Thursday, 4 March 2010

ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN"S CANCER WARD



















ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN’s CANCER WARD


CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s

CANCER WARD

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been called the only Russian classic by many, repudiated by none. His works come out of the depths the soul, from the bone marrow, to buoyantly fight every human indignity, tyranny and oppression of freedom. If his epoch making novel, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ was a massive historic account of the Soviet secret Police, and a shattering account of the Soviet Penal system, his earlier semi autobiographical work, ‘Cancer Ward’ is the celebrated novel of life in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s Purge, when millions were killed, thrown into labor camps or exiled.

Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918, served for eleven years in a concentration camp for speaking against the tyranny of Stalin – an experience which provided the raw material for his magnum opus, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’. He was a cancer patient in the mid – 1950’s, from which sprung forth the cataclysmic parable of ‘Cancer Ward.’

As Soren Kierkegaard observed that the union of a great artist and a great theme constitutes ‘the fortunate in the historical process, the divine conjunction of its forces, the high tide of historic time.’ The union of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the theme of the concentration camps produced the masterpiece of the twentieth century, while the unfreedom suffered by the artists of the Stalinist Soviet Era produced what Albert Camus deemed impossible, the compulsion of the human imagination to participate in the agony and the murders of millions that has been the distinguishing feature of 20th century.

‘Cancer Ward’ can be read purely as a literary work, without the reader ever knowing the circumstances in which it was written, without recognizing the larger picture that the book rounds up, of the excruciatingly totalitarian regime under which Russian writers, intellectuals and artists worked, and were finally silenced if they raised their voices against oppression. It is the enclosed world of the damned. The Purge by Stalin was a systematic removal of all dissenting voices, which left the rest of the citizens, deathly silent. Solzhenitsyn metaphorized cancer to the lack of freedom in the Russia of his times. But it is the sheer magic of Solzhenitsyn’s writing that catches the reader by the throat in a vice like grip. There is not a single question about life that remains unanswered, not a single human situation that remains unfulfilled. What unfolds is the tragic – comedy of life. There is a timeless quality of ‘Cancer Ward’ is that the allegory has the agility of reality to cover up its tracks of metaphor.

The story unfolds in a Cancer Hospital in Uzbekistan in 1955 in the Stalinist Soviet union. The three months that the main character Kostoglotov spends in the men’s ward of a cancer hospital forms the background of the story. Each patient in the ward has a tumor at different parts of his body, the tumor itself symbolizing the malady that has gripped the society. It explores the moral responsibility – symbolized by the patients’ malignant tumors – of those unfortunate men and women implicated in the suffering of their fellow citizens during Stalin’s Great Purge. The patients in the men’s ward are also a cross section of the existing Russia which has numbed the citizens with the oppressive nature of a totalitarian society. There is Rusanov, the government employee, ‘the insider’ who believes that no other means could be employed to rule a country other than complete subjugation. In his pontific manner, he reiterates that a civilized society can only survive through a rule by the gun, allowing no dissent, no individual freedom to its citizens, though there is a clear demarcation between the freedom of the ruled and freedom of those who rule. The voices against the system are brought out, at times through ruminations by the main characters as well as through conversations between them. It is a literary diagnosis of a problem.

‘Cancer Ward’ is also the story of men who are tortured by the vicissitudes of the disease and of the women who treat them. The doctors are almost entirely made up of women, for the male population has been reduced to a minority, the tangent after effects of the Second World War and the ensuing Communist Regime which further brought down the axe on all unsuspecting males, either through exiling them or herding a vast number of humanity into concentration camps, where people endured inhuman conditions. Especially touching is the teenage lovers caught up in the frenzy of cancer and the prospect of death around the corner, but like all young lovers, they believe in the potency of love over death. The young girl suffering from breast cancer and about to undergo mastectomy pleads to her teen lover to savor the beauty of her breasts before the knife of the surgeon carves it out of her body.

The rulers took liberties for granted. A telling scene is where Rusanov’s wife empties garbage right in the middle of the road, even while Kostoglotov yelps back at them in impotent rage.

Shulubin tells Kostoglotov:

"At least you lied less, do you understand. At least you changed less. . . You were jailed. But we were forced to stand and applaud the sentences that had been pronounced. Not just to applaud, but to demand execution, to demand it."


Towards the end of the novel, Kostoglotov, like Solzhenitsyn himself was forced into exile under Article 58 which dealt with the so called counter revolutionaries, realizes that the damage done to him and Russia was too great and that there will be no healing no normal life even after Stalin has gone.

Kostoglotov undergoes two potential romances in the hospital, one with Zoya, the nurse, the attraction mainly physical, and a more serous one with Vera Gangart, a doctor who is bent on saving his life, even to the extent of using hormone therapy on him which would render him impotent for life. Vera Gangart whom Kostoglotov fondly calls Vega, a name given to her by her fiancée who was killed in the Second World War, and who has never married. He imagines that he might ask Vega to be his wife. His feelings for Vega are strong and seem to be reciprocated.
In the last chapter, when he is discharged from the hospital, Kostoglotov wanders about the city. He visits the zoo, where he witnesses the Macaque Rhesus monkey who has been blinded by an evil man who threw tobacco dust into the animal’s eyes. Kostoglotov proceeds write to his young friend at the cancer ward.
‘Even supposing I took their side and had the power, I would still not want to break into the cage and liberate them…Deprived of their home surroundings they had lost the power of rational freedom. It would only make things harder for them, suddenly set free.’ Telling lines these. Solzhenitsyn’s work is a broad and all encompassing literary diagnosis of the diseased system, a tumor that grows under tyranny.

In the end he decides to against going to see either woman. His cancer treatment has left him impotent just as imprisonment and exile have taken the life out of him. He feels that he has nothing to offer a woman and decides to face life alone.

He writes to Vega:

You may disagree, but I have a prediction to make: even before you drift into the indifference of old age, you will come to bless this day, the day you did not commit yourself to share my life ... Now that I am going away ... I can tell you quite frankly: even when we were having the most intellectual conversations and I honestly thought and believed everything I said, I still wanted all the time, all the time, to pick you up and kiss you on the lips.
So try to work that out.
And now, without your permission, I kiss them.


‘ A literary event of the first magnitude…by Russia’s greatest living prose writer’ TIME

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Read Solzhenitsyn' works and be mesmerised by the power of great literature. read in this century or the coming centuries, these works and words will remain etched on the pages of history, as human situations does not change though time drops down from every sphere of life.

