Monday, January 31, 2011

Empire Falls - Family secrets/small town life/burden of being ostracized

Some initial thoughts first up. Each or rather most families have some secrets and by this I do not just mean any criminal acts committed earlier or some earth shattering information that has been hidden. Rather these could be of no interest to others outside the immediate family except as gossip and such important to the family only. But these things are not discussed in most cases even among the family members. It is either consciously or sub-consciously repressed by them. Similarly life in a small town has it's own advantages and disadvantages. For e.g. you know most of the people at least by name and feel secure, but in such an environment there is not much possibility of privacy, which in turn could make each family suppress information that they think need not come out. The people in such towns could be grouped into 2 major groups, one who have left the place for elsewhere and others who have stayed there, either because they like it or simply because they are afraid of change and would rather suffer in their hometown than go towards the unknown, however inviting it may be. Primary/High school is generally remembered by most of us nostalgically as being the best part of our lives. But it is not the case with several seizable percentage of students. For them, the whole experience and remembrance of school  is one long period of nightmare and hell. These are students who are ostracized by their peers, just because they do not conform to the normal societal standards. It could be because they are poor, they are not good at sports, not good at articulating what they fell or just about anything else that the majority of students view as being weird. Children are not as innocent as they are made to be, the violence and cruelty exhibited by kids is something that most adults turn a blind eye to, not wanting to believe it. These Richard Russo's 'Empire Falls' is a novel that has the above issues as its main threads as it looks at the life of people in a fictional small town in America called 'Empire Falls'.

Empire Falls is a town that was once full of life with several mills,factories and which now have full into disuse. The town is now a skeleton of the one that existed decades ago. As mentioned earlier, most of the people still living here are mostly bound by their own fears of the unknown elsewhere in the country and prefer to stay put. Few stay here because they like it or have a sentimental attachment to the place they were born and brought up. The main characters in the novel are Miles a forty something man who looks after the restaurant 'Empire Grille', his wife who has divorced him after having an affair with a fitness instructor who is called 'Silver Fox', Miles teenage daughter Tick, Miles father who is a sponger living of others, Miles brother, 'Francine Whiting' who is the heiress of the Whiting family which owns most of Empire Falls and who is presiding over an crumbling empire. There are other characters whose life intersect with the ones mentioned above. 

The impact that religion (any religion) has on the moral attitudes of some persons and the manner in which it actually results in the person being unhappy and being held back always is one aspect which I liked. Miles is one such person. His moral upbringing, makes it difficult for him to say no to most people, since he feels that he has a moral obligation to help others. So he accepts what others say, even though he does not like it and knows that others are using for their ends. Then he becomes upset that he is doing something that he does not like and then again upset because it is wrong to be upset about doing something that is morally right to do. The cycle goes on and on it never ends right? Finally Miles ends up living others lives and what does he get in return, many people look at him as a wimp, loser including his own wife. Most people grow out of the moral upbringing, realizing that real life does not in any way look anything like what religion says it should be and would be, but there are still people like Miles stuck with it.

The best thing about this novel is the way it unfolds as we read it. After the first two-three chapters, when most of the characters are introduced, the reader could form a basic opinion on them. For e.g Miles could be seen as a loser, his wife as someone without any morality, his father as a sponger and Mrs.Whiting as a heartless calculating woman who strings everyone on a leash. But as we read through the novel, the characters evolve becoming fully three dimensional ones instead of being cardboard cut characters. We get to know more about them from their POV which though is obviously biased, which gives us a different perspective of why these people do what they do.  Of course, it does not make them all pure and saintly, but makes them more real and some one to whom we can relate.  Russo is an excellent story teller of the old world school and does not use any crazy narrative gimmicks to embellish his tale, other than the normal device of going back and forth in time and interspersing current events with what happened decades ago. Even with the current events, he splits up what transpires with the characters with reader getting to know about one character, then it is left for a while, as Russo shows us vignettes from another character's life. This actually enhances the readers involvement in the novel as he now gets in a hurry to understand/know what would happen. It can actually be a bit frustrating at times, but that is only due to the normal curiosity all of us have to know everything immediately. Russo keeps stringing us nicely, just making sure that the reader does not get irritated to snap of the rope. The antics of middle aged/old men/women may seem irritating or plain dumb initially, but Russo treats them warmly and we get an idea of the failed dreams most has/had and which has caused them to behave in the manner they do. There is never any obvious justification though for any action and Russo follows the old credo of 'Show Dont tell' most of the time, letting the reader make his own inferences.  For e.g. we even get a sneak peek as to why Miles wife had an affair with the fitness instructor and left him and looking at it from the woman's POV, it may actually seem valid for her. One also starts thinking about, how little we know about another person, even though we spend a life time with them. Can we really claim to know someone fully?
Over a period of several weeks/months, Richard Russo gives us a vivid picture of life in Empire Falls, several events that occur which make people reassess their life all leading to a tragic ending, which again reaffirms in the old cliche of 'life must go on'. Nothing actually gets sorted out, things do not improve much, but there is certainly a change in the perspective of the characters. The ending is for the novel and not for Empire Falls and its citizens. For them life has still to be faced upfront, but as a novel it has to end somewhere and it does. And no, there is no moment of epiphany of revelation that brings about this change, but rather a sequence of events that do it. In some way, I think of this novel as a 'Coming of Age' novel, the only difference being, the characters are not some teenage kids, but middle aged/old persons. 

Though not central to the plot till the end, the character of John Voss, serves to highlight the cruelty inflicted by kids on someone who does not meet their standards. It also raises questions on the educational structure where the teachers are not aware or are unable to stop this kind of bullying which results in horrific consequences. 

So, is there no issue in this book, well I have a quibble here. Firstly, the prose sometimes gets stilted, I agree that everyone can introspect and can surprise us with their thoughts, but in some cases the thought process of the characters are so much of what the author wants to say rather than what the character would say and sticks out like a sore thumb. Thankfully this is in a minority and does not  jar the novel's flow much. The ending of the novel, though it is not clichéd or melodramatic seems a bit contrived. But these are minor ones compared to the overall richness of the novel.

This is not any ground breaking novel or one which pushes the boundaries of fiction in any sense and small town/family stories are not very uncommon. So what makes this novel better than most novels of this genre?  To use an analogy, it's like eating your favorite dish, say Idli/Sambar. All restaurants/hotels offer it, but only very few offer them in such a way that you like. The same basic ingredients, but some of them are more tasty/ even divine than others right? That's the case with Russo, he is a very good story teller, better than most. He also treats his characters equally, in the sense that there is no contrived events written just to show the worthiness of one character while putting down another. Human life with all its goodness, fallibility, folly, evil lurking underneath is shown as much as possible in fiction, with a genuine compassion for the characters. There is no false sunshine streamed on the characters to make them more worth than they could be.
This is a novel worth reading and highly recommended. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Catch 22 - A Subversive Look At War

What is the general impression that prevails on war?. It raises patriotic, even jingoistic feelings, people feel proud and sad at the same time about the young men who give up their lives in it. This has been propagated through books and other forms of media. But there have been several writers who have taken a different view to this and shown the other side of it. These are not some neo-liberals, who were sitting at home and pontificated about non-violence and other stuff. These were men who were part of the first/second world wars and distilled their experiences in the form of books. Some wrote it as an intense and gritty work, like Erich Maria Remarque and James Jones, some wrote as a mismash of sci-fi and real life horror like kurt vonnegut. And there is Joseph Heller, who wrote 'Catch 22', a monstrously insane work that looks at the horrors of war with huge amounts of black humor. This is a novel which is morbidly funny, terrifying and sad at the same time. Joseph Heller too was part of a airborne bomb squad in the second world war.

The novel is set in world war II, in its later stages when the allies were closing in on the victory. It follows the experiences of a fictional army unit set in Italy. The novel may be bit repetitive for some, since it shows the same event happening from different points of view, but each repetition of the event gives some additional information about it and therefore acts as one stop closer to understanding it. So random events that occur initially, would make more sense as you read through the novel. 

There are lots of characters in the novel who experiences form the bulk of the novel. The main one is 'Yossarian'. Yossaraian is a young man whose main objective is to stay alive at any cost. He is only 28, but feels like he is an old man because everyone is trying to kill him and he may be dead at any time. So if he could be dead at any time, it must mean that he is old. Seems weird, even funny right? Well, this the brand of morbid humor that permeates through this novel. You smile at this line, then you stop, when you think about this 28 year old guy who must be so scared that he says a corny thing like this. The novel is full of such situations where you start laughing, then stop it as the impact of the dark humor hits you. The novel has several such unforgettable characters. The character 'Doc Daneeka' is one, whose fate shows the bureaucratic bull shit that exists in all organisations. What happens to him?  All unit men are bound to fly for a certain amount of time as per rules, but Daneeka arranges things such that he does not fly, but his name is in the log book. But sadly for him, the plane he is supposed to be flying in crashes and he is marked as dead. Even though he is alive and visible to everyone, he is still treated as dead by the bureaucracy. His wife is sent a letter stating about his death and she too accepts it. He cannot leave the unit since he is dead and a dead man cannot be given permission to go out. The whole farce climaxes when Doc Daneeka starts getting convinced that perhaps he is indeed dead since the authorities say so. The  ultimate absurdity. 

