Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Also among the heavy hitters are Philip Roth’s The Humbling (like Ol’ Man River, he jes’ keeps rollin’ on); Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, in which a private eye creeps “out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the LA fog.”; Margaret Atwood’s God’s Gardeners, another one of her dystopian epics; and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a “story cycle” dealing with love, music and death
One hopes that Monica Ali is over her sophomore slump with her third novel, In The Kitchen – a tale of events in a London hotel, which may well turn out to have forebears as unlikely as Sankar’s Chowringhee, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Henry Green’s Loving.
Closer to the subcontinent, there’s Daniyal Mueenuddin's much-heralded debut, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, with some already likening him to no less a personage than Turgenev (the title story is here); William Dalrymple’s non-fiction account of the remnants of pre-codified religious practices in India (an interview on the subject is here); Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, a tale of the criss-crossing paths of three Indian musicians; and Abraham Verghese’s first novel, Cutting for Stone, spanning decades and set in India, Ethiopia and New York.
Then, there’s Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, a ghost story set in rural Warwickshire in the late 1940s, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, which takes place a few years later, with a young immigrant from Ireland trying to forge a new life for herself in New York.
Finally, here’s hoping that the publishing industry finds a way to get back on its feet in the coming year, and that Landmark’s Mumbai branch re-opens so that the city can once again have at least one decent bookstore in which the above titles will be available.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF Julian Barnes
“I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen once remarked, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. It’s a sentiment that would arouse a wry smile from the 62-year-old Julian Barnes, whose non-fiction narrative, Nothing to be Frightened Of, is a fine-tuned meditation on mortality and confronting the Grim Reaper.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” is how he begins, going on to clarify that at a time when Christianity in Europe has largely been reduced to ritual, he misses “the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art” – be it Mozart’s Requiem, Giotto’s paintings or Donatello’s sculptures.
The bulk of the book, though, is a series of deliberations on death and the human response to it. What saves this from terminal grimness or sentiment is that Barnes is never less than clear-sighted, his prose is skillfully elegant, and that there’s more than a touch of puckishness to the proceedings. Defining himself as one who fears death and has no faith, he speaks of his inexplicable night-terrors, with his motivation, quoting Shostakovich, being that “we have to make the fear [of death] familiar, and one way is to write about it”.
Though he clarifies that this is not his autobiography, there’s much here about his childhood, his parents, and of his reactions to their inevitable ageing and demise. His brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, is also a continual presence, with the author spending much time recreating run-ins and debating finer points of philosophical musings on death. Clearly, there’s more than a bit of sibling rivalry that’s continued over the years.
Barnes quotes incessantly from others on the subject, invoking the words of writers and musicians from Stravinsky to Stendhal. In particular, he derives inspiration from 19th century French writer Jules Renard, who once wrote, “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn’t”.
Renard’s mode of writing was “compression, annotation, pointillism”, and this is something that Barnes has clearly taken to heart, for his writing is epigrammatic and quotable. “Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly,” he writes in context of his loss of faith; and then, speaking of his craft, he asserts, “Doctors, priests and novelists conspire to present human life as a story progressing towards a meaningful conclusion”. Towards the end, he muses on memory, imagination and truth and his relationship to them as a novelist, coming up with another bon mot: “A novelist is something who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember”.
Structurally, Nothing to be Frightened Of progresses by means of circularity and repetition and it must be admitted that there are times when this approach becomes much too discursive. Overall, though, the words that Barnes uses to describe the writing of Alphonse Daudet could well be applied to his book, too: “The exact glance, the exact word, the refusal either to aggrandize or to trivialize death – exhilarating”.
Friday, December 12, 2008
BALTI BRITAIN Ziauddin Sardar
Ziauddin Sardar has tirelessly advocated the need to reinvent the ways we look at Islam. In Balti Britain, he takes “a journey through the British Asian experience”, uncovering layers of identity connected to history, geography and family. A worthwhile endeavour at a time when there’s a hardening of attitudes towards multiculturalism, even among supposed liberals from Andrew Anthony to Martin Amis. Unfortunately, despite the debunking of historical myths and heartfelt asides, Balti Britain is narrower in scope than it should have been.