Friday, 12 February 2010

AYAAN HIRSI ALI's INFIDEL






















CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

AYAAN HIRSI ALI’s

INFIDEL


INFIDEL is a pellucid memoir of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born and brought up in Somalia in a traditional Muslim family. Her story is astonishing even while being profound.

Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female circumcision involving genital mutilation, brutal beatings, an adolescence as a devout believer, the rise of Muslim brotherhood, and life in four countries under dictatorships. She escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in Holland, where she fought for the rights of Muslim women and the reform of Islam, earning her the enmity of reactionary Muslims all over the world. The journey from being an orthodox believer to a champion of Women’s empowerment and a staunch atheist – it is one of the most memorable account of a person’s life story. She lives under constant threat from Islamists, yet refuses to be silenced.

Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali’s story tells how a bright, curious, dutiful little girl evolves into a pioneering freedom fighter. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious fanaticism, especially in the wake of 9/11, no other book could be more timely or significant. She worked as an interpreter in abortion clinics and shelters for battered women, fleeing from domestic violence. After earning her college degree in political science, she worked for the Labor Party in Holland. She denounced Islam after September 11 terrorist attacks and now champions the cause of Muslim women in Europe, the enlightenment of Islam and security in the West.

A riveting read, INFIDEL should be read by every woman and yes, all men.

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PS: I sketched the arresting face of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as soon as I finished reading her book. I believe I have captured the determination in her eyes.

Monday, 1 February 2010

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE



















CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE

ORHAN PAMUK


Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, ‘The Museum of Innocence’ opens on a perfect spring afternoon in 1975. The first paragraph reads like a classic case of reckless passion in collision with Turkey’s bourgeoisie conventions.

It begins thus: ‘It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.’ It is a dissertation of love laced with obsessive passion.

Kemal Basmaci, scion of a wealthy Industrialist family in Istanbul is about to become engaged to Sibel, a suitable woman from his own class, who has already – as Kemal puts it – ‘given me her virginity’, though only because she trusts in his honor as her betrothed. But all dreams of ever happy union crumbles when Kemal falls deliriously in love with a distant cousin of his, a poor relative, the déclassé Fusun Keskin, who is a shop girl working in a boutique. Fusun too deliberately elects to give her virginity to Kemal, entering the taboo realm of Turkish bourgeoisie. Pamuk writes with lyrical passion about the deflowering ceremony juxtaposing images of lambs being slaughtered on the Feast of the Sacrifice. Outside the apartment, all over Istanbul, in every corner, many many lambs are being butchered. Kemal comes to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too. This dichotomy creates a rift between Kemal and the society he moves in. As the engagement between Kemal and Sibel take place, Fusun goes into hiding.

It takes almost a year for Kemal to find the whereabouts of Fusun. But by then it’s too late as Sibel senses Kemal’s withdrawal from her, both emotionally and physically. Though she is sympathetic to the point of defying society, she has already become a culprit of the jaded system of sexual politics that the Turkish society is immersed in. From then on, Kemal’s life becomes a long torment of all consuming passion.

For nine years Kemal finds all manner of excuses to visit the other Istanbul, a house in the impoverished backstreets that Fusun shares with her parents and her childish husband, who has dreams of making it big in the Turkish film industry. As Kemal falls into the middle class pace of life in Istanbul, enjoying the consolation of the dinner table in front of the television, he also begins to drink like a fish, perhaps to anesthetize his passion towards Fusun. Kemal resembles Devdas.

Women in gilded Istanbul do not necessarily want arranged marriages, yet they do no know how to find men on their own either. Kemal the protagonist and narrator is a gawky and shy thirty year old who has never seen a couple kiss off screen in Turkey. While Turkey’s elite send their daughters to Paris and London on shopping sprees, while also being told in no uncertain terms that they must be virgins on their wedding night, or at least restrain caution albeit discreetly. In the novel we glimpse a Turkey which is torn between an ambition to be liberated, even as it is reluctant to let go of conservatism, mainly of the male chauvinist variety, the brutal model of masculinity prevalent in Turkish culture. Ultimately this makes for an unexpectedly conservative position on Kemal’s (and perhaps on Pamuk’s) part.

Pamuk has described Innocence ‘as anthropology of my own experiences.’ This is obvious as the first narration is taken up by the author himself, a technique Pamuk had experimented with in his earlier work My Name is Red and Snow with panache.

Nine years of obsessive passion also makes Kemal a compulsive collector of objects, the everyday objects of ordinary lives collected and shown in ‘The Museum of Innocence.’
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PS: However much I would like to desist from making these tailpiece remarks, I am forced by habit to look at all reading with a minutely critical eye. As minute as my reading finally is.

Pamuk’s taking over the narrative from his protagonist smacks of gimmick. Like Hitchcock and several Bollywood directors like Subhash Ghai and Karan Johar, Pamuk has an affinity to present himself in most of his novels, which did not jar so much in his earlier works. He promotes himself blatantly in the concluding chapters, reveling in the now famous first line of The New Life, which he says has been bought for an advertising jingle, preening himself in the hallowed status of Turkish elite that he straddles. Out of the mammoth 530 odd pages of the book, more than two hundred pages are devoted to the nightly dinner ceremonies in his girlfriend’s lower middle class household, though some of his narratives are humorous and similar to Marquez.

That Pamuk is actually making a museum comes as a comic faux passé. The many interviews splashed all over also bring on a quirky smile. But let us also not forget the harsh manner in which Turkey treated Pamuk when he aired his scathing remarks on the Armenian genocide and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds. Though he escaped a fatwa, Pamuk has been criticized for misrepresenting the Turkish spirit by the conservative bureaucracy of Turkey.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

ISMAIL KADARE

CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

ISMAIL KADARE’s

THE BLINDING ORDER

I read Kadare’s ‘Agamemnon’s Daughter’ last year and was impressed with his pithy novella. Yesterday I read another of his work, ‘the Blinding Order’ and was mesmerized by the political statements he made through a compelling fantasy.

Almost all Kadare’s works dwell on the Iron Curtain and the human tragedy that lay behind them. He writes: Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible. The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship…

Kadare often sailed perilously close to the wind and many of his texts were banned. He had to smuggle out some of his manuscripts in a wine bottle. But his witty, sly and moving panorama of a universal history made maintained a glimmer of hope that even in the worst of times, things can still be done with style and intelligence.

Kadare’s writing is a striking reminder that great literature does not depend on circumstances, but overcomes them. Ismail Kadare won the Man Booker Prize in 2005.

An essential read for serious readers.