Heller also satirizes the business side of war through Milo MinderBinder. He is the mess officer and a true servant of capitalism. He is the true business man who will provide supplies for both the allies and axis, in-fact he opens a separate line of communication between them and gets rights to go anywhere in the war zone for his business activities. He is not bound to anyone, but his own business and the process of making money. His famous saying by which he justifies what he does is "What's good for Milo Minderbinder, is good for the country". Milo could a satirical metaphor for the global villager and the concept of the global village which has come up in recent times.

The most poignant character among them would be 'Major Major Major Major'. Yes this is his name, his father gave him such a name a joke. Well he was doomed from the beginning. Due to this crazy name, he gets promoted very quickly due to some quirk in the computer which mistakes his name for an actual rank. Now he cannot be demoted. So his colleagues and superiors hate him for becoming their equal without doing anything, while he subordinates hate him for outranking them so quickly. He is isolated and no one wants him. Once he decides to participate in a basket ball game in disguise. But his subordinates identify him, but without letting him know about it, they allow him to join and beat him up in the guise of playing the game and thus satisfying their anger against him. This character stops coming in the middle of the book, but is a most poignant one. It also serves to show the cliques/group-ism existing in the army as in every other organisation.

This crazy novel ends with Yossarian deserting the army and paddling away to his escape. One hopes that he made his escape. (Infact Yossarian comes back in one of Heller's later novels, 'Closing Time', but that's for another post). By now you would have got an idea of the themes and the morbid humor in this novel. The novel has been criticized heavily for trivializing the sacrifices of the soldiers, showing them as cowards and being unpatriotic. This could not be further from the truth. In fact this novel looks at the young men who were plucked from their normal lives and plunged into a hell of which they had not idea of how to survive and treats them with the utmost compassion. Neither does it have any overt anti-war propaganda, but through the lives of these young men subverts the concept of war. If anything, the novel would be offensive to the arm-chair theoreticians and nationalists who equate patriotism with people dying for their country, and I am pretty sure that most of these same people would  hesitate to give up their little finger for their country.

If you still find this novel offensive, request you to just think about this. How was your life when you were/are in your early and late twenties. Yes, you would have faced a lot of problems, but how many of us were/are in a situation where we were trying to avoid the next bullet/bomb that could send us to oblivion. How many of us are/were in a situation where we don't know if we would be alive the next hour let alone the next day. Not many I guess. These things are still happening around the world and most of us lucky enough to not been affected by this. Think about the young men who have to confront something which is completely beyond their comprehension. Their reactions to it may make some sense now. You may still dislike the novel, but you would certainly look at it in a different life.

For those, who liked the sound of this post and the novel, read the book. It's a masterpiece.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wizard Of The Crow - A Farce For The Ages

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is an exiled Kenyan writer. Born in Kenya he was baptized as a Christian. He renounced it, even English, changed his name to ' Ngugi wa Thiong'o' and writes in his native tongue. He then translates them back himself to English. This is how his novels are published. He is also an opponent of the oppressive Kenyan government and has suffered a lot due to that. More on that later. His novels do not focus on the effect of colonization and conversion to Christianity in Africa as is the case with several African writers, but more on that post-colonial effects of them, when the tin-pot dictators take over tiny countries and let loose a reign of terror. 'Wizard Of The Crow' is not a completely heavy and tragic novel like his 'Petals Of Blood'. It is a political farce, a sprawling tragicomedy of epic proportions running to over 700 pages, full of dark humor, funny, sad and even heartbreaking at times. The novel need not be taken as an indictment of current political situation in Kenya alone, it is relevant for all places where people with power lord over those who are without it. (Heck, even a Councillor of a small place does indulge in absurdities matching up to his reputation isn't it?) 

What is the novel about. It is set in the imaginary country of 'Abruria'. It is being ruled by a person termed as 'The Ruler'. No one knows much else about him, expect that he has powers to do anything he wants. For instance he can even stop time. If he says a day is 'Saturday' it will remain so until he himself relents and changes it (shades of 'The Autumn Of The Patriarch'  by Marquez at times). He can even simulate time. For instance he has exiled his wife to solitary confinement, since she had offended him. What has he done there? The time and the situation in that place is exactly the same as the exact moment when she offended him (i.e) the clock is always at a particular time, the rooms are in the same state, the radio plays the same song etc. The Ruler is now engaged in building the biggest tower in the world a la Tower of Babel.

The main protagonist in the novel is Kamiti. He is an educated by unemployed person from one of the inner villages. During one of his interviews, he meets 'Grace' a woman with whom he strikes up a friendship.  Grace is part of an underground movement which opposes the government. They try to disrupt and cause chaos by letting lose plastic snakes in a meeting and stuff like that. The Ruler wants all snakes to be banned from the country :). Slowly Kamiti gets involved with it. One day, he and Grace are being chased by government officials. Both are disguised as beggars and run from the officials. To escape, they enter an uninhabited house and take refuge there. Kamiti hangs a sign at the front of the house that says 'Warning! This property belongs to a wizard whose power brings down hawks and crows from the sky. Touch this house at your peril. Sgd. Wizard of the Crow.". This is where the novel actually starts to kick off. The government officials and other people who see this sign take it seriously and start coming to Kamiti to solve their problems. Ministers come so that they can succeed over the other ministers, business men come so that they can top their competitors, ordinary persons come for their day to day problems. For Kamiti it becomes a case of catching a tiger by the tail, he cannot let go of it and whatever solution he gives somehow seems to click and he becomes very famous. Enormous queues start to line up outside his place. 
Kamiti has unwittingly started something that he cannot control and that which has taken a life of its own.

This sprawling novel cannot be summarized more since it would spoil the ending, but suffice to say that it has lots of twists and turns, caustic political commentary on nearly all its pages. We get an idea of the dysfunctional way in which the country is operating as we read through the novel. For e.g. there is a'Help Needed' sign put up in front of an office. Due to unemployment, people start lining up before it, after sometime, people start standing in it without even knowing that that line is for. It becomes such a huge line that it's end cannot be seen. People get lost while trying to search for it. The government instead of just dispersing the line, puts forth a news item saying that the queue is a sign of support for the Ruler. The underground movement then hijacks the idea, but organizing protests where people stand in queue to decry the government. The Ruler then banks 'queues' everywhere, which as we can infer causes a lot of problems. There cannot be queues for buses, stalls etc. People have to be standing in random and when a bus comes they just have to get into it as quickly as possible. 

Ngugi wa Thiong'o has suffered a lot at the hands of the government and has been writing against all odds. His novel T'he Devil on the Cross' was written in toilet paper while in prison. When he and his wife came back to Kenya some years ago after their exile, his wife was sexually assaulted by some unidentified persons, ostensibly at the orders of the government. With so much suffering, it would be perfectly normal if a person turns cynical. But no,  Ngugi wa Thiong'o has not become fully cynical, he has not lost his sense of humor, Wizard Of the Crow has a lot of dark humor, but is never heavy, cynical or gives an impression of being world weary.  It is almost as if all his suffering and pain has been channelled into this terrible, funny farce for all ages. For that alone Ngugi wa Thiong'o deserves the greatest respect. In a world where a lot of writers live in pretty comfortable conditions, in a fairly democratic set up and decry their governments, here is a man who has faced the utmost adversity and has always held his head high, always fighting against it.  If you come across his books, don't hesitate buy it.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was one of the contenders for this year's Nobel prize along with Mario Vargas Losa and Cormac McCarthy. All there were deserving candidates, but Mario won this year. Well, here's hoping that Ngugi wa Thiong'o wins it in the future and reaches a far wider audience. His life and his works deserve a much wider appreciation.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


சமூக/வரலாற்று நிகழ்வுகள் பற்றி பல கோணங்கள்/பார்வைகள் இருக்கும் என்பது நாம் அறிந்தது தான். அதில் எந்த பார்வையை நாம் ஏற்கின்றோம் என்பது நம்முடைய தனிப்பட்ட சார்பு நிலையை சார்ந்தது. ஆனாலும் நம்மிடமிருந்து வேறுபட்டு ஒரு பார்வை உள்ளது என்று நாம் ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளத்தான் வேண்டும். பன்முகத்தன்மையை உணர்வதும் அதை ஏற்றுக்கொள்வதும் மிக முக்கியம். இப்படி ஒரு சமூக நிகழ்வை, ஒரு இடத்தின் வரலாற்றை கூறுவதுதான் பொன்னீலனின் மறுபக்கம் நாவல். நாவல் பல இழைகளாக பிரிந்து சில பொதுவான புள்ளிகளில் ஒன்று சேர்கின்றது.