Sardar asserts that the histories of
However, Sardar largely speaks to his own kind: Muslim academics and writers. Their voices need to be heard, but they’re hardly representative of British Asians. Mentions of bhangra and Goodness Gracious Me notwithstanding, the second-generation from
Sardar also demystifies various versions of Islam, reminding us not to tar all those of the faith with the same brush. There is much polemic, too, on the need to re-engage with multiculturalism, especially on the part of the “dominant culture”. But given its limited focus, the addition of the word ‘My’ before Balti Britain would have helped.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it: let’s talk of the best books of 2008.
First, a moment to fight once more the temptation to include novels published in 2007 that I read only this year. (Top of the list being Junot Diaz’s not-so-brief but oh-so-wondrous Great American-Dominican Novel, and also including those by J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Hari Kunzru, Nathan Englander – as well the uncommonly charming Alan Bennett.)
In the interests of full disclosure one ought to also point out that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 does not feature here – not because of any anti-Latin American sentiment or the feeling that Bolanomania has got out of hand, but because of the prosaic reason that I haven’t read it as yet.
So. Now vee may perhaps to begin, as Alexander Portnoy was advised.
In fiction, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, a manic and charged tale of an eccentric father’s relationship with his no-less eccentric son was marvellously subversive and comic. At the opposite pole in terms of effect, but as irresistible, was Joseph O’Neill’s elegant Netherland, which tells, in wonderfully-etched sentences, a post 9/11 story of, among other things, immigrants playing cricket in
At least two collections of short stories stood out: Jhumpa Lahiri’s melancholic tales in Unaccustomed Earth, which explored once again the lives of Bengalis in
It was, yet again, a strong year for non-fiction. (When isn’t it?) Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, part-history and part-travel, was a heartfelt and enlightening journey to the source of the river from which
Rounding off this selection is the short How Fiction Works, another informed broadside by critic James Wood on the ways in which the realistic mode continues to be pre-eminent among novelists: even those who disagree can’t deny the closeness of Wood's reading, the connections he teases out or the ardour of his prose.
Bringing up the rear is a book published in 1961, but back in the limelight because of the just-released film version. Focus your attention once again on Richard Yates’ carefully-crafted Revolutionary Road, that affecting and troubling novel of marital discord symbolising the souring of the American Dream.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
A GIRL AND A RIVER Usha K.R.
The nationalistic fervour that preceded
This is a twin-track narrative that moves back and forth between the past and the near-present, in which the events of half a century ago and their impact on a single family are sought to be unravelled and understood. The girl of the title, and the river after which she is named, is Kaveri, daughter of Mylariah, the town’s lawyer, landowner and municipal councillor. Others who are a part of Kaveri’s growing years include her brother Setu and mother Rukmini.
The national cross-currents of that era as reflected in Kaveri’s town -- heady nationalism, incipient rebellion and conservative Anglophilia -- are brought to life through period detail, with an accent on the music, movies and books of the time. However, the author falls into the standard trap when it comes to historical fiction: there are excessive amounts of dialogue and exposition simply to establish context.
In time, Kaveri comes under the spell of Shyam, a well-meaning but reckless young rabble-rouser, and it is this attachment, along with the reactions of those close to the couple, that will lead to tragic consequences. The reverberations will be felt by Setu’s daughter, the unnamed narrator of the second tale set in the late 1980s, who attempts to find reasons for her parents’ joylessness and occasionally curious behaviour.
Though the prose throughout is more efficient than evocative, the author does ample justice to Kaveri’s character as she transforms from a bookish and impressionable young girl to a headstrong teenager. Also effective is the portrayal of the restrictions faced and courage displayed by the other two main female characters, Kaveri’s mother Rukmini, and the narrator in the present time. The men, however, fare less well; in particular, Setu’s animosity to Shyam isn’t ever fully explained.