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Saturday, 26 September 2009

JOSE SARAMAGO



















JOSE SARAMAGO’s
ALL THE NAMES
Review
By
CHANDINI SANTOSH


Saramago reminds us time and again why he won the Literary Nobel Prize after his most read work, BLINDNESS. His works are living proof of what great writing does to people and why he is considered the most influential of living writers.
Titled ALL THE NAMES, the book strikingly and ironically holds only one name – that of the protagonist, Jose, doubly macabre as the name is the author’s own. I have yet to read a work in which the central character is named after the author, except in memoirs.
Senhor Jose is a lowly clerk by day and an explorer of famous lives by night, a take off on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One day he chances on upon an index card of an ordinary woman whose details hold as much fascination for him as any other celebrity’s. Rising like a phoenix from his own humdrum existence dictated by regimentation, Jose begins to track the woman down obsessively following a thread of clues in a bid to rescue her from ‘an oblivion deeper than the grave’.
As in all the works of Saramago, what stands out is not his vast repertoire of unhesitatingly alien words or his by now, infamous punctuation, but the eternity in the subject and the way Saramago goes about narrating the same with tongue in cheek humor. ALL THE NAMES is remarkable, both unsettling and delightful, perhaps the hallmark of true literature.
Every page in the book, though undeniably grotesque, has an multiple insights into life. Each paragraph stuns you while the hazardous string of words opens up the vistas of human nature, each path traveled upon by all great writers many times over, but nothing as momentous as Saramago’s, since they are laced with black humor.
You do not need a passport or visa to be transported to the realms of unadulterated human imagination. I chew on these words, the parameters of my intelligence and the translucence of fiction filling up like a hydrogen balloon.
Apart from Saramago’s THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST, no other work of his stray so much into the realm of fantasy as this one. But when we realize the state of the mind of the character in question, all fantasy dissolves and becomes part and parcel of reality. His apocalyptical words on loneliness can be preserved for future generations, it is that enlightening.
Here are some jottings on the novel from all parts of the world.
‘The roots of Saramago’s tales run deep, tapping into a European tradition of exemplary fictions, in which the human soul resists the encroaching forces of dehumanizing bureaucracies. ALL THE NAMES is a fine successor to BLINDNESS, a work worthy of a literary Nobel Laureate.
LISA JARDINE, The Times

‘A fantastic tale of a cowed clerk defying the power of his monolithic employer. It’s the breezy wit which Saramago challenges a world where Love and Death must be catalogued and explained away by the dull – minded that makes his book so compelling’.
CHRIS DOLAN, Glasgow Herald

‘A lovely adventure, a search for an unknown woman, floats on sentences that topple over one another like waves’.
ROBERT WINDER

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Monday, 27 July 2009

NADEEM ASLAM's MAPS FOR LOST LOVERS




















CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

NADEEM ASLAM's


MAPS FOR LOST LOVERS



Nadeem Aslam became famous after the publication of ‘Maps for Lost Lovers’ in 2004. He had published ‘The Season of the Rainbirds’ in 19993. Born in Pakistan, Aslam now lives in England.

The story is about an honor killing that takes place in an unnamed English town. Jugnu and his lover Chanda have disappeared. Rumors abound in the close knit Pakistani community, and then on a snow covered morning Chanda’s brothers are arrested for their murder. The book tells the story that unfolds in the next twelve months.

‘Maps for Lost lovers’ opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion, while expressing their personal pain in a language that is almost always poetic.

Honor killing is nothing new to sub continental readers, it keeps happening most of the time.
‘In this book, filled with stories of cruelty, injustice, bigotry and ignorance, love never steps out of the picture. It gleams on the edges of even the deepest wounds…A remarkable achievement.’ Kamila Shamsie, Guardian.

It needs great courage to turn one’s back on one’s culture and religion, as some of us would certainly understand. Some of us have gone through all this and perhaps more. As against people who show the courage to seek and find truth, there are those who dare not step out of the circle of religious and cultural bias, but live with their convictions, however tormenting life might be. It is this irony that is captured well in the ‘tender and vivid portrait of the strict Islamic mother, isolated by her unassailable belief.’ Alan Hollinghurst, Guardian.

‘It depicts an extraordinary panorama of life within a Muslim community…Thoughtful, revealing, lushly written and painful, this timely book deserves the widest audience.’ David Mitchell, Mail on Sunday.

Critics go breathless revealing the intricacies of this book. The telling commentary of expatriates in the UK is as disturbing as it is revealing. It is not coincidental that the story also depicts the clash of religion.

The story is exotic and is written in a nuanced language full of lyrical images. In fact, so thick are the interwoven imagery that the violence seems out of place and context. But as I completed reading the Map, I realized that if not for the lilting imagery, the brutalities pictured here might have been too much to digest. Though Aslam’s poetic language jars at times, I come to the conclusion that it was necessary, not because neither is violence restricted to the subcontinent nor to any community or religion throughout the history of humanity. As I look at it. History is the retelling of unimaginable cruelty practiced in the name of religion and ethnicity. As is evidenced from another book I am reading at present: FROM THE HOLY MOUNTAIN by WILLIAM DARYMPLE.

No religion is exempt from violence and bigotry.

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P. S : As I completed reading Aslam’s ‘Maps for Lost Lovers’, there were reports that an honor killing had shook a village in Haryana, which is fast developing district in the northern region of India. Haryana was formerly a part of the Punjab Province, but later broke away as most people belonging to that area spoke Hindi rather than Punjabi. Punjab is the prosperous district on the Indo – Pakistan border, which had achieved self reliance in food decades ago. Their agricultural poweress are well documented. Their love for the good life, their good looks, their millions, and their zest for life also are well known. In matters regarding health too Punjab has come up brilliantly. Punjab is richest state in The Republic of India.

But this does not naturally mean that the state of Punjab is the best state of the Union. You might wonder why. Let me explain. Kerala has the highest literacy in the whole of India. Population growth stands at zero. Health indices are of world standards. Cleanliness is a way of life. But all this is wiped out when you realize that superstition and religious intolerance have slowly crept into the fabric of our society. Joblessness is rampant, as most of the IT related educated youths come from this rather small state, thus the ensuing high density of population. Kerala is a major tourist attraction, as its beaches and greenery are both exotic as well as industrious. Yet, the locals always stare at foreign tourists, worse, they harass them too. We may be tolerant towards other religions, but not to ethnic minorities. We are willing to practice only white collar jobs, but the moment the working class arrive from our neighboring states of Tamil Nadu, or Karnataka, we raise a hue and cry. It is very funny, as what the proletariat demands is the reverse of what you may imagine. They say why the Tamils should work for the less wages instead of the grossly upward swinging labor wages that we practice over here. Sikhs are hooted for their turbans, without understanding that they are practicing what their religion demands of them. The whole of South India is as different from the North as chalk and cheese. The country is so diverse that one cannot keep up with the several languages and cultures. There are twenty six official languages at the last count.

