Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shah of Shahs - Ryszard Kapuściński

Shut in his hotel room, being the only guest in the entire hotel, with the outside world completely in chaos, the city of Tehran under the control of the revolutionary forces, with the rumors of the escape of Shah, the ruler of Iran,  Ryszard Kapuściński, spreads out  few photographs, and few notes that he collected or written, to rebuild the story of a country of the poeple of Iran, as the country witnesses one of the significant days of their history ( and of the world) ,  the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran. Iran, a country in the world news ever since the beginning of the 20th century ( probably before that as well),  continued to be the in the discussion well into the new millennium. Kapuscinski's book on the Shah and the last days of his regime, goes beyond what is obvious to the very basic realities of Iran, or any country that goes through such strong and violent reaction against their oppressing leaders.

Iran for decades, have been in the news often for reasons not in line with the western world's perspectives and prejudices. Their relationship with the western world was always in turbulent waters since the beginning of the 20th century.  Ahmad Shah Qajar, the last Shah of the Qajar dynasty,  was overthrown in 1925 by Reza Shah Pehlavi ( initially a soldier in the army of Qajars).  Qajars were aligned to the British, who used Iranian borders to launch their attack on the newly formed Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution, trying to destabilise the communist regime. Soviet Union responded by attacking the Iran and annexed some of the provinces, and later provided support to Reza Shah  Pehlavi through the Cossak Regiment, who seized power and became the Shah of Iran in 1925. However, his regime could not withstand the World War II turmoil after an Anglo-Soviet invasion, for his alleged alliance with Germany. The invading powers forced Reza Shah to relinquish his powers and replaced him with his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1941.A Rule, the last of the regime by Shahs, ended in the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

1951 saw the next big turmoil in the history of Iran, when Muhammad Mussadeq, the elected President of the country, made a move that angered the big powers of the world. He nationalized the Oil. In an obvious reaction , the World powers managed to over throw the Government,  forcing Shah to remove the President and imprison him.  Mussadeq was soon declared 'persona non grata' and managed to remove his existence from all walk of life. Mohammad Raza, however lost the ground with his own people. The general resentment and a wrong step irking the anger of the clergy, paved the way for his downfall, resulting in the 1979 revolution in Iran.

All these are available in various notes, reports, books and history texts. We can form our own interpretation and judgement based own your continent, your social and political shifts and religious believes. What makes reading Kapuscinski's book different  ( not only this but the rest as well) is his insights, and his extended knowledge and his comparative analysis gained through his experience. While he does not sound to be judgmental, his ability to put across the various aspect from the eyes of those who are at the receiving end, makes the book a great read.

Unlike the other two books I read, this is not a reportage and commentary of his observation, but a reflection of his contemplative thoughts. There is no action oriented sequences of the events, but largely follows through random notes and photographs, and his collection of ideas through various meetings. With each of them providing the catalytic trigger, he examines the events and social conditions that culminated in the elimination of the existing regime, and the formation of the Islamic Republic under the guidance of the Shiite clergy, lead by Ayatollah Khomeini. The looks at the Shiite life style, the conflict with the rest of the Islamic sects over 14 centuries, the ethnic tribes suffered various invasion forced to live under oppression for many centuries, the conversion of Zoroastrian believes to that of Shia from the religious angle, to the power of oil and while the country has abundance of wealth through the "liquid gold', the population in the villages continue to use dried cow dung as fuel, the manipulation of the Western powers in the politics of the region with the eye on the oil, the struggle of a Shia state surrounded by Sunni populated countries, the sociological significance of the Iranian people largely formed due to these external factors and similar other topics which usually does not figure in the historical texts make it a worth while read.

Kapuscinski is one of my favourite writers. Despite being a journalist, he seems to be able to get across his thoughts and ideas beyond the lens of a typical paperman. And the method of delivery differs each time. While this book is very informative and insightful, personally I liked the 'Soccer War' and 'Imperium' more.
Shah of Shahs ( 1982)

Ryszard Kapuściński  ( translated from Polish by William R Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand  1985)

Penguin Books

152 Pages
 The Millions, Wiki , Esquire

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Choma's Drum - Kota Shivaram Karanth

One of the classics from the Kannada literature, Chomana Dudi ( or Choma's Drum as translated to English) is one of the major works of Kota Shivarama Karanth. Written in the 50s, this again covers the often discussed and dealt the  subject of  caste system.

Choma belongs to the Mari caste , a lower class, untouchable, limited to the job of a bonded-labourer of the Village chief. Widowed, with five children to feed, he typical to people of his type, work hard at the fields of his boss, spent half of what he earns at  the 'toddy shop' and spent the remaining to his family, which is now put together by the smart hands of the young Belli, 10 year old daughter, who grows to the responsibility of maintaining the house affairs. Choma harbors a dream of owning or renting his own farm where he wants to cultivate paddy and other crops, for a potential escape from the hand to mouth existence. Two bullocks, which he found abandoned in the forest years ago are now grown and strong, adds to the hopes and dreams of being a farmer himself. There are other suitors for his bullocks, with attractive offers, and threats, but Choma is not wiling to let go of them. The orthodox social system prevents Choma from getting his land for he being in the low class. The Christian missionaries offer him support, but he is reluctant to join the pastor's community.

To pay off his debt, Choma had to send his elderly sons to the Coffee Estates in the distant hills. They did not manage to pay off the debt, but one succumbs to cholera and the other desert the community and join Christianity to marry his lover, leaving his family and the estate. Now the girl had to go to the estate and work her way out to pay the debt, which she manages by allowing to be abused by the estate manager and the owner himself. She returns back clearing off the debt, but loosing herself.  Choma also looses his young son, drowned in the river, in front of a watching crowd who refuses to save him for being an untouchable. Lost and defeated time and again, Choma find his daughter in a compromising position with the estate manager. He kicks her out of the house, set the bullocks free in the forest, shut himself inside vigorously beats his drums until his life escapes him.

Choma is destined to fail from the beginning. The life beats him time and again. One after the other his family members are lost. His girl, the one he loved the most and only person he respected or feared is also managed defeat him.There are others like the estate manager who loot them with increasing the debt and interest. To the society he is a low class, his dreams and hopes have no standing in their life. Even the sympathetic land lord had to adhere to the social norms ( his aged mother make sarcastic comments about the low-class), there are promises of freedom from this by accepting the ways of the Christ, but Choma is not ok to leave his 'GODs' and the other deities. Choma continue to cherish his dream of owning  a piece of land. There are government offer for a piece of land, but he does not know the way of getting it done. He realises that his status being a low class, will come in between him and his dream. He even contemplates joining the Christianity just to fulfill his dream.

Drum, plays the role of symbolic oracle. For him, the only way to express his inner most feelings, anguish, anger, joy or sadness is through his drum. The drum represent his vocal output, which is curbed by his social stature being an untouchable. The novel starts with the drum beats, listened by those returning back to their homes from the village festival. One of them remarks, "It's Choma again, and it looks like he had a drink too much today". The echoes of his self expression, is ridiculed as the naughtiness of a drunkard. The drum is omnipresent, as much as the part of his physical extension. It remained so, until the beats stopped, for the drum and Choma.

Karanth writes in simple language, befitting the protagonist of his tale. The narration is straight forwards which become profound as it progresses. There are some touching moments and brilliant passages towards the end. He doesn't take the propagandist stand, but does it through his characters. Probably a bit dated for today's generation, but interesting and absorbing read.

Choma's Drum ( 1958)

Kota Shivaram Karanth ( translated from Kannada by P N Moodithaya & Gopakumar in 2007)

Green Books

108 Pages
Wiki, Our Karnataka,

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter

Thirty four  year old American Photographer, the  nameless narrator, staying in a small town Autun in the interior France, in a borrowed house of his friends, a couple staying in more urbane Paris surroundings in the early sixties. The quest to experience the real France as his stated motive behind this action. It is here he acquaint a young American Philip Dean, a Yale University dropout, wandering the French towns and villages. A young 18 year old French Beauty, Anne-Marie in his company. Inspired by love affair, he recollect their love life, through the words of Dean, the girl, his observations and his imaginations. The lusty, sensual bilingual affair of intimate love, with abundance of sexual exploits boasted by the young man as he and his girlfriend drive to and stay at various towns and villages of France. The affair, destined to end with the departure of the young boy back to the US, live through these upheaval move from strength to strength as the narration progresses,.

