Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ten years of Gabo's Solitude and a thanks to Gabo and David Davidar

I have been doing only re-reads this whole month and as the year winds down I realize that it's been a decade since I first read 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude' of Marquez. It may seem unimportant as a time-span to others, but for me the book marked a paradigm shift in my reading and. So the post is more about how I came to read the book, its impact one me than about the work itself.
2001 was quite a watershed year as far as India was concerned. The first boom of IT was over, the highs of the late nineties were ending, Y2K was done and dusted and the the dot com boom had gone bust. 9/11 was just around the corner which would cause even more of an devastating effect. More than the financial impact, I felt and saw more of an emotional impact in a lot of people. For a lot of Indians, for whom getting a job would have been a problem, but once they got a job it meant that they would probably stay in it for their lifetime and where job hopping was considered a bad thing, the recession/lay offs was a rude shock and blow to their emotional state (To digress a bit, in 2008/09 a much severe recession, I saw a marked difference in how people took layoffs as a part of their professional lives and didn't take it as an endorsement of their capabilities). And there I was, a raw professional just out of college, been working for about an year, and caught in the midst of all that uncertainty about work and my professional life. My reading till then was limited to the usual suspects, Grisham, Forsyth, Irwing Wallace etc. 

David Davidar, the then editor of Penguin India used to write a weekly column in the Hindu Sunday supplement. Being interested in books, I would read them regularly, but somehow I never got the inclination to look up the books referred. Maybe it was a kind of perception I had that those kind of books would be hard and difficult to read. Anyway, in one of his columns he referred to 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude' stating that he kept reading the book at least once year, sometimes in full, sometimes specific parts. I myself had been in the habit of reading books like 'Godfather', 'Day of the Jackal' multiple times , but what caught my attention was that I was probably thinking those days that the so called 'difficult' books could not be read more than once, let alone every year like some kind of ritual. So I bought the book and started reading it and I did understand then why David said so. I am not going to say that the book was a kind of panacea to my emotional turmoil of those days, but the book was an outlet to my feelings. Macondo gave me sanctuary, I felt the heat during the siesta of the drowsy afternoons, got drenched by the sudden downpours  which increased the heat, felt sorry for the solitude that was destined to be the fate all members of the Buendia family. In short, my mind was inflamed, it was the closest I had got to rapture while reading a book till then.

But these were emotions while reading the book. The main impact of the book was elsewhere. It was not a moment of epiphany or some such thing. It is something that came to me in hindsight after a few years. To put it in context I have to digress a bit. When I was in kindergarten, my reading solely consisted of comics. I had a irrational mental block about reading books with just printed words. There was a Hardy boys book 'The Voodoo Plot' in my house that I wanted to read, but kept putting off. Then one day I read it and the couple of hours I spent on it opened a whole new world to me. It may seem like overreacting but the book's experience was incredible because I knew then that I didn't need any visual props to enjoy a book.  If 'Voodoo Plot' was my first step into reading books, then Gabo took it to a different level. I think I subconsciously came to the conclusion that one need not worry about whether the book is lengthy, difficult to understand, convoluted/complex etc. Forget all those things. If I was interested in the core subject matter of the book (fiction/non-fiction), it should be given a try, with a bit of patience. Good writing will transcend all the so called complications and open itself to you. Whatever I have read the past decade has been dictated by this mindset and I have only been enriched by it. That has been the greatest impact of 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude'.

It is one those inexplicable things that someone like me from one corner of India had to read a writer from another corner to the world to get a feel of the truly great writing around me, before reading works in my own language and country. It's a testament of the power of good writing that the journey from a fictional Macondo of Gabo to say the Secundrabad of Asokamitran was seamless and didn't feel alien to me. It seemed the most natural thing to do. Thank you Gabo and David for opening my mind to the infinite possibilities available in reading. The only downside to it is that I have realized that even I get a hundred years of solitude I will never be able to read all the books I want to. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Feast of the Goat - Mario Vargas Losa

Given the volatile geopolitical climate in South America, it is not surprising that a lot of writers from there have written about power and it's abuse. Losa's 'The Feast of the Goat' is one of the most unforgettable novels about total power. It's part fiction, based on the reign of 'Rafael  Trujillo', dictator of Dominica and recounts the ordeals faced by the people, the abuse of power by Trujillo and his colleagues, an assassination attempt on his life and it's aftermath. Caught in the midst of all this are the innocent people, who suffer the most.
'Urania Cabral' is 49 and has been living in New York for the past 35 years in self imposed exile from Dominica and has been estranged from her father. The novel begins with her coming back to Dominica and meeting her father who is now an invalid. The novel diverges into 3 narratives at this point, one the present where Urania via a series of monologues with her father recalls the events of the past, the other is the events of a particular day of the regime in the past and the third is the  about a group of people who are waiting to assassinate Trujillo at a particular location. The narratives intersect at a point where we come to know about the reason for Urania's exile and the aftermath of the assassination attempt.
As befitting a dictator, Trujillo is a man drowning in his own hubris, but is realistic enough to know that he has failed on some accounts. His family is a disappointment. The U.S, an ally till about an year ago is plotting to remove him and his sons aren't by his side to help him in his biggest battle. The country's economy is failing. He is incontinent and having prostate problems. But he still is the lord of what he surveys and is determined to fight till the end. Amidst all this, Losa shows us a glimpse of a man who probably started with a ideal in his mind, fought for it, achieved it and ultimately became corrupted by it, resulting in the creation of a corrupt and nepotist country.This doesn't reduce the evil of Trujillo, but serves to underscore the point that even the most evil of men could start off wanting something good, but somewhere along the line their path changes.

It may sound flippant, but when one considers the dictators of the world the thing that is most astonishing is not their capacity to dole out inhuman treatment, but rather the debasement suffered by their cronies and the general public who seem to almost revel in it. That's why Trujillo is able to humiliate a senator in a large gathering by saying that the senator's wife was the woman he had the best sex with, that's why he is able to make a general clean up a drain sewage. What makes them accept these humiliations without a murmur, have they become masochists? What drove 'Augustin Cabral' to do what he did, resulting in a living hell for himself and his daughter. What is that intangible that makes a dictator keep an entire country under his full control and subject it to his whim's and fancies. In that sense, this novel is as much about the political cronies  as it is about Trujillo. Cronies who prostrate themselves before Trujillo, are engaged in the internal power struggles, jockeying for position and who in the heart of hearts would be ready to sell Trujillo, the instant the winds change. Is the taste of power (however small) and the prospect of money so great that one can suffer all these?

At the other end are the common people, people like Urania, the wives violated and young girls sexually abused by Trujillo and his family, people who have to prove their loyalty to the state by turning against their loved ones or at least have to suppress their anger when their loved ones are hurt by the state. These are the people who lose the most, getting nothing in return.

Losa is not sparing while detailing  the nightmarish regime. Some parts, especially the account of what happened to Urania and the aftermath of the assassination attempt are horrendous and what makes them even worse is that you cannot wish it away saying that its only fiction. The claustrophobic atmosphere prevailing over the entire country is brought our clinically, a country where you do not know when the government or rather Trujillo could turn against and ruin you based on his whims, where you are not sure that your best friend wouldn't betray you to get ahead. 

This is probably Losa's most stylistically realized novel. The intermingling of narratives and time shifts is done seamlessly and clinically with no room for confusion. It is almost visual in its presentation, one can actually see the scenes shifting from one narrative/timeline to another as in a movie. There is none of the ordered chaos of narration present in say 'The Green House' and to a lesser extent in 'The War Of the Worlds'. This is a highly controlled exhibition of  stylistic narration.

