Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Empty Family - Colm Tóibín

I might have started on a wrong book. Colm Toibin has been in the list of writers I wanted to read for a long time But, surely, this wasn't the place to begin, or so I believe. This collection of 9  stories not only disappointed by  this book but surely dampened my interest in reading any more for a while, at least.

As a theme, all these stories are around individuals, living an alienated life from their beloved. They are all wanderers, staying away from their homeland ( in US or Spain ) and all have a lasting longing for their homeland. In many stories, they are all back in Ireland, despite being away, for reasons such as death, that bring them closer to their motherland. All of them are linked to the others through love, desire and in loneliness trying to find their own solace in these passing relationship. Colm Toibin, play with this  basic emotion of the human, in its intimacies, in its subtle, untold but deep expressions in fairly effective way , at times too explicit and repulsive.

The last story of the collection, the longest for more than 60 pages , which talk about homo-erotic relationship among migrant workers from Pakistan in Barcelona, to me is the worst of the lot. Apart from the fact that the love and relationship are between men, it is a silly story fit for a 'bollywood flick'. Take one man out of the triangle and replace with the heroine, it had all the ingredients for a cheap 'masala' movie. Explicit , graphic gay sex scenes aren't my cup of tea. They are galore in this series, and they aren't erotic, but disgusting. One story of a young man trying to take care of his dying aunt ( The color of Shadows), is the only story worth remembering. I thought that, including its fantastic twist at the end, was a good story. Perhaps, "The Pearl Fishers" too, for its attempt to  bring out those moments which are buried deep down in the minds of the three and "the time has come to reveal", the misconduct of the Priest happened years back in their boarding school.

His writing and language is good, and there is no mistake of his capabilities. But this collection of stories, some how, did not live up to the expectations I had on this writer. Barcelona 1975 , about young gay sex party ( well that is all I could gather)(, or 'The New Spain', about a young revolutionary returning back to her family after the death of Franco, from her exile and the earlier said Pakistani story are played out in Spain. Few stories "The Empty Family", "One minus One" and 'Two women' are also fairly ok.  As the plots are centered around the US, Ireland and Spain with some connect to the land distant , the nostalgia, the sense of loss and the alienation continue to take form in every other stories.  But that alone does not make this a great collection of stories. Except for  his control over language, and the continuity of the theme of isolation and loneliness, there is nothing noteworthy in these stories.
The Empty Family ( 2010)

Colm Toibin

Penguin Books

214 Pages
NY Times, Guardian, Oprah , The Telegraph

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Madame Verona comes Down the Hill - Dimitri Verhulst

The village of Oucwègne, set in the middle of three hills has a fast depleting population. People continuously left the village and the cold to cities and many outside the country to far off lands. Now with merely 40 people, the village is to witness the descend of their legendary beauty "Madame Verona" coming down the hill to the village, where she stayed with her musician husband and later alone in the company of the dogs.

This short novel by Belgian born writer, is a cute little tale of love transcends the lives and death. Verona was married to the composer Potter and was moved in to the hills of the village, for he wanted a silent and isolated place to compose. An attraction for the entire village, people longed for the sight of Verona in her youth. Even after the passing away of her husband, who committed suicide hanging from a tree,(instead of suffering from the diagnosed cancer), she did not come down. Monsieur Potter piled up enough fire woods for the rest of her life before taking his own life. However, to the disappointment of the villagers, Madame Verona did not descend, but continued to stay in their hut in the company of dogs ( she had a special gift of attracting them to her) and teaching Piano lessons to her students. She continue to live in the memory of her beloved husband, wanting to immortalise the love by carving a cello from the same tree which took the life of her husband. She had to wait for 20 years for the wood to mellow and be ready to build the Cello. It isn't the ideal wood for cello and she ignored the warning,

"She played. It sounded ugly, but she played. Faure. The pieces she had played with her lover at the Academy, but now her cheeks weren't red....This was how she would do it every evening from now on. She would sit at the window with legs spread and play the cello. An ensemble that wasn't, a duet with absence. Talking to the non-existent, which might be the only correct definition of very deep prayer."
Now at 82, in a cold February, she finally descend from the hill to a deserted village. She came down, after burning the last piece of wood, her husband had stored for her, with her Cello, the only connecting device to her lover, knowing perfectly well that she will have no strength to go back to her attic.