ஒரு இழை, சேது மாதவன் மண்டைக்காடு கலவரம் பற்றி கள ஆய்வு செய்ய வருவதும், அதில் வெங்கடேசனை, முத்துவை சந்திப்பதும், அந்த கள ஆய்வில் மூலம் அவனுக்கு தெரிய வரும் உண்மைகள். இத்தோடு மக்களின் அந்த கலவரத்தை பற்றிய வாய் மொழி தரவுகள் இணைகின்றன.  இன்னொரு இழை வெங்கடேசனின் தந்தை 'சங்கரன்' எழுதி வைத்திருக்கும் குறிப்புகள் மூலம் தெரிய வரும் அந்த காலத்திய நிகழ்வுகள். மற்றொன்று ஆசிரியர் சொல்லும், சங்கரனின் தந்தை சின்ன நீலன், பாட்டன் பற்றிய வரலாறு. இதில் தோல் சீலை கழகம், அய்யாவழி சமூக மற்று இயக்கம் போன்றவை வருகின்றன. இவை இணையும் புள்ளி மனிதம், மதங்கள் எப்படி எளிய மக்களின் வாழ்க்கையுடன் விளையாடுகின்றன,ஜாதிக் கொடுமைகள் ஆகியவை ஆகும். 

இதில் சேது மாதவனின் இழை தான் மையமானது, சம்பவங்கள் அவன் பார்வைளியே மிகுதியாக சொல்லப்படுகின்றன. சேது அங்கு வருவது கள ஆய்வுக்கு மட்டுமல்ல, தன்னுடைய தாயை பற்றி தெரிந்து கொள்ளவும் தான் அங்கு வருகின்றான். சேது ஒரு இந்து மேல்நிலை மனோபாவத்தில் இருப்பவன் என்பது சூசகமாக சொல்லப்படுகின்றது. அவனுக்கு சில உறுதியான கருத்துக்கள் உள்ளன, சில முன்முடிவுகளுடன் தான் அவன் அங்கு வரவே செய்கின்றான்.  சேதுவிடம் உள்ள பல கருத்துக்கள், நம்மில் பலருக்கும் நம்மை அறியாமலேயே இருப்பவை தான். அவற்றை அவன் எதிர்கொள்ளும் வாய் மொழி தரவுகள் அசைக்கின்றன. 

வெங்கடேசனின் தந்தை சங்கரனின் குறிப்புக்கள் காட்டும் நிகழ்வுகள் ஒரு விதத்தில் இன்னும் கொடுமையானவை. சங்கரன் தான் பிறந்த ஜாதியினால் பல துன்பத்தை அடைகின்றார். பிறகு ஆர்ய சமாஜத்தில் சேர்கின்றார், பூணல் அணிகின்றார். இருந்தும் அவர் நிம்மதியை அடைந்தாரா என்றால் இல்லை. அவர் பூணல் அணிந்தாலும், முழுமையாக தங்களுக்கு இணையானவராக மற்றவர்களால் ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளப்படுவதில்லை. மொத்தத்தில் இந்த ஆர்ய சமாஜம்,பூணுல் போன்றவை ஒரு சாராரை மதத்தில் தக்க வைக்கும் ஒரு முயற்சி தானே தவிர மனிதர்களை மனிதர்களாக நடத்த ஏற்படும் மாற்றம் இல்லை என்று தான் நமக்கு தோன்றுகின்றது. உதாரணமாக சங்கரனின் படத்தை பார்த்து அவர் பூணுல் போட்டிருப்பதை கண்டு சேது சிறிது அதிர்ச்சி அடைவது. அவர் ஆர்ய சமாஜி என்று தெரிந்த பின்பும் அவனால் அதை முழுதும் ஏற்க முடிவில்லை. இதை சங்கரனும் தன் காலத்தில் உணர்ந்து தன் குறிப்புகளில் பதிவு செய்கின்றார். 

ஆசரியரின் பதிவுகள் மூலமும், சங்கரனின் குறிப்புகள் மூலமும், கலவரம் பற்றிய வாய் மொழி தரவுகள் மூலமும் நாம் புரிந்து கொள்வதில் முக்கியமான ஒன்று மக்களின் ஆன்மாவிற்காக இரு பெரு மதங்கள் போடும் போட்டி தான். இந்து, கிறிஸ்துவ மதங்கள் இரண்டுமே தங்கள் கடவுள்களை முன்னிறுத்தவே விரும்புகின்றன. மக்களின் ஆதி கடவுள்களின் சுவடுகளை அழிக்க முயல்கின்றன. மத மாற்றம் என்பது வேறு மதத்திற்கு சென்றால் தான் என்றில்லை, மக்களை மேல்நிலையாக்கம் என்ற பெயரில் அவர்களின் அதித்தாயான 'முத்தாரம்மனை'  விட்டு பிள்ளையார், அம்பாள் என்று வழிபாட்டு முறையை மாற்றுவதும் கூடத்தான். இதை பலரும் உணர்வதில்லை, சேதுவும் கூடத்தான், புதிய வழிப்பட்டால் என்ன பிரச்சனை என்று தான் அவனுக்கு தோன்றுகின்றது. இதற்கான பதில் சங்கரனின் தந்தை நீலனின் வாழ்வில் இருக்கலாம். அவர் அய்யாவழியில் சில காலம் இருந்தாலும், மீண்டும் தன் ஆதி தாயான 'முத்தாரமன்னை'  தேடியே வந்து விடுகின்றார். இந்த மேல்நிலையாக்கம் என்பது இங்கென்றிலாமல் பல நாடுகளிலும் நடை பெறுவதுதான்.  

வாய் மொழி தரவுகளின் மூலம் நாம் அறிய வரும் இன்னொன்று, கலவரம் என்பது சில சிறிய குழுக்களால் அவர்களுடைய சிந்தந்தத்தால் ஆரம்பித்து சாதாரண ஜனங்களிடமும் பரவி ஒரு 'mob mentality' யை உண்டாக்குகின்றது என்பது தான்.இதனால் பொதுவாக எந்த பிரச்சனையில் ஈடு படாமல் இருக்கும், மதம் பற்றிய எந்த ஒரு வெறியில்லாமல் இருக்கும் மக்களும் இதில் ஈடு படுகின்றார்கள். இதுவும் மண்டைக்காடு என்றில்லை, எந்த ஒரு கலவரத்திற்கும் பொதுவானது தான். இருதும் இதில் எனக்கு ஒரு கேள்வி. 'mob mentality' என்று வைத்துக்கொண்டாலும், மிக எளிதாக மக்கள் உணர்ச்சிஊட்டப்படும் போது, அது எப்படி நிகழ்கின்றது என்று தோன்றுகின்றது.அரசியல், மதம் இவற்றில் வெளிப்படையான ஈடுபாடு இல்லாமல், தங்கள் தின சரி வாழ்வையை கவனிக்கும் மனிதர்கள் உள் மனத்திலும் (just  beneath the surface ) ஏதோ ஒரு வன்மம் கனன்று கொண்டு இருக்கின்றதா, ஒரு சிறு குச்சி உரசினாலே பற்றி எறிவதற்கு? தெரியவில்லை. இந்த நூலில் இது விவாதிக்கப்படவில்லை. 

இந்த நாவலில் வரும் 'முத்து' பாத்திரம், சமீபத்தில் வாசித்ததில் மிக வலுவான, காத்திரமான பெண் பாத்திரம். தன் வாழ்கை பற்றிய தெளிவான பார்வை, சமூகம் சார்ந்த திடமான கருத்துக்கள் என, நாவலில் குறைந்த அளவே வந்தாலும் முக்கியமான பாத்திரம். குறிப்பாக 'சேது மாதவனிடம்' முத்துவிடம் திருமணம் பற்றி பேசும் போது முத்து கேட்கும் கேள்விகள் உண்மையில் நம்மில் பல ஆண்களையும் கேட்கக்கூடிய/கேட்கும கேள்வியாக உள்ளது. சேதுவைப் போலவே நம்மில் பலரிடமும் அதற்கும் பதில் இருக்காது. 

நாவலின் முடிவு தான் என்ன, சேது முற்றிலும் மனம் மாறினானா? மனம் ஒன்றும் பாம்பின் தோல் அல்லவே உரித்து எடுத்து மாற்றுவதற்கு. சேதுவும் முற்றிலும் மாறினான் என்று சொல்ல முடியாது. இருந்தாலும் தன் எண்ணி வந்ததிற்கு மாறாக இன்னொரு பாகமும் இருக்கின்றது என்று அவன் உணர்வதே ஒரு முக்கிய நிகழு என்று நினைக்கின்றேன். குறிப்பாக 
தன் தாயின் ஜாதி குறித்து முதலில் அறிந்தவுடன் அவன் கொள்ளும் அசூயை, நம்மை அதிர வைக்கின்றது. அம்மாவைவிட அந்த கணத்தில் ஜாதி தான் அவனுக்கு முக்கியமாக படுகின்றது. பிறகு அவன் அதை ஏற்று, தன் தாய் வழி உறவினர்களுடன் பழகுவது ஒரு மற்றம் தான். சேது ஒரு தனி மனிதன் மட்டுமல்ல, அவன் நாம் அனைவரும் தான், நமக்குள்ளும் ஒரு சேது இருக்கின்றான். அவனுடைய எண்ணங்கள் நம்மில் பலருக்கும் உண்டு தான் என்ற அளவில் அவனுக்கு ஏற்படும் மாற்றங்கள் நமக்கும் தான் ஏற்பட வேண்டும். 