While it looks like a vigorous sexual encounters of two young adults, by a voyeuristic narrator, one has to shift the focus from Philip Dean and Ann-Marie, to the narrator himself. A man of self doubt, and a failure with the opposite sex, His act of narration of someone else' sexual life is coming out of his own inability. He does not hide that fact ;"I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that".  Thus, his imagination of his incapability become the output of his narration. Thus he focuses his efforts on creating those aspects of his life, through the invented characters of his story. One, to overcome his impotency and the other, the need of experiencing the rural France both being fulfilled through his heard, learnt, exaggerated, fabricated, modified, imagined story. And when he does that, he does it with the precision of his photographic profession, with details to the minutest aspects. It is like entering a world that is created by the young lovers, opened it to us by the narrator, and reader immersed in this world with the narrator.

Books of erotic in nature or those with explicit scenes of sex gets me bored with it in a short time. The language is usually sick and the use of common terms and repetition makes the reading more laborious than entertaining. I haven't seen many of the mainstream writers, in the literary side, doing a decent job at this, often bordering around ridiculous pornographic writings. James Salter, managed this part pretty well, with not many moments of wrinkling the brows in disgust. Even the most graphical scenes were written with elegant restrain most of the times ( there are a few exception to this where I found the writing is cheap and pedestrian). Barring this, the writing has been of very high standard. The poise, the detailing of aspects, the inventive creativity of the narrator, the appropriate pacing of chapters, and the bi-lingual and multi cultural environment among the rest were brilliant.

In the introduction Reynolds Price, brings our attention to the days of publication of D H Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by Grove's press in the US and the controversy it created. This book, probably would have been as scandalous as the previous one for its openness. The impact after 45 years of it original publication may not be as big, and do feel a bit dated for today's sensibilities. Also, this by no means a major literary achievement and I probably may not go back to this book ever. James Salter's name was in discussion for a while and this was the first I could manage to get. Probably there are better books that I should look for as I can see he is a prolific writer of style.

A Sport and a Pastime ( 1967)

James Salter

 Farrar,Straus & Giruox

186 Pages
Interview with James SalterParis Review, Swans Commentary, NY Times, Wiki

Chess - Stefan Zweig

'... a human being, an intellectual human being who constantly bends the entire force of his mind on the ridiculous task of forcing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board, and does it without going mad!'

During his final days in Brazil, staying in exile, days before ending his life,  Stefan Zweig completed his last work of fiction, sent it across to his American Publisher. A short but brilliantly conceived and presented short novel, went on to become a masterpiece.

The travelers in the cruise ship from New York to Buenos Aires, have a dignitary among them, the reigning world chess Champion, Mirko Czentovic.  The all encompassing, never lost any game of the mind, not known for being friendly or social and usually remained in his own quarters. However, the narrator( nameless) and his friends had other ideas. The long, boring journey can be made a bit entertaining, if they manage to lure the champion for a game of chess. The early attempt to bring him to a discussion or conversation failed, and a direct attempt was put at bay by the champion asking for an exorbitant amount of money for a game ( only one he reminded).  There was some one wiling to fund the money, in the form of a Scottish Millionaire.  The one against many was abandoned as there was not sufficient boards , and as an alternate, they decided to join force against the champion. The first game was lost, as expected even before the group of men realised.  One more board was set up, and the game was moving towards a similar end, when an old gentleman, a doctor, intervened and manipulated the way out to a draw, with his clear predictions of the moves in advance. The equation is now changed, as there is someone to stand up to the champion. They immediately wanted to set up a dual again, but the old man was reluctant. He hasn't touched a chess board for 2--25 years and did not think he can ever do it again.  

Dr B, as he is known, an Austrian, belonged to a family of physicist and financial consultants of the Monarchs who ruled Austria. The family, who had the the possession of the documents and information of the wealthy and mighty of the Austrian elite, thus became the target of the Nazi authorities who conquered the tiny Austrian empire. HE was arrested and was put under a solitary cell ( shut in a hotel room, converted as a detention center by the Nazis) without any contact to the rest of the world, except for the occasional interrogation. As is known, the solitary confinement can break down the resistance of any individual and the case wasn't different for him. his ability to withstand and resist the interrogation was at the brink of break down. The need for something to get his attention to succeeded after few months when he managed to slip his hand to the coat pocket of a Nazi Officer ( during an endless wait for interrogation in the adjacent room) and brought out a small book. Hidden in his trousers, he sneaked the book into his room, only to realise that this contain the record and commentary of the 150 chess world championship matches. Savoring whatever was available, setting up the square patterns in his blanket, playing with imaginary pieces, he mastered all the games, and started playing matches against himself . So much was the obsession, it broke down all his sanity, ending up in an asylum, to recuperate. The game of chess aboard the vessel, brought back the days of detention and his trouble past.

The game of chess was agreed upon and despite his ability to play the game physically, the challenger managed to defeat the champion, as is expected in such tales. The game is growing back on him and the days of obsessive, self destructive days and the symptoms of the dark history of insanity resurfaced, as warned by the doctors who treated him earlier. The rematch is now getting into an act of self destruction and personal sabotage as the reigning champion witness the changes in his opponent.

Stefan Zweig, brings out this subtlety of human psychological conditions in this beautiful tale. The game of chess is also a game of survival, a game of resistance to the oppressors. The board is same and the strength of the army is the same at the beginning. The fight is played in the mind, and executed on the board ( interestingly, the champion, undefeated since the age of 15, can not play blind fold, he need a physical representation in the form of a board) , while his opponent is played all along in mind, never to touch the board).  The collective conscience of the crowd against the might of the champion can also be referred to the conditions of this country. The duality of the individual under extreme conditions when he plays with himself ( White 'I' and Black 'I'), the psychological conflict and anguish, resulting in the mental conditions that put him in the hospital, Zweig, interestingly uses multiple narrative technique, with the unnamed narrator giving way to a third voice to describe the early days of prodigal grown of the Chess Champion from an orphan from Yougoslavia to a legend,  and a first person narrative of the detention days under the Nazi's recounted by the challenger.

The book is written in 1942, when the second world war as at its peak. The references can be made to the prevailing conditions of world . The arrogant, unfriendly and brutal leader ( for Germany) is being challenged by the powerless, but ambitious minnows , with the help of a mysterious support ( the Allied forces).  Fairly simple sounding narrative, but the writing is loaded and deep. Similar to a chess game, it is progressed move by move, psychic and dramatic , towards a check-mate. Another stunning little book.

Chess ( 1942)

Stefan Zweig ( translated from German by Anthea Bell in 2006)

Penguin Modern Classics

83 Pages
A Common Reader, Wiki,

Monday, December 23, 2013

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster

If you have to read Paul Aster, read his New York Trilogy, was the advise I received from many friends, and here I am. Probably I should have been elated of getting into the writing of another fabulous writer, but not entirely so. I am some what cold shouldered at the end of reading, not because the book wasn't good. The writing and styling is very good, the structure and the story telling is also decent. I did like the last of the stories very well. However, something was missing for me. I know I shouldn't read it like any investigative thriller, nor as a mystery fiction as in the typical genre books. There as literary references, and probably styling around the previous generation of writers. There is also a clever ploy of bringing in a character called Paul Aster, the detective and not the writer narrator, as a character in one of the story. This also leaves a very noir-film like experience in the end.

The first one, where a detective novel writer, intrigued by a misplaced call ( wrong number dialled for Paul Aster the private detective) , trapped into a never ending chain of events taking him into the brink of madness. There is a lot of character interplay. Daniel Quinn, imposter as Paul Aster the detective, who in his earlier life ( a poet of par excellence, quit serious writing after the death of his wife and son), takes up the role of the detective, observing the movements of Peter Stillmann the senior, on behalf of the fiancee of Peter Stilmann the junior. In the turn of the events, he meet Paul Aster the writer, not the detective as the caller on the phone mentioned.