Being a secular and thriving democracy has its benefits. In fact, I firmly believe that it is this democratic and secular set up that has foisted India on to the world stage.

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Tuesday, 16 June 2009

THE STONE RAFT


















CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

JOSE SARAMAGO's


THE STONE RAFT

Jose Saramago amazes me each time I read him. THE STONE RAFT is the fourth novel of Saramago I have read and believe me dear readers, these are four of the hundred books you should have read in your lifetime. I do not mean to exaggerate. Harold Bloom, eminent literary critic has rightly called Saramago, ‘the most important living writer’ of our times.

Reading any of Jose Saramago’s books is no easy task. He is not for the average reader. Add to it, his unusual punctuation, and you have difficult reading on your hands. Though his topics are metaphysical and fantastic, Saramago embellishes his writings with unbelievably realistic details. Not even for a moment does the reader feel that he is reading a fantasy, or a tale narrated in the magical realistic genre, which they definitely are.

In SEEING, a democratic election throws up more than eighty percent of blank votes, jeopardizing the polity into frenzy. It is a politician’s ultimate nightmare. (After I read it, I badly wanted something of the sort to happen in my democratic country, but as always, people of India rise to the occasion, saving democracy as well as our faith in electoral politics.) In BLINDNESS, a whole city plunges into a white blindness, an allegory unparalled in imagination. This book was later made into a movie by the same name, which unfortunately did not do well. ( I have not watched the movie, though the DVD is available to those who buy the book on line.) THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO CHRIST is written in a style which cannot be delinked from history, though it is fictionalized. (This is my favorite Saramago, so far.)

THE STONE RAFT which I finished reading yesterday is a splendidly imagined epic voyage, written in the quirky Saramago narrative style, that I have grown to like immensely. It is enchanted prose.

The Iberian Peninsula, comprising of some parts of Spain and parts of Portugal gets fractured and unmoors from the European continent and begins to float in the Atlantic with a will of its own. The broken away land resembles a stone raft gliding on sea, raising several questions, political, social and emotional. Three men, two women and a dog begin a voyage leading to nowhere in a country in great turmoil.

Impossible situations abound in the book, but they are covered in highly realistic details. It has to be read to be believed.

Told in a deceptively simple, naïve style this tale of fixed points and shifting goals is a superb vehicle for Jose Saramago’s shrewd and witty dissection of contemporary Europe.

‘Confirms Saramago’s reputation as Portugal’s leading novelist…Tremendous wit is always apparent in his imaginative conceits, comic digressions and verbal and narrative games’ IAN CRITCHLEY in SUNDAY TIMES.

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Saturday, 6 June 2009

NADEEM ASLAM

















CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

NADEEM ASLAM's


THE WASTED VIGIL




Nadeem Aslam became a name to reckon with after his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers hit the reading public and won the Kiriyama Prize as well as the Encore Award, and was later short listed for the British Book award in2005. It was long listed for the Man Booker Prize as well in the same year. His latest novel, The Wasted Vigil, is set in modern - day Afghanistan, the scene of a long line of war - torn country side.

The story spans nearly a quarter century, often interweaving and overlapping. The narrative vividly describes the terrible afflictions that have plagued Afghanistan since the time of Soviet invasions in 1979 when Kalashnikovisation of Afghanistan began in earnest and later when radical Islam reared its ugly head in the form of Taliban.

A Russian woman named Lara arrives at the house of Marcus Caldwel, an English doctor and widower, who lives in an old and abandoned perfume factory beneath the shadow of the Tora Bora Mountains. Their painful histories are interlinked. It is possible that Marcus’s daughter Zameen born of an Afghan woman named Qatrina may have known Lara’s brother, a soldier in the Soviet Army. Both Qatrina and Zameen are dead, becoming victims of the age in which they were born.

More people follow them in the following days, including two men from the CIA, Dunia, a young Afghan teacher and Casa, a radicalized youth intent on his mission. Casa is the atypical Islamic fundamentalist, having been indoctrinated since childhood into the cadre of a jihadi. The inner turmoil of all these characters, linked inextricably together, forms the crux of the plot.

The unrelenting and unforgiving landscape of Afghanistan and its steppe came alive in the novels of Afghan writer Khaled Hossieni in his novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Aslam takes up the rest of the narrative in what has come to be known as the worst human tragedies of present day. The violent news stories and the clippings that we read about in the newspapers and watch rushing past in front of our eyes on the television screens. With the arrival of the Taliban, the story takes on the colors of terrible tragedy and this comes alive in Aslam’s novel, as though it was part of a modern day parable. The thought that it could be real, comes as a jolt to people like me, living as I do in a zone where war is a gory drama staged in the visual media, as far removed from reality as the horrendous landscapes of human misery and medieval violence. More so because these atrocities are practiced on women, the all time soft target of mankind from the dark ages, in the name of religion. I have enough reasons to augment my belief that there exists no god, and if at all there is one, it must be a man. It is for the very same reason that no religion has ever been founded by a woman – thanks be to women.

I reproduce here some of the unforgiving acts of brutality ever practiced on the face of this planet from this book by Nadeem Aslam.

‘Women are always dying in repeated childbirth because the husbands didn’t listen – Qatrina had to struggle with the mosques because they said birth control was the west’s attempt at reducing the number of Muslims in the world. And then the Communist regime came and closed down the family planning centers, saying it was an Imperialist policy to detract attention from the real causes of poverty’.

Lara herself had failed yet again to carry a pregnancy to full term. For a Russian woman an abortion was one of the more obvious options when it came to birth control, the men not agreeing to consider any preventive methods themselves …

‘A man from Usha kept making his wife pregnant year after year. The young woman was twenty – two and had seven children in six years. He never allowed her body to recover, despite warnings and pleadings from Qatrina. When he brought his wife to us for an eighth time, she was almost dead’.

David saw a woman in a silkworm village being paraded naked through the streets. She cowered as she was beaten by several men for having committed adultery, for having taken a Russian lover… he watched as a man came forward and placed around her neck one of the Korans he had brought.

