Friday, January 31, 2014

Thousand Cranes - Yasunari Kawabata

Its time to read Kawabata again, revisit all those previously read works again to reiterate my belief and to refresh the memories. I did read snow country last month, and now "thousand cranes". The rest of the works will be in line for a re-read. I carry a fond memory of reading Kawabata ages ago. The entire process of re-reading begun after "Beauty and Sadness", which to me was very ordinary. As a reader you grow over the years and the taste become more polished or finer and many of the books you liked earlier, fails to impress me any more. However, both my second reads of Kawabata , not only restored the faith, but was able to appreciate them with the inherited wisdom of experience.

A short novel of guilt, love, seduction and deception, in the backdrops of tea ceremonies and shattered dreams and plans ( and the precious tea cups, symbolically). Twenty five year of Kikuji, trying to fight the past  of the memories and guilt as well as the cunning plans of his fathers mistresses to have their control over him. Kikuji inherited his father vast wealth, post his death. A well respected man, with finesse tastes, collector of ceremonial cups for the Tea functions, and also some one managed more than one mistress while he was alive. This short novel begins with one of his father's mistress Chikako, inviting him for a tea ceremony, only to realise that the pretext behind this was an ulterior motive of a potential match-making.  Cleverly positioning Inamura Yukiko, along with him during the function to play the role of a collaborator. Spoiling her manipulations by arriving at the function was Mrs.Ota, another mistress of his father, with whom he spent majority of his days,  and her daughter Fumiko arriving at the function uninvited. The game of one-upmanship between the mistresses continue as they fight their way to his life.

Kikuji has to endure and carry the guilt of his fathers past, through his mistresses. The girl with the thousand crane kerchief ( he remembers Inamura girl though this symbol and not through her face or character) and the daughter of Mrs Ota ( who is much more prudent and possesses self control), are representative of the new generation and can understand the conflict and difficulties Kikuji is trying to overcome. The real tussle is between the mistresses. One who did not win his fathers favours in bed but was mostly used as an accomplice, and the other, probably younger and better looking who continued to enjoy the favours until the death are now vying to extend their control over the son. Chikako, ugly with a large birth mark spread across half of her breast ( a distant memory remained with Kikuji, which he happens to witness as a young boy) with her poisonous , manipulative acts of taking control and the other by trying to lure the young one into her fold by seduction, and committing suicide out of guilt. The two girls and Kikuji had to face the consequences of the designs of the rivalry, which distance them from one another instead of making alliances and prospective marriage.

The rituals and culture play a major part in Kawabata's works. The concept of thousand cranes ( though not directly referred here) is a Japanese tradition of folding 1000 origami cranes for getting their wishes fulfilled. The 'tea ceremony' again so much of part of the Japanese psyche, which we see in the book going through a deterioration from generations to the next. An event, once very close to his fathers heart, a pride and prestige, a symbol of aristocracy with well preserved and maintained vessels and utensils, are to Kikuji and the new generations are mere curios. One can sense his unhappiness in being forced to participate. The function he would like to conduct in his house, is as a respect to his father, a respect to the past, and not something for the current. These cultural and traditional undercurrents along with the landscape, be it the snow peaked mountains, the flourishing valleys or the changing seasons. The book will have to be absorbed including these vivid and marvelous settings. There are  strong undercurrent of traditions and social stigma in all of his works. Hence the mere story of love and deception, seduction and manipulation, guilt and conscience has a different meaning and values in his novels. Under a calm narrative of simple tale, lies the turbulent currents attributed to these subtleties. Which is why he is one of the masters of 20th century literature.

Thousand Cranes ( 1952 )

Yasunari Kawabata ( translated from Japanese by Edward G.Seidensticker 1958 )

Penguin Classics

91  Pages
Wiki, Complete Review,

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The View from Castle Rock - Alice Munro

Typically, I read the newly crowned Nobel Laureate, during November or December, if they aren't in my familiarity zone. I did not have to do that for a Saramago or a Llosa or Mo Yan as they weren't new to me when they were chosen for the award. But as for the current laureate,  I haven't read any book of Alice Munro, barring a couple of stories published in New Yorker. For various reasons, the customary reading (of Nobel Winner) has split into the new year, and on a collective suggestion and a group reading choice,  The View from the Castle Rock, was decided.

