Sunday, July 28, 2013

Waiting for the Barbarians - J M Coetzee

Every occupation has few common traits. It does not matter whether it's man versus nature, or man versus man. Once you set foot in a new land, its the struggle over the resources with the rest. The concept of co-existence is not known to us. We need complete control over the territory and all that it an bring us. Once you are in, then you set about conquering more and more, by encroaching into what belongs to the others. Every occupation, since the beginning of the world, or from when we have the documentary evidence, is followed the same pattern. The inhabitants of the land is driven away, by force ( most of the times) or by crooked action of cheating them. The indigenous population, not familiar with  the ways of the visitors, with their life style in perfect harmony with the universe, is now subjected to the new ways of the foreigner.  Every act of rebel, is quashed with force, by means of humiliation, torture and killing. The action is justified under various pretexts. Religion and God ( those who does not follow my God is a Pagan and uncultured),  education and culture or the approval of the authority ( empire). Even after many centuries, these fears continue to torment man-kind across the universe.

Waiting for the Barbarians, brings this fear into light. In an unnamed colony, the new occupants spread their holdings by expanding their territory by driving away the 'barbarians'. The imminent threat on the population of this border town, from the attack of barbarians continue to be the point of discussion. On the directive of the Empire, new forces are deployed to hunt and bring them to 'justice'. The expedition, mostly unsuccessful, manages to bring a few 'fugitives' as a catch. They are subjected to all those inhuman torture and abuse, and put in jail, until they perish.

On this small frontier town, the Magistrate, had been running the state of affairs for decades now, under the constant threat of war between the Official forces and the Barbarians. However, with the arrival of new sets of specialist officers for interrogation, His sympathy takes a turn towards those who were at the receiving end. His rescue of a violated girl, blinded by the interrogators, rejected and left for survival by her comrades, forced to live by begging in the street gets him on the wrong books of the Empire. The relation, kindled hidden desires in the old man, only to be satisfied with the local prostitute, gets into a strange affair of love ( very physical but not sexual) . Later,  under his authority and his ability, he decides to take her back to her people, travelling into their territories, meeting their leader and leaving the girl to her members of the clan. It did not take long for him to be named an enemy of the state and put under arrest and a subject to torture ( not physically, though). Under solitary confinement,  with more and more arrests and torture of the 'barbarians' , he confronts the authorities in public.

As time passes, the Empire, under the torments of waiting and their failure to capture the 'tyrants' make their retreat, leaving the town people to fend for themselves. Now back on control, the Magistrate, lead the remaining inhabitants, in their wait for the imminent attack, helpless, abandoned.

All the symbols of the colonialism is present here. The religion, the use of power, the need to exhibit control by all means. As the interrogator puts it. ''First, I get lies, you see -this is what happens - first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth''.

The eternal struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, the tense atmosphere there of ( Its the scare that is driving people and not the action) is brought out fabulously by the Nobel Laureate. The story has no specific place or time. Its universal and is beyond time and space. Its the same with man and nature/wild. The recent news about animals ( elephants / leopard) entering human settlements in Mysore, Bangalore, many parts of Kerala can be read along with this.

Coetzee, deploy some clever signals in here. The language for example is very interesting. collecting the wooden engraves of the inhabitants. the Magistrate tries to find the meaning of their words and a glimpse into their way of living. He even tries to interpret them , in his own mocking ways to the authorities, but  realises that language can be a powerful tool under occupation and he don't 'understand' his own people despite speaking the same language.

Under a fairly simple narrative, a very deep, fundamental questions on civilization. Profound and master class.

Waiting for the Barbarians ( 1980)

J M Coetzee

Vintage Books

170 Pages
Wiki Entry, NY Times, Academia.Edu,

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Maidenhair - Mikhail Shishkin

I am not very well acquainted with the contemporary Russian Literature. Couple of read of Akunin did not really made me wanting to read more, from a country which ruled the world literature scene over 150 years ( probably the best after the Victorian era English). Mikhail Shishkin's name came up in few discussions with lavish praise by many, during last year and continued with the English translation of his Maidenhair. I was trying to get hold of this book for a while ( there are a few more in similar lights) and I would say, the experience was beyond what was expected.

It's been two weeks since I finished reading this and I realise it is not very easy to write about this book. A bit complex in structure, drifting narrative through out, often confusing the reality with fantasy, the political and social undercurrent within the historical perspective and the authors deliberation over the theme makes it a complex read, often demanding a re-read of few pages in the process. Its in this intensity lies the success of this book.