Qatrina, a doctor and Marcus’s wife is flogged and forcibly made to amputate her own husband’s right hand, with the threat that if she does not relent, he would be shot dead. Their crime is that she is a Muslim who dared to marry a British doctor, but also because their marriage was sanctified by a woman. A microphone is thrust on her howling mouth as a crowd of Taliban automatons cheer around them.

Aslam does not take sides, as his critics have pointed out. But the condemnations of such mindless violence do take on a slant towards Western sensibilities. No doubt that these acts are condemnable, but there is a thread of overzealousness in Aslam’s narrative. The Wasted Vigil is neither for the weak hearted nor for the passionately patriotic. He writes with a quaint lyricism and the book is littered with peculiarly fresh imagery. Paradoxically, I felt that the kind of lyrical narrative does not fit inside a novel about violence spanning three decades.

Western critics have many times recorded the lush lyricism of the orient, but at times, it palls for no reason whatsoever. As I said, perhaps the subject does not suit either the subject or the narrative. I am told that Nadeem Aslam’s much acclaimed earlier novel Maps for Lost Lovers which is the story of an honor killing, does indeed warrant lyricism of the kind Aslam dabbles in.
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The painting that you see above is done in pastels and depicts the front cover of Nadeem Aslam’s book. I think it has come out rather well. It shows ripe pomegranates, with one of them wrenched open and beginning to rot.

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Friday, 1 May 2009

BOOKS AND READING

















REVIEWS OF FOUR NOVELS

By

CHANDINI SANTOSH




I have been reading at a hectic pace. I gobbled up four books in two weeks and am looking for more. As I have told you before, I have a voracious appetite when it comes to reading.

IDENTITY
By
MILAN KUNDERA

The first one was a novella by French writer, Milan Kundera titled IDENTITY. Kundera is ranked among the greatest novelists of post – war Europe. He has built the novella from a significant moment in life and has placed it on the resulting panic and confusion, set in motion by a series of incidents bordering on fantasy and reality. Like a tennis ball, the narrative moves from the real to the surreal and at times to dizzying heights of hyper reality.

It did not move me, dear readers. May be because it does not touch upon reality as much as it should have. Post – War Europe perhaps demanded calisthenics of a different kind, but the world has moved on from the surreal to the virtual.

ONITSHA
By
J.M.G.CLEZIO

The second one, again by a French author, J.M.G. Le Clezio. ONITSHA won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. It tells the story of Fintan, a youth who travels to Africa in 1948 with his Italian mother to join his English father he has never met. The boy is initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of Niger. But gradually he comes to recognize the intolerance and brutality of the colonial system in Nigeria. His view provides the novel with a close to real and horrified perspective on racism and colonialism.

The narrative is intensely lyrical. But for a few lines, intensely horrific on the treatment of slaves, chained to each other with their hands on the others’ neck, while their masters think nothing of having their luncheon spread out on the verandah and laughing at the nakedness of the slaves, the novel does not come alive. Dear readers, too much lyricism mars the work. Lyricism does not suit the subject nor does it lilt you to see the actuality. The pain of apartheid does not come clear.

THE COLOR PURPLE
By
ALICE WALKER

The third book, by Alice Walker, THE COLOR PURPLE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, also follows a similar theme. Written by an African American, (I do not know whether the term is politically correct), it explores the arid life of Celia, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls ‘father’, she has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister, Nettie, and is trapped into an ugly marriage. But then she meets the glamorous Shug Avery, singer and magic maker – a woman who has taken charge of her own identity. Gradually she discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves. Set in the deep American South, and written in the colloquial South lingo, the book is average at best. The heavy ethnic ‘accent’ jars after a few pages and the human element is missing.

TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD
By
HARPER LEE

It is this universal human element that is present abundantly in Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. This eternal classic has come to me a bit late in the day, but true to its word, the novel stuns you into realizing one’s own worth in a society steeped in prejudice.

Narrated from the view point of two young children, Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the deep American South of the thirties. Their father, a lawyer by profession, fights a one man battle against racial prejudice, violence and hypocrisy. It is an epic struggle for justice at all costs. The narrative is laced with spontaneous humor, which is the essential backbone of any and all good writing. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.

A MUST read for all age groups and manner of people residing anywhere on this planet.
……………………….

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

New Life



















New Life


By
CHANDINI SANTOSH





I drove out of my h (OM) e and it took just under thirty minutes to bring me to the city of my birth and my life changed. If this line sounds familiar, it’s because you and I have read the mesmerizing opening lines of Orhan Pamuk’s novel, ‘The New Life’, which runs like this – I read a book one day and it changed my life.

I am happy I took the decision to drive out.

It is not as easy as it sounds. I mean if you were to shift your residence to a place just half an hour’s drive away, life would not change. It would surely have to be a miracle in motion. But the theater and the drama behind the shifting and a tiny slice of juxtaposed past would explain to you what you would otherwise not comprehend.

I was born here in Kannur, the northernmost tip of ‘God’s Own Country’, but we grew up in Delhi. Now New Delhi is not what it used to be. It is a buzzing Metro and the capital of India. Kannur is also not what it used to be. It is a city on the rise. Even then you would doubt about where the punch lies. The punch line is that I lived in a sprawling village since my marriage to the day I drove out. As you know, a city is a mindset, but so is a village. If you go down to the brass tacks, all modern amenities that a city dweller enjoys can also be found in a village. And without sounding too much of a braggart, you may safely assume that there are no real villages in Kerala, at least not the kind you would visualize in a Third World country. Now, physical reality is altogether different from emotional as well as rational reality. And this is where the crux of the matter lies. A village is a village because it has a parochial DNA cored on its brain map, which cannot be erased even after the Time Machine has dropped us on Mars and back.

That is the difference that changes lives in just under thirty minutes.

Ensconed here in the seventh storey apartment I find that some coconut trees have grown to this level and that is pleasant information, since all coconut pluckers are in great demand as they have all fled to Dubai. But what has surprised me is the sea level. As I see it, the sea stands much higher than the windows of my apartment, perhaps at the eighth floor level. At times I wonder too why the sea does not come toppling down over the beach and the roads and the coconut trees. Of course, that would be termed the tsunami. We experienced a mild tsunami two years back on a full moon day and it had created havoc in our neighboring state. So tsunami is out of question.

The rooms are sunny and windy and if any of you are interested, I can give you dollops of both these items in a carry bag, free of cost. Like happiness, wind and the sun can only increase, not decrease.