More problematic is the switching between the 1930s and the 1980s, a device resorted to in order to show how past actions create ripples that spread through the decades. Quite simply, the predicament of Setu’s daughter, however well-portrayed, has much less impact than the events of Kaveri’s life. It thus emerges as no more than a frame, one that ought to have been more slender and less decorative.
Despite these weaknesses, A Girl and a River is a novel of scope and vitality. Its treatment of a fractious time in
Monday, November 17, 2008
THE BIKINI MURDERS Farrukh Dhondy
Move over, Frederick Forsyth. With The Bikini Murders, Farrukh Dhondy abandons his genteel Poona Company and Bombay Duck persona to produce a novel dealing with a half-Vietnamese, half-Indian serial killer, one who preys on tourists in South-east Asia, spends time in Tihar Jail before masterminding an escape, is apprehended in Goa and who, after serving his sentence, moves to France.
No cigar, then, for guessing that this is yet another recreation of the life of Charles Sobhraj – called Johnson Thhat in the novel. Dhondy begins with Thhat being apprehended in
Dhondy’s prose is casual and brisk in its depiction of amorality, dealing with surfaces and not venturing within. At one point, he airily has Thhat speak of existential themes, linking his account with those of others such as Camus and Gide – and gilding the lily by going on to speak of the Gita’s maya. If this, indeed, is what the novel sets out to do, it’s implausible, not to mention ill-conceived.
Towards the end, The Bikini Murders places Thhat at the periphery of recent events, from the
Thursday, November 13, 2008
LOVE MARRIAGE V.V. Ganeshananthan
Some authors find their subjects in the ways in which marriages are contracted in the subcontinent. Yet others speak of political events and their impact on personal lives. In her debut novel, V.V. Ganeshananthan attempts a cocktail of both, with results that are often pleasing and sometimes disorienting.
The novel is narrated by Yalini, unmarried daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants in suburban
Yalini, we’re told more than once, was born in July 1983 – known to Sri Lankans as “Black July”, when systematic violence broke out against the Tamil community. Stray incidents of violence, mainly political, mark the narrative, each one an axe hacking at the family tree, but unable to destroy it.
There’s an attractive cadence to Ganeshananthan’s prose, undercut by her overdone tic of capitalizing Important Words -- among them Love and Heart. The fluency of the narrative is also marred by the fragmentary, episodic manner in which the stories are related and the sheer number of lives touched upon. Nevertheless, this investigation of roots is held together by an appealing sensibility that, on many occasions, makes up for its weaknesses.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
IN THE COUNTRY OF DECEIT Shashi Deshpande
To attempt a novel about an adulterous relationship in this day and age is to set oneself a formidable task. The history of the novel is, after all, studded with memorable heroines who have indulged in illicit liaisons: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Isabel Archer, to name a few. Yet, this is the terrain that Shashi Deshpande sets out to explore in her ninth novel, In the Country of Deceit. Despite the singular flavour of a small town in south
This is the story of the single, 26-year-old Devayani living in the town of
There’s an appealing artlessness to Devayani’s character, and to her discovery of the relationship’s passionate highs and lows. Since the novel is largely a first-person account of the affair, some amount of solipsism is inevitable, with much self-examination happening in the wee hours. To offset this, the author introduces letters from Devayani’s aunt, cousin and others – dismayingly enough, though, most of the letter-writers use a similar tone of voice.
The subplots deal with laying claims on others’ lives, either metaphorically or heavy-handedly. For example, there’s a property dispute in which Devayani is embroiled, involving lawyers and letters; and then there’s also the unstable back-story of Rani, whose circle Devayani becomes part of when helping her to script a comeback film. These, however, seem attached Lego-like to the spine of the novel – that is, the adulterous relationship -- and as such, serve to partition the plot, not thicken it
The book’s progress is stately for the most part, with Deshpande taking her time to advance the mood and milieu. Nevertheless, there are moments that jar. For example, Ashok falls for Devayani at their first meeting itself and after modest hesitation, Devayani matches his ardour. The foundation of their relationship thus seems less organic and more based on the need to progress the plot. Additionally, details of Ashok’s wife and daughter, which would have added more dynamic tension, are thin on the ground.