This is not just a novel on Dominica, but a global one. The events in the novel could be applied to any country in the world, rename the tyrant and characters and the novel would sit just fine in any totalitarian regime. For instance, the personality cult prevailing in that period that Losa details may seem far fetched, but it may actually be lesser compared to real life. One needs to just think on the mythification of  'kim jong il' in the past week to see how pervasive and global it is. The events happening in North Korea was the reason I revisited this novel again. This novel along with 'Aunt Julia and the Scripwriter' are the best of Losa's works and exemplify the greatness of the man who can handle completely diverse genres with equal aplomb. These are must reads in Losa's oeuvre. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

வா.மு. கோமு

வா.மு. கோமுவின் மண் பூதம் தொடங்கி கிட்டத்தட்ட அவருடைய அனைத்து புத்தகங்களையும் படித்திருக்கின்றேன். இப்போது ஒட்டுமொத்தமாக அவற்றை மறுவாசிப்பு செய்தேன். அவரைப்பற்றிய பொது பார்வையாக வைக்க படுவது அவருடைய மன தடைகளற்ற மொழி, குறிப்பாக பாலியல் குறித்து. இது உண்மை என்றாலும் அது மட்டுமே அவர் கிடையாது. அவர் புத்தகங்களில் உள்ள இன்னும் சில பரிமாணங்கள் இவ்வகையான பிம்ப கட்டமைப்பால் அடிபட்டு விடுகின்றன. 'மண் பூதம்', 'அழுகாச்சி வருதுங் சாமி' புத்தகங்களில் கதை கருக்கள் முற்றிலும் வேறானவை. 'கள்ளி' நாவலுக்கு பிறகு தான் இந்த பாலியல் குறித்த பிம்பம் அவர் மேல் விழுந்தது. அது கூட மிகை பிம்பங்கள் தான் உள்ளன. பாலியல் பற்றி முன்னரே கூட பலர் எழுதி உள்ளனர். தவிரவும் பாலியல் வர்ணனைகள் என்று அவருடைய ஆக்கங்களில் இருப்பதை விட அதை பற்றிய உரையாடல்கள், குறிப்பாக அவற்றை பற்றி பெண்கள் பேசும் பேசுக்கள் தான் அதிகம் உள்ளன. அவை எந்த வித தடைகளில்லாமல், மிக இயல்பாக உள்ளது தான் அவரை தனித்து காட்டுகின்றது. அவர் கதைகளில் வரும் பெண்கள் மிக மிக சுவாரஸ்யமானவர்கள். தங்கள் உடல் பற்றி, தேவைகள் பற்றி கூச்சம் கொள்ளாமல் அதை கொண்டாட்டமாக எண்ணுபவர்கள். பல ஆண்களை ஒரே நேரத்தில் பின்னால் அலைய வைப்பவர்கள், அதே நேரத்தில் அந்த ஆண்கள் மீது possessiveஆகா இருப்பவர்கள். இப்படி அவர்கள் ஒரு புதிர் தான், கதையில் வரும் பாத்திரங்களுக்கு மட்டுமல்ல, படிக்கும் நமக்கும் தாம்.

கொங்கு வட்டாரத்தில் உள்ள சாதி வன்கொடுமைகள் பற்றிய குறிப்புகள் நுட்பமாக அவர் கதைகளில் உள்ளது. கொங்கு பகுதியை சேர்ந்த பெருமாள் முருகன் படைப்புகளிலும் இதை காணலாம் என்றாலும் கோமு சற்று வேறு படுகின்றார். பெருமாள் முருகனின் கதைகளில், சாதிய கொடுமை மூஞ்சியில் அறைகின்றார் போல் வரும்.  கோமுவின் கதை மாந்தர்கள் (மாதாரிகள்) ஒரே அடியாக எதிர்ப்பதும் இல்லை, கொடுமைகளை அப்படியே ஏற்றுகொள்வதும் இல்லை.  அவர்கள் குசும்பும், லொள்ளும் மிக்கவர்கள், நேரம் கிடைக்கும் போது வாழைப்பழத்தில் ஊசி ஏற்றுவது போல் தங்கள் எதிர்ப்பை/இருப்பை பதிவு செய்பவர்கள். இருக்கும் வட்டத்தை மீறாமல்/மீறமுடியாமல் அதற்குள்ளேயே முடிந்ததை செய்பவர்கள். (ஒரு கதையில் மாதாரி, கவுண்டர் செய்த கொடுமைக்கு எதிர்வினையாக, அவர் கிணற்றில் குளித்து, மூத்திரம் பெய்து, தோப்பில் மலம் கழித்து, தன எதிர்ப்பை காட்டுகிறார்). இந்த வகையில், கோமு-சோ.தர்மன் படைப்புக்கள் ஒரு வகைமையாகவும் (குசும்பு, நக்கல்), பெருமாள் முருகன்-இமையம் படைப்புக்கள்(இறுக்கமான கதை சொல்லல்) இன்னொரு வகைமையாகவும், காண முடியும். ஒரே களம், நான்கு எழுத்தாளர்கள், இரு வேறு கதை சொல்லல் முறைகள்.

'Political Correctness' துளி கூட கோமுவின் படைப்புகளில் கிடையாது. தனக்கு தோன்றுவதை சொல்வதில் எந்த கூச்சமும், பாசாங்கும் அவரிடம் இல்லை. இசங்கள், எழுத்தாளர்கள் என அவர் பகடி செய்பவை பல. ராணி, தேவி, ராணி காமிக்ஸ் தனக்கு பிடிக்கும் என்று எந்த வித பாவனையும் இல்லாமல் சொல்ல துணிவு வேண்டும். பீடத்தில் இருக்கும் இலக்கியத்தை கீழே இறக்கும் தேவையான செயல் இது. சிறு டவுன்களில் நடக்கும் மாற்றம் நுட்பமாக பல கதைகளில் உள்ளன, குறிப்பாக அலைபேசி வந்த பிறகு ஏற்பட்டுள்ள மாற்றங்கள்.

இவை ஒரு புறம் இருந்தாலும், இரு முனையிலும் கூரான கத்தி போல், அவருடைய பலங்களே சில சமயம் எதிர்மறையாக செயல்படுகின்றன, குறிப்பாக அவருடைய சமீபத்திய ஆக்கங்களில் இதை காண முடிகின்றது. 'சந்தாமணியும் பிற கதை கதைகளும்' எடுத்துக்கொள்வோம். இதில் முதல் பகுதி 'பழனிச்சாமி' பள்ளியில்,  காதல் வயப்பட்டு, அதில் தோல்வி அடைவதோடு முடிகிறது. இதில் அந்த வயதில் ஏற்பதும் உடற் கவர்ச்சியைவிட, அவனுடைய 'உணர்ச்சி குவியலான' மனநிலை தான் முன்னிறுத்தப்படுகின்றது. இரண்டாம் பகுதி இதற்கு நேர்மாறாக, அவன் 'total emotional detachment', என்ற நிலையில் இருக்கின்றான், உடல் தான் பிரதானம் என்று கதை மாறுகின்றது. இந்த 'contrast' மிக முக்கியம், ஆனால் அது எப்படி சொல்லப்படுகின்றது? பெண்கள், பெண்கள், மேலும் பெண்கள் தான் இந்த பகுதியில்.  பழனிச்சாமியோடு உடல்கள் பற்றி, உறவு பற்றி பேசிக்கொண்டே இருக்கின்றார்கள். ஒழுக்கவியல் பார்வையிலோ, பெண்ணிய பார்வையிலோ இல்லாமல், சாதாரண வாசகன் என்ற நிலையில் இருந்து படித்தாலும் இந்த பகுதி முழுக்க சதை பிண்டங்களால் இறைந்து கிடக்கின்றது போல் தோன்றும். பெண்கள் இப்படி எல்லாம் பேசுவார்களா என்றெல்லாம் கேட்கவில்லை, இப்படி இந்த பகுதி முழுக்க ஒரே வகை எழுத்து விரவி கிடக்க எந்த முகாந்திரமும் இல்லை. பக்கங்களை நிரப்பும் செயலாக தான் இருக்கின்றது.  தன்னுடைய புத்தகங்களில் பாலியல் சார்ந்த விவரிப்புக்கள் கண்டிப்பாக இருக்கவேண்டும் என்று வாசகர்கள் எதிர்பார்பார்கள், அந்த எதிர்பார்ப்பைவிட அதிகம் இருக்க வேண்டும் என்ற எண்ணத்தில் எழுதியது போல் உள்ளது. Victim of his own image. சலிப்பை விட ஒவ்வாமையை தான் இது ஏற்படுத்துகின்றது.