இது ஒரு அறிமுக குறிப்பு மற்றும் எனக்கு இப்போது தோன்றும் எண்ணங்கள் தான்.இன்னும் விரிவாக இந்த நாவலை பற்றி niraiyave எழுதலாம், நினைவிலிருந்து எழுதுவதால் இத்துடன் முடித்துகொள்கின்றேன்.  நாவல் கிடைத்தல் கண்டிப்பாக வாசியுங்கள். இது நான் வாசித்த அவருடைய முதல் புத்தகம். அவருடைய மற்ற புத்தகங்கள் வாசிக்க வேண்டும் என்ற என்னத்தை தூண்டியது. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dirty Havana Trilogy - Subaltern Stories

'Dirty Havana Trilogy' is a collection of vignettes of life in Cuba in the early nineties and is a cult classic. It does not follow any conventional story line as such, but follows/records the experiences of Pedro Juan the main protagonist through the novel. The novel is written by 'Pedro Juan gutierrez' who himself is the main character in this book. The book does show  Cuba in an unflattering manner, so persons with Communist leanings may have a problem with this. The author, 'Pedro Juan gutierrez' has been a ice cream, technician, radio speaker and a lot of other things. The facts about him are what are available in the blurbs for his works and what is mentioned in the novel itself. I am not sure about the veracity of this since both the author and main character intervene at several points in the work and one does not know what is truth and what is fiction.
The book has three sections, the first two told in first person by the author and the third is in third person.

As mentioned above, the entire book unfolds through the eyes of 'Pedro Juan' who as the novel begins is in his own words 'not trying to take himself seriously'.  He is down, but not fully out. It is not mentioned explicitly in the novel, but we get to understand that he has been booted from his pretty cushy radio reporter job. That is because, he got pissed of at treating people as if they were dumb animals and had to be force fed with only good information. Nothing which could threaten the social order is allowed, since the powers to be see it as a subversive activity. In any totalitarian regime, any sign of independent thinking is treated as the first sign of subversion, isn't it. But Pedro Juan had enough of it, he wanted to rake up shit, to grind people's face against the shit and make them smell it so that they get to know that life is not as rosy as presented by the government. The result - he has been booted out of his job and is living in near penury. Pedro Juan's needs are pretty simple right now, 'a bit of rum, some joint and a woman to tell your sorrows'. But the country does not have provision for that too, one has to fight for everything.

This book could easily be mistaken as some desperate writer writing some sex soaked stories to sell copies. Yes it has a lot of (hell a lot of actually) sex in it. Some of them are indeed for shock value, but that does not in anyway devalue it's merit. Pedro Juan is a sexual hedonist and the book has a long list of his sexual exploits. As he says about sex 'don't compete, just play'. The people he hook up with are as randy as him, none of the characters are faithful they leave one another if a better option comes along. Pedro Juan himself is one such person and in his words 'I am the most unfaithful person in the world, how can I expect faith from others'. These parts bring to mind of Bukowsi and Henry Miller. The sex parts could not be palatable to everyone, so beware. Why this sex craved energy and violence. Pedro Juan himself answers this. 'Civilizations like China, India have had thousands of years to think about things and be more relaxed, but a country like Cuba with a much smaller history does not have this luxury, for it, survival is first now.

Along with the sexual escapades, pedro juan also portrays the squalor, filth and poverty in which people are living.There are two lives in Cuba, one with the extreme rich powerful people and the tourists who come there. These tourists never get to see the squalor there. The other is the subaltern people who don't just live below the poverty line, but have actually been submerged in it. Their main activity is to keep themselves alive on a day to day basis. It's a jungle out there with every person for himself. As Pedro Juan says '... I have to ration whatever compassion I have within me for myself, I cannot waste it on others'. Those who are not strong enough are left alone. The people here do not conform to the normal moral standards followed generally. It would indeed be wrong to judge them sitting a fairly comfortable society.  The extremes to which people will go to make a living are portrayed in a hard hitting manner. Sample this. A new person from the village comes to Havana and stays next door to Pedro Juan. After some time, he has started dealing in meat saying he gets it cheap from somewhere else. People start buying from him, including Pedro Juan. One day it turns out that the meat that was being sold was 'Human Brain'. This itself is a shocking indictment of the situation there, but what is more chilling is Pedro Juan's response to it '... Well its been eaten and has been discharged, nothing to do about it... and what's more it tasted good. People are so starved that even cannibalism is brushed aside. The main aim for people here is to leave Cuba and reach America and make a good living there. They are willing to take crazy risks to go to America like sailing in a life boat. 

Pedro Juan views and narrates all these happenings in a stupor, in an almost half drunk state. There is an undercurrent of dark humor running through the novel. Sample the stories of Katie and the story of the Moron. Hilarious and ribald. What could have been a completely dark novel becomes one laced with humor, though it is a very fine line that the author treads. Pedro Juan in addition to the sex and dark humor also can depict loneliness, heart wrenchingly. The story the old woman who lives alone and who is so scared by the walls of her house collapsing, that she stops eating and even moving and passes away after a few days is one such. There is no one to look after her, Pedro Juan included. He says as a matter of fact that he forgot about her and that's the way life goes. One has to lookout for himself first, others come later. Reverse racism is one facet that is mentioned several times here. Mulattas(women with mixed heritage) do not like blacks. They feel that the more lighter in color they are the better they are and treat black men badly. They want to marry white men and go up in life as it were. The lure of the light/white skin is strong everywhere.

Pedro Juan is not a particularly likable person. In fact, you could even despise him for his antics, his immorality, his unfaithfulness. But the honesty with which he narrates things, accepts his faults and strives to make a living against all odds make him an unforgettable even iconic if flawed character to me. This is one of my most favorite books and have read it umpteen times. Grab it if you ever come across this. His 'Tropical Animal' sort of follows the same themes as in this book. 'Dirty Havana Trilogy' at any rate is the better book.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Haunting and Desolate Landscapes/Mindscapes of Juan Rulfo

Juan Rulfo has written very little, a single collection of short stories and a small novel 'Pedro Paramo'. But his reputation (posthumous) is huge and that is an indication of the quality of his works. I have read his 'Pedro Paramo' and one short story 'Luvina'. I cannot claim to have fully comprehended 'Pedro Paramo' and that what I understood from it is what the author intended to convey. The fault would be with me only in such a case. This post as such would be an short introduction to a writer who has haunted me.

'Pedro Paramo' starts off with the narration being done by 'Preciado' who has promised his mother (who has passed away) that he would  meet his father 'Pedro Paramo' at Comala which is where he is said to live. He reaches Comala, which seems to be a ghost town. The novel then fragments into a polyphony of voices, with Preciado having visions which are hallucinatory. The narration is fragmented and goes back and forth in time with various characters who are supposedly dead come alive and narrative the story of Comala. The childhood of 'Pedro Paramo' is also narrated, his obsession with a woman he loved and the the events that lead up to him becoming a tyrant being explained. It even seems like that  Preciado dies at some point during the narration. (not sure about this), but the other characters continue with  their narration. It is not even clear if the whole thing is a complete imagination of Preciado including his own death. But the narration gives an idea of the  desolation of the area and inner demons which haunt Comala's inhabitants.

The characters in this novel are haunted by their old memories and as such do not seem to be aware of the time/space they are in and indeed not even aware they are alive or not (i.e) if these characters are not a fiction of Perciado's imagination. The atrocities committed long ago, the betrayals done still haunt the minds of these characters. They are also alone and desolate in this ghost town, with only the memories of the past to keep them company. Their wind is a raging whirlpool of past events and it is their burden to live with them.

The desolation is also present his short story 'Luvina' which is more close to reality than the novel. However there too is a ghost town with no rain at all and where only dust filled winds blow all the time. People live there expecting their deaths only. There is nothing else to look forward too. As Juan Rulfo says '... the only people who lived there were the old men who could not travel, the kids too young enough to leave the place, unborn children and the women.'. Others have all left the place. What is haunting about this novel is the atmosphere which Juan Rulfo builds. There is no violence in this novel, no one dies and there is practically nothing happening in this story. It just has descriptions of 'Luvina' made by a teacher who once lived there. He is telling about Luvina to another person (a teacher presumably) who is about to leave for Luvina. The terrifying descriptions of the havoc that nature has played on Luniva is creepy. It also contrasts with the current environment in which the two persons are present, which is a pleasant place, with a stream running nearby, woods nearby and in the evening sun. 

Published in 1955, Pedro Paramo could have been a precursor to the magic realism boom of Latin American that started later, though this work is more in the surreal realm than in magic realism.

'Pedro Paramo' has an introduction by Susan Sontong. Juan Rulfo worked as a travelling salesman throughout his life. One wonders if the pressures and workload of domestic life had a hand in severely curtailing his input or whether he wrote so little because he wanted to. If the pull of day to day life curtailed his input, it is indeed a great loss to us readers, even if he would not be neither the first nor the last person to be pulled down by life. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

பூரணி பொற்கலை - கண்மணி குணசேகரன்.