In the Country of Deceit, then, is not without a certain modest appeal. Clearly, among its strengths is the evocation of place and of the network of family relationships. Alas, when it comes to dealing with love and its discontents, as is the case with so many other such works, the road to banality is paved with good intentions.
Friday, October 31, 2008
EVENESCENT ISLES: FROM MY CITY VILLAGE Xu Xi
Commerce and commingling, then, have been part of this settlement on the
It’s Hong Kong’s film-makers who have been the most visibly inspired by this feverish ethos of one of the world’s most thickly-populated places – with John Woo and Wong Kar Wai being two obvious examples. Local writers have had a harder time of it: their thunder has been stolen by writers from mainland
The character of the city itself seems ill-suited to the creation of literature, with financial indices being more willingly pored over than novels. In addition, the multi-ethnic nature of the region, with its diverse languages, makes it daunting for one voice to represent the particolored jigsaw city of the present. Long gone are the comfortable certainties that gave Dickens, Proust and Joyce the confidence to create fictional and complete versions of
As the peripatetic Indonesian-Chinese author Xu Xi, who claims kinship with the community of Hongkongers, wrote in an introduction to an anthology of Hong Kong writing, “We in Hong Kong exist in such a perpetually tense present of frenzy that the idea of ‘racing’ to tell any kind of
It is to the conundrum of a writer’s existence in
Of the origins of these musings, she writes: “…I began wandering through my life in this, my birth city. It seemed at first an aimless journey though memory, supplemented by present-day conversations about Hong Kong, provoked by the stimuli offered by the city’s writing, art, performances, photography, films, as well as by the minutiae of day-to-day living.” The rest of the book is true to this observation, with passages inspired by her walks and journeys through the city and the memories they provoke, her meetings with friends and relatives and her eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations on board buses and trams.
It’s clearly a city that is close to her heart; in one passage, she reflects on its inevitable “glocalisation”: “[A]s I meander from Sai Wan Ho at the eastern side of Hong Kong island to Mei Foo Sun Cheun in northwest Kowloon peninsula, or from Siu Hong in the far west of the New Territories, [I find] there is a 7-11 or K-Mart convenience store in every district, a Giordano or Bossini clothing retail outlet in every shopping mall, a Wing Wah or St Honore cake shop in every MTR or KCR station. You need never leave your district to experience a
With a structure like that, chronology is the first thing to be tossed out of the way, and in these pages, she ranges from past to present to near-present with sometimes-confusing agility. For this writer, “chronological exactitude is an unnecessary hobgoblin in the telling of tales”. Thus, she ranges over her family background, from rich to shabby-genteel, her relationship with parents, her teen obsession with American culture, one she never entirely grew out of, her memories of the teacher who awoke in her a love for literature, her first forays into writing, her two divorces, her experiences staying alone in
Though there is much sincerity in the depiction of this struggle to come to terms with what the city of
In one of the more light-hearted essays, she attempts to provide a glossary of Hong Kong English, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce’s dictionary for 19th century
She is also scathing about questions of identity, with the contrasting pulls of the colonial past and the “one-country-two-systems” of the present day. In an unwitting echo of Amartya Sen’s more polished line of reasoning in The Argumentative Indian, she writes: “How hypocritical, this nationalized concern over identity! There is an archaic definition of the word to mean an ‘individual or real existence’. How refreshing to think that identity could be linked instead to the idea of existence. I exist in this space called
It was of first century
This, of course, can also be read as a reprise of her earlier observations on the comparative lack of works of literary merit. In another essay, Xu Xi cites three reasons for the absence of a thriving literary culture: it doesn’t pay the bills; it won’t change anything; and, importantly, “our parents won’t let us”. Asian values, anyone?
