told in an impeccable style. Eventhough the reading is deceptively straight and funny, its rich and dense beneath these words. Milos Hrma's fight is not only his but of Czeckoslovakia, against the Germans. The act on a 'sense of purpose' is the country's attempt to shake its impotency. The small railway station is the microcosm of the people with "collaborators, resistants, the rest who get laid. While observing the returning trains, for Milos Hrma, he himself is being watched.

Despite its size, it progresses beautifully. With the initial description of the war front, with the imminent defeat of Germans, Hrbal, tells us the family background of Hrma, before taking us to the railway station of action. Hrma's story of failure and his return to the work is mentioned in beautifully mixed flashback. Language is simple and poetic. However, what makes this book interesting is the possibilities of reading within the lines. Outstanding work of fiction.
Closely Observed Trains ( 1965 )

Bohumil Hrabal ( translated from Czech by Edith Pargeter ( orig. English Translation in 1968)

91 Pages
Other reviews : Asylum , Pechorin's journal, Classic Literature

Saturday, May 05, 2012

ചാവുതുള്ളൽ ( chavu thullal ) - Raju K Vasu

The hoopla about dalit writing, I guess, is now died down. However, there are many writing about or centered around the people of lower status in the Hindu hierarchy that gain prominence. I guess most of them, were of experimentation with the language and the reflections of a counter culture. The social, cultural , historical , political and economical aspect of these lives being told from their point of view may not be very relevant to the current generation. But, there is a past of great struggle and oppression over many centuries, that are now being talked about.

Raju K Vasu's attempt to bring this into the foray, centering around the 'pulayar' community, looking at their life in the early decades of 20th century. They are untouchables, has to move away 60 ft, from the upper caste , cant drink water from the well, and no entry into the temples, or the temple streets. They were restricted to the hard labour for the Feudal lord, living in pitiable conditions. They were not allowed to cover their upper part of the body ( women included) and were subjected all kind of torture, humiliation and servility. Makeshift shelters to sleep, water from the river, toddy at the end of the night, quarrel over trivial matters, women and sex takes most of their time.

They depends on the upper caste for their survival. Working long hours to ensure the rich stays rich, living on meagre earning given by them, living in the place given to them they had no escape. Their women were often used for 'pleasures' by the lords, and any attempt to rebel were treated with exile, or even murder. However, the situation gradually improved during this period as social and political reforms took the state of Kerala by storm in the first half of the 20th century. It is this era, Raju K Vasu tries to recreate, in a style and language of those on the poorer side.

Neelay and Mylan, siblings , sons of Kurumban lives along the back waters of southern Kerala. Kurumban, who built the check-dam with the help of 'their gods' ( They are sure it is divine intervention as the stone refused to settle at the place for a long time), had to see its destruction after 25 years. It is said to be because of his young wife 'Valli's adulterous relationship, that the dam collapsed, as the God's were upset with it. Karumban, who married Valli after his wife died and only after his kids are grown up and started having their own family was aware of his young wife's other relatiohships. Kurumban did not live long after the collapse of the dam. Disaster stuck the family again, when Chirutha, daughter of Mylan was found dead, after being raped. Chirutha was everyone's favorite, capable of managing two families as the elders go for their daily labour. The young Namboodiri boy was suspected , but there is no way a low caste to get his justice in the legal systems. The young blood and the harbored vengeance, had Neelan getting rid of the culprit, killing him. As things turned out, every member of the family, except Mylan and his wife ( they can't leave the place of their daughter) moved eastwards, to Kanhirappilly and up in the high-ranges, working for the new rubber plantations of Christian rich, or with the Europeans in their Estates.

While the story per se, is nothing great to talk about, the interesting take on the changes in the social structure is handled pretty impressively. To Neelan and his team, the new place is something beyond their imagination. There aren't any talk about untouchables and every one is equal. Many of his relatives and friends from the lower caste are now converting themselves to Christianity, trying to get themselves accepted into the new lifestyle. However, the upper caste Christians aren't too happy to accept them to their fold, creating a new church for the converted 'pulayas', continue to keep them away from the mainstream. The converted Pulaya's continue to be tormented between the "God Jesus" and their own many Gods and ancestors that they carry with themselves. However, conversion to Christianity, helps them to earn the daily labor, which otherwise would have been deprived. This place also has no taboo, in wearing dress covering the whole body and there is no 'Feudal Lord' of the yesteryear , who demand 100% servility. The act of rebellious nature did start from their previous place. Ayyankali and the 'Sangham' are active at many places, and many youngsters are getting involved in their activities. However, the fear of repercussion is in the air and holding many 'pulayas' from taking open stand against their lords. But, they do their own way of rejection. Neelan's activities of pushing the 'Post-Man' into the mud, the act of murder to bring justice to the killing, the stealing of toddy and the resulted friction with the local Nair, who ended up in the well.. there are stories for the Pulayas to talk about over the mug of toddy and laugh.

The novel suffers from many things. One, the story line is wavery. It jumps from one thread to the other with no convincing progression. It also, lacks from its structural compilation. I get a feeling as a boat abandoned at the middle of the river allowing itself to choose its path and shore. A better arrangement of the chapters and the overall flow would have made this a better book. Raju K Vasu, like many new writers are relying heavily on the language to create the atmosphere and fails to develop the characters. Neelan, Chinnan, Kali and many others that take prominence at various pages fails to grow into the epical form. As he moved towards the last pages, the myths and the local legends of ghosts and other bodies take over the narration dampening the build up thus far. May be this would have been the cause of my disappointment. But there are brilliant passages at many places and some of the peripheral characters have brilliant caricatures. His writing is touchy and maintained the same level of control over the clever use of dialect. Despite numerous flaws, it still, is a good book.
ചാവുതുള്ളൽ ( chavuthullal) 2011

Raju K Vasu

D C Books

208 Pages

Rs 120