The book constructed around a Russian Interpreter working for one Peter at the Swiss Migration Service , also working on a biography of an aging Russian singer.  Translating and hearing the asylum seekers, as expected, of stories of their life what really happened, or stories that are created for the moment, the tales of despair of hunger, lust and of survival, gets to the pages as transcripts. Adding to this, the interpreter's own creation of stories, of his on deliberations ( to himself) often in the form of questions ( a single question lasting many pages) blurring the division of questions and answers in its form and content. On his part, he himself is trying to re-build his life through his own experiences , including his attempt to rescue his own troubled marriage , in the streets of Rome which he recounts in the form of letters to his son, "Nebuchadnezzasaurus". The stories of asylum seekers move from accounts of soldiers from Afghan, the rebels of Chechnya, people abandoned their own family, the references and recommendations, the images they carry within themselves, often find it difficult to explain without breaking down, the clever intelligent types who work their way through the story telling, often ending up with the same result of rejection.

On a parallel narrative, often mixing with the interpreted transcripts, is the biography under preparation from the diary of the Singer ( Isabella), which he is entrusted to write. The diary staring from the early years of 20th century, prior to the Russian revolution, reproduced in the exact form ( with missing pages, years) of a young teenage girls infatuations, to her growing up years as a singer ( loosing her voice and recovering), who survived revolution, famine, world war and the dissolution of Soviet Union to her own personal battles with voice, the separation of parents and her own multiple failed affairs which she reproduces with no self pity through out the diaries.

The main narrative, continue around the question and answer session at the "Gates of the Paradise" with Peter, the Swiss Official ,'the master of fate' whose job is to evaluate the applicants , trying to prevent those with dubious history from passing through. The existential question about the truth versus lie ( but since you can't clarify the truth, you at least need to clarify the lie) , of fact versus fiction ( Those speaking may be fictitious, but what they say is real. Truth lies only where it is concealed) , of life versus death ( Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air). will be at the hands of Peter, or rather the interpreter. The stories are about memory ( most times of memory you wants to forget ) of those who ask questions and of those answer. Hence the questions interpreted, not necessarily by Peter, become reminiscence of the interpreter himself blurring the divide between himself and those at the opposite side.

It isn't an easy read. The structural complexities of the novel, the dreamy narrative drifting in abandon through the pages which leaves you in a state of intoxication at times, the shifting time and space through out the pages and his different voice make it a demanding read. There are many historical references, of Afghan and Chechen accounts of the soldiers, the references to Persian myths and the erstwhile soviet regime adds to the intensity of the overall impact of the book.

To me this is a work of a genius and despite the vigil and focus the book demands, it is highly rewarding at the end. Outstanding work of fiction , translated brilliantly by Marian Schwartz, a book you read as if you are going through a dream.
Maidenhair ( 2005)

Mikhail Shishkin ( translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz 2012 )

Open Letter

506 Pages
Other reviews : Dallas News, World Literature Today, Words without Borders, BookslutThree percent

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jahanara - Lyane Guillaume

Mughal Emperors ruled northern part of India over 300 years, and their fall was along the time of the raise of British empire in India. Descendants of  Gengis Khan and Timur, came into India through the Khyber Pass, after conquering the Khandahar and the northern part of current Afghanistan, before moving south-eastern direction and setting up their regime in India.  Mughal rule is a significant development in the development of Modern India in many aspect. The spread of the Islam religion, the greying bifurcation of the Hindi heartland and the South, the consolidation of the geography under one administrative rule ( the earlier instance probably was at the heights of the Magadh) and the prevention of the European dominance in India during their time.

However, the handing over of the reign to the next in line wasn't smooth in most of the cases, especially towards the end. The cruel infighting amongst the siblings, resulting in death of all but the survivor, who ascends to the throne , the large scale massacre during the power transfer, the cleansing of the potential threats, even if they are your own family were the virtues of the Mughal Dynasty. Akbar, during his tenure made a rule, preventing the daughters of the ruler from marrying, in an attempt to eliminate one threat in the form of son-in-laws and their clan. 

Jahangir, Shah Jahan and later Aurangazeb ( who probably was the last true ruler of the dynasty) all had their own hand dirtied in the murky business of power. Putting their own father in jail, ruthlessly killing their siblings (also their sons in some cases Jahangir, Aurangazeb) destroying immediately those who assisted them to the power and later succumbing to the same fate that they delivered to their elders. Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, educated, clever and intelligent, narrates the events of the two regimes she was to witness.

Despite being confined to the inner parts of the palaces, the daughters of the Mughal emperors shined in various arts and literature. Many were highly read and have contributed and assisted the rule with their intelligent intervention as needed. Nur Jahan, and Gulbadan Begum, the daughter of Babur ( who wrote  Humayun nama) and Jahanara were some of them. Their accounts, documented by them  would later become an important information about the dynasty, for the historians.