பெரு தெய்வங்கள், நாட்டார் சாமிகள் பற்றிய புனைவுகள் பொதுவாக இரு விதமாக இருக்கும். ஒன்று ஆசிரியரோ, அல்லது புனைவின் பாத்திரங்களோ அந்த தொன்மங்கள் பற்றிய கதையை சொல்வார்கள். இன்னொன்று அந்த தெய்வங்களே கதையின் பாத்திரமாக இருப்பார்கள். அவையும் சமூக பார்வையோடு ஒரு பகடியாகவே இருக்கும் (மாடன் மோட்சம்). தெய்வங்களை ரத்தமும் சதையும் உள்ள 
பாத்திரங்களாக  குணசேகரன் உருவாக்கி இருக்கும் சிறுகதை தொகுப்பு தான் பூரணி பொற்கலை. மிகுதியான கதைகள் நாட்டார் தெய்வங்களின் பார்வையில் தான் சொல்லப்பட்டிருக்கின்றன. அய்யனார், அவரின் குதிரை, வீரனார் எல்லா கதைகளிலும்  வருகின்றார்கள். 

இதில் வரும் சாமிகளுக்கு திருவிளையாடல் புரிந்து, பக்தர்களோடு விளையாட எல்லாம் நேரம் இல்லை. மக்களுக்கும் அதற்க்கு எல்லாம் நேரம் இல்லை, அவர்களுக்கு பல பிரச்சனை உள்ளன. அதை சரி செய்யவே சாமிகளுக்கு நேரம் போதவில்லை, இதில் எங்கே திருவளையாடல் புரிய. 'பிராது' என்ற முதல் கதையும் இப்படிதான், வேடப்பர் மக்கள் குறை தீர்த்த அசதியால் தூங்கி விடுகிறார், அதனால் ஒரு பெண் கொடுத்திருந்த பிராதை கவனிக்கவில்லை. அதை பார்த்தவுடன் அவர் கொள்ளும் பதை பதிப்பும் பெண்ணின் குறையை தீர்க்க அவர் செயல்படுவதும் தான் கதை.  வேடப்பர், ஒருவர் தன் குடும்பத்தில் துன்பம்  வந்தால் என்ன பாடு படுவாரோ அதை போல் வருத்தப்படுகின்றார். விதி, கஷ்டப்பட தான் வேண்டும், இது என்னுடைய விளையாட்டு என்று இல்லாமல் துன்பம் என்றவுடம் பாய்ந்து வரும் சாமியை பற்றி படிக்கும் போது 
நமக்கும் நெகிழ்வாக தான் உள்ளது. இதே போல் எளிய மக்களின் பிராதுகள்,  குடியை நிறுத்துவது, பொருள் திருடு போவது போன்றவற்றை இந்த சாமிகள் தான் தீர்த்து வைக்கின்றார்கள். 
இந்த சாமிகளுக்கு பிரச்சனை இல்லையா? இருக்கின்றது. மக்கள் இவர்களை மெதுவாக மறக்கவும் ஆரம்பிக்கின்றார்கள், கோயில் இதத்தை                   
ஆக்கிரமிப்பும் செய்கின்றார்கள். பாவம், தங்கள் மக்கள் தானே என்று முதலில் ஒன்றும் செய்யாமல் இருக்கும் அய்யனார், பிறகு நிலைமை கை மீறி 
போன பின் கோபம் கொள்கிறார். அதானால் பயனில்லை. அவர் கனவில் வந்தும், அந்த ஊர் தலைவர், அய்யனாரை அடையாளம் கண்டு கொள்வதில்லை. வெறுத்துப்போய் ஊரை விட்டே சென்று விடுகின்றார். தங்கள் மண்ணை விட்டு செல்லும் போது ஏற்படும் அதே மன துன்பம் தான் சாமிகளுக்கும், மனதை தேற்றிக்கொண்டு செல்கிறார்கள். பின்னர் ஊர் தலைவர், இதை உணர்ந்து கொண்டு அய்யனாரை தேடுகிறார். ஒரு நாள் அய்யனாரை, ஈயம் பூசிக்கொண்டிருப்பதை பார்க்கின்றார். கதை முடிகின்றது. இதை 'மேல்நிலையாக்கத்தால்' சிறு தெய்வ வழிபாடு குறைவதை பற்றியாத கொள்ளலாம், மேலும் மக்கள் தன் சொந்த மண்ணை விட்டு நகரம் நோக்கி நகர்வதைப்பற்றியதாகவும் கொள்ளலாம். 
மக்களுக்காக தான் சாமிகள், அவர்கள் நலம் காக்க தான் என்பது பொதுவான கருத்து. ஆனால் சாமிகளுக்கும் மக்கள் தேவை. இதை 'புழுதி' கதை சொல்கின்றது. ஒரு கிராமத்தை, கோயில் நிலத்தை, அரசாங்கம் எடுத்துக்கொள்ள, மக்கள் அங்கிருந்து செல்கிறார்கள். அய்யனார், வீரனார் போன்றவர்கள் தங்கள் மக்களுடன் செல்கின்றனர். அங்காலம்மாள் மட்டும் தன் மக்கள் தங்களை பற்றி யோசிக்க வில்லை என்று கோபம் கொண்டு அங்கேயே இருந்து விடுகிறாள். காலம் செல்ல, அரசாங்க வேலைகளால், கோயில் முழுவதும் புழுதி, கவனிப்பாற்று பொய் விடுகின்றது. ஒரு நாள் 
அங்காலம்மாள் தடுக்கி விழ அவள் கூறும் 'ஏம் மக்க மனுசாளு கூட இருந்தா, எனக்கு இந்த கதி வருமா, எனக்கு இந்த கதி வருமா', சாமிகளுக்கும், மக்களுக்கும் உள்ள உறவை சொல்கின்றது. அடித்தாலும், பிரிந்தாலும் அவர்கள் ஒரே குடும்பம் போல் தான் இருக்கின்றார்கள். 
பொதுவாக சாமிகள், எல்லையில் இருப்பார்கள், ஊரை காவல் காப்பார்கள் என்பதுடன் அவர்கள் இடம் பற்றி நாம் வேறு எதுவும் நினைப்பதில்லை. ஊரை விட்டு இருப்பதை பற்றி, அந்த சாமிகள் என்ன நினைக்கின்றார்கள். 'படையல்'  கதையின் இறுதியில் பூரணி சொல்லும் 'எந்த பொறப்புல என்னா பாவம் செய்தோமோ, சனங்களோட சனங்களா, குடுப்பன இல்லாம, இப்படி அநாதி நடுக்காட்ல நாதியத்து கெடக்கறம்', நம்மை அந்த சாமிகளை நம்முடன் இன்னும் நெருக்கமானவர்களாக எண்ண முடிகின்றது. . சாமிகளாக இருப்பத என்ன வரமா, இல்லை ஒரு சாபமா என்றும் எண்ண வைக்கின்றது.
இந்த தொகுதியில் ஒரு மூன்று கதைகள் தவிர்த்து மற்றவை அனைத்தும், இந்த சாமிகளை பற்றியது தான். ஒரு கதை 'ஆணிகளின் கதை', 'வெள்ளருக்கு' தொகுதியில் ஏற்கனவே வந்துள்ளது. வித விதமான இசங்கள், மாய எதார்த்தம் என்று எழுதுவது நடக்கும் போது, யதார்த்த கதை சொல்லியான கண்மணி குணசேகரன், அனாயசமாக இந்த கதைகளை எழுதி உள்ளார். மேலை நாடு இசங்கள் இல்லாமலே, புனைவில் புதிய சாத்தியங்கள் முடியும் என்பதை இந்த தொகுப்பு காட்டுகின்றது. 

தமிழினி பதிப்பகம் - இவர்களுடைய புத்தகங்கள் வெளியே சரியாக கிடைப்பதில்லை, இந்த கண்காட்சியில் இந்த தொகுப்பை வாங்கலாம். கூடவே கண்மணி குணசேகரனின் மற்ற படைப்புக்களையும். 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Julio Cortazar's World - Where The Mundane Meets The Mysterious

Cortazar is a strange writer or rather writer of strange inexplicable things, in that they are not explainable by us, but they may well have a reason for occurring. These are not some template strange things happening like getting caught in a haunted house, or in a graveyard in the middle of the night. Yes, we enjoy those stories, are even scared by them but in the back of our mind we know that we will not most probably experience those things. (How many among us is going to a graveyard in the night after all)  But lets consider another scenario, assume that you are listening to your favorite song on headset while travelling in a bus, the clear morning/afternoon sun beating down, its a song you have innumerable times and know by heart the lyrics. Suddenly you hear the voice singing another set of lyrics or probably the voice itself has changed. How would you feel then, this is much closer to our everyday life, most of us hear songs while travelling. This is the point, where the everyday life suddenly becomes terrible, this is the crux of most of Cortazar's stories. This is what makes them even more haunting in the sense that these things could actually happen to us. This post is not a critique or detailed analysis of his works, but only my random musings on his work and his short story collection 'Blow Up and Other Stories'. This could be a short introduction to him too.

His short story collection 'Blow Up' has such a collection of stories. For instance, in one of them 'House Taken Over', we are lead to believe that that house is being taken over some force which is never explained. An old brother and sister live there, the sister makes clothes. They start hearing noises in various rooms of the houses one day. It starts slowly, they stop going to those rooms and avoiding them. The noise slowly pervades the other rooms too and thus restricting their movement in the house itself. The fear of the unknown and the helplessness in the face of it is brought out very well.