Ghost, the second story is again on a 'private eye' Blue, working for Brown, asked to investigate a man called Black , for their client White (and the place/ street is Orange, a gimmick very confusing at the start and boring as it progresses ). Writing his report periodically for Brown for which White is expected to pay.  As in the case of the previous tale, the line of sensibility is lost and the frustration and monotonous profile of the job is enough for him to loose his restrain and make him confront Black, his target.

The Locked room, ( reference to the old styled 'locked room mystery'), is about a writer, work on the creative out put of his friend, who went missing. He not only publishes the works of his friend, but replaces him in the family, falling in love with his wife and moving in with her. The situation turns bad after he was entrusted to write the biography of his friend, now a literary sensation after the publication of his works. Confronted with the reality of his ineffectiveness as a writer, the uneasiness of the reference of his name with the wife adds to the difficulties. The potential threat of the return, the anonymous letters, the eventual rendezvous ( not in the real sense), adds to the final twist of the tale.

I am probably missing some thing here. There must be some connect , however subtle, between these stories. Also, there must be some thing about the New York as a city in the settings. This is not a typical detective story, but mostly on observation of the observer; the pursuer and not the pursued. In all of these stories, the protagonist, some what trapped in his own choices and circumstances, unable to shackle free, making decisions of of helplessness and frustration, taking them to a level of mental break down. It is also looks at  writing and writing process, as every one of the stories are about writing as well. I am not sure if this has anything to do with the post modernist writing ( probably its too old already) with its deep condescending of outwardly trivial plots and subjects. Also, we can see a lot of playfulness of Aster as a writer, with the complex structural exposition, the jumbling up of names, the tricky use of color as name. One can understand the playful mood of the writer with all these intricacies which can leave him with high creative satisfaction, and how much of it is parted to the reader, is probably a different story. Having said that,  I will , in all possibility, go back to the book again and see if I can spot any missing points.

The New York Trilogy (1985/86/87)

Paul Aster

Faber & Faber  

314 Pages
Polaris, Bluecricket.com, Wiki

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Nostalgia -Mircea Cărtărescu

I finished reading this book about three weeks ago. Unlike the other books, where I could  summon up my overall impression in a couple of days, this book seems to be taking a lot of time. On one hand, I see this an ordinary childhood reminiscence with some clever passages. In the same moment, I am somewhat fascinated by this writer. His way of telling stories, the way of weaving all of them together, the ordinary, trivial, childish and young adult affairs has some character in it. Some thing that is very impressive in his writing. I went back and read the first chapter again, and it the effect was phenomenal, stupendous writing.

However, the 5 disconnected stories that is called a novel, has something missing from the collective impact of a novel. Probably this is not a complete novel in its traditional way, making me feel less 'complete' after reading this. There is no clear fabric of a story through out. There is no intriguing plots or something to look forward to as a finale. The writer himself confirms ( in the afterword) that 'This is a fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all others", but not very convincing.

Presented in three parts, Prologue in the form of the Roulette Player,  the main part Nostalgia, and the epilogue 'the architect', with the centre part Nostalgia in three stories takes up the larger part of the book. A brilliant introduction by Andrei Codrescu ( whose book I bought a week ago) and an afterword by Julian Semilian ( who translated the book) to give us the glimpses of the writing of Carterescu and the Romanian Literature in general.

The narrator, starts his reminiscence with his memories of the a game of Russian roulette, played in an underground operation, where the dare devil protagonist, put his own life at ransom, in a game of luck with death. Starting at one, adding one pellet after other in the subsequent events, he attempts to shoot himself, against a diminishing probability of survival. After every successful game show, fainting at the end of the gunshot, he up his odds with all six bullets inside the magazine, only to be saved by a 'heavenly intervention'.

Most of the stories are set in the dark and gloomy suburbs of Bucharest, the daily life and core of the young Romanians, where the childhood and young memories are revisited. Mentardy was a bit underwhelming and though a beautiful love story, twins wsa also not all that great,  One of the best pieces of writing is in REM,the third of the nostalgia part, where a middle aged woman, recounting her childhood days as a young 12 year old girl, to her young college student boyfriend.

His prose and style is fabulous. The way the words and sentences formed with careful deliberation, the way the sentences, paragraphs, chapters and book is structured, The clever way of creating an subtle connect between the three chapters ( in nostalgia part) , in reverse order of the age and time creating an overall impact in the reading.  Stunning details, vivid imagery, very moving and surrealistic portrayal of young loves, dreams and frustration, Cartarescu is brilliant in his writing.

This is the first book of Carterescu translated into English. the first part of his autobiography is now available in English, which is already receiving rave reviews. From a shear writing and styling point of view this is very very impressive, but a bit under whelming as a novel.
Nostalgia (1989/93)

Mircea Cărtărescu ( translated from Romanian by Julian Semilian 2005)

New Direction 

322 Pages
Wiki , Romania Insider, Complete Review

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Serious Men - Manu Joseph

Caste and the untouchability were a major theme in the for most part of the twentieth century Indian Literature. From Malayalam ( until the sixties), Kannada( to the seventies ), Tamil, Telugu and any other language the doyens of Indian writing toyed with this single theme for a long time. The times have changed and there is significant improvement in the social structure. The collective bargain power of the caste politics is now gathering momentum, but the issues related to upper and lower class, untouchability and other taboos are relatively lesser known in the modern India ( at least in the Metro space).  Manu Joseph, in his award winning debut novel, attempt to chew the same Brahmin versus the rest, representing power versus the ruled, rich and poor story camouflaged under a funny satire. The book, won the year 2010 Hindu Fiction award as well as the American Pen Open Book award in 2011 and heralded as the new and different voice in the Indian English Writing.

The story weave around Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Speaking Dalit, born to a sweeper from a lower class, living in the infamous Mumbai slums, working as a secretary to the eccentric, Nobel contender scientist , heading the Institute of Theory and Research . Eavesdropping the conversations of his superior, Ayyan manages to gather sufficient knowledge on scientific aspect to impress the others.  A smart guy, he plays trick with the world, by promoting his half-deaf son as some extraordinary genius, with some clever maneuvers ( such as asking questions beyond the child's comprehension, sniffing out the Inter-school quiz questions and creating a havoc, by some play act) and manipulation of the press. The politicians ( especially the minister from the Dalit community) , takes up the action by adding their bit of excitement about the Dalit Genius from the slums. The ploy was getting out of control and to a point where Ayyan Mani is not able to retract. At the Institute front, the moronic, dictatorship of the Arvind Acharya, is taken a turn with the arrival of young attractive female researcher. The mission to outer space to collect sample of extra terrestrial particles, and establish the presence of living organisms gathers enough opposition, but Acharya has his powerful supporters in the Ministry. The mission, and the study of the collected samples by the female researcher, and her subsequent revenge on Acharya ( a sleazy love affair that shatters both the lives) for his betrayal  and the final filmy showdown is the book is all about.

The outrageous  humor, clever one liners, invented quotes, the make belief characterisation expected from a satire is all there. I often laughed out loud as I went through the book. Its very funny and he take pot shots at many things in one go. The urban system, the scientific research community, the quest for extra terrestrial intelligence, the political system, the great Indian caste system, the brahminical hierarchy , the religious and education nexus ( the Malayalee School principal, trying to woo Ayyan to convert into Christianity), the Ambedkar and the dalits ( with  the mass conversion to Buddhism, but his wife refuse to accept any other Gods but that of the Hindu deities, which they worshipped for generations), the press ( paid news and the sensation that they need), the slum dwellers, the power politics of the Research Institute, the peons and secretaries in Offices ( who are having a ball of a time with the "clash of the Brahmins")  etc etc. Every one is treated in a caricature form, often very superficial lacking individuality ( sa representation of various aspect of Society).

