Sunday, August 26, 2012

The dream of the Celt - Mario Vargas Llosa

This book was published immediately after he was selected for the Nobel Prize in 2010. The anticipation and expectation were very high. More so, after the disappoint over the previous one- The Bad Girl. However, it took a couple of years before the English translation  to come out. In line with his later works ( those released in 21st Century) , Mario Vargas Llosa, takes up subject from history and historical figures and work his magic around those incidents. His earlier works such as 'The way to Paradise ( on Paul Gaguin) or 'The Feast of the Goat' ( on the dictator Rafael Trujillo of Dominican Republic) were very good, especially the feast of the goat. This time, he takes the case of Roger Casement , an IRISH revolutionary who spend his early days in Africa and later in Amazon fighting for the cause of the indigenous people against the abuse of colonial power.

Waiting for the hangman's rope in the Pentonville Prison in London, Roger Casement  ( "one of the great anti-colonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland.” )  recounts his turbulent life spent across three continents. His appeal for clemency is under scrutiny by the Parliament, however the hope seems to be less, after the revelations of his sexual preference ( for the young dark boys of Africa and Amazon)  is made public by the authorities, obtained from his secret dairy. He seldom has visitors, most of his high profiled friends including some of the leading writers of the world abstain from meeting him or supporting him in public, for he is now under trial as a traitor of the kingdom, which once honoured him with Knighthood. Few visitors include an acquaintance in London and a Catholic Priest.

Roger's childhood is spend with his uncle and aunt after the death of his mother ( who continue to appear to him in his dreams) and later his father. Joined as an apprentice in a logistic firm, he get an opportunity to travel to Congo , which changes the course of his life.  Accompanying the great African explorer Stanley ( whom he recall as "one of the most unscrupulous villains the west had excreted on to the continent of Africa"), he had witnessed the atrocities of the colonial power Belgium inflicting upon the natives in their quest for 'black gold' rubber which is in great demand in the industrialised world. Its his investigation and report that opened the truth of the atrocities and cruelties that are subjected on the natives by the colonial powers.

On his return to England, he was entrusted with another challenge. This time to enquire about the activities of a British Company owned by Julio C Arana, in the Amazon jungles at Putamayo, Peru. To his dismay, the situation in Amazon is no better than what was in Congo. Those in power used all their cruel means to subdue and servile the native for their personal fortune. The levels of cruelty and abuse is no less and not surprisingly, those who were to take action were found in indulging the same atrocities, often paid by the business.

It is during these days in the jungle, that kindles Roger's patriotic believes. "Wasn't Ireland a colony too, Like the Congo ? Hadn't England invaded Ireland ? Hadn't they incorporated it into the empire by force, not consulting those who had been invaded and occupied, just as the Belgians did with the Congolese ?".  The rest of Casement life had been now focused towards Ireland.  Learning its history, its unique culture, and unsuccessfully trying to learn Gaelic, he started working with the Irish republican brotherhood and other similar organisations. His currently acquired fame made him the attraction and he was busy spreading the message across the country despite his physical illness in the form of arthritis. Raising funds for the organisation, trying to gather support of Germany ( enemy's enemy is our friend) to work along with the Irish Republican  Brotherhood in the event of an armed offensive, trying to secure arms and ammunition to the fighters, he worked round the clock for his dream. He was caught by the British Army, on his attempt to return to Ireland from Germany prior to the Easter Rising offensive, and was sentenced to death, by the court.

Written in three parts, each dedicated to Congo, Amazon and Ireland, Mario Vargas Llosa, does what he is best at. Weaving his narrative from the historical facts with his mastery and imagination, he build the case of Roger Casement. The cruelty and atrocities of the colonials ( chopping of penis and limbs, the whip marks on natives for smaller errors, the knife mark on the bodies with the company details etc), the plight of the soldiers who are asked to perform these atrocities by their superiors, the business houses with the eye for money and the personal preferences of Roger Casement,  etc are noted with keen observation and with detachment. Where history does not provide him with direct details, I think he excels himself. Where the available data is sufficient and with no scope of imagination, his writings are dull and plain as a text book., The part of Congo and Amazon are written brilliantly. However, the last part on Ireland does not live upto the previous two. However, he finishes in style.