Based on the writings of Jahanara,  Lyane Guillaume presents the life of  the Mughal Princess reproduced in an its glory  Written in first person narrative, Jahanara documents the time of Jahangir, where the love stricken emperor, spends most of his time with his mistresses ( with Alcohol and Opium), and the rule was in the hands of his second wife Nur Jahan. The court room politics and the internal struggle for power sees Shah Jahan out of Agra, wandering in the plateau of Deccan as a nomad, gathering support and soldiers for marching towards Agra and capture power. The long eight years of weight and wander almost destroyed the family, before their triumph and  successful return to Agra.

It wasn't long before Shah Jahan lost his wife, and he took solace in the company of his daughter who reminded him of his wife ( the rumour about an incest relationship) . Restricted to the inner walls of the palace, Jahanara recounts her association with people, her many unsuccessful loves, and her tryst to bring harmony among the members of her family. Watching from close quarters, she was the first to recognize the growth of religious fundamentalism within the family and as a result to the empire. Aurangazeb with his hard core religious views threatened the fabric of the tolerance that was the basis of the social behaviour and drive observed by  the previous rulers. Her clever observation and articulation averted many disasters to the family, but she couldn't prevent the in-fight among the brothers. Dara, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, whom she loved dearly and whom she wanted to be the emperor of Hindustan, had to go loose out in the battle. She was such a huge presence in the life of Shah Jahan, Dara and later Aurangazeb ( they reconciled their difference, after Aurangazeb recognised her intelligence and her influence within the palace), supporting them morally and by taking care of the upbringing of the generations of sons and daughters.

One of the best documents of the time of Shah Jahan, the rise and rule of Aurangazeb, Jahanara with her keen power of observation ,intellect and her skill in writing gives the best possible view of the inner turmoil of the empire. Written when she was old, during the regime of aurangazeb, she writes with clear conscience, often critical to herself. She recounts the days of the death of her mother the legendary Mumtas Mahal, the construction of Taj Mahal ( the time of Shah Jahan considered the golden era for architecture ) with some meticulous planning, her and Dara's  connection with Sufism and various religious teachings, her many infatuations ( including the British Doctor who treated for burns) and her intimate relationship with a dancer who later died of burns and her closeness to Dara and her reservations and scare about the young brother Aurangazeb , all of which can be read as in a case of a thriller.

Lyane Guillaume, has done a commendable job in presenting the book, preserving the style and language inspired by the notes and documents of Jahanara written in Persian. The vivid imagery, the clarity of observation and the baroque style of the writing is true to the original. An easy reading, simple and elegant book, translated pretty well into English. Very interesting read, valuable for people with interest in the history and about the Mughal Dynasty.

Jahanara ( 2003 )

 Lyane Guillaume ( tranalated from French by Uma Narayanan& Prema Seetharam 2003)

East West Books ( Madras) Pvt Ltd

299 Pages

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Sunset Limited - Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's play starts before the pages and his writing. A Professor ( identified as White here) is rescued by am ex-convict now on the path of God ( identified as Black), from jumping in front of a speeding train. White is brought to the apartment of Black and he attempt to dissuade him from committing the sin of suicide trying to win him over with his arguments.

White, a propagator of meaninglessness in the life. Margining towards the 'existentialist sympathies, he don't see any reason in living which leaves him in despair. Black on the other hand seems to have gone through this and rediscovered faith. An ex-convict, spent time in jail for murder, now spent his time on the ways of God ( a change from the hospital bed, at the verge of loosing his life). Black is convinced that it was that God who got him there and rescued the White from the mouth of death. He believes that its his duty to save White. He is trying to convince White on the power of God as much as White is trying to deny the existence of the same.

The book is a triumph of beautiful word play. Simple and short sentences , yet profound and intelligent. The poise and control over the flow and the artificially created tussle between two forces trying to convince one another with some clever writing. May be this artificiality plays against the book overpowering the creativity of the writer.

There are a lot of possible quotes like this one, mostly from the intellect of White, rather forced many a times.
"I yearn for the darkness. I pray for death. Real death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I've known in life I don't know what I'd do. That would be the ultimate horror. The ultimate despair. If I had to meet my mother again and start all of that all over, only this time without the prospect of death to look forward to? Well. That would be the final nightmare"
At times they were mere words gets to you as very superficial and meaningless. Unless they are intended to covey the hollowness of the Professor. So, is the Christian spirituality from the mouth of Black. "Do you really think your Jesus is here in this room" , "No I don't think he is in this room" "You don't" " I know he is in this room" kind of writing, for example.