However, there are at least a few places, where the jovial mood of the writer is turned very sensitive and sublime. These parts of the writing were very good , especially  the Ayyan mani and his wife, the interactions between Arvind Acharya and his wife and a couple more similar instances were top class. What is also interesting to note is the keen observation of the writer on various people and style into their minutest detail , albeit they are limited to physical in nature. What was disappointing to me was that there is no real insight, and apart from the two parallel plots, there is no substance in the tale, that is convincing. In the end, it was yet another easy, funny and fast read. Luckily, the cinematic finish is done with a few pages, leaving the action sequence to be detailed by the reader himself. That was very appropriate and clever.
Serious Men ( 2010)

Manu Joseph 

Harper Collins 

326 Pages
Huffington Post ( Interview) , NY Times, Mumbai Boss, Guardian, Independent

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Brief History of Smile - Angus Trumble

There isn't a day without one seeing a quote related to smile in the social media or in your mail box, being shared by one of your friend. It is also said that one of the most used symbol in communication, these days, are the yellow circle with two dots and a curved line,  appropriately called a 'smiley'.  The flexing of the facial muscles ( apparently 12 of them) which are below the nose and above the jaw, is supposed to be one of the 'strongest non-verbal communication' in the world, transcending regional, cultural and linguistic barriers.

Amgus Trumble, an Australian, living in the US as a curator of art, discusses the topic of smile, starting from his area of expertise, moving to sculptures, religion, social , health & beauty and literary settings. Having invited to address a convention of dentist, he thought about the dentists observation of the teeth with regards to beauty. A discussion, triggered his interest in the subject of smile, resulting in this entertaining book.

Being an art curator, his immediate reaction begins with the form of his convenience and expertise. Starting his discussion with the representation of smile or smirk in the paintings of 18th century Dutch and Flemish masters ( Frans Hals's Laughing Cavalier ) , the discussion moves to one of the most celebrated and discussed smile of the world: that of Monalisa. Categorizing smiles into six varieties, 'decorum, lewdness, desire,mirth,wisdom and deceit' detailing the aspect of various observations on smile, Trumble smiles his way through our mind.

Darwin's theory on the smile of the new born baby, the use of black paints on the teeth by the Geisha, the blissful smile of Buddha ( there is no mention of the 'laughing Buddha' statues), the Cambodian sculpture of Jayavarman VII the God-king,  the use of lipstick and lip liners as enhancement methods, the dental improvement to the smile, the 'need' of smile in the photography, various use of smile words for a pleasant photograph ( Cheese is the most popular, but  "lesbian" - yes photographer Cecil Beaton , "money"-in Australia,  "patata" meaning potato in Spain, fax by Czechs and the Japanese use of the English word "whisky" ), the various etymology of smile through many many languages and culture ( myle, smale, smyl, smylle, smyll, smill, smoyle , smoile ...) are covered with his characteristic humor and witty anecdotes. 

This isn't a scientific book or a sociological book in the lines of Desmond Morris',  and not necessarily the most comprehensive study on this subject. It did trigger a larger internal discussion within me, reflecting on various other representation of smile and related aspect within the eastern cultural and art forms. The facial paintings of Kathakali artists ( elaborated red colored enhancement for the lip giving a permanent  smiling expression) , the 'sad/happy dual of theatrical masks, the thin line separating a smile and a laugh, among various other things.

A quick fast read, with some interesting facts and more curious observations. From the seductive smile of a prostitute, the deceit , the smirk and the grin ( with a negative connotation to it) , with or without the display of the teeth ( with reference toThe Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility of 1703) , the upward curve of the lips ( apparently only 67% of the people curve their lips while smiling) , the changes in the eyes ( the twinkle) , the grin from animals ( cats, dogs and primates) and many more such smiley aspects makes this an informative book.
A Brief History of Smile ( 2004)

Angus Trumble

Basic Books

226 Pages
USA Today, The Age, Meta Psychology, Spirituality and Practice

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Varamo - César Aira

A chain of event, started with a Government employee in the city of Colon in Panama, receiving two counterfeit 100 Peso notes from the ministry for payment, resulting in a creation of one of the most acclaimed piece of literary work  in the history of Central America. The protagonist, Varamo, leaves the office with the two counterfeit bills, returning home to his half mad, paranoid mother, work in his lab for a short time ( embalming frogs) , setting out to his favorite cafe, encountering a conspiracy to seize power, few other trivialities, sharing the table with three  publishers (of pirated books) who advise him to write a book, before where he is subjected to hallucinatory visions in the dark solitary night of Colon streets, returning home by midnight to create one of the masterpieces of the Central America's literary history , "The Song of the Virgin Boy" ( a name summarizes his story). At the outset a series of disjointed actions, insignificant and trivial at times, building up to an extra ordinary result.  A trigger in the form of counterfeit bills, a result of a literary masterwork, in the middle a series of regular daily chain of events.  Aira's allegory and his clever plot maneuver of unrelated events over an evening might have its own significance. 

Events are set in a Panamanian City of Colon in the year 1923. Varamo, 50 year old civil servant, living with his Chinese mother, not married. His love life is nothing to talk about. A small glimpse of which is part of the events that unfold during the evening. The initiation to write, probably would have come from the meeting with the publishers at the Cafe. It seems, Colon is the center of the thriving black market fiction. One of the editors asserts , "In barbaric lands like the Americas, writers produce their best work before learning the craft, and nine times out of ten, their first book was their strongest, as well as being, in general, the only one they wrote". They nudge him to write offering him unheard of money ( equal to his monthly salary) . "It shouldn't take more than three or four  minutes to fill up a page, if you concentrate. That's twenty pages an hour. In four or five hours you could finish off a decent little book".  From then every thing seems to be working in favour of his writing. He wanted to write about embalming ( frogs legs) . His walk in the streets of Colon until midnight. "For him everything was writerly now". The rest is history , as they say.

There aren't many books available in English by Cesar Aira until recently ( he has written more than 50 books in Spanish and only 7 of them are available in English now). This being my first entry into the world of his writing, I was perplexed and a bit confused in the end. My attempt to find rationale and precipitate my impression on what was going on here was very inconclusive. I reached out to a few who are familiar with his style and writing, and I was told to take it easy and they prescribed the remedy in the form of more books of Aira. The advise to me was,not  to fathom the depth of one book, as one starts to appreciate and understand this writer over a collective of his fictional works. Now, that will be my next course of action. There is a lot of discussion about his style of writing. The experimental , avant-garde fiction, with the concept of 'fleeing forward' improvisation which this book supposed to be an example. The

An allegory on the writers inspiration and creation. Where does the trigger of artistic creativity come from, and between the trigger and the result, what affects the creative process. I think Aira, reflects our conscience to this aspect in a clever articulation of events. I will need to acquaint with his writing for comprehending this little piece of work.

Varamo  ( 2002)

César Aira ( translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews in 2012)

New Direction Books

89 Pages
Wordswithoutborders , NY Times, The Millions,

Uncentering the Earth - William T Vollmann

“He was a scholar of Polish birth
  who stopped the sun and moved the earth.”

Nicolaus Copernicus, born in Poland, worked for the church for over 40 years, died in 1543 supposedly after suffering from a stroke. His earth shattering contribution to the scientific world saw light the same year, in Nuremberg , in the form of the book ""The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres", which declared that earth revolved around the Sun and the center of Universe is not Earth as the world was made to believe. This, considering the time and era was significant . A belief of over 2000 years, supported and upheld by the church, was shaken by someone from their own ranks. The magnitude of this declaration has to be understood, that this was done even before the invention of Telescopes ( which came in nearly 100 years later) and the theory of gravitational forces ( almost 200 years later).

One of the significant breakthrough in the science is the shift from Geo-Centric Universe to Helio-Centric universe. The triumph of scientific truth over 'religious truth', did not happen without its own martyrs and other sufferers. The 'golden words' of Ptolemy, which ruled the world of astronomy for over a millennium, had to give way to the new discoveries and thinking by some of the master minds in the Europe. Copernicus, a clergy by profession, did work with the available knowledge, with significant credit to Ptolemy himself  ( he was remarkably close and accurate in many other aspect) to shift the center away from earth to 'some place near the sun'. Others followed him later advanced this,  Kepler ( with his theory on planetary motions) , Galileo ( new discoveries with the invention of telescope) , Tyco Brahe (with geo-helio centric system of compromise) and Giordano Bruno ( burnt alive) to name a few.

This was no mean achievement. The religious community was very strong and organized. However wrong was their decree, it was forced and followed. A geo-centric universe, which suited their thinking was thus the dictate and law. Copernicus, did understand this power and the control of church and the dangers he is getting into. Thus, he did not publish his writing until his death, the first copy reaching him on his death bed, and thus did not see his theory gaining acceptance among many radical thinkers. What is remarkable is the accuracy of many of his calculations. One should keep in mind that these feats were achieved even before the invention of Telescope and Newton's Law of Gravitational Forces. Both of these significantly helped to help in the progression of the Copernican theory of helio-centric universe.