Though her criticism is clearly born out of affection, there does seem to be grounds for hope. Such seeds are to be found in literary magazines such as The Asia Literary Review, in the efforts of local publishing houses, in seminars, classes and publications by the
It could well be, on the other hand, that the future of writing in
Sunday, October 5, 2008
GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux doesn’t think highly of travel writers. Their occupation is “one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time…an elaborate bumming evasion.” They’re fond of “jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous.” He’s even more scathing about those who retrace the footsteps of other writers: “opportunistic punks” indulging in a “glib debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer”.
Having got that off his chest, he justifies his return to the terrain he wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. “Curiosity” and “dreams” are among his compelling reasons. And so, 33 years after he embarked on that expedition at the age of 33, Theroux boards the 12.09 to
The actions of politicians and warlords meant that returning to
Serendipity and the ability to not too take oneself too seriously, those essential companions of the interesting traveller, are largely absent here. Even though it’s clear he hasn’t planned every detail, most of his accounts have the same ring to them. He likes places that haven’t changed all that much, among them
Theroux, of course, has many novels to his credit, and seeks out other writers too. He dines with Orhan Pamuk in enchanting Istanbul, modestly confessing that “he reminded me of myself"; finds Elif Shafak “so beautiful [that] writing seemed irrelevant”; visits an absent-minded Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo; strolls around Tokyo and visits a porn emporium with Haruki Murakami; and gossips about writing, the strangeness of Japan and V.S. Naipaul with Pico Iyer in Kyoto and Nara.
Towards the end, he experiences an epiphany. “What’s the big difference between then and now? …The greatest difference was in me”. In contrast to his younger self, the 66-year-old Theroux is more comfortable in his own skin, at ease with writing and traveling, with a home he looks forward to returning to. Alas, his conclusion is that the world is shrinking into “a ball of bungled desolation” and if there is hope, it is only to be found in the kindness of strangers. They say travel broadens the mind; perhaps too much travel simply makes it tetchy.
Friday, October 3, 2008
DREAMS OF RIVERS AND SEAS Tim Parks
With Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Tim Parks takes his novelistic gaze away from decadent Europe and brings us a story of overseas visitors in
The central -- though absent -- presence here is that of Albert James, a discipline-crossing anthropologist, loosely based on Gregory Bateson. Albert dies of prostate cancer while in
The plot arises organically out of John’s tortured thoughts, Helen’s helpless bravado and Paul’s self-serving curiosity. Parks has a keen eye for
Grace, despair, patterns of relationships, the inability to recognise one’s ambitions and the strength to endure are what fill these pages. Dreams of Rivers and Seas is at times dense, at times unnecessarily drawn out, at times unnerving – and always absorbing.
Monday, September 29, 2008
BANDICOOTS IN THE MOONLIGHT Avijit Ghosh
It was the 18th century philosopher Joseph Priestley who once said, “Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves.” Well, anyone observing the teenagers of mofussil Bihar in the Seventies would know exactly what sort of society they were a part of: hidebound, repressed, anarchic and casually violent. This, then, is the subject of Avijit Ghosh’s debut novel, Bandicoots in the Moonlight.
The book tells of the exploits of young teenager Anirban Das, who appears to be a thinly-disguised stand-in for the author himself. Anirban’s father, a police officer in charge of containing the Naxalites in the area, is transferred from Wilsonganj to Ganeshnagar and it is in this latter town that Anirban attends the ironically-named
The structure of the novel is episodic, with each chapter describing a separate incident. And though the town of
The prose style is breezy, unassuming and cheerfully amoral, with the unfortunate inclusion of solecisms such as “booby” in place of “busty” and “lusty” instead of “lustful”. One would think that much of the material would lend itself to a satirical or even a trenchant tone; instead, Ghosh indulges in nostalgic asides as well as banal generalisations such as: “What you don’t know, you don’t crave,” and “Sometimes, we enjoy overestimating dread”. The author’s attempt, then, is simply to impose a structure on and relive Anirban’s wonder years.