Verhulst writes beautifully, creating an image that is very poignant and vivid. The language is often poetic and in line with the image that is suiting the narration. The story is simple and somber. and a fast read. Nice little tale of enduring love, poetically written. Good , little book for a quick read.
Madame Verona comes Down the Hill ( 2009)

Dimitri Verhulst ( translated from Dutch by David Colmer )

Portobello Books

145 Pages

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Power of the Dog - Thomas Savage

"Deliver my soul from the sword,
My darling from the power of the dog"

Rarely does a book stay with you for long after you finish reading. The after effect of it remain for few days, despite you physically moved on to the next few books. Thus it did take a while to write the impression.  At the outset, the tale is simple and straight forward,  But the characters, one especially, grow on you, as you read on. There is nothing that makes you like this person; on the contrary. But his presence in the pages, in the lives of the rest continue to impress you. The art of writing literature, lies in getting this feel across the readers, by elusive but omnipresent, never been seen as the man in control, but subtly managing these movements in the readers with such clever manipulation. He is a master craftsman.

Set in 1920s in the ranches of Montana, telling a story of two brothers. The elder one Phil Burbank, nasty , arrogant, educated, intelligent and the man in control of himself and his surroundings. The younger George Burbank, timid, though college educated not exhibiting any level of  smartness, usually elusive , less spoken and thus feared by the ranch -helps. The usually predictable , planned through the seasons life and activities in the Ranch is nothing to create any interest in the readers. Their parents are now 'retired' and live in the city seldom visit the ranch, and George reserved continue to live a shadow life, with Phil taking the control over things. However, to this set up comes, a widow and her son.  Rose, after the death of her husband, a doctor,after a showdown with the Burbanks resulting in his suicide later,  run an eating joint to live, where she was befriended by George, who bring her home, soon enough as his wife.

With the presence of the lady the equations within the ranch is disturbed to the displeasure of Phil.  With his indifference, the power which yield over the ranch, manages to make life diffcult to Rose, giving her jitters every time they were in proximity. Every attempt from her for a reconciliation is received with cold shoulders. Without direct contact or actions, Phil is able create the sense of terror in her, drifting her towards alcohol. Phil continue to torment the mother and son, now trying to use the young boy as a pawn in the whole game. As Rose succumbs to Alcohol, and George continue to live his usual life, the terror regime subtly take control. However, the young boy Peter,whom Phil try to take under his wings, to step up the antagonism, has been working on his revenge.

It is this eerie atmosphere he creates with his words, Thomas Savage, delivers a master piece of work.  The book starts itself with the description of a castration.

"Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was little blood. In a few moments the testicles exploded like a huge popcorn."
It is the subtlety, the exact nature of human characteristic, he brings out through this sublime narration. Phil, continue to astonish the readers, and is portrayed brilliantly. The various shades of a genius, his smartness, his education, his cruelty, his subdued homo sexuality ( Annie Proulux in her after words, takes this aspect in much more detail), his solo time with his Banjo and within the tough interiors of a multifaceted man. He is self sufficient, runs and manage and repair every equipment in the ranch, reads and solve puzzles of Scientific American, also brilliant Banjo player, play chess, works along with the rest of the helps as a part of them, but always stay out of the celebrations. He is not interested in women, hence the struggle is not for the lady. Even while his mates celebrates with women post their season, he stay out. Until the arrival of the lady, he always waits for his brother to come back, get to night dress and listen to his heavy breathing. We are not aware of his preferences. The only references we see is his constant recollection of the Mentor, a rancher who taught him the trick of the trade.

The boy, Peter too shows a submissive character through out, allowing the rest of the male members to ridicule him as a 'sissy'. He is unhappy with the way things are and the state his mother is in. He will to be able to confront the mighty ranchers with his feeble body, but he has the genes of his father,  and the vast collection of his medical books. In the stunning last pages we see the triumph of the clever planning and execution of his revenge. There is a reference to the Psalm 22:20, from which the title of this book is derived, and it does convey the essence of the book in a nutshell.

 A brilliant book of complex characterisation and stunning portrayal of the subtle humane nature.  
The Power of the Dog ( 1967)

Thomas Savage

Back Bay Books

293  Pages
The Book Slut

Sivaratri - Chandrasekhara Kambara

"On that night, in Kalyana, nothing was in the right place and right order. None had any trust in others; and each one listened to others with suspicion. Every one's words had two meanings; the apparent and the hidden. On that night, the dark night of Shiva, Kalyana didn't sleep; but it wasn't awake as well, as the rituals required...."

It was the time of great turmoil at Kalyana, the capital city of the King of Bijjala, of Kalachurya dynasty. The man hunt for the Sarana's are at the full swing, after the fall out of Basavanna with the king. The struggle of control, or the changing power equation has made them fall apart. The once trustworthy and beloved minister and the King. Basavanna ( as he is now fondly called) and his clan of Shiva devotees are spreading in size and in influence. Basavanna, himself as established the 'mahamane' ( or big house) and is now a gaining popularity as a social reformer with "his preach against casteism, blind rituals, animal sacrifice and other such social evils".