 While on this subject, it is interesting to compare with the progress in astronomy in India in early days. It was said that 'Aryabhata'( 5ht Century AD) and other South Indian Mathematicians and astronomers are already working with a Sun-Centric universe. While there were difference of opinion, unlike their counterparts in the west, they were not subjected to torture of extermination by the religious or ruling powers. But, it was Aristarchus, 3rd Century BC, who supposed to have proposed a Sun - Centric universe at first.

Volmann split his book in the same sequence as the book of Copernicus. Examining each volume ( six of them), calling each of them as his 'exegesis',  he derive comparison to Ptolemy  ( Almagest - the bible for Geo Centric Universe)  and Aristotle's efforts ( who believed that the earth was a sphere , observing the eclipses) and the importance of Copernicus's results. The approach is not scientific and he does not bombard the reader with difficult mathematical formulas. Coming from the literary profession, the approach has been in the same line. Having said that, whenever he attempts to bring in few scientific and mathematical calculations or theorem, it is not sounding very convincing. But on the whole, he manages to re-create the works of Copernicus, to the new readers by appropriately summarizing the text, by clearly referencing this to the prevailing decree , by reflecting upon the impact of these revelations in the world that are both ancient and current with the help of expert commentators.

People looking for the biography of Copernicus, or the history of scientific progress of the world will find this book inadequate. This is mostly set up as a commentary on the book that shook the world, through the writing of one of the well known writer in English. Books on science by non-scientist are curious to read. One, they tend to be speaking the language that is relevant and appropriate to those not qualified to understand the nuances of the subject. If the attempt is by someone who is known for his literary works, the expectation is rather high. William Vollmann's book on Copernicus, the commentary on the Copernicus's "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" is thus did create the initial interest as a reader. The attempt to focus on his work rather than the person, did impact my enthusiasm, to some extent, but Vollmann did manage to get through pretty good in the end.

Uncentering the Earth  ( 2006)

William T.Vollman 


295 Pages

Universe Today, Bookslut, NY Times

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Thirst for Love - Yukio Mishima

The last three Japanese books I've been reading ( in the past 2 months) were all about obsessive love, revenge born out of love. Tanizaki's Quicksand, Kawabata's 'beauty and sadness' and now this one from Mishima. Amongst the three, I should say this was better than the rest.  What is admirable in all three is the way sensuality and a subject as this can be treated without being vulgar and in a rather simple effective narrative. However, these are not necessary the pick from their treasure of literary works. Thirst of Love is about the love affair of a young widow from a wealthy family with a young naive gardener which turns ugly after he fails to reciprocate and take catastrophic turn.

Etsuko's unhappy married life comes to an end after her husband dies fighting a long battle with typhoid. The marriage, already under strain for his relationship with other women, and his disinterest in Etsuko. However, like a faithful wife, she spent the last days of her husband with him in the hospital. She was moved in with her father-in-law post her widowhood, enduring the old man's sexual advances. On the other side, her infatuations with Saburo, the gardener wasn't physical, largely limited to buying him gifts and watching him from close quarters.  However, Saburo, is attracted with the maid Miyo, whom he manages to impregnate with a child.  Etsuko, who manages to keep her romantic liaison hidden , now tortured with jealousy and anger, and plot her revenge trying to separate Saburo and Miyo and even eliminate Saburo, in the end.

A simple story of love and obsession, made into a little gem by Mishima with some fine piece of writing. The hospital scene, written in monologue ( diary entry) through the words of Etsuko, is breath taking. Mishima's ability to get under the skin of his characters, the build up of slow expose of the character, the hidden infatuation turning into the strong feeling of vengeance and act of thoughtlessness is fabulous. Saburo, on his part is always submissive and helpless under the advance of his lords. His reactions and responses, befitting someone of lower strata of the social standing. He controls his reaction, when Miyo was sent to her family. The rest of the extended family, while hearing the rumours about the affair, add it to their daily gossip ( which include the father-in-laws relationship to the daughter in law) but largely sympathetic to the widow.

What Mishma has done well is to transcend the ordinary story of sexual torment and jealousy into a delicate mental status of a lonely young widow, suffering from the failed love affair. From the numbness that enveloped her, from the unhappy marriage, the death of her husband, the submission to the sexual pleasures of the father in law, she find herself deeply engulfed in a strong feeling of passion and obsession. A relief, for which she was willing to to any extreme, ending in the catastrophe to every one around her. Interestingly, the narration follow the same mood of the lead character, starting slow and dull, but gathering pace in the same way, culminating in the action packed ending. The writing is fuild and lyrical and mesmerising at places. Apart from the temple festival sequence, not many references to the cultural and social life of Japanese, which we find in the novels of Kawabata.  Yukio Mishima is a master, and this novel, not necessarily his best, is another important work reflective of his style.
Thirst for Love  ( 1950)

Yukio Mishima ( translated from Japanese by Alfred H Marks 1969) 

Vintage Books

200 Pages

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

ആലാഹയുടെ പെണ്‍മക്കൾ - Sara Joseph

Urbanisation needs people to who work the dirty things behind the 'every thing is good clean and shining' life of the city dwellers. These people, who work non-stop in the background, live in the  hidden quarters, work at odd hours, are the necessity of any growing city . Forced to live outside the city limits, their land and their life is encroached and driven away by the ever expanding need of the  city, forced to shift themselves away, as the city grow. Sara Joseph in her short novel write about these marginalised people, whose culture, language, voice, thoughts and life are encroached by the pretentious mass of urbanised, mainstream population.

Invasion through out the history had those who control and those who suffer. The economics, religion, and physical and organised power always played a key role in colonisation and control. The invading power , however, need the service of these sidelined populace for their daily affair. The exterior brilliance of the society needed the dirt and filth to be cleared.  Thus, every city, every social setting has people who are termed and identified to be the 'cleaners' for long time. These people, scavengers, the washerwomen, the cart pullers, the maids , gardners, security agents  are 'housed' just outside the social strata. They have to be available at a calls length, but not within their 'identifiable community'. Sara Joseph, reflects our conscience to these people and their life in the mid 20th century Thrissur.

Kookanchira, in the outskirts of Trissur, was once the dumping ground of abandoned bodies and carcasses, before the group of people, scavengers and other low life settled in. Annie, now eight years, is born in this place among the other low class, after her family moved into this place. Her father had abandoned the family, leaving her and her mother among many aunts , the aging grand mother and a crippled uncle suffering from TB, bed ridden, spitting blood. His whereabouts are not known and the family is resigned to the fact that he is not to be expected. Kookanchira is infamous for its past glory, its criminals ( the gang of 14 rowdies), the other people of ill-repute. Even at school, a place for progressive thoughts and teaching, students from Kookanchira is looked upon with disgust and contempt. Annie, through her childish eyes, witnesses the slow but definite changes that takes place in her outskirts. The place, where many houses stood, was being taken by the rich from the city, producing documents from authorities to show ownership of the property. The fights and the resistance, can easily be soaked wet by alcohol, by brute force, by the might of authority or the ruling class. Hence, the place, which was once a grave yard, a place of wandering ghosts, of numerous legends is now become history. So is the history of kookanchira, a history of the place is the history of its people.

One of the attributes of colonisation, or invasion, of encroachment is the structural destruction of what existed. The culture, the way of living and the language in particular. It was so from the early days of invasion. The Spaniards and Portuguese in the South America, the English all over the world. It is the same within the country by the rich over the poor. Brahminism, dictated the standards, the structure and the style of language (sanskritisation) and the way of living and thinking. What is followed by the upper class people become the norms of the society. However, those sidelined and marginalised community, find their own identity through their language, their rituals and customs and even physical appearance.