The ending seems to be not of a piece with the rest, unexpectedly detailing Anirban’s present circumstances and introducing a character or two at the very last minute for inexplicable reasons. As such, the novel on many occasions resembles nothing more than a collection of diary entries, making the whole unpretentious and pleasant, but also unremarkable.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
INDIGNATION Philip Roth
The central characters of Everyman and Exit Ghost, Philip Roth’s two previous books, were both in their seventies and all too aware of their waning mortality. Those yearning for the feisty Roth of old may well perk up to find that the protagonist of his new novel, Indignation, is a 19-year-old college student. However, Roth reveals soon enough that the narrator has died an untimely death; this, then, is a recollection from the afterlife. He could well have called it Enter Ghost.
Indignation – the emotion, not the book – has of course fuelled Roth’s 29-novel career, with most of his work railing against sanctimony, hypocrisy and the smugness of the established order. Indeed, echoes of earlier books resound in the pages of this one: from the condition of the young narrator of Goodbye Columbus to the masturbatory high jinks of Portnoy’s Complaint to the Celine-like rants of Sabbath’s Theatre to the self-serving claustrophobia of campus life in The Human Stain -- among others. If Indignation, despite its strengths, isn’t as stirring a work, it’s because the writing comes across as whimsical and even odd in places. Not to mention the structure, which tends to totter.
The novel is set in the early Fifties, the time of
Marcus’ indignation at the state of affairs peaks during an interview with the college dean, during which he’s moved to quote from large sections of Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’. Matters reach a head with the insurrection of a section of the male students who conduct an enthusiastic ‘panty raid’ during a snowstorm, creating an atmosphere that will lead to Marcus’ expulsion. (As should be clear by now, the book has more light-hearted moments than the grim Everyman and elegiac Exit Ghost.)
“All that is solid melts into air” was how the Communist manifesto described the contradictions of capitalism; in Indignation, all that is solid melts into liquid. The novel is full of human stains: the blood in a butcher’s shop as well as in the trenches of war; the vomit spewed by the queasy protagonist as a stand-in for bile when interrogated by the college dean; and, of course, the semen swallowed by Olivia, Marcus’ neurotic almost-girlfriend and fellow student, as well as ejaculated by the high-spirited undergraduates.
Those who look for it will probably find a connection between
There’s no gainsaying, however, that Indignation doesn’t feel complete as a novel; there’s a definite sketchiness about some parts, while others seem forced. Despite this, there are powerful passages: the descriptions of working in a butcher’s shop and bartending in a local inn, or the college president’s holier-than-thou oration, for example. It’s these, coupled with Roth’s intermittently vigorous sentences, that see the book through to the finish line.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
AN ATLAS OF IMPOSSIBLE LONGING Anuradha Roy
Is writing a form of archaeology? The metaphor is a seductive one, bringing to mind the excavation of buried moments, the enshrining of past activity and the assigning of a structure to the movement of memory. Such activities do, in fact, play an important role in Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. There are other fitting tropes in the book, too: the mining of the earth’s seams and the reclaiming of ancestral houses, for instance.
The novel is a triple-decker, with the first part introducing us to Amulya and his wife Kananbala who move to the hamlet of Sonagarh near
Clearly, one thing the author isn’t short of is ambition: the chronological and point of view shifts apart, the novel covers roughly the first fifty years of the 20th century (historical events resound offstage like muffled echoes) and there are quite a few characters and locales whose development she pays close attention to.
In its delineation of flowers, skies, rain and their emotionally-charged effect on human beings, the prose is almost Lawrentian. There are other literary resonances to be found here, two obvious examples being the Mrs Rochester-like state of Kananbala and the Miss Havisham-like battiness of the family’s Anglo-Indian neighbour.
Though much of the plot satisfyingly emerges from the interactions between characters, the childhood ties between Mukunda and Bakul come across as insubstantial, which robs their later relationship of impact. In addition, events speed up towards the end through some all-too convenient coincidences. Such reservations apart, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a well-etched map of a world in which the past has to be dealt with before the present can be set free.