அதே போல் பகடி ஒரு சில இடங்களில், தனி மனித தாக்குதலாக மாறுகிறது. 'நாவலல்ல கொண்டாட்டம்' புத்தகத்தில் உள்ள 'பெண் கவிஞர்கள்' பற்றிய அத்தியாயம் ஒரு சான்று. பல பெண் கவிஞர்களின் கலவையாக ஒரு பாத்திரத்தை உருவாக்கி, அவரின் தனிப்பட்ட வாழ்க்கை சார்ந்த விமர்சனங்கள் தேவையில்லாதவை. They are in bad taste. இன்னும் சில கதைகளில் போகிற போக்கில் பெண் கவிஞர்கள் பற்றி சில தாக்குதல் இருக்கின்றன. பாலியல் தொழிலாளி ஒருவர் அதை விரும்பி செய்வதாக ஒரு கதையில் உள்ளது. ஜமீலாவின் புத்தகம் படித்து அதை வேறு மாதிரி சொல்ல முயன்றதாக கோமு குறிப்பிடுகின்றார். More than being politically incorrect, such writing ends up leaving a bad after taste.  ஒரு தனித்த   எழுத்து முறை வசப்பட்ட பின் அதையே திரும்ப திரும்ப சொல்வது is working it to death. குறிப்பாக 'நாவலல்ல கொண்டாட்டம்'. கோமு தனது தனிப்பட்ட பாணி என்ற நிலையிலிருந்து, தன்னுடைய பழைய ஆக்கங்களை , பிரதிபலிக்கும்/நகலெடுப்பது என்ற நிலை நோக்கி செல்கிறார் அவருடைய சமீபத்திய  ஆக்கங்களில்.

கோமு கண்டிப்பாக படிக்க வேண்டிய எழுத்தாளர். இதுவரை வரை அவரை படிக்காதவர்களுக்கு என்னுடைய பரிந்துரை 'கள்ளி', 'மண் பூதம்', 'அழுகாச்சி வருதுங் சாமி', 'ஒரு பிற்பகல் மரணம்'.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Last Evenings On Earth - Roberto Bolano

Somewhere lost/ignored in the midst of Bolano's novels is his short story collection 'Last Evenings On Earth', one of the most melancholic book titles ever. As with the novels, the collection too touches upon the major themes of Bolano's works, writers, theirs works, struggling writers waiting for the publication of their works, the pain of getting out a literary magazine that is ready by minimal amount of people, the relationship between the critic/writer, between two writers, most of all being young, restless writers who are in a hurry to remake the literary landscape, with the youthful assumption that they are going to rewrite the entire literary canon and the pain that comes with the realization that maybe one is not good enough. Undercurrent to all is the state of exile of most of the characters in these stories, who are displaced from the country of their birth.

The story 'A Literary Adventure' is about the relationship that develops between a budding writer (B) and an established writer/critic (A). The budding writer detests the critic and writes a novel in which he has a character which is a spoof of the critic. To his astonishment, the critic praises the novel to high heavens and also his next works. B becomes obsessed and almost paranoid with why A is praising his works. At the end of the story he reads a novel by 'A' and finds it to be good better than his own works. (Interesting to think about why this happens). The story ends on an intriguing note with B meeting A with the prospect to both reconciliation and violence. The story in someways has the resonance of a small part in 'Savage Detectives' where a writer challenges a critic to a duel just based on the assumption that the critic will savage his works. This is a story that is universal, after all the relationship between the two is at best an uneasy kind of truce and at worst a savage all out war.

'Henri Simon Leprince' is the story of Henri, a writer whose works have all been a failure in that they have not been recognized by the literary giants of France. Set in the period just before, during and after the occupation of France during World War II, Henri joins the partisan resistance group France and does some small work in helping the resistance. He does not join with the collaborators even if it would have meant more publications and visibility. He comes into contact with the same writers who ignored him earlier. But it does not do him any good as they tend to ignore him even then, treating him as a conduit as he takes them from once place to another. In fact they tend to see his participation in the resistance as a kind of reverse revenge by him for ignoring his works earlier in that they feel that Henri is trying to make them beholden to him. The war ends and Henri goes back to his old life, living in obscurity and finally he thinks that maybe he is indeed a bad writer. The story intrigued me on two counts, one on the actual reason as to why Henri joined the resistance and the sad but essential fact of separating the person's personal life from his works. Henri though he comes across as an essentially decent man, is doomed to obscurity because apparently the quality of his works is not up to the mark. It may be cruel but it's a way of life.

'Sensini' tells the relationship that develops between a young writer and more established one (Sensini) due to a writing competition in which both win. The established writer's advice to the younger one is not to persevere with writing, but to persevere with participating in writing competitions to get as much money as possible. Sensini comes across as a bounty hunter of literary prizes. What could have become a farce becomes a rather sad tale of a writer's attempt to make a living which is impossible to do with only publishing books and so has to resort to prize-hunting.  This is again a story with an universal appeal.

'Mauricio The Eye Siva' was interesting to me mainly because the Mauricio (The Eye) travels to India and a lot of the story happens there. There is a description of a practice where young buys are dedicated to a deity for one year and are treated as an incarnation of the God. At the end of one year, they lose this privilege. They cannot go back to their parents and finally end up in brothels and are castrated. Now, I have heard about young girls being dedicated to a deity, but this was new to me. Any information on this would be appreciated. 

Along with the stories in this vein, there are a few stories that deal with the non-writing part of the writers life. Perhaps, not surprisingly these are not as good as the parts that deal with the writing side, as Bolano seems to revel in the latter more. 'The Grub' is a story of the relationship that forms between an old man and a teen-aged student more interesting in books and movies than studies. The title story 'Last Evenings on Earth' is sort of self explanatory from the title and the first page of the story itself, but Bolano keeps stringing you along till the end. These set of stories are good, but their trajectory is one that can be guessed beforehand by readers. 

It's a dicey thing to read a writers work when one is sort of obsessed with his entire body of works as it could give a distorted impression to the reader. You tend to feel that everything is good. Reading it after sometime could give a different picture. But it didn't happen to me with this work when I re-read it now after 3 years. Then as now, this is a book that I would readily recommend, but there is no single story which I would recommend separately. This is not a negative reaction, but I was not sure why I felt that way when I first read it, but now with the hindsight of reading some more of his works (particularly 'Nazi Literature in the Americas'), I have a thought as to why I feel so. When you read Bolano's novels (even his shorter ones) you can notice that the narration is driven by polyphonic voices which narrate various aspects of the novel and which in the end forms the 'Bolañoverse' as it is being referred to. This works perfectly well in novels, but the short story by its very nature and form is probably not suited to it. That's why I like the collection as a whole instead of any single story. Like 'Nazi Literature in the Americas' which is a collection about Nazi sympathizers/writers in Latin America where no single story stands out (it doesn't need to actually, the impact of the entire book is the whole point), this book too could be looked as vignettes from any writers life and much as I like it's title, some other thing like 'The Writers Lot - A Manual', or 'The exiled Life' could actually be better suited to it (after removing some stories which may not fall in this category). It is being said that if Borges had written novels, it would be like Bolono's which is fair enough considering the base material both handle and since we do not have any reference point for novels of Borges. But we cannot say the Bolano's short stories are like Borges outside of the fact that both reference real/imaginary books/writers. This is not a critique, but just an observation that Bolono's natural inclination seems to have been towards the novel always (as Borges was probably inclined towards the shorter stuff) and the short story was an afterthought, maybe when he could not fit these ideas into his novels. 

Readers who are reading Bolano for the first time with this book may wonder about the fuss on his works, think of this book as an appetizer for the main course that are his novels. For those who have read his novels already, this collection is a dessert where you can assimilate his novels.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Infinite (Addictive) Jest - David Foster Wallace

The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

So tells a character during a discussion of the relative merits/demerits of the American mindset. This statement about the pursuit of happiness or rather the addiction to the pursuit of happiness is the major theme of DFW's 'Infinite Jest', along with the attendant side effects of such a pursuit and the consequences of it. The novel is not about a single person or family, but rather a almost sub-conscious cry of plea of a entire society addicted to the above mentioned themes and unable to get away from it. Published in 1996, it would have been a pretty much uniquely American experience then, but reading it now 15 years later, it has come to be the common experience  of a globalized world. 