Sara Joseph uses the language to an outstanding effort. The identity of the people is in their language. Language is the character here.  The legends, the folklore, the politics, the daily life of the inhabitants unveiled through the natural progression of language. The language of the elite, is viable only for Annie's uncle, who is always bed-ridden. Annie, complains that she cant understand her uncle when he speaks in this language. This uniqueness in the narrative is that it often hard to understand ( even those who speak Malayalam) and makes it all the more difficult for translation. This is a hold no bar way of communicating. The idioms, the ample use of foul and unparliamentary language, the care a damn attitude for grammatical correctness the referential contexts and the other 'characteristics' of their spoken words make this an enriching reading experience.

While the focus is shifted to the narrative, one should not take the attention away from the story telling. Sara Joseph, cleverly weave the story, of the families shifting fortune, and through them the society that they belong  and the larger population and the changing social and political scene of Kerala. A family of 7 women ( mother, grand mother and five aunts), a young girl and an invalid bed ridden male of past fury  of rebelliousness, under one roof. Apart from the sporadic interjections, the voices are all of the women. Its the women who moves the daily score, with men busying themselves with alcohol or quarrel. Their might and demonstration of power are restricted to the public arena, but the control in the real sense ( despite a few beating they suffer after an alcohol induced reaction) is with the women folks. For Annie, her uncle is some one who is beyond her world. She know he taks about profound things, but have no connection with the world they live in. Its through her grand mother ( and her stories) she know the worldly wisdom. The men of her town, the women, the religion ( her grand mother is switched to Syrian sect while her mother remained Roman Catholic) , the authorities, the money lenders, whores, the neighbours and the ancestors are opened to her world through these womanly conversations and experiences.

Sara Joseph, uses these varied facets of story telling to some great effect. The language, the sociao political structure, the worlds of women, the perils of the new capitalists system, the issues of growing urbanisation, the prevailing caste struggles, the rich and political nexus combining their might against the unorganised, low class into a memorable little book with her insightful narrative. Brilliant in both style and technique, very refreshing reading experience.

ആലാഹയുടെ പെണ്‍മക്കൾ ( 1999)

Sara Joseph

D C Books

152 Pages
Samyukta , Wiki

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Four Major Plays ( A Doll House, The Wild duck, Hedda Gabler, The Master builder) - Henrik Ibsen

My reading has many gaps, and insufficient reading plays and drama are one of the glaring short coming. To claim to have read a minimum understanding of this genre, it can't be achieved with out getting into the world of Ibsen. The master playwright of the late 19th century, is one of the foremost if not the best writers of this medium and his plays continue to attract crowd in the theater for their contemporary relevance and values. This collection comprising of his four major plays is thus a great step to my attempt to familiarise with Ibsen and enhance my pursuit into this area of literature. Written at various points of his illustrious writing career, this not only bring some of the best of his writing, but are also representative of his progression as a writer. The Doll House written in 1872 while he was in Italy, begins the collection and ending with The Master Builder, which was written in 1892.

A Doll house, for its revolutionary ending, which send ripples to the moralistic, conservative European society, where the lead character abandons her husband and their two children, for pastures of her dream to discover herself. So much was the controversy, that Ibsen had to re-write the ending for the adaptation in German Theaters. He called it disgrace to the original play and a 'barbaric outage'. The play starts with Laura, wife of Torvald Helmer, a mother of two, returns from her Christmas shopping,  Torvald is now appointed as the manager of the Bank and he expected to take charge pretty soon, bringing all the difficulties related to finance and blossoming a dream of better living. Torvald is what you call it as an ideal man. Perfect husband loving and caring, respected in society, with a job to envy for, a person hold high moral. When every thing seems to be in perfect setting, what is the cause of concern?  It was Nils Krogstad, who apparently working in the same bank in a low rank, a man with a shady past in the eyes of moralistic society, is threatened by dismissal by Torvald, to help Mrs Linden, Nora's friend. Krogstad is not a bad man, he has broken the law once, but is now trying to inch his way back to the social stream. The dismissal will further damage his reputation and his attempt to redeem himself and thus he fight back. Nora, has borrowed some money from Krogstad, towards the medical expenses of her husband in the past. A deal, where she forged the signature of her ailing father, a deal she kept secret from her husband. "If need be, I shall fight as though for my life to keep my little place in the bank. . . . It's not only for the money: that matters least to me. It's something else", assures Krogstad to Nora. The money affair is something Nora kept to herself for a long time and she saves money to pay back. Opening her secrets to her friend Nora asserts she had to save her husband by taking him to Italy and she is saving every penny to repay the debt,  "When Torvald gave me money for clothes and so on, I never used more than half of it; I always bought the simplest things." The threat from Krogstad is serious and fearing the status of her husband ( if a scandal breaks out), she pleads and tries all that she could to restrain her husband from dismissing Krogstad. As expected this has to explode, and when the final moment comes, Nora is ready and prepared. Despite her husbands harsh words, she was prepared to save him from the bad names by killing herself. It was then Nora realised that she was wrong, and her place in the household of Torvald is not that of a woman of equal strength, but that of a play thing, a doll. Her inner conflict and realisation was so strong when she says to Torvald 'You have never loved me. You only thought it amusing to be in love with me', before leaving him and the children. A phenomenal play, and there is no wonder about its ever growing popularity. A new adaptation of this ( the first being in 1923) with Ben Kingsly in the lead is expected in 2014,

The Wild Duck, is very disturbing and intriguing play.  Gregers Werle is back home after many years of self-imposed exile, on a day when his father is throwing a dinner. His mother is passed away long back, carrying a suspicion that her husband is having some relationship with other women, a suspicion Gregers continue to carry. He realises some of the back ground of his fathers growth in stature is also to do with his ill treatment of one of his friend and business partner, Lieutenant Ekdal, who is now doing few copying jobs for his father. It was also revealed to him that Ekdal's son and his classmate Hjalmar  is married to Gina, who was once his fathers associate. Refusing to live in the same house with his father, he decided to pursue a life of his own, rejecting the offer to divide the property into two halves  by his father. His father is known to have an affair with the care taker of the house,  Mrs. Sørby , which on a later scenes she confirms. Deciding to pursue this matter further, Gregers, leaves home and take shelter in the household of Ekdals. A complex household with an external calmness, wants Gregers to expose his father. He invites Hjalmar for a walk, and supposedly reveals the secret of his father to him. Hjalmar, returns home drunk, confronts his wife.  Mrs. Sørby's arrival with a letter from Gregers father, declaring pension for  Lieutenant Ekdal, which later extended to Hjalmar's daughter, increases his suspicion on his wife and his daughter. Dejected, he returns to his friends to drinking, In a tragic end, Hjalmar's daughter, in a symbolic gesture sacrifices herself by shooting herself ( instead of the wild duck) to the shock. A very sophisticated play, where the written text hide a lot more than what it reveals. There are many scholarly readings, symbolising the 'wild duck' and the attic where Hedwig and her grand father, spent the day.  Gregers is driven by idealism and his hatred towards his father. His attempt to reveal the truth to his friend, is largely directed towards his father, but his meddling of the affairs of Ekdal's family had destructive effect. The father might have done two crimes towards the Ekdal's , by impregnating the servant Gina and then marrying her off to Hjalmar, and sent the elder Ekdals to prison for his own wrong doing. Trying to rectify the guilt of his father, the step further by completely destroyed the Ekdals. Father did amends by restoring the Ekdals to some level of comfort by offering job to the elderly man, and by setting up a studio for the son. In an attempt to settle the score with his father for the death of his mother, the real victims happened to be the Ekdals and a young girl.

