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.