My paintings too feel happy. The painted boat on a painted sea is reveling at its safety away from the turbulence of the sea. Shekure faces the sea and she does a thud thud against the wall, though she still looks haughty. Some are like that. Ruya is serene and as usual gives me immense happiness and an unusual camaraderie, mavericks that we are. Maria Sharapova has pride of place and enjoys her exalted status. Still life of fruits and one of vegetables look well entrenched. Tiger burns only at nights. I might as well gift it to the Society for preserving tigers. They are fast fading from the face of this planet.

Earlier I looked up at every Tom Dick and Harry – shall we change those names – Mohamed Prashant and Sajan, but now I can afford to look down on them. From this height, men look like squirrels scurrying past. (The names are chosen randomly though there is a design in the madness, all three are from different religions.) If the left over ones feel the pinch, they are free to lodge a complaint at Lekha.com. Yes, she is my younger sis and all of five feet eight inches and when she walks majestically in her heels, she looks supremely confident. So now you have to queue up at her door for a pass.

What fun!


...................


The pix above was clicked by my classmate Pravin Madhavan when he landed up at OM last year.

Friday, 20 March 2009

JOSE SARAMAGO



















CHANDINI SANTOSH

Reviews

JOSE SARAMAGO's

'THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST

.......................



‘The Gospel according to Jesus Christ’ is the most controversial and daring of Jose Saramago’s novel yet. The book more or less follows the chronological paths of the earlier gospels, though it dwells more on Jesus’ childhood rather than the later part of canonization where Jesus metamorphoses as Jesus Christ. Saramago re – imagines the life of Christ in an epochal work, no less important than all the other gospels, but is essentially a fictional and alternate history.

In Saramago’s own words, ‘My Gospel tries to fill the blank spaces between the various episodes of Jesus’ life as narrated in other gospels – with some interpretations of my own’. This would be an understatement since the novel literally shook the very foundations of Christianity, with all its dichotomies.

The ‘Gospel’ follows the life of Jesus Christ from conception to crucifixion, while focusing on a naïve Jesus, who is as human as any other of his times. He is pictured as entirely susceptible to human desires and inclinations.

Jesus is born to a devoted Jewish carpenter Joseph and his young wife Mary. The subtle eroticism in which Saramago portrays Jesus’ conception hacks down all former illogical theories surrounding Jesus’ birth. Just before Jesus is born the census of Rome decrees that all citizens need to register themselves at the original place of their birth. Joseph sets off with his very pregnant Mary towards Galilee, his native place. Mary gives birth to Jesus at Bethlehem in a cave assisted by Salome, a lowly maid. King Herod, who is visited by demons with the news that the future King of the Jews has already taken birth, orders his henchmen to kill all children aged below three. Here, I am reminded of the birth of Krishna, and the imprisonment of his parents, and the decree of the king to kill all new born children. Joseph hastens to save his firstborn forgetting his first duty as a human being. He forgets to warn the others of the impending disaster and is plagued by nightmares all his life, making him an insomniac in the bargain. He believes that he alone has been instrumental in the macabre killings of twenty five innocent children.

Jesus inherits his father’s legacy – the horrendous nightmares, after Joseph is mistakenly crucified along with thirty nine other rebels, who had rebelled against Roman occupation and cruelty. The transferal of Joseph’s perplexing guilt to his son ‘injects the story with the substance of modern day psychology’. This is where the despotic god, thirsty for blood and power, resurrects a celestial tyrant from the annals of the Old Testament.

Before Jesus’ tryst with god in a desert, Jesus has already met and lived with the devil and chosen to cohabit with Mary Magdalene. The miracles are narrated with a tongue in cheek technique, where Jesus himself is surprised with the results that he achieves. There is a fine interlacing of ‘somber realism, grotesque fantasy and wry humor’. The identity of the mysterious beggar at the Annunciation and the strangely compassionate shepherd with whom the wandering Jesus spends his formative years, provide a unique and unnerving twist to the traditional version of the gospel story. This leads in turn to the reconsideration of the age old debate on good and evil.

Narrated in glorious prose, ‘The Gospel according to Jesus Christ’ is an intriguing investigation into the worth of Christianity by ‘the most gifted novelist alive in the world today’ according to literary critic, Harold Bloom. The book portrays Jesus Christ as an innocent human caught in the machinations of god and devil. The provocative conclusions which can be drawn most transparently from the reading of the novel is not surprising to any reader well versed in the writings of Saramago, who reposts all glories to the human spirit. Brutally atheistic, Saramago vilifies religion – religion is always a very offensive institution to intellectual beings.

The novel ends with Jesus defying god’s orders as an angst ridden Jesus rebels by getting himself crucified by proclaiming that he is King of the Jews, rather than bowing to god’s dictum that Jesus proclaim himself as the Son of God. Jesus’ last word on the crucifix is a telling commentary on his rebellion. ‘Men, forgive Him, He knows not what He has done’. At all times I wonder why the nobility that human beings possess and practices is never highlighted as against the unbelievable qualities attributed to god.

The Gospel according to Jesus Christ’ is threaded with unveiled challenges and is designed to provoke. Provoke it did, as it became so controversial that the Portuguese Government had to withdraw the nomination of the book from The European Literary Prize in 1992. Jose Saramago went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.

Reading Saramago is an intellectual challenge to all readers, except for those who are severely bent towards dogmatic religionism.

………………………..

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

ISMAIL KADARE























Agamamnon's Daughter

ISMAIL KADARE



Reading ‘Agamemnon’s Daughter’ (Winner of The Man Booker Prize 2005) written by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare was a revelation to me. A novella which hardly runs into a hundred odd pages is packed with the vitality of human life, which is the subject Kadare delves into.

Agamemnon is also ‘a searing story of love denied, then shattered under the chilling wheels of the state’. Kadare interlaces the story of a budding liberal media person and his love for the Suzana, the daughter of a highly placed official, who is tipped to become the head of the state. To attain that exalted and dictatorial post, a sacrifice is elicited from him, crueler than the mythical sacrifice of Ipigenia, daughter of Agamemnon at the altar of enthronement. The lesson that is dinned into the confused independence – craving society is that to be able to reach such a state almost on par with Stalin, one must also sacrifice their own children as Stalin sacrificed his only son, Yakov. ‘Yakov …had not been sacrificed so as to suffer the same fate as any other Russian soldier, as the dictator had claimed, but to give Stalin the right to demand the life of anyone else’.

All natural human activities are curtailed in the Communist Utopia of Albania in the name of socialism. Any dissent is dealt with an iron hand. Ismail Kadare writes, ‘Dissent was not possible. You risked being shot. Not, condemned, but shot for a word against the regime. A single word’.