'Axolotl' is a story about a person who becomes obsessed with Axolotl (a particular kind of fish) that he sees in the aquarium of  the museum. He starts to go there every day and stares at the fish until one day he finds that he is staring at the outside from within the aquarium. (!!) The story ends there

Cortazar is also intrigued by the tradition of  doppelgangers, alternate reality, parallel realities, in short,  he just likes to play around with the possibilities of fiction and the mind. His story 'This Night Face Up'', to me personally, is the ultimate con job in tricking the reads. If you look at the story rationally, it won't hold, but you just can ignore the questions of what exactly is real that is raised here. In this, I feel that he is closer to Borges.

'Blow up' is probably his most celebrated story, but not the one I like most 
personally.  It was made into a very famous film, so could have become more famous than his other works. This also has his trademark touch. What happens here, a photographer captures a woman and a boy talking, he enlarges the photo and makes a blow up of it. He feels that he has interrupted something by taking the photo, thinks that maybe he has saved the boy somehow. Suddenly he seems to see in the blow up that the people frozen in the photo are alive, they are going to complete what was stopped by the photographer taking the photo. What happens next, well it's left to us.

All these are in his short story collection 'Blow Up and other stories'.

It's not as if Cortazar plays around with the content of stories alone, he plays around with the form too. 'Blow up' is interspersed with first person and third person accounts all about the same man. His novel 'Hopscotch' has been written in such a way that you can read the first 81 chapters in the same order or you can skip from one chapter to the one mentioned at the end of the chapter. You would get multiple storylines like that. Yes, this has been tried out several times, but Cortazar was one of the first to do this. I personally have not tried reading the novel this way, the novel is pretty big as it is and reading it several times was beyond me. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Haruki Murakami - Reality of the Surreal

What does one make of Murakami.Is he a surrealist, post-modernist, writer of modern Japan, detective/sci-fi metaphysical writer or a writer of the vacuum/emptiness that exists in us and the alienation we feel . He is all of them and he is none of them too. If what I have said is confusing to someone, then maybe Murakami is not for them. Just go for the ride. You either hate him as a fake, charlatan or love him, there is no middle ground with him.I personally enjoy his work, contemplate on what he is trying to say and make some inferences, that's all. If one expects a clear story, well defined characters, a moment of epiphany, or at the least a resolution to the story you are going to be disappointed. Murakami is a enigma who can be enjoyed or hated as per your orientation, but trying to decipher him or his novel fully, well good luck to the person.

The characters in his novel don't actually vary much and as such it is almost a template. In most of his works, the main protagonist is a mid 30's man, single/divorced with no current job sometimes(not out of any laziness or lack of talent) and one who has an is stuck in ennui. He is one who does not get flustered by even the most surreal things happening to him, he views them almost as an outsider like in some kind of mild stupor. He is also capable to action when required, but is one who prefers to go with the flow and being reactive rather than proactive. There is in most cases a woman, who, though is not a femme-fatale is mysterious enough. It is when she enters the man's life the story kicks off. His last 2 works (as translated in English), 'Kafka On the Shore' and 'After Dark' buck this trend and are a welcome change.

There is no specific story as such in his works, characters come and go, but at the undercurrent there is a serious core that is running throughout all this. 'Kafka On The Shore' has the thread of two characters who are travelling and are destined to meet and the other thread of the person's search for his mother. These are interleaved with other characters and situations. 'Norwegian wood' has the the late 60's as the background (for it's significance to youth), and also the restlessness of the young where they feel they make lack something even if outwardly they seem to have everything. At a base level of reading his works may seem vacuous, full of style but no substance, but I have never felt it to be so. 

The concept of real/unreal have no real meaning in his works. Parallel timelines/universes, talking cats are as common in his works as the daily chore of laundry, making spaghettis etc. In a similar way, genres are also straddled effortlessly, he is a great genre bender.Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of 
the World has detective elements with the surreal as does 'Dance Dance Dance', whereas Norwegian woods straddles the metaphysical and the real. 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' also looks at Japan's history in the second world war and as such is the novel where a social issue is taken up on a generic scale, along with touching upon urban alienation.

Alienation is one concept that is recurrent throughout his works. The  main protagonist in 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle', thinks about his wife after he comes to know she has left him. He realizes that he does not even know some basic things like the color she likes etc. They have been married for some years now, have not had any great fights, but still they has been something lacking which he has not got, till she has left him. They are symptomatic of couples who drift apart without knowing about it at all and one fine day when they realize it they are surprised, though they have been staring at the truth for a long time. Likewise, the character who commits suicide in 'Norwegian wood', he had good grades, a steady girlfriend, was socially comfortable, had a great future and yet commits suicide.

The canvas/backdrop of his works are beautifully mentioned, though it could also be the translators gift. Whether it is the description of the Mongolian province where hellish events happen or the gloomy, dark, barely lit bar that is the backdrop for most of 'After Dark', his descriptions are evocative. Music and food too are referred constantly, in fact, in 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle', the main character is referred to as cooking several times. You get the feeling to taste the recipes mentioned by Murakami. But regards to music, his tastes which are eclectic ranging from Chopin to other jazz/blues musicians, those are over my head. This musical notes extend to his prose too.

To me, his most accomplished work is 'Kafa on the shore'. The almost whimsical nature of his earlier works and the somewhat rambling tone of 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' have been pared down and we get a much tighter work, though not losing any of his earlier works charm.

I would not go further than this as an introduction to Murakami. I would recommend Murakami highly, just go for it and read him. If you are still skeptical, start off with 'After Dark' which is the smallest of his novels or his short stories. It may be roller coaster, which you love or hate, but hey you may not forget that one experience, even if you do not come back to it again.

1. Some of the characters and story-lines, especially his earlier works are somewhat interrelated, so it would be better if they are read in the required order to get some context. 

2. Translation Issues: There have been multiple translators, of which 'Jay Rubin' is said to be the best.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Bully In Us

Have you ever taken out your anger on someone, whom you know cannot give it right back to you and hence you are safe from being at the receiving end. The anger would be an impotent one in that, your superior could have berated you, client could have thrashed you or simple some discontent with life in general or pure and simple jealousy. You obviously feel that you cannot give it back to you superior/client and so take it out on some like your sub-ordinate who won't respond (who in turn could very well pass this on to the one below him). At the worst, you take it out on your family, who don't know what's happening, but try to give your rants some legitimacy by saying/guessing that you are behaving so because of some external trouble. Well, this has happened to me and I guess to a lot of others too. This is the base of two short stories, 'A Little Cloud' and 'Counterparts' by James Joyce in the collection 'Dubliners' (published 1910)

'Little' Chandler is main protagonist in A little cloud. A wannabe poet, who 'when he thought of life became sad and melancholy' and has resigned to the fact that 'it is useless to struggle against fortune'.  He is someone who is just barely happy with this current life, with discontent just bubbling under the surface, though he himself may not be aware of it. He is married with a very small child. As the story starts, he leaves his office to meet an old friend 'Gallaher' who has left Dublin and gone to London and is working as a reporter. Meeting him seems to Chandler to be a high point in his daily mundane existence and he looks scornfully at the other people in the streets. He is to meet him at 'Corleys' which is apparently a prestigious bar/pub because Chandler is excited about that too. His mood is pretty good at this point.
He meets Gallaher and the two exchange greeting and talk about old times/friends. Chandler asks him about the places where he has gone abroad especially Paris. He wants to know if it is as immoral as it is being said by others. Gallaher has gone to lots of places abroad and gives Berlin the pride of place in immorality.
Gallaher was a go getter right from his younger days. Though he was not to be reputed as one with any special talent, but his attitude as as go getter has taken him away from Dublin to the lights of London. Chandler envies him a bit, but it is only a normal feeling and he does not wish Gallaher anything bad. 
Chandler drinks lot more than he normally does, Gallaher exhorts him to be more outgoing, wants him to free himself up more. Before he leaves, Chandler invites Gallaher to his home, Gallher is sorry about not being able to come since he has another appointment. Chandler leaves.the bar.
His mood changes at this point. His normal envy gives way to the more dangerous one when one starts losing control. He thinks about Gallaher, how he was inferior to him and yet has become more successful than him. His mood worsens and he even becomes resentful about life in general. He reaches home and finds that he has forgotten to buy coffee powder that his wife had asked. His wife goes out to buy it. We get the person that she is a person who runs the show in their house which is not to say that she dominates him, but she is a counter foil to his fragility. After she leaves, Chandler walks around his wife and sees a photo of his wife. Now he actually wonders why he married her in the first place. He has reached a state of breaking point. He then starts reading poems by Byron, when the child starts crying a bit. He tries to rock and comfort him, but the crying does not stop. Chandler snaps at this point and shouts at his son. The baby starts crying harder and Chandler suddenly comes out the cloud (as it were) that has been hanging over him for some time now. He tries to comfort the kid, but to no avail. His wife Annie comes back at this point and starts consoling the kid.
While watching the two, Chandlers eyes well up with tears of remorse. The story ends. One can empathize with Chandler's feelings and the tears of remorse at the end are as much an act of redemption for his acts as they could be possibly for himself, for the realization that he alone is to be blamed for his current state. Who knows about it. But the tears reveal to the reader that the cloud has lifted and probably Chandler will go back to his state of melancholy and life will proceed as before.