Though this do not stand among his best books, it is better than the previous one.  Despite the uneven narrative towards the end, it still holds pretty well as a strong powerful tale. The narratives technique is brilliant often moving between the present ( 1916 at Pentonville Jail) to the respective continents. The ease of shifting of the narrative space is amazing. The language is fluid and poetic at many places. Again, not amongst his best,  good nonetheless.
The Dream of the Celt ( 2010)

Mario Vargas Llosa  ( translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman 2012)

Faber & Faber

403 Pages
Wiki Entry, Guardian, NY Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Telegraph, Independent

Monday, August 20, 2012

Prater Violet - Christoper Isherwood

I haven't come across any other writer who portray the pre-World War II sentiments of the nations, people as brilliantly as Christopher Isherwood. Being in Berlin during the first half of the 1930s, he had witnessed the rise of the Hitler and Nazis in close quarters. His famous 'Berlin Trilogy' captures these subtle observations on the psyche of people. His writings are clear and simple, yet with profound impact. The book I just finished reading, is no less effective. To many this short novel stands above the celebrated 'Berlin Stories'.

Prater Violet , though published in 1945, is set in 1933-34 with Vienna as background. Young Christopher Isherwood, a writer, gets a call from the famous London Studio. He was picked to write the dialogue for a movie musical called "Prater Violet" being directed by mercurial Austrian Director Freidreich Bergmann. His knowledge of Vienna, where the film is said to be set in, is the single reason for him being selected. Despite his objection that he was never been in Vienna, and his experience is only with Berlin, the job was entrusted on him. Having accepted the job ( not very enthusiastically, however to the excitement of his widowed mother and brother), he now start working with the temperamental director. They hit it off well, aided by knowledge of German by Isherwood. The long association of mentor and disciple thus begun, with the working on the script.

Isherwood in his amazing simplicity with his language, draws us to the process of film making with some entertaining characters. The owner of the studio Chatsworth, the lead actors, and the supporting units. What is beyond the obvious filming process , with its ups and downs, is the gradual development of mutual admiration between the writer and director is build magnificently. Even though the filming is in London, Bergmann's wife and daughter are stuck at Austria about whom he is hugely concerned. The entire Europe is in the grip of anxiety and fear of the imminent war. The caution and precautions are evident. While the initial phases of shooting went on with out much of an issue, but as the news of German occupation of Austria and the resistance from the locals started appearing in London, the entire system had been affected. Tormented between his love for his family and the work, Bergmann lost his passion and interest, only to be confronted by the studio bosses. In the end every thing was well and Bergmann produced a classic and went on to the Hollywood to direct movies.

Chritpher Isherwood, the character, like the writer sits at the periphery with keen observation of the people and events as they appear and unfold. Unlike his character Isherwood, we the writer Isherwood, donning the dress of a director managing his cast and resources to some great effects. Isherwood's, language and style is perfect, concise , clear and efficient ( Efficiency a word he keep using in the narrative). The humour, which is in abundance is inclusive , never loud.

While the novel is a satirical take on film making, its emphasize is on the metaphorical relation between people and nations. Bergmann's constant fear of a European collapse of civilization succumbing to the Germans to Isherwood's need of living in the fantasy world of scripts and actors and more importantly his worries of the well being of his mentor Bergmann. Refined writing, well crafted, beautifully narrated book. Brilliant.
Prater Violet ( 1945)

Christopher Isherwood

Vintage Paperback

122 Pages
Wiki entry , Berkely

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Rival - Richard B Sheridan

Rich hero and even more richer heroine. However, heroine hate richness and wants to marry someone who do it not for her fortune, but some one who loves her. She is willing to leave every thing and live with him,if need be, in condition which are not of her status. Here come the suitors, most of them undoubtedly for her wealth. Knowing her intentions, hero comes in disguise as a no one, poor in wealth but rich in charm. He play the duality of characters in his impeccable style in front of the lady he love ( however the audience is aware of his disguise, but they like to see her falling for his conceit). The plot reveals itself ( you can invent any possible reasons), there is anger and sense of cheating and the lovers fight. In the end, every thing is clear and clean and they come together again and live together happily. Haven't we seen this in various forms and style and interpretation through out many generation of artists?