The novel is set in a period where things have been commercialized/entertainment fixated to such a extent that time is now subsidized (yes, based on corporate sponsors the years are named and not in the normal calendar format), the  ATP tennis tour is referred to as 'Show', (echoes of WWE here), television channels have been obsolete and replaced by cartridges which offer personalized entertainment. The novel traces the emotional graph of many characters, whom are set in two main locations, one a tennis academy where students are trained to become the next big thing in the Show and the other in a recovery house adjoining the academy, for alcoholics/narcotic addicts. The two places, rather their implications act as a juxtaposition to each other in that, in the academy the pursuit of happiness via entertainment is still on, whereas in the recovery house we have people who have had enough of it and are in a battle to get rid of if. Interspersed between the two, is the parallel track of the search for a mysterious cartridge which seemingly has the ability to make anyone who views it completely becomes enthralled by it, loses all interest in everything else other than viewing the cartridge over and over again, becomes catatonic and ultimately has to die because of this condition. Two opposing government organizations are after this cartridge and the discussion of two of their agents on a mountain top are philosophical nature, which serve as a kind of cover for the other happenings in the novel. The narration soars and plummets with the mind state of the various characters ultimately culminating in an emotional Valhalla of two of the characters, one seemingly on the verge of relapsing into his addiction, whereas the other getting hit by the first withdrawal symptoms of an addiction.

Let the novel's name not deceive you. It is not a happy novel at all in the normal sense. Yes, it is hugely entertaining and engrossing, but also has an undercurrent of sadness throughout. It's an utterly strange and unique novel.  I have used 'original' here (though all 3 words in someway seem similar, but with subtle differences) because finally nothing is 100% original and also the themes of this novel, 'consumerism', 'family dystopia', 'addiction' etc have been dealt with many times ad nauseum . So what makes it unique and strange is the manner in which DFW has brought them all together as a mindscape altering  work, which does not so much push the envelope as much as it tears it to pieces and throws it to the winds altering the fictional landscape we are accustomed to. Let's take the style of the novel, long sentences running to paragraphs, even pages which are again not uncommon. But the twist is here, they are not our usual 'stream of consciousness' or 'internal monologues' or descriptions of multiple events. What DFW does here (and in his other works too) is that he takes a small bit of time of action and stretches it to the maximum extent possible, requiring your full mental concentration to the fullest extent, so that your mind becomes taut, almost physical  and if at that point your mental state could be visualized as a string, a touch to it would produce a big twang. Check for instance the below snippet which explains in excruciating detail a tennis lob during a match, which would take about 2-3 seconds maximum in real time.

It's a beauty: the ball soars slowly up, just skirts the indoor courts' system of beams and lamps, and floats back down gentle as lint: a lovely quad-function of fluorescent green, seams whirling. John Wayne backpedals and flies back after it. You can tell — if you play seriously — you can tell just by the way the ball comes off a guy's strings whether the lob is going to land fair. There's surprisingly little thought. Coaches tell serious players what to do so often it gets automatic. John Wayne's game could be described as having a kind of automatic beauty. When the lob first went up he'd backpedaled from the net, keeping the ball in sight until it reached the top of its flight and its curve broke, casting many shadows in the tray of lights hung from the ceiling's insulation; then Wayne turned his back to the ball and sprinted flat-out for the spot where it will land fair. Would land. He doesn't have to locate the ball again until it's hit the green court just inside the baseline. By now he's come around the side of the bounced ball's flight, still sprinting. He looks mean in a kind of distant way. He comes around the side of the bounced ball's second ascent the way you come up around the side of somebody you're going to hurt, and he has to leave his feet and half-pirouette to get his side to the ball and whip his big right arm through it, catching it on the rise and slapping it down the line past the Port Washington boy, who's played the percentages and followed a beauty of a lob up to net.

This stretching of real time to as much as possible is a constant feature of all DFW's works and to me is his unique identity along with his totally unpretentious quality where he does not look down upon either the characters or the readers themselves the one that makes him stand out from others. DFW makes me think always of the highly intelligent boy, who is conscious of his intelligence, but is neither awed by it, shy of it nor is he conceited about. it's like as if the intelligence flows naturally and cannot be controlled. (Calvino and his shorter works especially 'The Cosmicomics' come to mind to me here, when I think of a kid running amok with his outrageous talent). It's one thing to do this for a couple of pages, but to do this successfully over 1000 pages requires a rare kind of talent. And it is this writing talent that drives the novel, the fuel propelling the characters/incidents in a such way that your mind becomes an inferno itself while reading it. There are whole sentences, paragraphs, pages and even whole chapters who as a reader one enters this 'mind on fire' state, a state which is excruciating painful and pleasurable at the same time, leaving you at a chapters end, breathless but wanting for even more. But DFW is not a one trick pony, but capable of doing anything with words. He can make a full chapter about the various tattoos inked by the residents of the recovery house interesting. He can give a truly terrifying account of a junkie withdrawal symptoms and the depravity it drags him into it. It can even be a small portrait of a sunset with the unique DFW spin

The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas' peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.

An usual  description of sunset maybe, but consider the parts on bold where the unique and original of coining of words takes this to a different plane. It could be a tongue-in-cheek look at the clumsy fumbling of two adolescents, which takes out the erotic but replaces it with a wry but more real feeling.

What Mario perceived as a sudden radical drop in the prevailing temperature was in fact the U.S.S. Millicent Kent's sexual stimulation sucking tremendous quantities of ambient energy out of the air surrounding them. Mario's face was so squashed against the U.S.S. Millicent's thorax that he had to contort his mouth way out to the left to breathe.

DFW has been so ahead of the curve in experimentation of the ways of writing. Remember this was written in 1996, before the SMS lingo would have been in vogue even in the U.S and sample the following

..It was yrstruly and C and Poor Tony that crewed that day and everything like that....

..we just left the type there in his vehicle off Mem Dr we broke the jaw for insentive not to eat no cheese and C insisted and was not 2Bdenied...

There's a whole chapter in this vein about a gang of junkies trying to get high, in which the writing preempts the SMS lingo in vogue now. Now, DFW would not have had the SMS in mind when he wrote this, but decided to use in this one chapter only, which is appropriate when you consider the characters state of mind in this chapter. It would have been only too easy for him to replicate it elsewhere too, but it would have stuck out like a sore thumb when applied to either the academy or the recovery house where the residents would not be in such bad shape.

What about the (in)famous footnotes of the novel?. DFW has been quoted as saying that he wanted to mess up with the reading experience (or words to that effect) and so he put so much footnotes which in some cases tell a story of their own. Reading them can be real painful yes, particularly when there are so many in a single page, but I settled down on a pattern in this. I marked the footnotes of a chapter and after completing it read all of them in shot. It made it less painful.

There is so much yet to write about this amazing work, but will stop here as this is just a basic introduction to it. (Have an idea to write a series of posts on the various themes/styles in it). This is not a novel for DFW beginners and I am not telling this based on it's complexity or length (which are not an issue at all), but rather on the fact that one should have an idea of DFW's themes/styles beforehand to decide whether one wants to read him or not. So his shorter works are the best place to start for beginners. For readers already into DFW but are somehow put off but reading it, just jump into it. This is a novel that is postmodern in style/themes but as entertaining as the modernist novels of the 19th century. The novel is also episodic in nature, being split into chapters, so you would not have the feeling of leaving it in the middle to do something else. You could read 2-3 chapters at a time and get on with your day to day life. Give a month of your reading life to this book, you will be enriched. At the end you will be exhausted, exhilarated, mind teeming with ideas and curiously empty as you confirm the realization that started occurring somewhere in the middle of the novel, the realization that you are reading a work of art whose scope and ambition itself is difficult to match let alone it's execution and end result. What else do you need from a book? It is the rarest of rare books that make you feel like this and I have been lucky enough to read 2 such books this year and in a nice symmetry,  one at the beginning of the year and now the other at the end. A word of caution though, just like the mysterious cartridge in the novel, you too could get addicted infinitely to the novel itself.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

(Partial) Freedom - Jonathan Franzen - Unfinished Business

I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom only partially and gave up (for now). So this post is not per se about the book but rather about my disappointment in it and Franzen an author whose works I have greatly liked. The book came out last year about a decade after Franzen's 'The Corrections' which got great acclaim and rightly so. Had been waiting for it's paper back for some time now. If the 'The Corrections'  was a about events in a dysfunctional family falling headlong into the abyss, 'Freedom' seems to take a look at the reasons for why families splinter. 

The book starts promisingly enough in the prologue, where we are introduced to the Berglund's, Walter and Patti, their son Joey  and daughter Jessica and the way the family disintegrates due to mainly Joey's actions. Then in a look at events of the past Franzen tries to unravel why things came to this point. It's starts with a form of auto biography written by Patti. 