'Counterparts', in the same collection is based on the same theme. But here the protagonist "Farrington' is a much more despicable character. He is some some sort of junior level personnel at an office. He is also shown to be a drunkard and one who does not much care for his work. On that particular day of the story, he has a bust up with his boss and his mood worsens due to that. He leaves office to get drunk. Realizing that he has no money, he pawns his watch chain. The self destructive streak that is present in most of us manifests in this. He meets his friends in the pub and they start drinking. They go on a tour of the pubs. At the last pub, he gets into an test of strength with a much younger person and loses it. He also sees a woman in the pub and though she seems interested in him, things go no further. His mood further worsens and he is in a foul temper when he reaches home. It is revealed that he is married and has 5 kids, which makes his irresponsibility even worse. His wife is one who in Joyce's words 'she bullied her husband when he was not drunk and was bullied by him when he was'. This gives some clue on the sort of home the kids are growing up. One feels for the kids who grow up in such environments.His wife is not there and he asks the son who opens the door (whose name he does not remember), whether dinner is ready. When he sees that the fire is out, his impotent rage reaches its climax and he starts brutally beating his son, who begs his father to spare him. The story ends here.
Compared to Chandler, Farrington is a real brute, though the mention about his wife makes one think whether there is some thing else here. But over and above everything one feels for the kids of this bullying couple. 
Two stories, two somewhat similar persons, but the common point is the strong dominating the weak and the stronger dominating the strong. 
Joyce has a tremendously forbidding reputation for some one trying to read him. But 'Dubliners', to me is his most accessible work and has some little gems of short stories, which are relevant even today. (Have not read his Ulysses, Finnegan's wake and could only get through half of 'A Potrait of The Artist as A Young Man'). Dubliners in that sense is a good place to get acquainted with one who is said to be one of the most influential persons in modernist literature.  Try it, you will not be disappointed. 
Note: The collection has characters who are prickly, outright despicable, generally people who want to get out of their lives, there are not much happy characters here

The Bear Came over the mountain - Alice Munro

Alice Munro is probably one of most accomplished short story writers. Here, I have used the term short story as a convenience only, since one cannot completely pin her stories, where many run above 30 pages as novellas also. Hence this classification. 'The Bear Came over the mountain' is to me personally, one of her best works. 
Fiona and Grant are a couple married for about 45 years. The story is told mostly from the perspective of Grant. Fiona starts suffering from memory loss, which seems like Alzheimer, though it is not explicitly mentioned. The onset and seriousness of memory loss is not referred explicitly, but more through a series of events/actions like 
Over a year ago, Grant had started noticing so many little yellow notes stuck up all over the house. That was not entirely new. Fiona had always written things down—the title of a book she’d heard mentioned on the radio or the jobs she wanted to make sure she got done that day. Even her morning schedule was written down. He found it mystifying and touching in its precision: “7 a.m. yoga. 7:30–7:45 teeth face hair. 7:45– 8:15 walk. 8:15 Grant and breakfast.”
The new notes were different. Stuck onto the kitchen drawers—Cutlery, Dishtowels, Knives. Couldn’t she just open the drawers and see what was inside?
But things come to a pass, where Fiona has to be taken to a place 'Meadowlake' which apparently looks after people with similar affliction. Grant comes back after leaving her there. He is to visit her after a week. He is worried about her and phones everyday and talks to the nurse Kristy about Fiona. Grant has been a lecturer/professor at a college. He has also had quite a few affairs. It is hinted that he had to resign from his position due to some hushed up scandal where he was accused of using his position to get one his students to bed. Munro is a master in describing entire life times in a few paragraphs, but why this description about Grant's affair. The answer could be present, as we read through the story. It is hinted that even with his affairs, he did not even think of leaving Fiona, does it mean he loved her and if so why the affairs?
And of deceiving Fiona—as, of course, he had. But would it have been better if he had done as others had done with their wives, and left her? He had never thought of such a thing. He had never stopped making love to Fiona. 

Grant visits Fiona after a week. She is not in her room, the nurse takes him to a hall where there are several inmates present along with Fiona. They are playing cards and Fiona is sitting next to a person who is also in the game. Fiona sees Grants and greets him. He introduces her new friend, whom she says she used to know when they were kids.
The other man is Aubrey and about Grant's age But he seems to resent Grants intrusion here. In Munro's words 
the cardplayer was sending her his look, which was one not of supplication but of command. ... Fiona too seems to have become close him, when she says  “I better go back,” Fiona said, a blush spotting her newly fattened face. “He thinks he can’t play without me sitting there. It’s silly, I hardly know the game anymore...' Fiona goes back to the game leaving Grant. He goes back to the Nurse. His reaction to what has happened is pithily put in the question he asks the nurse 'Grant said, “Does she even know who I am?”. The nurse tries to brush it off saying that it is normal to people here for form new attachments and it would probably go off after sometime. But things don't change, Fiona is most of the time with Aubrey and seems to drift apart from Grant. The story can very well end here and it would still be a good one, with Grant being left alone and the reader ruminating on the myriad ways in which humans can behave. But Munro is one who pushes the envelope always.
One day when Grant visits here, he finds here in bed and pretty upset. Aubrey is with her holding hands. It transpires.that Aubrey is to be discharged. Completely unaware of what she is saying, Fiona asks Grant if he any influence to keep Aubrey here. Aubrey too does not seem to want to leave. Fiona holds him in her arms, comforting him and 'there was nothing Grant could decently do but get out of the room.".  The irony of this is wrenching. Fiona's condition deteriorates after Aubrey leaves, she rarely leaves her bed and becomes almost immobile. She is in danger to moving to a ward where the more seriously afflicted are kept.

Grant then goes to meet Aubrey's wife Marian. Marian is initially bit hostile to him as she is upset about her husband's new relationship with Grant's wife. Gradually she thaws. Grant asks Marian if if Aubrey could visit Fiona once in a week. He offers to take Aubrey himself to the center. Marian refuses, saying that what could be passing fancy could become more permanent. She also says that she would keep Aubrey at her home itself.  Grant praises here noble intentions. But Munro is not satisfied with that. She peels layer after layer of the human mind and behavior and lets us see what lies underneath each layer. This great gift of hers could actually be a failing, since the reader gets an impression that there is almost no true empathy anywhere in the world, when all actions are stripped to the bare. Consider Marian's response to Grant's praise.
“No, it isn’t. But the way I am, I don’t have much choice. I don’t have the money to put him in there unless I sell the house. The house is what we own outright. Otherwise I don’t have anything in the way of resources. Next year I’ll have his pension and my pension, but even so I couldn’t afford to keep him there and hang on to the house. And it means a lot to me, my house does.”
Sounds almost mercenary right, but who are we to judge others and their predicaments. Grant's leaves and comes back to his home. Even at this point, if the story ends, it is a good one, better than the one that ends with Fiona making friendship with Aubrey. But no, there are still layers of human behavior to be peeled. Grant has got 2 messages in this phone. Both are from Fiona. The first is 

“Hello, Grant. I hope I got the right person. I just thought of something. There is a dance here in town at the Legion supposed to be for singles on Saturday night and I am on the lunch committee, which means I can bring a free guest. So I wondered whether you would happen to be interested in that? Call me back when you get a chance.”
 The second message, which has come immediately after the first is

“I just realized I’d forgotten to say who it was. Well, you probably recognized the voice. It’s Marian. I’m still not so used to these machines. And I wanted to say I realize you’re not a single and I don’t mean it that way. I’m not either, but it doesn’t hurt to get out once in a while. If you are interested you can call me and if you are not you don’t need to bother. I just thought you might like the chance to get out. It’s Marian speaking. I guess I already said that. O.K. then. Goodbye.”
The greatness of Munro manifests in the above 2 paragraphs, which are so real. Lets consider the first one, Marian is asking Grant if he would come with her for a dance. Set aside the surprise/shock at this message from Marian who is pretty devoted to her husband and lets also set side thinking about what made her do this. Just the dialogue, short, abrupt, exactly just like someone who just wants to get something out and blurts it out without any context or reference. The second dialogue is even more insightful.  This is what every done says/has said, after we have said/done something without much thinking and want to make up for it. Marian in this message, is bit defensive, unsure of what she wants to says and if she saying it the correct way and trying to mask it at the same time and trying to be bit flippant in saying that 'don't need to bother if you are not interested'.
How many times have we said variants of the same thing. Grant thinks for sometime and starts dialing her number.

Cut to the last part. Grant goes to the center. He tells Fiona '“Fiona, I’ve brought a surprise for you. Do you remember Aubrey?”. What has happened,  did Grant and Marian hook up together, is that why Aubrey has  come to visit Fiona, as some deal? Or is it just a simple rhetorical question? But 
“Names elude me,” she said harshly. It seems she has forgotten Aubrey or has she? The story ends there with the following paragraphs
“I’m happy to see you,” she said, both sweetly and formally. She pinched his earlobes, hard.

“You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull.
He said, “Not a chance.”