As I would not like to be a killjoy by quoting much from either the novella or the blurbs on the covers, I would leave it to you dear readers, to read and enjoy the beauty of the brutally direct narration and the amazing vision that is captured in a text that is as tight as a new water tap.

…………………….

Sunday, 11 January 2009

BLINDNESS by JOSE SARAMAGO


















BLINDNESS

Jose Saramago wrote BLINDNESS much before SEEING, but one who has read both these mesmerizing works can identify them as political parables of ingenuity. Call them parables, fables, allegories written in the vein of magical realism, they are of immense value to the times we live in.

A man is struck blind at the traffic signals as suddenly as lightening. Several others, in fact the whole city is plunged into this epidemic of blindness, except for one. The first batch of the blind are negotiated into a mental asylum. Truly biblical in its parameters, the story unfolds on the unimaginably brutal life that awaits the blind. Saramago, at one point tells you how this must have been like the times when life began at the beginning of time. That must be the time when scrapings of civilization must have dawned on human beings. Saramago takes you to a world ruled by jungle laws. The blind rule the blind, it is the blind themselves who obliterate the lives of others, and it is the blind themselves who fight their way through this chaos.

Each paragraph abounds in maxims, some well worn, some twisted by Saramago in wily humor, but we must finally agree that yes the world is such a place. There is burning fatalism at every stage, yet the parable does not contain a single word that could take you out of the narrative for a breath of air. It is dark, it is BLINDNESS.

I always knew women were the stronger of the two, but Saramago seems to revel in capturing women at the zenith of their strength. Paradoxically, it is also the women who provide the reader with the much needed respite as well the bouts of scathingly dark comedy. From the highest point of evolution, men whimper back to the stone age while women wait and bide for their time. Women wait patiently to strike at the right time.

Among these two scorching novels, I preferred SEEING, since the scope of SEEING is much larger compared to BLINDNESS. But there is no doubt as to the strength of BLINDNESS, because it gives a garrulous glimpse of the beginning of time and takes you right into the dark corners of times beyond civilization. When this happens right in earnest amongst us, who pride themselves as being civilized, it has that brutal edge to it that we deny feebly.

Though New Year began with a tiny mishap, reading has put me back on track. When there are authors like Saramago, who can transport you to the unlit corners of one’s mind, there is not a second to be wasted crying, however dark the painted world might be.

So if you can see – Look. If you can look – Observe. We might come to learn that perhaps we are blind people after all who can just about see, but prefer not to.

………………
The above pix was clicked at the time I joined the Chinmaya Mission College as a Junior Lecture in English after completing my Post Graduation. One of colleagues pictured here was the HOD of the Dept. of History and the other was my Senior in the Dept. of English.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Jose Saramago























Jose Saramago - SEEING

I read SEEING, Saramago’s new novel in June this year and I have not yet come out of its impact on me. In fact I feel that I might go into the withdrawal mode if I do not look it up every other day on my book shelf.

Jose Saramago has recreated the politician’s ultimate nightmare in his novel, SEEING. The disillusionment that renders the entire democratic system defunct at one go. SEEING explores how this could be done in the most simplistic manner and what it could achieve and how devastating the results could be.

Despite a heavy and incessant rain, the presiding officer at Polling Station 14 finds that only a handful of voters have turned to vote, by mid day. Soon after 4 pm an avalanche of voters arrive at the polling station, not just at Polling Station 14, but at all the other voting stations. It is as though consensus of time and action is reached at unilaterally by the citizens, without ever airing even once their secret opinion on the same. Puzzlement swiftly escalates to shock, when the final counting of votes reveals that seventy percent of votes are blank votes – not spoiled, but left simply and stunningly blank. National law decrees a reelection. The results are more shocking and stunning than the first – eighty three percent of votes are blank. The government, seized with panic, decamps from the capital city and declares a state of emergency. What follows is not unimaginable chaos, as we might reflect, but the true reign of the people, by the people, for the people.

Because SEEING is more thrilling than any crime thriller I have ever read, I certainly would not take the narrative forward. I have written this earlier, and I write it again, seeing is not believing, reading SEEING is. Sounds awfully tame, but I assure you that you will not forget the book for a long, long time. Why forget, we must remember. That is what I feel.

I am awed. Living in the largest democracy in the world, I have long been disillusioned by the system, which never seems to work according to the citizen’s will and wish. We are controlled by habit, but there are times when we can and do stand together.

When the Emergency was clamped on our Sovereign Republic in 1975, it was the illiterate farmers, rickshaw pullers, barbers and the silent middle class that came up with a mandate that stunned not just the politicians, but us. We managed to rescue democracy, snatch it from the hands of the so called invincible Indira Gandhi. So who are today’s a politician in front of a seething, live democracy?

Recently we proved it yet again after the Mumbai Terror attacks. Politicians of all colors have been made to look comical, rightly so, and people seemed to realize that they actually had power over those politicians whom we had voted to power. And we gave full vent to our angst.

Returning to SEEING, here are some of the reviews that the book received.

‘A brilliant, cruelly ironic, surreal expose of what we think of as civil society.’ John Burnside, Scotland on Sunday.

‘Nothing I can remember reading tells me more, and with such arresting humor and simplicity, about the impostor of the times we live in.’ Independent

‘In this dense, dark and occasionally brutal book Saramago never forgets the satirist’s duty to be funny. A profound fable.’ New Statesman

‘A novel that says more about the days we are living in than any book I have read.’ Guardian


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Sunday, 7 December 2008

Arundhati Roy




















The God of Small Things

I first read Roy’s Booker Prize Winner, ‘The God of Small things’ in 1999 while undergoing the worst trauma of my life. Roy had a halo at the time, especially for us Keralites. No, this is not to say that we should look at things, especially fiction, through parochial eyes.

I read ‘The God of Small Things’ in what was later to be termed in a patchy manner due to the circumstances prevailing in my personal life at the time. It talked of a village in Kerala and used Malayalam words rampantly. There were the rivers, the ponds, the lotuses in full bloom, the pickles, childhood and everything else you would have encountered here in Kerala as a child, growing up in the sixties and seventies.

I was mesmerized with the book for sure, though I had read it in between huge gaps while going in and out of hospitals, which is surely not the way to read any book, leave alone a Booker Winner. But that is how it was.

I reread ‘The God of Small Things’ again last week. It took three days, but the worst part was that I grew impatient and wanted to know what actually happened and so I skipped paragraphs and moved on in this manner till the very end. I sighed. I am confused and unhappy. I do not want to ‘rejoin’ the Roy - bashing bandwagon, yet I will state that it is not as wonderful as I had thought it to be. As l said, l am confused and a little unhappy.