Chandrasekhara Kambar, one of the masters of Kannada Literature, is turning his attention to the life of 12 century reformist, the leader of Shaiva sects ( the Lingayats) in one of the important events of the history of state. The 6 act play focuses on the manslaughter of the Saranas ( the followers of Basavanna) by the Kings men, and the resulting murder of the King on an eventful day. The build up through various insignificant events through out the evening, the play culminates at the place of the local prostitute, whom the King frequent, in a verbal dual between the King and his once trusted minister who turned a foe.

"I can't believe this, Basavanna ! The king anf the respectable minister of the country, meeting each other in the house of a prostitute ! Is this just a coincidence ? Or Does it signify religion and politics coming together ?"

Damodara, son of the court priest was prompted by his father to steal the Gold necklace of the queen from the palace, disguised as a 'Sarana ( desciples of Basavanna). The 6 act play, moves along the gold necklace from place to place as Damodara escapes the guards taking refuge at a Dalit's house, later at the house of the prostitute. The lady refuses to accept the gift as it is not earned by her labour. The visiting King see the lost necklace as the events unfolds. Kambar, managed to compress the historical events into a single night without loosing its significance , despite shifting actual times.

Kambar's skill and craft come at best here. It is a tricky subject and is sensitive in nature. One has to know the historical and religious background of the life and times of Basavanna, to appreciate the play in its power. Kambar uses these symbols cleverly. He builds up the play in shorter acts through the lives of common people, associated with the kingdom or with Saranas. The social structure is changing. Basavanna, defying all the earlier religious norms, encouraged inter caste marriages and social living. The followers of Basavanna is now increasing. It was important for the higher ups in caste and in power to control the growing influence of his people, hence the act of arson and murder. It is to this scene, Kambar turns this mirror towards us, to our present days and era,with clever intentions.
"That's true, My lord. Fresh breeze had begun to blow; and thouse who breathed the fresh air of new life desired change. They declared they were also human. The sacrificial victim got voice and sang 'vachanas'. But your system continued to breathe the same stale air of thousands of years. How can it survive ? Won't you think on these line, my loard?"

The translation (The English translation of this was released in December during the Bangalore Sahityotsava) was smooth for most of the part, and I can guess the difficulties to translate some of the local idioms to English. It did occur a bit vague at places, but was commendable on the whole. The book was written an year ago, and Kambar continue to use the traditional Indian style of Stage act using the time tested methods of old Sanskrit plays of Bhasa and the rest. The "outsiders" ( the mad women in this case), the traditional sutradhara and the vast members of support actors as we see in the plays in India, a vast difference from the modernist drama of the west. As a result, its with large number of cast for this short play, and hence the leading characters Basavanna and the King are thus reduced to a smaller part of the book. Hence, as an act you wouldn't have scope for on stage charisma or improvisation, but as a book, it gives a greater value and strenght to the character of Basavanna, and the importance of the play in the present times.
Sivaratri ( 2011)

Chandrasekhara Kambara ( translated from Kannada by C N Ramachandran )

Abhinava Imprints

116 Pages
The Hindu , The night of Awakening

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Raised from the Ground - Jose Saramago

Call it as a reader's superstition, but you always wanted to begin the year with reading a great book. Last year, it was Laszlo Krasznahorkai with "Melancholy of Resistance" and I had one of the best year, thus far, in reading. To choose the first book of the year was a big task. There are more than 25 books lying in the shelf unread and it wasn't easy to pick one given the above prerequisite. When in doubt, its better to go with the known names, especially one who has not yet disappointed you.
Raised from the Ground was originally published in 1980, and surprisingly, this was not available in English until 2012, two years after his death. This one, apparently was one of the early works of Saramago and gives us the glimpses of the style and narrative voice that we are familiar in his later works, that made him famous. This too employ, long sentences but have a bit more controlled and paragraphed. The narrative voice is continue to be in control, often shifting, and merging with the characters and taking independent observer form most of the times, being omnipresent through out the history.

This is Saramago's vesion of the 20th century Portugal through the 4 generations of the fictional family Mau-Tempo. From the first decades of the 20th century until the fall of Salazar's regime is in discussion here through life of the Southern Portugal peasants and workers. The word "Mau Tempo" means "bad weather", trying to give the indication of the times the family has lived through. The World Wars, the famine, the raise of Salazar's regime, the elections, the resistance movement that attracted many a workers, the arrests and torture, the fall of the regime and the new Portugal have been the subject of the book very cleverly and written with great style and compassionate voice.