Richard Sheridan's master piece, written and originally performed in 1775, possibly would be the first of the same, which numerous other less capable artists and directors shamelessly tried to give their own version. Lydia Languish, heir apparent of a huge wealth, is determined to marry someone who is not doing it for her fortune. She is currently under the suppotr and guidance of her aunt Mrs. Malaprop. If she decides to disobey and marry on her accord, half of her wealth will be lost. Mrs. Malaprop is trying to find her the right boy, as the girl is grown and started showing tendencies of rebellion of girls of her age like reading books from libraries, Baron, Sir Anthony Absolute wants his son, currently serving the Royal Army to marry her and are in advanced discussion with Mrs. Malaprop. The overall confusion prevail as he speak to his sone about the proposal while he on the other side flirting with the same lady in disguise. There are other suitors, and a villainous Irish Baron Sir Lucious O'Trigger to cause further complication. As is expected, every thing clears out in the end for the lovers to join and live together.

Reading the book after nearly three centuries, still gives you the charm of a major works. However, the impact , I think, could be more on stage, for its dramatic moments and postures than one experience while reading. Sheridan wanted to write a comedy and including the selection of names, the plot, the schemes were obvious to have a comical effect. He might have crossed the line with the Irish back ground of Lucious O'Trigger, when his first show was interrupted by unruly audience and had be stopped. The same was modified, reducing some of his rhetoric, before re-launching the same in 15 days. Since then ,this has been one of the most staged plays in the modern era, changing his fortune forever.This book also gave a new word to English dictionary as 'malapropism'.
The book does not give you enough to justify the dual role of Ensign Beverly and Captain Absolute to the readers satisfaction. The conversations, however are to the true nature of the characters. The ploy is open in the first page and no curiosity is carried. However, the dramatic moments are galore, with various conversations between Anthony Absolute, Ensign Beverly, Mrs Malaprop and Lydia. As said before, an on stage version will have better appeal than the book.
The Rivals ( 1775)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Nick Hern Books

98 Pages
Encyclopedia Britannica , Project Gutenberg, Wiki Entry

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Monkey King - Timothy Mo

This writer has been in discussion for a while, with the release of his new book Pure, which I guess was published after a long gap. Timothy Mo became a popular figure along with Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro in the 80s after few successful novels. Like the other two, he too have a mixed background. Born to a Hongkong father and a British Mother, he too writers about the duality of culture and the life spent between Orient and London.

The monkey King, is his first published work and the only one I've read so far. Set in Hongkong, following the life and fortune of a rich business family, he explains the book is result of his early days in Hongkong. Hongkong , where the Portuguese ( in Macau), Chinese, British and Indian (due to British Influence during war) culture intermix is an interesting place. The World War is ended and Japanese have returned. The Post war depression is evident Wallace Nolasco, with his Potruguese background from Macau, is now married to the daughter of Mr.Poon, a wealthy businessman in Hongkong. Moving into his house, Wallace soon realised that all is not well for him at the new place. An autocratic family , with Mr.Poon controlling the affairs with his iron fist, had no power to either Wallace( his son-in-law) nor his wife beating son. A crowded house-hold which included many Amah's for house duties and a couple of unmarried sisters, apart from the Poons and his grand children. Wallace, status and his respect in the house is directly related to Poon's behaviour and Wallace realised that he was short sold and the promised dowry was not given.

His act of rebel did not have any direct consequences with no other support to his mission. However, he slowly changed the tactic to work around his wife and Poon's grand children. Often spending time outside the house, exploring Hongkong along with his wife and few other company, which seems to have caused some disturbances in the house. However, Mr.Poon had other plans. Using Wallace's connections and his easy going nature, he wanted to expand his business. Planting Wallace in one of the state agencies, and befriending the authorities, he secured a huge contract for rebuilding. The irregularities were found out and Wallace with his wife were moved to a farm house in the country to avoid any repercussions. Working among the locals and the revelutionaries, Wallace build his clout in the country as well , before he was called back to take over from an ailing Poon. The last par of the book is the rule of Wallace, on building his empire back.