Franzen has long been a critic of so called 'Hard To Read Books' ( and has said that books need to be entertaining too. I agree with him partially on the count that books that are entertaining and easy (both of which are anyway subjective matters) can also be profound.  Franzen too has been a proponent of the 'old school' writing, solid plots, well defined characters et all. And therein lies the problem for me with Freedom. For me, in such books, the best ones are where the characters are morally a bit ambiguous, where as a reader I am not able to form a precise opinion about them, where there is always a feeling in me, 'hey, there seems to be more to this character than I get it'. Sadly, nothing of the sort happened in whatever I read of Freedom.

I had a sense of Deja vu in some places, particularly when Patti is torn between 2 men, one a rock/punk musician with all the habits attributes to them (licentious sex, booze, drugs etc) and the other a squeaky clean, well behaved man (Walter). And guess what, she is attracted to the rock star, but ends up marrying the well rounded Walter.  And the part where Patti's parents look the other way when a bad thing happens to her, to consolidate their political ambitions. How original are these!!! Where is the soaring imagination in the layers of characters in 'The Corrections'. Patti too came across only as a uni-dimensional dimwit moron, albeit with some cunning. 

Now, the parts about Walter and the other remaining parts could well be better and my initial impressions on Walter could very well be wrong (there are some subtle hints on it in the portion I read) but I had had enough by then. It's actually not terrible as it may sound when you read this post, but the main thing was that I got indifferent about the novel at around the 40th or 50th page and sleepwalked through another 100 pages, almost as if I was beholden to complete it. Then I gave up as it was taking me no where and also because the best way to read a book is because you want to and not because you want to tick a book off on the list of books to be read. I think I would come back to this book later and it may actually turn out to be better (but I am sure not in the league of 'The Corrections'). But for now, my suggestion for anyone looking to get into Franzen would be to read 'The Corrections' first. If you have already read it, well re-read it again at least in parts. I did that and dipped into some parts of it to sort of get the feeling of Freedom out of me and I did enjoy once again. It's been about 6-7 years since I first read it and shows that it's not aged at all, which I suppose I would not be able to say about 'Freedom', even if I complete it.

The prologue in 'Freedom' can be read at

Read this. It sure is good.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reading Thomas Pynchon - Against The Day

I initially thought of writing about 'Against The Day', but put if off for 2 reasons. One being that it requires a hell a lot of preparatory work and I didn't when I would get around to do that. The second being that I personally feel that a Pynchon novel is best experienced by the reader solely on his own experience of reading it, without any pre-defined notions on the story etc. As Pynchon himself states in the synopsis about this novel
If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.
Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

To tell something briefly about the novel, it spans a period of 25 odd years and in Pynchon's own words

moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York City, to London and Göttingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

So I thought of writing a post with some pointers on the novel which I hope will act as faciliating factors for readers still trying to get into Pynchon and are apprehensive about it. The good news on this novel is that, of all the Pynchon novels I have read, this seems the most accessible and the not so good news is that it is the lengthiest of all his novels at over 1000 pages. 

Any Pynchon work is going to dazzle you with it's narrative style, imagination, that's a given. So looking at this work from that point of view, the main USP of this novel is that it is  composed of several genres of fiction. You  get the boys adventure genre (something like say the Willard Price novels), the genre of explorers stumbling upon long lost secrets (H.G Wells), the spy genre, the western and the genre of general fiction too. So what's so big about it, one may ask, you just write multiple narrative threads in various genre and put them as one single novel right? But it's not as easy as it seems. Each genre has the capacity for invoking different emotions in us and it is indeed a tough ask to get all these emotions in a single novel and that too when each narrative genre is fragmented, when you get 50 pages of one genre and another 50 pages of another. For e.g. when you read the boys adventure genre part, you feel sub-consiously happy, you somehow seem to know that nothing bad is going to happen and that things are going to turn out well at the end. The explorer genre thrills you more, for instance the part about the slab brought from the Artic and the ancient evil that seems to be present in it are truly chilling. During these two narrative types, you are always aware of a disassociation from reality while reading them. The spy genre is semi-realistic in that, it gives an idea of the paranoia prevalent in the spy circles, but Pynchon overlaps it with his brand of quirky scenarios which make it seem almost like a parody.  The western genre and the general fiction part are more realistic and accordingly more worse things happen in these narratives. Just think about this, every 50 odd pages, the narrative tone, style changes and you get a subtle shift in your emotional mood, imagine how difficult it is to achieve this over a period of 1000 pages. The best part about it is that these shifts are not in your face. It is something that does not jump at you, but is so subtly weaved into the fabric of the novel that you get a sense of what Pynchon is doing only after the 100 pages or so. Before that you could get confused about the various shifts in tone. Do not give up, it does make sense and all the narratives are connected as much it is possible in a Pynchon novel :)

One main critisicm of Pynchon is that there is no coherent plot, characters are not well developed etc. The thing to remember while reading a pynchon novel is that it is not going to be plot or character driven. It is going to be driven by events and imagination of the author. There is not going to be any main character, rather the novel is going to encompass many characters each of whom could be seen as equally important to the overall narrative, the objective of which is give an insight, feel of the locations, time period covered in the novel and let the reader reach his own conclusion about the underlying concept of the novel. This is going to vary from reader to reader. For me, 'Against The Day' speaks about the the rise of capitalism and is at the same time the tragic story of a family (The 'Traverse' family). This could be completely different for someone else. Modernist writing does not give so much amount of leeway, even if there are multiple interpretations of a modernist text they are bound to be part of a closed loop, as the characters are more or less well defined and as a reader you would need to fill in the blanks. In the case of Pynchon, it is a case of actually constructing the character from the scratch to a flesh and bones one.This freedom given to the user is to be remembered when you read Pynchon. Actually this is not specific to Pynchon when you think of it, lets take Murakami the other modern master. What would be the unforgettable, well defined character in his novels. The talking cat or the old man in 'Kafka on the Shore', is it Noboru or Toru or Kumiko? Aren't they all like half finished paintings splattered with multiple colours. Do any of them make complete sense, inspite of that don't the readers get the thread of Murakami's concerns (lifein modern urban Japan, the lonlineness and stress). Now, one could very well dislike these sort of narratives and he is perfectly right to feel so. But I just hope that this pointer may make someone look at these narratives in a slightly different light and make them more accessible. You may still dislike them fine, but then your critisicm should be based on the failings in what the author tried to do and not in what he did not attempt at all. Expecting a Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg when you read Pynchon is not going to help the reader.

So is this novel vacuous, does it try to exist solely on the basis of it's narrative strength? Not really, there are several characters who could have become unforgettable ones, but lose out in the flow of the overall narrative. Lets take the family  of 'Frank Traverse' a anarchist/communist at the turn of the 20th century fighting a losing battle against the corporations. He is killed by 2 men hired by the corporations. In a twist of fate his daughter 'Lake' ends up marrying one of them (Deuce). Lake knows that Duece murdered her father and Duece knows that Lake knows. So why did she marry him, what made her do so? The unspoken issue of her father's death keeps hanging like a sword over both, both of them not wanting to talk about it to the other, till little by little they try to come to terms with it. This has all the trappings of a Greek tragedy, but Pynchon does not milk it to the maximum extent possible. He just gives a peek into their life, their circling each other like vary animals waiting for the other to make a slip, but that's all we get.  All other things are left completely to our interpretation. It is the same with several other characters too. As I mentioned earlier, yes, Pynchon characters are not clearly delineated, but just remember that it's not the objective of the novel in any case.

The other thing that could be off putting about Pynchon is the usage of scientific/mathematical concepts in his novel. Reading about vectors etc in his novels are the only occasions that make me feel that I could have paid as much attention to Science as I did to History :). Does it interrupt the main thread of the novels. Not much as far as I can tell (agreed that my grasp of these concepts are basic), other than that you don't get to understand how much the scientific concepts are appropriate to the novel. But for me it's not a bother, as his novels are always about the Journey for me where I reach the destination I want.