Hedda Gabler, probably isn't as grand as the other two. A young couple returns to their new house in Oslo, after six month honeymoon, which apparently did not go all well. George Tesman, is an academic and is interested in research of old manuscripts. Hedda returns in bad humour and she did not hide her displeasure in her interactions with Aunt Julie, who dropped in to welcome them. Mrs. Elvsted, a friend of Hedda,  arrives soon after announcing the return of Eilert Lovborg, to the town recovering from the alcoholism that saw him off for more than two years. Mrs.Elvsted makes a mention of her liking of Lovborg, despite being a married woman, but is aware that Lovborg did have a girlfriend and a possible break of that resulted in his notorious behaviour. Hedda wants to invite Lovborg to their place, and gets George to send the letter requesting his visit. Judge Brack, who came in and in the conversations let Tesman know that the new book published by Lovborg has been a huge success and there is a potential threat to George's dream of becoming the professor at the University. By now, it is clear to the readers that the long lost love of Lovborg is Hedda, which Hedda cut off by threatening to shoot him. Lovborg comes in with a manuscript of the new book, a continuation of his best seller, and wanted George to read them. Hedda, cleverly manages to send both her husband and Lovborg to a party thrown by Judge Brack. George return with the manuscript saying it was found abandoned in the pavement after Lovborg lost them, after an altercation post reckless drinking. However, Lovborg had a different story to tell, he did not loose it but shred the manuscript into thousand pieces. Hedda did not reveal her possession of the manuscript, instead send him to his possible suicide. He burns the manuscripts in an attempt to protect her husbands interest, but Mrs.Elvsted and George tries to rebuild the manuscripts from the notes written by Lovborg which Mrs.Elvstd possess. In the meanwhile Judge Brack returns with the news of the death of Lovborg, and identifies the pistol used by him belongs to Hedda. He also informs Hedda, while there might be circumstantial evidence that saves Hedda from influencing suicide,  only he can keep the secret from falling into the ears of the Police. Realising she has fallen into the hands of the Judge, Hedda goes into the next room and shoot herself.

Hedda comes out as a highly manipulative individual. We observe she continue to use her father's surname and not changed it to Tesman, post her marriage. Clarifiying this Ibsen wrote, "My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife". Hedda as a character is for drama in the true sense. Depending upon the interpretation ( apparently there was a version in an Australian production where Hedda is portrayed by a male), she can be portrayed as a victim of circumstances, a ideal feminist, a cruel manipulative villain or a devout heroine working towards the betterment of her husband.  It provides ample moments of character twists, and dramatic moments. Trapped in the constricts of the family after her wedding, Hedda is already bored and is in look out for options to shake herself free from the imposed clutches. She makes her intention clear to the judge that she wants a friend, not necessarily a lover, beyond her husband whose interests limits to his academic pursuit. Despite her rejection, she continue to have her sympathy for Lovborg and could not come into terms with Mrs.Elvsted's advances towards him. It is from this she manipulated the intricate threads of dependencies, to send both her husband and Lovborg to the party, waiting for their return in her room. It was this control she wanted over destiny, of hers her husbands and the rest, she pushed Lovborg towards committing suicide. It was the same thoughts that lead her to her own death, when she realised that her life will now depends on the Judge Brack, who guided by his profession,  could make in roads to the machinations of a intelligent mind.

The master builder, written in 1892, the first play after Ibsen's return to Norway, talks about the eventual fall of a master buider. A young 24 year old woman shows up dressed in mountain attire, with no change clothes, in the house of a middle aged builder of repute. Demanding the promise he made to her ten years ago, when he built a church tower in her home town, during which he supposed to have forced himself on the young girl calling her his princess and promising to return in ten years and build her a castle in the air. A story he did not remember or as expectedly ridiculed, but the young lady Hilda, manages to impose the story upon him through her seductive charm and flirt. Vulnerable, having an unremarkable married life with Aline, Master builder Soleness, fallen prey to her charm and was easy being manipulative. On the other hand, Soleness, worried for his place, as the young generations trying to advance in every aspect. To continue leading the front, he has recruited young architect under his wings, and refuses place and time for his personal growth as an independent architect. The arrival of the young women, saw him dismissing the young man from his clutches, allowing him to find a path for himself. We understand that he is building a new house on the land which once belonged to his wife and where they lost their kids around 13 years ago in a fire. Despite knowing his suffering form Acrophobia, Hilda encourages him to climb on the tower to the topmost to inaugurate the new house, as he has done in the past. As he climbs up to the ascend he looses foot and falls to eventual death amidst the large group of people gathered to see the new house.

Arguably a play which has the maximum autobiographical elements of Ibsen's life. The old architect, threatened by the young generation, an unhappy married life, a flirtatious affair with young women. He himself talked about his short lived affair with a young apprentice, who was later known for tis behaviour. He added, she did not use me, but I used her in my play. To me this play works in three planes. One the flirtatious middle aged mind easily vulnerable to the charms and manipulations of the young woman. The second the insecurities or the mid-life crisis that every professional undergo, as he watch the younger generation, threatening to take over from him and a fragile family life whose foundations were shaken with the death of the children. The mother soon withdraw to her own reclusive self, with blocking the two way communication, limiting to mundane daily grind. Ibsen brings all these three elements together with a brilliant proportion, adding his own personal experiences and inhibitions.

Four remarkable plays of Ibsen, selected from his later stages of his writing career, arguably the best representation of Ibsen. Non-absurdist, realistic plays taking on social issues and deep understanding of the inner thoughts and actions of the characters. Marvelous..

Four Major Plays - A Doll House (1879), The Wild duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master builder (1892)

 Henrik Ibsen ( translated from Norwegian by Rolfe Fjelde in 1965)

Signet Classic

384 Pages
Doll House :  Guardian, UCB, Wiki
The Wild Duck : Ibsen Voyages, wiki
Hedda Gabler : Shmoop , Wiki
The Master Builder : Guardian, Ibsen Voyages, Yahoo.com , Wiki

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh - Mo Yan

Last years ( 2012) Nobel Laureate Mo Yan goes back to his childhood days in the province, to the days of poverty and hunger the days of cultural revolution t the early days of one family one child policy, in this collection of carefully chosen eight short stories. 1960s , Mo Yan says, is "one of China's most bizarre period. On one hand, those years saw the country in the grip of economic stagnation and individual deprivation. The people struggled to keep death from their door, with little to eat and rags for clothes ; on the other hand, it was a time for intense political passion".  He talked about people surviving by eating coal. "The more I ate, the better the stuff tasted, until it seemed absolutely delicious". These collection of stories are reflective of the time which Mo Yan experienced as a young boy.

The title story talked about a factory worker laid off from job, barely a month before his retirement. Known for his exemplary work, a role model to the rest, even he could not survive the axe, as the bad economic situation, caused the authorities to shut down the factory. All the sweet words that flew and the promises that were given, as Ding Shikou soon to find out, had no meaning. Forced to find a way to live, Shikou takes the help of his friend to transform a abandoned chassis of a bus into some thing called a 'lover's cottage', which he rents out on a fee to young lovers seeking privacy and seclusion. While it gave him economic freedom, as the business grew to greater heights during the 'season', Shikou looses his conscience and self esteem, resulting in his hallucinatory visions of 'visitors' to his cottage.

Man and the beast, reflect upon the plight of a soldier who fought Japanese and was captured and taken as prisoner to Japan. Visiting the island of Hokkaido, the nameless narrator, recounts the story of his grand father and his exploits in the lush valleys and hills adjoining the Sapporo Sea. Remembering his grand dad's words of his time in Japan, the heroic story of resistance of his grand mother, his uncles and aunts against the enemy, the ten years of solitary life in the mountains before his return to China and  the accusation of his rape of a Japanese woman as per the police records ( grand father never actually had intercourse with that women, so the furry baby described in Japanese historical materials, is not related to him. But even having a young uncle who is half Japanese would be no disgrace to our family, and could in fact considered our glory, says the narrator) the grand son tries to get the records right and restore the glory of his family. "One must honour the Truth".

Soaring, is a fantastic story with a touch of magical realism. Forty year old, badly pockmarked Hong Xi marries to a beautiful YanYan, in exchange for his sister to Yanyan's brother, a mute. However, the marriage wasn't one he hoped for, as the bride took off from his house and jumped and flew over the village, from one tree to the other, free like a bird to escape the marriage, refusing to come down despite the plea from him and the villagers, until she was brought down by the village policeman's rifle. Iron Child is an ironical story about a young boy living by eating pieces of iron, during the "great leap forward" campaign, in possible satire on over industrialisation while the country is in famine. "Cure" on the other hand is too visually compelling, forced to witness the mass execution by the authorities, a young boy and his father waits below the bridge for falling bodies to extract the 'gall' from the corpse as a cure for his ailing grand mother. 'Love story', about a city educated young girl forced to labour at the farm collectives, having a affair with a younger boy. "Abandoned Child" is about female infanticide, a larger social and political issue due to the strict one family one son policy. A story relevant in the present day India ( especially Haryana and Punjab and to a lesser extend Tamil Nadu), trying to get the attention of the people to one of the most 'disturbing' trends in the modern era. Restricted to having one child per family, young people abandon or murder new born babies, if they are born with any defects or if they are girls ( preference to male child).