A three part book, the first focussing on the Poon house , the second on Wallace's time in the country house and the third on his return and building the empire by himself. The language and style is something very similar to the books you read from the orient. The use of Hongkong diction and the local idioms, the mix of few local expressions were interesting to note. The sly humour which is in abundance is very entertaining, especially in the early pages with Poon family. By rebelling the Poon's Wallace is not only questioning the family, but some of the age old practices and tradition of the Cantonese living. He is an outsider, hence take the liberty to continue to be an outsider.

I am not sure of the connection with the old Chinese folklore of 'Legend of the Monkey King". However, I do feel there are some strong references to the tale of Monkey King to Wallace. The book is not too absorbing and engaging. The language is such , detached san emotion. Its a good book, but nothing spectacular to talk about.
The Monkey King (1978)

Timothy Mo


215 Pages
Confusionism in Timothy Mo's The monkey King, L A Times,

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Magic Flute ( Krishnavatara I ) - K M Munshi

Years ago, I read Kulapathi K M Munshi's krishnavatara, translated into Malayalam, when it was published in pieces in one of the leading weekly. Now, when I had a chance to read the whole series again, in English, I thought it was a good idea to revisit. K M Munshi, one of the pillars of modern Gujarati Literature is known more for his works associated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and his efforts to publish books for the general public at affordable rates.

Story of Krishna is part of our upbringing. Every Indian, would have gone through the stories in various doses and forms. One, he is a colorful character, a bit of kiddishness, lot of naughtiness, a lover boy, a master manipulator and a clear headed task master. He can wear the appropriate mantle as he deem fit. Around the divinity and the supernatural ability, there is a face of an adorable young boy. Despite the burden of being the 'avatar' of the Lord Vishnu, his character and mannerisms often are too grounded and can be related to any common man. Perhaps, that make him the most sought after person from the scriptures. Derived out of the epic Mahabharata, later developed into another mega scripture, Srimad Bhagavata, , probably is the first dedicated literary work on the life of Krishna. However, there were many many legends and versions of the text available through out the centuries around Krishna.

K M Munshi's version of the story do justice to the mostly told and perpetuated version, at least in the initial book. A series of 7 book ( the eight book which was being written was left incomplete, due to his demise in 1971) on Krishna is is written and published between 1962 to 1970 completing lifestory of Krishna. The Magic Flute, first of the series takes up the pre-birth days of Krishna until the death of King and his uncle Kamsa. What was interesting is the way he mixed the legend of Radha into his narrative , without causing any narrative disruption. In the Chapter where he introduced Radha, he spends more than a page of notes, mentioning the controversy surrounding Radha, on how it was not present in Mahabharata and Bhagavata, but remained in the hearts of millions of people.

I believe, it is a self translated book and it do have its own drawbacks. The language, may be intended, is a bit text-bookish and uneven. It improved as we progressed through the book,though. For those who look for it, it can be a very spiritual experience, and those who would like to see the humane side of the God, it has ample scope of interpretation. May be the humanisation of the various characters without deviating from the core is the highlight thus far.

In the introductory chapter, K M Munshi, explains, why he chose to present the story of Krishna.

Wise and valorous, he was, loving and loved, far-seeing and yet living for the moment, gifted with sage-like detachment and yet intensely human; the diplomat, the sage and the man of action with personality as luminous as that of a divinity. The urge therefore, came upon me, time and again, to embark upon a reconstruction of his life and adventures by weaving a romance around him.
This is the first book and another six to go. To me this is more than a 'refresher course'. It is the effort of one of the classical writer of the 20th century that needed attention and a re-look.
The Magic Flute ( Krishnavatara I ) ( 1962)

K M Munshi

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

249 Pages