So, is this a difficult book? I would say it is a demanding book, demanding of your patience, perseverance and concentration, not to mention the strength in your wrists to keep carrying around a 1000 page book for long periods. :)  If not for it's length, I would suggest this as the best place to start Pynchon. If anything, I just hope that this post clears some misapprehensions about Pynchon and someone gets started on any work of Pynchon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Secret History - Donna Tart

A little heads up at the beginning. 'The Secret History' Donna Tart's debut novel is not a murder mystery or thriller, as the name and blurbs about it which mention 'Dionysian rites',  etc, suggest. Yes, a murder does occur at the very beginning of the novel itself, but the murderers are known immediately and the novel is basically a coming of age novel which traces in reverse order the events that led to a murder and it's aftermath. So do not be disappointed after reading this expecting a mystery.

The novel is set in an elite college. Richard, one of the main protagonists joins the college on a scholarship.  Coming from a  middle class background, he is at unease there and tries to fit in by lying about his background. He is particularly fascinated by a group of 5 students who are studying Ancient Greek which is taught by an enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. Richard manages to get into the course and becomes friends with the group. As he gets closer to them, the aura of confidence, well-settledness that the group projected comes across as a facade. Each one of them seems to be battling a personal issue. Though Richard becomes a part of their group, he is still unsure about several things for e.g. about the way Bunny manages to manipulate the other members of the group to do his bidding (settling his bills, taking him on a holiday etc). Richard gets drawn into the vortex and becomes a participant as well as being an observer of it. Things come to a head which result in the events at the beginning of the novel. The aftermath of the murder where the group slowly disintegrates is heartrending. They try to come to terms with the murder and mostly fail. It is the end of a significant chapter of their life and each one grows into adulthood in a tortured way, living a life (sometimes forced) they had not even imaginged as college students. It is the usual tragic story of unfulfilled and broken dreams. Telling more would be basically giving out the entire story and so I will stop here.

The main thing that struck me while reading the novel is that, for a first time novelist Donna Tart has complete emotional control over the work (i.e) the characters may get emotional, they may rant and rave, they may do unreasonable things, but you never get the feeling that the author has just let go of herself while writing it. (reminded me a bit of Alice Munro in this aspect of ). The unraveling of each character as the novel progresses is done like peeling the layers of an onion, only in this case there is always something underneath. Bunny who initially comes across as a slob, a parasite living on the bigheartedness of his friends becomes a more tormented, sinister character as we get to know his family background and the events that happened earlier. This also changes our view of the group who put up with his antics. Though initially they seem to be putting up with him for the sake of friendship, we get to know that self preservation could have motivated them to do it.  She also nails cleanly the the insecurities of adolescence, confusions about one's sexuality, the urge to belong, which makes one project a different and false image of oneself to the world than the actual one. 

The only flip side I felt about the book was that it becomes a bit of a slog at times, particularly the period where the characters go on a winter break. This part is not germane to the plot. Also a minor quibble. 'Julian Morrow' the Greek professor comes across as an enigmatic character intially but nearly drops out of the novel as it progresses. It's logically correct as he is not the focus of the novel but the initial setting up of the character results in the reader feeling (from a purely emotional standpoint) that Morrow has been shortchanged by the writer. 

This is good old fashioned writing (not for Donna Tart the tricks and styles of post modernism), with a solid plot and well fleshed out characters. A word of caution however, this is not by any means an enjoyable work, rather it is disturbing and unsettling. The attempt of the author to get at the dark side lurking in each of us could be unnerving.  It is the sort of work that affects you, but makes you wary of going back and re-reading it again. If you are okay with it give it a try. Highly recommended in that case.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mrityunjay - Shivaji Samant - The Story Of Karna

If one took a poll on the popularity of the various characters of the Mahabharata, Karna would rank amongst the top. His is the legend of a tragic hero. 'Mrityunjay' written by Shivaji Samant is the re-relling of Karna's story. Written originally in Marathi, the English translation of the novel is from the Hindi version of the original. This work reputed to be among the best of contemporary Marathi literature, has an interesting narrative technique. The novel is split into 9 books, each of then narrated as a monologue by Karna and other characters like Kunti, Krishna, (each of the 3 have 2 books of monologue), Duryodhana, Vrishali (Karna's wife) and Shom (Karna's step-brother).

The monologues of Karna are the best of the lot. Though the book is a sort of paean to Karna, it never goes overboard with it and tries to show his flaws as well. For all his poweress, Karna comes across as internally turmoiled, insecure man, insecure due to his origins about his place in society and obsessed about being recognized as the best archer of all.  But sadly he was never given the oppurtunity of a level playing field to prove it. If he was denied by Drona during the archery competition at the beginning,  then the curses that are heaped on him at the later stage also play a part in ensuring that he remains a tragic hero. It is a matter of conjecture as to what would have happened, if Drona had allowed Karna to compete with Arjuna. Maybe he would have won, he may have indeed lost, but either way, he would have been a more peaceful man, contended with himself and not obsessed with being the best archer which drives almost all his actions resulting in tragic consequences. But it was to not be.  Another feeling that he tries to reconcile with vainly till the very end is his origin. Karna is shown in a subtle way as being unable to accept fully his origins. Though he loves his parents, proclaims that he is proud to a charioteer's son, some parts of his monologue subtly let it slip that maybe he is not as confident and secure about his origins as he shows. Maybe he craved that he were born elsewhere, or to put it clearly he may have desired that his parents had been the same but of a higher standing in society. It is borne out by his reactions to the relevation that he is Kunti's son. It's not any great happiness (or anger) that he feels towards Kunti. What comes through mainly is the relief that he is Kshatriya after all, that he cannot be insulted for his birth. It implies that he accepts the social order for all his posturing and that instead of trying to remove it, he is more than happy to know that he has actually jumped up in the order. Interestingly, Samant brings a twist to Karna's much lauded generosity using this turmoil. It is mentioned that his generosity is due to his craving for recognition. This does not reduce the value of his generosity, but only serves to enhance to the reader, the pain that a person must feel on being insulted repeatedly by society for no fault of his own, other than being born in a particular caste and the extreme lengths that he can go to overcome it. This obsession results in giving his body armour to Indra, therby divesting himself of his greatest protection. 

The books of Kunti and Krishna (more than one for each) are middlingly good, but rarely offer any great insight into either Karna or themselves. Kunti's monologue is the usual one we have seen/read earlier of a woman torn between Karna and her other sons. The initial parts of her monologue are her reminiscences about her childhood, her being gifted by her father Surasena to Kunti Bhoja, her marriage to Pandu, in both cases without anyone asking her preference or her feelings are the best of the lot. Krishna's monologue too is pretty much the usual one you come to expect. The monologue of Duryodhana is different in that he is shown as a scheming character who treats Karna as more of his personal employee, a weapon to counteract the Pandavas than as his friend. Yes, I agree that their relationship need not have been as close a friendship as is known generally, but a complete flip around of it results in the  relationship becoming completely one-dimensional, with no layers to it. Looks like the author decided to do a paradigm shift of popular perception, but in doing that he actually does Duryodhana an injustice. It cannot have been only personal benefit that made him ally with Karna, as it cannot have been only the goodness of his heart. (If he had been so devious, he could very well have forced Karna to fight under Bheeshma during the first 10 days of the war, instead of agreeing with his decision).  Interestingly Aswaththama seems to have a more deeper friendship with Karna than Duryodhana. But ironically, even he abuses Karna in a fit of anger as a charioter's son during a tense moment in the war. This in a way exemplifies Karna's relationship with most people. However close he gets to them, how much ever he feels respected  by them, at some point his origins are used by the same people to taunt him. That brings us to the other 2 books, that of his wife Vrishali and Shom his step-brother. It is with them that he does not feel the insecurity of being insulted at any time. But he rarely opens up his innermost feelings to even them. The two monologues are basically adulations of Karna by the two, who literally worship the ground he treads on. I had read  somewhere else that Karna did not have a happy marital life as his wife who supposedly was royalty, was contempous of his origins and was insulting to him, but here Samant gives us a different version. Maybe one of the above books could have been done away with for a monologue of Arjuna, it sure would have been interesting to get know his views on his arch rival. 