Being the first writer  known only for writing  'short stories', to be a Nobel Laureate, it did attract a higher attention and expectation. The inside Cover specifically mentioned it as 'stories'. The book, however, is a progressive narrative of her own family, spanning over three centuries and two continents. As they say, one can always look at sources closed to us for inspiration, hence the vast number of 'autobiographical' or 'semi-autobiographical' writing in literature field . Alice Munro does exactly that, looking back at her family's history , from her great great grandfather to her step mother in a captivating, touching collection of stories.  The book read like a novel to me, than a collection of short stories. A seamless narrative , chronologically progressed, albeit not in continuous sequences, leaving gaps in the story, space and time. 

From the small Islands of Scotland, Alice starts her tales, of survival, of migration to greener pastures, intricacies of family connections and incidents and anecdotes. Set in two parts, part one,  the family's journey from Ettrick Valley in Scotland to North America, and part two in the new lands and the later generations of her family. I personally liked the initial parts The back yard search for the clues and stories about the ancestors, few prolific ones, and the threading of these various anecdotes into a seamlessly woven story form was marvelous. I am not as enthused in the later part ( especially towards the end) , where the narration tends to be a bit disjointed. A bit of triviality takes over. The later part has a lot more personal experiences and more autobiographical in nature. The first part is more adventurous, the quest for hints and connecting dots, bringing few interesting characters of the Islands. The plan and the dream of the new land, the metaphorical "View from the Castle Rock" to the new world.

This is one of my first reading of Munro and I was talking about this being a progressive stories as in novel vis-a-vis a collection of short stories. I argued that a random reading of one of the stories in the middle, probably will have a lesser impact, as against reading these stories as a collective. I was told that she tends to play along these lines and the narration often breaches the boundaries of the novel and short story.  Characters , places and events apparently pops up repeatedly in the other collections as well.

I would look at the two parts separately. Part one, largely based on the snippets of information she gathered during her visits and from various mentions in the old documents. She stich together a compelling story, enriched with beautiful imagery, characterisation ( build up from the data available) and fixing the missing links. This part which has more fictional element is fabulous, and a creation of a worthy hand. The second part, largely autobiographical and contemplative has lesser amount of fictional element, but more of internalisation of her own life and observations. The energy of her ancestors is derived into the later part, but these two remain different and in contrast in many aspects.

The terrain and the place has a large part of participation in her stories. These stories are all of limited scale and scope. Largely around relationships, confined within the family or short extensions in a few cases. There is a sense of intimacy, a closeness, a dependency of mutual existence. The gradual demo graphical and geographical changes in the landscape , minute observations of the changes in the living conditions et all are carefully handled through the stories.  Beautiful passages, meditative, emotionally deep story telling and fabulous control over language makes this a great read.
The View from Castle Rock ( 2006 )

Alice Munro

Vintage Books

349  Pages
Wiki, Guardian, NY Times, Quill & Quire

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

Dictator novels, as a genre begun probably with Asturias, 'The President'. It is, however, came into prominence as a genre in the late sixties and early seventies with the a flurry of novels ( 10 novels written by 10 prominent writers ) from some of the leading writers in the Latin America. The political systems and the vibrant literature scene gave us some of the best novels of the 20th century. Garica Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, Alejo Carpenter's Reasons of the State, Roa Bastos' 'I the Supreme' were some of the highlights of this series. Mario Vargas Llosa's "Feast of the Goat' published late in the 2000, was one of the last of the series belonging to the Dictator fiction group. Most of the Latin America, by then was returning to democracy. 90s and the new millennium saw a similar influx of such novels from Africa ( Snakepit from Moses Isegawa for example) and a few from Europe ( Inquisitor's manual of Antonio Lobo Antunes, few of the works from Saramago, Kadare) came during the same time. Asia, by far was lagging here, not because of the lack of dictatorship in these part of the world, but most of the writers were limited themselves to writing anti-establishment novels , but not something that can be classified as a 'dictator novel'.  Mohammed Hanif's fictionals attempt on the death of General Zia Ul-Huq of Pakistan, to me, is one that can considered to be one that can be kept along with the earlier mentioned books.