We are left with several questions. Why does Grant do that things he does? Is it his overwhelming love for Fiona and if so what are we to make out of his affairs in the past. Is it because of some untold guilty conscience that he is trying to be accommodative and is that why mention of his affairs made earlier in the story. Maybe it's the first thing, even considering all his affairs. The end of the story 'He said, “Not a chance.” may validate this. Above and all Fiona and Grant are two people greatly in love, who cannot let go of each other. We are left just hoping that Fiona recovers and so does Aubrey. What do we make of Marian? We are left with questions alone as is the case most of the time. Let's just let people be and stop trying to decipher human emotions, much like Munro. She shows us minute changes in behavior, emotions and the way people behave in different situations, but is never judgmental. 

1. I did not then and don't do now, understand the rationale of the title of this story. If someone can enlighten me, would be grateful. 
2. This story was made into a film, don't know if it released last year or is yet to release.

Crime Watch - Some Authors/Series- Genre Fiction

Crime has a (morbid) fascination for a lot us and we like to read about crimes and novels on crime and thrillers. Even some of the so called 'high brow' readers read it, but do not accept it (guilty pleasures is what it is called :)). There are a lot of sub-genres within this, of which I like the police procedural the best. How does it differ from the classical British mysteries or the slasher/serial killer genre?. 
Unlike the British closed room mysteries or serial killer thrillers, there is no super-intelligent main character who solves all the crimes in his mind, explains his solution to the perpetrator of the crime and the perpetrator accepts it almost with no objection. The detective work is done painstakingly, going for door to door searches, cross checking the witnesses and the solution lies in some of the voluminous data unearthed by them. Sometimes, it is almost by chance, that the solution is arrived upon. In some cases, it is also a bit late to save someone else who has been murdered in the meantime.  This happens also because, in these novels, the characters have to work on several cases at a time and they don't have the luxury of working on only one case at a time. 

The best novels in this genre are those which continue as a series. The main characters come in all the novels and the reader can see the evolution of the characters over a period of time. For e.g. in one of the series, the main character starts off with having a difficult relationship with this wife and over the course of the series, the relationship deteriorates, they get divorced and he starts seeing another woman. This may seem trivial, but these info on their personal lives give us an insight into the emotional baggage carried by police offers.The policemen/women are not super humans who have no faults of their own. They too have their own insecurities, ego, professional jealousies which is manifested in the novels. They are also socially insecure in the sense that they are not able to deal with the so called normal people. Several of them are divorced. They are also bothered by the unsolved cases, by the criminals who got away and even by the victims of the crimes whose cases they take up. Their work is their sanctuary. They even drink a lot to get away from the real world. For e.g. Rebus is a heavy drinker, but still, when he goes home and gets drunk, is haunted by the faces of the victims. 

The who/how part of the crime is not as important in these novels as the why and most importantly the ramifications of the crime. In several cases, the person who commits the crime is revealed very early itself. The authors are more concerned about why he did the crime and it's impact on the families of the victim. For instance, a young girl of 16-17 is killed. What impact it does have on the parents. In lots of cases, the family drifts apart, the father blaming (implicitly) the mother for not monitoring the girl enough, the mother in turn blaming the father for not being around enough. A normal family torn apart by some unforeseeable event. And what does push the person to commit the crimes. In several cases, he is not some crazed evil genius who kills for the pure joy of killing. He is someone, whom in a moment of madness commits a crime, destroys an entire family and without meaning too sets in a series of chain of motions and has to face the ramifications himself. I am not trying to give the impression that these novels tend to glorify or mitigate the criminal deeds, but they just try to look at it from other angles too. The why part of the crime also tend to look at society as a whole and try to understand why these crimes occur and at such brutality. A murder is a murder anywhere and anytime, but the brutality and almost casualness of them has been increasing over the years and at some point we fail to recognize the society which was present around 20 years ago with the one now. As Wallender says often 'How did Sweden come to this state'?. 

The characters of the series also age over real time, unlike most others in other genre, where time is static. This is not a criticism of those novels, but when characters age, their experiences change, the reader also gets a feeling of being a part of their lives. Ian Rankin has retired Rebus after nearly 30 years of service. I have listed the novelists/characters whom I like the most. What makes these series so good is the characters, if a character holds your attention you want to stick through him for the entire series, irrespective of the actual plots of the novels and most of the authors/characters mentioned below fall into that category.

Henning Mankell/Wallander - Mankell is one of the high priests of this genre. Set in Sweden, the series Kurt Wallander has the main character and leads a team which solves crimes. In the beginning of the series, Wallander is divorced, his daughter does not talk to him and he has a difficult relationship with his own father. Over the series, he mends fences with daughter and father and his daughter too joins the force. Kurt is a obstinate man, heavy drinker and a loner. (He is caught one time for drunken driving, but the policemen let him go). He is also not in any sort of long term stable relationship. (He was for sometime in a long distance relationship with one of the characters he met during the course of an investigation, but it did not work out). He also has a reasonably good relationship with this team members, but as he himself asks in one novel 'Do we really know anyone else fully'?.
A must read for anyone wanting to get into this genre.

Ian Rankin/Jack Rebus - Rankin along with Mankell, should be the topmost tier of this genre. The series is set in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jack Rebus is almost a social misfit, egoistic, antagonistic with even his superiors. In fact, he is being monitored by his superiors for any slip up so that he can be booted out. But his great track record in solving crimes, saves him. He tramples across all authorities, departments to get his job done. The job is his private shell where he can escape from his inner demons. He is by no means a perfect characters, in fact he could be someone the reader could actually hate.  Rebus has retired from the service. Siobhan is a female character who teamed up with Rebus in the later novels, started of a minor character and by the end became as important as Rebus. The series could continue with Siobhan taking over and Rebus giving her help. The relationship between the two also has evolved over the period with Rebus almost taking a mentor/protective role over him, which of course is disliked by Siobhan.

Arnaldur Indridason/Erlunder - Set in Iceland, this series is probably the bleakest  and gloomy of them all. The mood of the novels mirrors the landscape of the country. This is also the series where the detective part is probably the least and the novel focuses more on the characters and at the end the conclusion is arrived not due to any major brainwave, but simply as a logical progression. Erlunder too has a troubled family life, his daughter is a drug junkie. Erlunder too is haunted by the death of this brother when they were kids and has an almost morbid fascination in reading books about people who get lost in the artic. He also likes the old Icelandic sagas. Indridason also brings up the past, when in a novel he refers to Iceland's part in the second world war and the people who worked with the Nazis.  Highly recommended.

Val Mcdermid/Tony Hill-Carol Jordan - Set in Scotland again. Mcdermid writes the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series and also standalones other series. I have read only the Tony hill series. It has Tony Hill, a profiler who suffers from sexual dysfunction and Carol Jordan a detective. The two team up to solve macabre crimes, in fact this series has some of the most gory crimes committed.  The relationship between the two, which is still evolving is a major sub-text of the series. She writes stand alone novels also, which are also really good.

Fred Vargas/Adamsberg - Set in France. Adamsberg is almost an antithesis of the characters mentioned above in that he is almost whimsical person, whose head is in the clouds as they say. Depends more on intuition, but unlike Poirot, Holmes etc, these are not flashes of brillance. Adamsberg himself cannot explain why or how he gets these ideas, but ultimately he gets his man. These series can be seem almost as a play on this genre.

Colin Dexter/Morse - Set in Oxford, England. This series probably does not belong here technically, in that it is close to the classical British mystery too. But Morse is a pretty unique character in this genre. He is pedantic, egoistic, miserly (drinks a lot, but does not pay for it, it is his sub-ordinate Lewis, who pays most of the time) and un-imaginably rude with others who he this is not up to the mark intellectually (for e.g. he rips people who make simple spelling errors). It is also hinted that Morse suffered a failed love affair and which resulted in poor academic performance and in him being booted out of college. These hinted details, give us an insight into the troubled and hurt man inside the almost boorish outward detective. More than Adamsberg, Morse depends on intuition to get the killers. He disregards clues which are in front of him and goes galloping down the wrong path. Later he understands that he was wrong, but without any acceptance of that or remorse, goes along another path. His relationships with Max the pathologist and Lewis has it's prickly moments, but the heartfelt feelings he has for them and they for him are one of the major high points of this series for me.

Other novelists which I like are Jo Nesbo, Ake Edwardsen, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Stuart Mcbride, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (who created the martin beck series). Steig Larsson is one who has gained great fame posthumously with his Millennium trilogy. But personally, I liked only the first part of the trilogy. The next two seemed to be hastily put out and read more like scenes from a film than as a novel. The character 'Salander' however is a pretty unique one, in this genre. Micheal Connelly is the only American I have here, his stand alone novels 'The Poet' and 'The Narrows' are really good.


1. One can see that many of the novelists referred above are from Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Personally for me, the best crime fiction in recent years have been written from the Scandinavian countries. But this too has a pitfall, where there is a glut of novels  from there and as it's known when there is almost an assembly line production of such novels, the quality is bound to suffer. For instance, a lot of the novels have the same template of middle aged detective, divorced, somewhat socially incompatible etc. After a time, the template gets too repetitive and boring. The novelists mentioned above are among the forerunners of this genre.

2. While reading these novels, it would be better to read them chronologically. While there is not much overlap of the main story lines in the series, understanding the back stories of the main characters and their history would be easier if they are read in the order they were published. However this is not possible always since you would not be able to purchase books in the same order, it depends on the availability of them. I myself have read several out of order, did not face many issues, but yes better to read them in in order.