Karna's worship of the Sun-god, the unexplainable (to him, but not to the reader) connect that he feels towards the Sun god are very evocative, as is the part where the Sun god teaches him about the astras. (Yes, it is Surya devta who is mentioned as Karna's teacher in the book, because Drona is pre-occupied with teaching the Pandavas and Kshatriyas.). Some other parts too stand out, one being the killing of Sisupala where Karna's eyewitness account of it is almost psychedelic. The other being Karna's turmoil when Draupathi is being insulted after the game of dice. Torn between wanting to stop Duryodhana and held back by Draupathi's earlier insult of him during her Swayamvar he finally makes the fatal decision of joining Duryodhana. The tipping point for this is rooted in the human ego as Samant slips in a subtle variation of the events. As Draupathi asks everyone in the royal assembly for help, she sees Karna, meets his eye and then moves away without asking him anything. This spurs Karna to insult her. (Ironically it is revealed later that Draupathi did not ask for his help since she was already regretting her insult of Karna at her Swayamvar and did not feel worthy of his assistance). The part where Karna cuts off his armor to give to Indra and the subsequent description of his skinless body which is translucent is bound to shock you.   But alongside such parts, others like the description of the events of the war  get monotonous at places as do Shon's and Vrishali's monologues in their adulation of Karna. 

This is a good, but at times uneven read. Personally for me, the best take on the Mahabharata still remains Bhyrappa's Parva. If you have not read Parva and are interested in reading variations on the epic, the first option should be Parva. 

A digression from the novel. At the end of the novel, I found myself thinking about another character in parallel to Karna. If Karna can be said the victim of injustice throughout his life, then what of Eklavya. Probably he was the one who was subjected to the most cruel injustice of them all. Why is he not mentioned as reacting the way that Karna did, why for instance did he not join Duryodhana, (Parva mentions Eklavya as joining Duryodhana ) what happens to him after he gives his guru-dakshina to Drona? Why is  he not spoken  about more like Karna, why is he not so much entrenched in the general consciousness like Karna. Is there any contemporary work that shows Eklavya in a different light than the obedient, almost naive character that he is portrayed as generally. At the beginning of the book, Karna tells that he wants to tell his story because the truth has to be known, so why is the truth about Eklavya not told. Is it because that Karna was a Kshatriya after all and so had to get his share of fame, albeit posthumously while Eklavya is always in the lower echelon of the social order and hence need not betaken seriously? These thoughts do not have anything to do with this particular novel yes, but it seemed pertinent to discuss and compare both Karna and Ekalyva together. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Secret Of The Nagas -Amish Tripathi-Shiva Trilogy

Writing the second part of a planned trilogy is a pretty tricky thing. In the first part one can blast off from the starting point and run amock. In the second part, you have to move the story forward enough to keep your readers interested in looking out for the final part and at the same time you cannot divulge much, so that the reader loses interest. (Think 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' which pretty much killed the interest in a promising series). Amish Tripathi's 'The Secret Of The Nagas' the second part in the Shiva trilogy and coming after the unexpected success of the first part (The Immortals Of Meluha. has come with bigger expectations.

The first part ended with Sati, Shiva's wife being attached by the masked Nagas. This books charts the journey of Shiva through various regions of India as he tries to find the secret of the Nagas and also to find answers for other events that happened in the first part. The book is a by and large enjoyable and fast paced read, in fact at some points it looks pitch perfect to be made into a movie. The series itself is well suited to be made into movies. Some relevations like the identity of the Nagas are bound to capture the reader by surprise (not the part about the nagas also being good people, that one can guess pretty easily, but the part about who they actually are). I guess most of the readers would not have seen that coming.  The intention is to give a readers a thrill ride and there are enough twists turns in the story, peppered with action sequences to keep most happy. If you get into the book with only that expectation you will not be disappointed. Personally, what I like the best about the series is how the author tries to show how bigoted one can be with someone who is different from us. As the author shows through the events of the novel, with just a bit of open mind one can perceive that what we think of evil may not be so evil at all. If in the first part, it was the Chandravanshis who were the target of such insinuations and rumors and in the turned out to be merely different and not evil, here it is the turn of the Nagas.

There are some irritants too. Amish seems determined to plugin nearly all of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon in the novels and that sometimes sticks out like a sore thumb. There is a pirate named Parasurama, whose story is similar that of the mythical Avatar. Now, I don't have any religious beef with naming a pirate Parasurama, but he could very well have been named, Balrama, Krishna or any thing else. The character's back story does not serve any purpose other than to plugin the avatar and to introduce to western audiences. The help he does to Shiva could very well have been done with any other name. The twist at the end is again one is something once can pick up easily, in fact it's the reverse on the relevation about the Nagas. 

It's not proper to comment upon what an author did not attempt to write, but I cannot resist here. As with the first part my main grouse here is that the book promises much, could have been much much more, but insted of creating something epical that is unique to the Indian ethos, it ends up being only a fast paced actioner. Maybe, Amish could have forsaken a few thrills and created a much tighter, enduring work that may not have got such a huge reception, but would have stayed more with anyone who read it. At the end of the second part, the reader does not feel any connect with any of the major characters. Even the secret of the naga, whose  story should have had an instant connect with the reader remains on the fringes of our emotional involvement. In fact, the emotional investment the reader does is pretty much minimal through both the novels. Actually, in some ways, its not a bad thing at all. When you look from the author's point of view, his objective of writing a fast paced book has succeeded quite well. It sure marks a new path in the mythical/fantasy genere in India. I for one am still looking forward to the final part of the trilogy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I'll Go to Bed at Noon - Gerard Woodward

Gerard Woodward's excellent 'I'll Go to Bed at Noon', (published in 2004) a novel on a family coming apart is one the most underrated works of recent years. It got a Booker nod, but by and large has been sadly not part of major discussions. Generally novels of the 'family' genre, fall into 2 modes of narrative, one is with hyper/hysterical realism with slightly larger than life characters bordering on manic eccentricity ('All Families Are Psychotic', 'Corrections') or fully dark novels with serious themes ('The Gathering'). But here Wooodward treats it in a different way, giving a more nuanced and minutely detailed potrait of a family's slow disintegration. The novel is the second part of a loosely connected trilogy ('August' and 'A Curious Earth' precede and succeed this novel), but can be read as a stand alone. The third part however is best read after reading the first 2 or at least the second. I am posting this in the order I read them.

The novel traces a particular period life of the Joneses, Aldous and Colette, their 3 sons and daughter. Of particular focus is Alodous a professor, Collette and Janus, the eldest son who is a very talented pianist. He is frittering away his life and career, a drunkard who goes through life doing menial jobs and who seems to take great pleasure in debasing himself. In fact the family itself has a drinking problem, with Collette herself being partial to the drink and has now somewhat recovered from it. The novel's main thread is one's inability to let go of a loved one, our propensity to put up with anything that a person we love does, however harmful it may be to all concerned. That's why Collette does not find the heart to exile Janus from her house for a long long time even though he cause great suffering and when she finally does it, it does lead to tragic consequences. Collete's brother 'Janus Brian' (same name as Collette's eldest son, not to be confused with him) too is a symbol of the same thing. The novel begins with the funeral of Janus's wife. We get the impression their life was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing passionate, at least outwardly. But the manner in which Janus slips into a state of apathy, the way he literally drinks himself to death again either points to a relationship with his wife that was more profound that is outwardly visible, or it could just be the emotional inability of a man to handle with his wife's loss. (Isn't it said that women are emotionally stronger than men). Whatever may be the reason, Janus Brian's descent into hell is a scary potrayal of a middle aged man with no children whose wife is no more. There is no melodramatic crying or outpouring of sorrow, but more like the nihilistic behaviour of a person who has lost interest in everything. It is this love and affection that keeps Collette hoping against hope that both the Januses will come back to the normal track, it is what makes Collette believe in the girlfriend that Janus (the son) keeps talking about, but never brings her home. (When all others think that the girl friend is a figment of Janus's imagination). Even Aldous falls prey to this at the end. At the beginning of the novel, he is aloof with his kids, tolerates Janus with great reluctance and is the one who pushes Colette to send Janus away.  His way of handling Janus's drunken rages is to barricade himself in a room with the complete works of Shakespeare. Except for Collette, he does not seem to have any major affection for any one else and that's why he tolerates Janus since Collette cannot bear to see him leave. After the tragic events at the end, Aldous reacts without any outward show of grief, but starts doing aimless travels through London.It serves as a precursor to what would happen later. 