Gen Zia, the military ruler of Pakistan for over 11 years after a coup that dethroned a democratically elected regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was killed in an air crash on the 17th of August 1988. The flight carrying him and 11 of his top brass of military leaders along with the US Ambassador, disappeared from the control radar soon after take off from Bahawalpur in Punjab after his inspection of a tank parade. There are various conspiracy theories that went around for a while, but none were clearly established. The case is closed with no clear evidence, apart from few murmur in the local circuit.

Mohammed Hanif, rebuilding the days preceding the events with his own version. Building through the eyes of the narrator, Ali Shigri,  a junior officer in the Pakistani Airforce Academy, he cleverly threads the story around the hidden fortress of the country's dreaded president, military and intelligent nexus and their internal struggle for supremacy. Ali Shigri's father, an erstwhile colonel with the Pakistan Army, involved in leading the country's engagements in the Afghan War, where his country and the CIA supporting the Mujahideens of Afghan, managed to send the Soviets packing. However, he was found hanging from the ceiling fan, on one morning, a case which was concluded as suicide, left Ali convinced that this has involvement of some of the high authorities in the regime. Seeking his revenge for his fathers death Ali, joining the Air force Academy, training under an American Instructor.

Hanif Mohammed, try to explore the possible angles to the conspiracy theories, by expanding various simultaneous threads, culminating on the final event, with no possible conclusions. His attempt is not to establish the truth behind the conspiracy theory, but to take the readers through the journey of possibilities, and the inner life and political power struggles within the regime. The brutal force of the Military and the Intelligentia, the looming threat on the leader, the secret and definite plots to eliminate potential threats within the regime, the constant distrust among the top leaders, the larger global interest and manipulations by the World Power, the isolation of the rulers and the ruled, the vast gulf between the make belief and the real issues at the ground level ( Gen Zia, experience one by himself while attempting a disguise , but not before the alert spy network tracked him and put him back at ease) and  the idiosyncrasies of the leader himself are something that get the readers hooked to this book.

Most of the description and narrative conforms to the general believes, of any regime. Torture chambers, inhuman treatment, the propagandists, putting up the show of solidarity and national interest in front of the leader and the visiting dignitaries, the cruel business interests of the corporates, the general distrust , the portrayal of the leader as someone with his own ridiculous habits and mannerisms, the peep into his domestic life ( an object of terror to the nation turns to be a voiceless, powerless husband) and many similar scenes that one is familiar with such books do appear aplenty.  Running in two parallel threads, one focusing on the General and his paranoia about his safety ( Code Red protection) and his constant fear of the attempt on his life and the episode focussing on the narrator Ali Shigri, his capture, interrogation, torture, solitary confinement and subsequent release, thanks to a change of handle of ISI by a clever move by the General Zia ( in an attempt to remove the power of one of his potential conspirator).  The section on General Zia in general was funny, often ridiculous, caricaturing him as close to a clown in some places. However, the other thread was more profound and with a lot more intensity.

I seems to have liked the book, probably because my initial expectation was very low. The book is partly political satire, and partly a murder mystery and on conspiracy theory. The subject is a bit tricky as he has to introduce fictional characters to the real life people. It has to ride the fictional path, but abiding to the real life events and characters. The risk of drawing parallels of the fictional characters to the real life characters ( the ISI chief Kiyani in the book, is probably one such, but in the novel he joins the ill-fated team in their last journey) always a possibility. The writing is brisk and precise. The pacing is a bit uneven, probably because of the dual threads that run parallelly.  Impressive read.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes  ( 2008)

Mohammed Hanif

Random House

377  Pages
Wiki, NY Times, The Guardian

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Infatuations - Javier Marias

It's a reader's superstition, to begin the new year with a weighty book, that set the new year of reading on. I have been lucky in the 3 previous years having started the year with some brilliant books/writers.  Jose Saramago in 2013, Laszlo Krasznahorkai in 2012 and Roberto Bolano in 2011. This year begun with Javier Marias, and it puts me at ease with the outcome. 'All souls' was the only other book I've read before and I was always wanting to read more of Marias. Regularly in the speculation for the next Nobel Winner, the general praise for the writer and this book in particular, made my anticipation high even before the start of the read. I should say, I am rewarded for my selection.