I am not sure if this can be considered a major play. Here more than the plot and the dramatical incidents, the dialog seems to be important. Its the words that control the progression. Hence from a traditional 'play' to be staged, this is different. The books says a novel in dramatic form. Even there, one can not draw comparison to "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" by Manuel Puig, where a similar attempt was done to a much better effect. But the other typical qualities of a play, the constant tense atmosphere, the attempt to provoke the reader at every point, the unusual responses we see in the absurdist plays, the minimalism, the silences are pretty good . What is also good about this book is the deliberation and dual between two forces. The duality of believes, of social and intelligent levels ( which often shifts places as the play progresses) and the indicative colors of Black and White, the use of accent and the words.
The Sunset Limited ( 2006 )

Cormac McCarthy


143 Pages
Wiki Entry, The Telegraph

The Hunger Angel - Herta Müller

" I know you will return"

This book came out in 2009, the year she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, adding on to her status as a phenomenal writer. The English translation, however, came only after three years and for a the impression that one carried from all those rave reviews are not un-founded. She has a distinct voice. The voice is not of complain or bad taste. It has a sense of detachment to it, despite the nature of the plot and subject of her novel. I have read only one other book, "the land of green plums", the same year she won her Nobel and was impressed with this writer.

17 year old Leo Auburg was deported to the Soviet Labour Camp, picked up from Romania with their advance towards Berlin towards the end of the WW II.  As a part of "re-building" the nation, from  the destruction during the WW, Soviet Union, needed labour to help them in their effort .The German speaking inhabitants from the liberated area, were sent to the Gulag for 5 years of forced labour. 

Leo, attracted to men and started discovering his sexuality, at the park pavilions, the neptune baths and elsewhere.  But, "every rendezvous could have landed me in prison. Minimum 5 years, if I had been caught". But that was not needed.  "I was on the Russian's list. And that was that".   "It was three in the morning, on the fifteenth of January, 1945, when the patrol came for me. The cold was getting worse; it was -15 C".  Leo, spent his next 5 years in a coke plant, shoveling coal, mixing cement and other trivial work in a camp shared by many like him.  "I know you will return" was the departing words of his grand mother.

Reminiscence of the trip to the concentration camp, packed in the train compartment with no place to stretch, into the cold blue sky, in the dead of winter. A travel lasted 12-14 days with multiple stop. The contingent was deported at the camp site. The rest is as good as one can imagine. All detention camps are the same.  Call them concentration camps, labour camps or Guantenamo. Humiliation, pain, injury, freezing cold,lice, deceases, death are their constant companion. However, instead of the atrocities and the gory images of torture and submission, the narrator focusses his attention on what affect them the most.  As Leo explains, "all you can say about yourself is that you're hungry. If you can't think of anything else. you mouth begin to expand, its roof rises to  the top of your skull, all senses alert for food. When you can no longer bear th hunger, your whole head is racked by pain..your cheek wither.."

The "Hunger Angel" which torments them through out, made them do all those inhuman things. From robbery, theft, begging, selling coal and themselves ( the women) apart from  other products from the camp in the open market for anything edible, to the random fights within the camp at the eating hall.   "Every person with chronic hunger has his preferred eating words, some rare, some common, and some in constant use. Each person thinks a different word tastes best".  Every interaction, connection and relation has something to do with hunger. "Hunger is an object. The angel has climbed into my brain. The angel doesn't think. He thinks straight."

Driven by hunger, Leo and the rest live the rest of their days. Every thing else is immaterial. The cold, the lice, the cold, or the books that was brought ( whose pages are used for rolling cigarettes and or as toilet paper).  Every thing you do is measured against the food. One shovel of coal equals to one gram of bread. Many perish, few decided to end their own life, but those who survive, carry the hunger into the world they live post release. To be a survivor is also not easy. The days of hardship torments you for ages as we have seen in many holocaust cases. There is nothing to speak, nothing to remember. 'I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words. When I speak, I only pack myself a little differently."

 "The deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania's fascist past." recounts Muller in her afterwords. Her own mother, spent 5 years in one such camp. The book however, is based on another victim, a poet Oscar Pasitor. The idea, she says, was to collaborate and develop into a book. The death of Pasitor, made this a individual effort from Muller, using the notes she wrote from their multiple interaction. While the details of the camp are from Pasitor and her mother's experience, the insight and the language is her own. The gruesome reality and the beauty of the fictional elements have to be managed with some clever handling, which is what Herta Muller has achieved.

Brilliantly crafted and narrated book. Her sparse use of words, the intensity of the subject and narration, the 'monkish' detachment' to her characters and the lyrical prose  makes her one of the best contemporary writers. While, this is very good, I thought "The Land of Green Plums" was a notch better to this one.
The Hunger Angel ( 2009 )

Herta Müller ( translated from German by Philip Boehm 2012 )

Portobello Books

290 Pages
Guardian, Telegraph,,Independent, NY Times