The minutely detailed capturing of every day life and the understated yet beautiful prose makes the novel a great experience to read. Couple of instances from the novel bring these to the fore. In the beginning of the novel Aldous and Colette are sharing the bathroom, he shaving and she taking a bath. In the course of a couple of pages, Woodward shows us a clear picture of middle aged domesticity where passion seems to have taken second seat, but is replaced by a more deeper and stable emotion like contentment with each other. In another instance, the family has gathered for a sunday lunch and spending the afternoon and evening having fun generally. Janus too seems to be sober, though Aldous has his misgivings. Janus goes missing for sometime and when he enters the room again, the other suddenly get a realization that he is drunk. In just a couple of paragraphs Woodwards captures the shift in mood from one of lazy happiness to fear, revulsion and sadness at a happy evening ruined. The effect is not to get us readers to sympathize with the characters, but rather to feel the same fear, chill they feel on getting to know that Janus is drunk. May be this detailing and understated story telling is the reason for the novel not gaining more popularity,  certainly there are no great dramatic conflicts, no hysterical crazy situations here.

I did have a few minor quibbles. We never get to know about Janus, why he frittered away a musical career, why did he come a drunkard. Janus is the subject of most of the characters thinking, conversation, but we don't get to know what Janus himself thinks. It's one thing to be subtle and leave things for the reader to figure out and another thing to leave something completely out. The case with Janus is the second one. Though we get an inkling of his thoughts at the end through his dairy and his (supposedly) imagined girlfriend lets us a bit into his mind, he is mainly an elusive character for the reader, much like he is for his family too. The first book 'August' shows Janus with teenage angst, but still it does not justify his complete descent into depravity. However the part of Janus diary and the events after that right at the end are some of the most heartbreaking piece of prose one would read. Some characters like Janus's brother in law who joins him in his drunken escapades, Janus's younger brother who hates Janus are not fully drawn out. But these are very minor things which don't come in way of the overall flow. You will not read a more bitter sweet and heartbreaking novel than this. 

Mention must made of the 3 novels covers, very melancholic drawing you to them. It was the cover that made me buy this beautiful book and read in the wrong order.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Persuasion Nation - George Saunders

This is truly the age of persuasion. Though people have been influenced by external factors from time immemorial, given the proliferation of print/visual media in the last decade or so the persuasion factor has multiplied greatly. One is assaulted from all ends with innumerable choices that one does not actually know what he wants, but ends up doing something just for the heck of it. In this scenario, George Saunders creates a dystopian world in his collection 'In Persuasion Nation', where the general theme is the persuasion of people in the consumer era. What's more this is a world where most people are not even aware that they are being persuaded, but are happily integrated into the dystopian environment. The landscape though set in America, could as easily be applicable to any developing/developed country.

The collection kicks of with the story 'I can speak' which perfectly illustrates this point. Presented a letter written by a salesperson to a customer who has returned a product produced by his company, it shows how banal one can get while producing/selling consumer goods. What's the product being returned? It's a face mask for small kids who can't yet talk. The mask takes care of the kids not talking but giving intelligent replies when their parents are talking, replies that are beyond the comprehension/intellect of the kid on whom the mask is placed. Why is this needed, what's the purpose in getting an illusion that a kid is talking much before the natural time, the salesperson gives an eloquent justification for this as he tries to persuade the customer to try the product once again. Does he succeed, we don't know as the story ends with the letter being completed, but considering the gullibility of customers these day, he may actually do.

When we talk about consumerism and people being persuaded to buy goods they don't need, another related thing to be noted is that how do corporates get in touch with the customers, how are they able to market their products. In some way, the proliferation of consumerism could also been linked to the gradual declining of a consumer's privacy. Whether it is a form you sign up when you go to a store, or an online form that you fill up when you visit a site, all these things are used to track your preferences and market goods based on that. The story 'my flamboyant grandson' illustrates this a bizzare way. This is world where all consumers are given some sort of electronic shoes based on which the consumer's preferences are tracked as he walks through the stores. What happens then? Holograms of various products are visible to the customer based on his buying pattern/preferences. Each consumer gets to see his own customized holographic advertising. (If you have not bought a burger for the past 2-3 weeks, a hologram reminds you about the taste of burger and urges you to buy it). You can't escape it, if you remove the special shoes you are fined by some entity which operates the whole things. Sounds too unrealistic. Maybe for now, but this is something that could happen in the future. And consider the fact it's not even necessary that you explicitly specify your preferences, just think of the digital fingerprints you leave whenever you come online, even based on that your preferences are gathered. I imagined a scenario reading this where my preferences are gathered based on this blog/post and am assaulted by the images of publishing houses pitching their books to me. How crazy would that be to see. 

When we talk of persuasion, we cannot limit it to consumerism only. It happens at a policy level too, where the opinions of people are manipulated to achieve a certain end. George talks about that in the allegorical story 'the red bow'. It starts with a tragedy where the narrator's little daugther is killed by a rabies infected dog. The narrator and his friends then kill the dog and a couple of other dogs which were in cotact with the infected dog and are themselves infected by rabies. So far so good. Then they go a step further, they start killing dogs based on the suspicion that they may be affected, even on the hypothesis that they may get affected in the future. A meeting of the town people is held where it is decided to put down all dogs that are under the suspicion that they could affected. It evens goes to the extent to planning to kills birds, fish and most other creatures in the town. Most people in the town agree to it, the dissenting voices are suppressed. Link this story with the fact that it was written after the Iraq invasion and that the author himself says that 'this is a reaction of the cultural climate at that time, where people were becoming more aggressive' and you interpret what the author is trying to convey. There is no moralizing here, neither is the tragedy at the beginning trivialized or justified. But it raises questions on the way in which people are manipulated into forming a certain option, from where it's just a short step to hatred.

The title story 'In Persuasion Nation' is more bizzare than the other stories. We sometimes get tired of the same advertisements hammered day in day out into us. In some cases, we start identifying and relishing some ads. What about the characters in the ads. What happens to them. Initially we are shown vignettes of several advertisements where people to any extent to get their hands on a particular product. (One man watches his grandmother die while he eats a pizza, another betrays his friend to get his hands on a car). Now what happens is that the characters form two coalitions and start fighting each other. (The grandson and the betrayer form one group and the grandmother and the betrayed friend another group). This crazy scenario is made even weird when two characters of an advertisement get sick of doing the same thing day in and day out, they join forces and exit the ad. The trope in the story is somewhat similar to the one in which characters of a story get their own lives, but george gives it a twist by setting it in the world of advertisements.

It's an easy way out to blame corporations alone for the current state of affairs. We as consumers are culpable in some way when we give in to the temptations offered. 'Jon' is one such story, where the protoganist is nicely settled in a plastic, almost antiseptic environment (some kind of community centre) where everything is controlled, fixed in advance with no free will at all. (There can be no sexual intercourse, people are given a specific time where they have simulate the act themselve). But it is drilled into them that they are leading a fine life. Jon's dilemma in wanting to live in such a place and his inner wish to live outside the community where there are not so many facilities, but where one can make his own choices reflects the consumers dilemna in buying/doing something because it is said to be good and doing something that he actually wants.

'The Amendment' talks about alternate sexuality and the persuasion that is done on them. Sexual minorities have been persuaded for a long time that their orientation is a disease, it is curable and they can change it. This is the crux of the letter that is written by the character in this story. Not just alternate sexuality, he goes even beyond that in profiling people based on his conclusions. As per his conclusions even a hetrosexual marriage could be construed as manifestations of a latent gay orientation. He gives the idiotic example of marriage of a man with a normal voice with a woman who has a deeper voice, which implies that the man wants to live with another male while the woman wants to share her life with another female and so they are implicity living their subconsious fantasies. To avoid such marriages some rules have to be put into place. Seriously, how much more idiotic one could get. This seems funny at the surface, but shows the perception that most (so called) normal people have of people with a different orientation from theirs. It also indicates the homophobia that is present in most of us.

These stories may look far fetched, but are actually not so. Some time in the future we may be living in a similar consumer/political/social hell and what's worse even enjoying it. So as a paradox to this collection, I highly recommend this collection and author, at least this is a persuasion of a good nature.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some Favorite Book Covers

 I bought the book for the cover alone. Like the cover much much better than the book. My most favorite book cover ever.

 Covers for Gerard Woodward's novels reflect the tone, period and content of his works.
 What can one say about this. As eclectic as the novel itself. Couldn't get the back cover. 

The kid who would go on to conjure up dreams and memories for us.

Fits the book perfectly.

Like the book much much more, but the cover somehow seems to indicate the heat, squalor in the book.