'Shen Garden' is one of the story which stand out  and is my pick from this collection. The most recent story of the book, this is a poignant account of a middle aged couple ( either divorced or separated for a long time), coming to terms with their life's dreams and compromises.  Story starts with two middle aged man and woman, sitting in the bakery, having referential, trivial one sided conversations. We can gather that they are not together and the relation is already cracked. Both will move their own way in the evening ( a reference of an eight 'O clock train) not likely to meet again. Its all of a sudden she demands "I'd like to visit Shen Garden". Shen Garden might be the symbolic of their good times. Its a place where they wish to be together. As we understand from his expression, Shen Garden is not in Beijing, but in Zheijiang province . Nonetheless, they set out for the garden, the Yuanming garden in Beijing.

'This isn't my Shen Garden' she said. "You're wrong, this is your Shen Garden". He felt like a stage performer. In a tone of voice pregnant with meaning, he added, 'Of course, it's my Shen Garden too. It's our Shen Garden."

The royal gardens of China are an attraction by themselves. Having visited many, I can vouch for their effect and impact on the visitors. A place of calmness and serenity among the hubbubs of the crowded city life, the rich vegetation and green surroundings. When they entered the garden it was raining and the place was deserted. The rain lashed on them and their life. The weather is changing, it rained out and the rainbow is in the horizon,  swinging the mood of the couple. She was hopping around like a girl and shouting and the joy was infectious. Mo Yan writes,
"Without being aware of it, they had drawn close together, as they gazed intimately into each other's eyes. No evasions or sidesteps, no hesitation or wavering; first their hands joined naturally, and then they fell just as naturally into each other's arms. They kissed."

Mo Yan derives the characters and his subject from his childhood days( except may be Shen Garden). The intense fragrance of the province in the sixties is visible in each of the tale. The hardship, the ability to look at them and laugh ( as the title story reminds us) and the resilience, which are characteristics of the people comes out strongly through these stories. Its a clever mix, of some hard hitting social issues , few fantastical stories, a fabulous love story. Mo Yan, writes beautifully and they are rich in imagery and deep in content. Even a preachy story like 'abandoned child' has the elements of a good story telling. The translation is smooth and the selection is well thought out. May not be the best of Mo Yan, but are very important and reflective of the resources of this writer , the world recognised through the Nobel Prize.

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh(2001 )

Mo Yan ( translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt in 2001)

Arcade Publishing

224 Pages
New internationalist, NY Times

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Satantango - László Krasznahorkai

Almost two year ago, I finished reading 'Melancholy of Resistance' and was in awe of this writer. The book wasn't easy to get into, for its long sentences, the super slow narration and the general bleakness of the subject. He has an uncanny knack of creating the eery atmosphere around which grows into you, and will constantly keep you disturbed until you finish reading ( and even after you closed the book). The break down of the system, the near apocalyptic events, the town/village caught in the whirlpool of the event and the general feeling of something else is behind all these occurrences who is omnipresent but invisible. Bela Tarr's adaptation followed the writer to the precise. His first ever novel is now available ( well, over an year now released in 2012) which supposed to have established Laszlo Krasznahorkai as one of the leading writers of the world in the current generation.

Satantango, has the similar voice and surroundings as in the case of Melancholy of resistance. The same isolated town/village, the slow uncovering of events , the helpless inhabitants being guided by unknown force, lead to their sad end, the collapse of the system, the visible decay of everything under the sun as well as the imminent disaster that is expected to befall at any time. The same eeriness, the same uneasiness the same helplessness which I am familiar seems to have originated from here.  If it was the mysterious circus company that was haunting the people in 'melancholy' , it was the arrival of Irimias, whom people thought is dead already, to their hamlet causing all that trouble. The 'estate' where a dozen or so families live (includes a mechanic, a headmaster, a doctor, and a couple of village whores), is a farmers collective, which is in clear decay. As few smart people are prepared to receive whatever compensation they can obtain for their cattle and move to places where they can re-build their life leaving the rest of the peasants to their fate, the cunning, devilish charm of Irimias, casts his spell on them. 

In an awesomely beautiful opening the book starts with the signs of imminent danger.

"One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells"

The novel starts with a plot be few inhabitants to escape with the money they have, but the plan was shelved with a news of the expected arrival of Irimias to the estate. There seems to be the intelligentsia at work with a clear plan to quell this movement ( as we witness in the meeting of Irimias and Petrina with the State Security in the initial chapter).  They are apprehensive of his motive but are , at the same time, hoping that he will come to their rescue, as he had done once before, prior to his absence( as people thought of him as dead). As one after other vying to get on the better side of him, offering themselves under his mercy to find a way out of this place, Irimias does what he is assigned to perform, despite few occasional moments of self doubt.  As he arrives at the estate after a long walk in the rain ( the rain is omnipresent through out the events, not as a witness, but as a catalyst), to an exhausted crowd of drunken and fallen peasants, after 'stantango' a treacherous nonstop dance orgy, with the news of the death of the young girl Esti, driven to suicide by the estate people themselves. In a remarkable chapter ( Heavenly vision or Hallucination) we witness the resurrection of the dead child ( exactly on the third day of her death) causing all sorts of visions of apocalypse to the trio ( Irimias, Petrina and the young brother of Esti, who joins them on their pursuit). Though Irimias reject the vision - “It doesn’t matter what we saw just now, it still means nothing, Heaven? Hell? The afterlife? All nonsense.” -  the other two aren't very convinced. In the meanwhile, guilty as accused for the girls death, the villagers give all their savings, before setting off to the Manor, for further instruction. With all their money in possession, Irimias and Petrina, leaves for town to appraise the authorities, and to plot and scheme larger things :“the network, that enormous spider web, as woven and patented by me, Irimiás.”

This book has the typical style of Krasznahorkai, long sentences, no paragraph breaks and descriptive narrative style with extreme slow action. His ability to get into the characters thoughts emotions to the minutest details. Split into two parts of six chapters each ( I to VI ascend in the part 1 and VI to I descend in the part 2) the first one awaiting the arrival of the devil ( or the prophet depending on how you want to look at it) and the other on the aftermaths of the arrival of Irimias and Pertina. Krasznahorkai does not give any clear indications or references to the overall moralistic view of the book. It can be a bit confusing, and mind boggling at times. One can deduce their own interpretations or assumptions as he deem fit. The writer himself does not give any further explanation as he says this in an interview, “The reader must content themselves with these lone concrete, but vague, indications, quite simply because what I describe…can happen anywhere."

The book was written and published before the fall of the communist regime in Hungary. There are suggestions that this might have targeted on the decay of the system and the clever manipulation of the individuals by the authoritarian system. Any direct references would have made the book shelved under cold storage, and hence the setting has to be clever with a symbolic or fantastic place. Irimias and Petrina ( the henchman) represents the devilish arms of the state trying to subjugate the hapless citizens.

The book published long ago ( in 1985) , is also made into a 7hr 40 minute long movie by Bela Tarr. The movie notorious for its overall length, shot in black and white, deploys mostly long shots ( of 14-15 minutes each) is considered as one of the great movies ever produced. Someone joked that for a change the reading of the book will take lesser time than to watch the movie. At times, it is easy to see that his novels are written with this in mind. It progresses from one frame to the other with clear visual and characteristic elaboration at each frame ( page or chapter). The writing is stunning and breathtaking at many places. The narration is brisk, despite the slow actions that emerge. The rain itself plays out a major part in the events ( 'fall at once, in one sack full') and the estate is 'stinking yellow sea of mud' due to this. His characterisation is impeccable, the novelistic vision is intact, the perspective is complete from every characters point of view. One of the best writers on the contemporary literature, with a unique style and narrative voice. Outstanding writer and brilliant piece of literature.

Satantango ( 1985 )

László Krasznahorkai ( translated from Hungarian by Georges Szirtes in 2012)

Atlantic Books

276 Pages
NY Books, Words without Borders, Bookslut, Guardian, Three percent, NY Times