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