It's those trivial and chance encounters in life, that reveals a great deal of personal realizations to you. Many things happen in life without we giving enough attention to it. They become a news item, a conversation in a gathering and soon forgotten. However, some of such have a larger impact in one's life involuntarily. As destiny drives us, you become part of these chance encounters, and its repercussions.

Maria Dolz, middle aged woman, works with a local publication, used to seeing an elegant couple having break fast in the Cafe she frequent. Then one day, she stops seeing them in their usual place. The curiosity did not  last long, as she discovered from the news paper about  the murder of the husband, a wealthy man named Miguel Desverne.  She offers her condolences to the wife Louisa Alday, out of courtesy, where she meets Miguel's best friend, and Luisa's new possible companion, a very handsome man, called Diaz Varela. No marks for guessing, of Maria's infatuations and a steamy affair with Dias Varela, soon after the encounter.

The questions that now arise for Maria is what is Dias Varela's relationship with Louisa and to Maria herself.  In a spurt of jealousy, Maria build her own possibilities and scenarios of Dias Verla's relationship and her interests and the potential benefits to both. The question moves towards the potential hand of Dias Varela, in the death of Miguel and her own part in the whole affair. As the questions of love, hate, sex, life, friendship and death is the theme Javier Marias examines after the initial pages of setting up the plot.

As these questions are asked and the possibilities are opened in front of Maria, as she inadvertently being part of the whole scheme, with no possible escape, she tries to find answers to various aspects of life and death.  And slowly and steadily, a rather silly murder by an addict turns to a cleverly planned and executed crime. Now the larger question of the rights and wrongs of the death. What if the deceased himself had planned for his death, and arranged everything in advance. What is the involvement of his close friend in helping him in executing his desire. When will one decide to stop fighting the illness and decided to call it quits ? Would you take your family into confidence before you decide on your fate or would you let them make believe in a random murder. Who is guilty and who is innocent ? What is the guilt shared by Maria herself ? Is she, now being aware of the crime, responsible to inform the wife and the authorities ? Does she have the physical proofs or the moral rights ? Javier Marias, leaves us with more questions and many possible answers threading the paths of existentialism, spiritual and philosophical encounters. It confronts us, disturbs us and shakes the fundamental beliefs. 

Dias Varela, cites literary examples from Balzac's 'Colonel Chabert ',  Shakespeare's Macbeth and Dumas' 'three musketeers' in justifying the events. In Balzac's novel, the dead soldier returns to haunt the survivors (including his wife) as the dead Miguel continue to haunt Varela. Varela quotes from Dumas'  "A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny,The trouble with murder is that it's always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed.". However, taking refuge in Dumas' again, he chorus the words  "A murder, nothing more.".

Marias is a master with his words. The narrative is built slowly, and before you blink, you are in the thick of the things, often participating in the crime by yourselves. A typical murder mystery, given a new meaning by his intelligence and masterly creativity. This book is not intend to stir you in your seats, wanting you to get to the end of the mystery. The plot by itself is slow and does not necessarily give a definite answer, but a possibility.  "The truth is never clear, it's always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it."

His character leaves us with these thoughts, which in a way summarises my reading experience:
"It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”
Fabulous book, very intense albeit slow and deliberate, very engaging and thoughtful making it a great reading.
The Infatuations  ( 2012)

Javier Marias  ( translated from Spanish by Margeret Jull Costa 2013)

Hanish Hamilton

346 Pages
Guardian, NPR, Paste Magazine, NY Times, The Globe and Mail