The novel begins with a beautiful description of the the drunkard shoe maker Domingoes Mau Tempo and his family ( wife Sara and infant son Joao) arriving at a small town of Southern Portugal, drenched in storm rains and struggling through the dirty muddy road, in search of a living. Domingoes, always a nomad, never able to stay and earn a living in one place, known as a drunkard and wife-beater, did not last long, committing suicide by hanging on a branch of tree. Young Joao, who inherited the blue eye of his ancestor, a German who molested and raped an adolescent girl in the 15th century giving the generations the blue eye, a reminder of the cruel injustice done to them, had to fetch himself for a living at the young age of 10. Finding labour at the land owners, mending sheeps and pigs. The social and political system of Portugal is undergoing a change. The land owners, continue to hold control over the workers and the police. The regime of Salazar is in power. The poor workers, continue to live under famine, illness and at the mercy of the powerful land owners. There are resistive movements inspired by the Soviet revolution. The reflection of the same arrive at their land as well.

The collective forces of the Regime, the land owners, the army and the Church is always oppressive of any raise. There were arrests and torture. Joao, despite his limited involvement gets arrested and tortured. Neither the torture nor the promises manages to shake his resolve. The workers continue to press their demand, making slow progresses amidst the continued interrogation and arrests. The new generation of workers including Antonio, the eldest son of Joao, his son-in-law and the rest now take the leadership. The success is sure to come. Before the imminent, the land owners escape to safer havens, rather than increasing the wages and the other welfare of the workers. We see the occupation of the lands by the workers in the final chapters, distributing among themselves.

While I am not qualified to comment on the historical part of the book, to me this is a significant achievement in bringing out the 20th century Portugal through the life of a common man. When the novel begins, Portugal is not a republic. While the impact is not known, the people seem to rejoice in being a republic, not knowing what does it mean to them. The Republic then falls in the hands of a dictator, who ruled the country for most part of the century. The regime changes to a democracy after a 'revolution' in 1974. When the last of the family member Maria is still in her middle ages. At the outset, these changes are very superficial and deep down to the peasant's life, these have little significance. Their life in poverty and hunger continued through out the decade. Even after the revolution, the land owners leave the country en-masse fearing retaliation from the people, taking away substantial sum of money and all the resources. the spread of revolution itself is slow, and even the participants, did not know they are part of the large movement. When he gets arrested for the second time, Joao was as clueless as he was four years ago. He did not have much information to reveal, and any amount of torture did not get him to speak as he did not know. However progress they make, slowly. They demand minimum wage, and succeed. The working hours, now are eight hours. But all these were possible only after prolonged activities and suffering of a few.

The peasants did not understand why they are not given work. “What kind of world, is this, divides into those who make a profession of idleness and those who want work but can’t get it”. Their life continue to be at the mercy of the land owners to the level of slavery.
The people were made to be hungry and dirty. People who wash regularly are the people who don't work....That is the great thing about this day and age, the sufferers glory in their sufferings, the slaves in their servitude. The beast on earth must remain a beast, who never rubs the sleep from his eyes from moring to night, indeed the dirt on his hands, face, armpits, groin, feet, arsehole must be for him the glorious aura surrounding work on the latifundio, man must be lower than the beast of the field, for they, at least, lick themselves clean,man,however, must degrade himself so that he respects neither himself nor his fellows.
To Saramago's credit, the novel goes beyond the political propaganda. The peasant life, the knowledge of 'latifundo' and its behaviour, the social and political upheaval of the Portugal is handled with a masterly sensitive hand. The reference to the blue eye, symbolizing the injustice done to them for generations and other the use of metaphor ( the ants , the constant representative of the church Father Agemedes etc) appear through out the book. The innocent peasant minds, the subtle changes in the style and language towards the later part, each fabulously and cleverly crafted. Some very moving passages, some explosive revelations, some insightful sentences makes this an astonishing read. The first chapter, the workers life under latifundio, the chapter on the torture and death of the prisoner ( with the ants play a great part of the narrative), the interrogation of Joao, the town meeting and the resulting police action.. there are many memorable scenes of recollection. The often slippery narrator, moving from third person to first person is the only area I was a bit uncomfortable in the whole book.

Very powerful, often with his characteristic humour and a sensitive portrayal of the peasants and workers life in the rural Portugal during the regime by one of my favorite writers of twentieth century. This novel stands along with his other top books ( Gospal according to Jesus Christ , blindness etc). Brilliant..
Raised from the Ground ( 1980 )

Jose Saramago ( translated from Portuguese by Margeret Jull Costa in 2012)

Harvill Secker

387 Pages
NY Times, Guardian, Miguel