This happens with many books, it is not something that does not happen to others, especially with people like me who is reading and rereading books all the time, when not writing. There is no doubt on Roy’s magnificent plot and the way in which she has narrated it, stretching language till it doesn’t break.

Just before rereading Roy, I had been reading Jose Saramago’s ‘Seeing’. For days on end after that l felt as though l was living inside a bubble and it would burst, while showing me the real world for the first time. The grip that SEEING had on me is in a way all about what good books aught to do to a serious reader. The opening lines of Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The New World’ – l read a book one day and my whole life was changed – holds true for this transcendental work by Saramago.

It taught me that SEEING is not BELIEVING. Reading is.

I reread SEEING again and it still left me gaping, mesmerized, and roused beyond the usual levels of succor. I am madly hunting for his other works like ‘Blindness’, which l am told is a precursor to ‘Seeing’.

Just before reading ‘Seeing’, l went through Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus, ‘Crime and Punishment’ for the nth time and believe me it moved me yet again, with its maxims on human behavior and its world vision.

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Friday, 5 December 2008

Aravinda Adiga

Just now I finished reading Aravind Adiga's Booker prize Winner, 'The White Tiger' and found it one of the most amazing read among the books I have been reading lately.

This one is a must for everyone who has even a spark of literature in their souls. The book is a complete antithesis of what other Indian Writing in English is all about. Each line sends a knife up your belly. It does not let you relax.

Amazingly brutal and completely unhypocritical.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The Bad Girl


The Bad Girl
Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel The Bad Girl is all bout multifaceted woman, practical to the T but endearing. It is also about Ricardo Somocurcio, who is in love with the Bad Girl. She appears in the novel in different names and disguises, taking immense risks while pursuing money and happiness.

The forty year old romance begins with both the protagonists at the tender age of fifteen. Ricardo falls in inextricable love with her, though she treats him with utter disregard and obvious cruelty. As a teenager, he falls in love with Lily, the Chilean Girl, who keeps wiping her past with her dangerous liaisons. Next. Ricardo meets her in France, where she appears as the enchanting Comrade Arlette, an activist en route to Cuba. They become lovers, albeit an icy and remote one, disappearing at her will. She resurfaces as Madame Robert Arnoux, the wife of a high ranking UNESCO official and then as Kurico, the mistress of sinister Japanese businessman. But however poorly The Bad Girl treats him, Ricardo is doomed to worship her.

The novel proceeds to end with a twist in the tale, throwing up some of the answers at Ricardo. What is it that is bad about the Bad Girl which makes her irresistible to Ricardo? Are the answers worth the reading? Surely not.

Llosa’s latest work is a parable kind of story, with the characters drawn in deep charcoal gray. The good and the bad gets mixed up in this tremendously readable novel, though the explicit sexual acts jar the reader at times.

I have by now read three works of Llosa and found one of them reader worthy – the biographical masterpiece, The Way to Paradise. This book is only a shadow of Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa is a Latin American writer, born and brought up in poverty ridden Peru.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Teacher Man


Teacher Man
Just like the lines on paradise (If there is a paradise on earth, this is it!) is written for the incomparable beauty of Kashmir, the first dramatic lines of Pamuk’s The New Life, (I read a book and it changed my whole life), has indeed been written for Frank McCourt’s Trilogy.

When Angela’s Ashes came out in 1996, it became a huge hit and McCourt became an overnight sensation. The book is in the form of a memoir, recounting the author’s poverty ridden life in Limerick in Ireland. One would have thought that the recipe could not have been portrayed with such flair, unless it was a tear jerker. But McCourt wrote with an élan, looking at his miserable existence with sunny humor. The tragedy and the pathos of everyday life is portrayed in a language that has the stamp of unputdownability about it.

McCourt’s second book, ‘Tis is as absorbing, if not more. ‘Tis chronicles his life as a young man in New York. McCourt did not intend to write a trilogy, but after his first book turned out to be a hit, people started recognizing him on the streets of New York, they advised him to write a sequel to it, and then another one to chronicle his experiences of being a teacher. The third of the trilogy is aptly titled Teacher Man.

School life is eulogized by people later in their life, but a teacher’s life, and in New York at that, could at best be as dull as a paraplegic’s life, if not more so. McCourt made changes in his curriculum to make life easier for him and to escape the monotony of teaching adolescents not interested in the English language.

The irony is that Teacher man comes out as dull as McCourt’s teaching days were. Perhaps it was meant to be so. He does not delve into his personal life as much as he did in his earlier works, concentrating more on his hormone packed young students.

For a man whose one and only dream was to write just one book, McCourt has come a long way. If you have not read them, you have not read the best there is.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

The New Life


ORHAN PAMUK

'I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.'

Orhan Pamuk's second major novel, The New Life begins as dramatically as do all his other novels. Sadly enough, that miracle does not happen with this 'book in a book.' It is written in the manner of a parable, and like all parables, it does not attain greatness. A good book is one which reminds the reader of the whole world. This one reminds you only of the existential angst of the double heroes, Osman and Nahit only. And at some point in time, of the anguish of Turkey.

Though most reviews including the blurbs say it is a novel about Identity, as all of Pamuk's novels broadly are, I would say, it is more about the effects of globalisation on young and vulnerable minds.

There are two central characters who undergo the same predicament and their tragic lives are traced against the winds of change that began to change societies all over the world. They see paradise opened up in front of their eyes, but to reach the same, they have to shed their old selves and metamorph themselves into a new life and new identity.

Broadly however, the book is about Turkey - a world torn between the absurd tragedy of its own past of caramels and Kerosene lamps and the new tragedy beckoning them with Hamburgers and Coca Cola. Even Lux soaps. The tug of war between the East and the West which characterises Turkey infuses this entire book. By the end, we are filled with the Turkey's restless, unrequited and unfulfilled love for that which was, and the progress that Turkey could never manage to achieve.

The protagonist, Osman a young and vulnerable 22 year old is ensnared into the new world through a book by Janan and her lover, Nahit, who is later found dead in an accident. Janan, along with the newly recruited Osman leave on a journey to nowhwere, cutting the cord of their past lives in the bargain. Osman's journey of self destruction lands him at the mansion of Dr. Fine, who is waging a lone battle against Western forces through his coterie of private detectives who kept a close watch on his only son before he fled the coupe. He happens to be the former lover of Janan.

The New Life is a Post modernist Parable in so far as it dels with the phenomenal exploration of identity and happiness. But it is the book which is given a magical importance. Later the book is described as one written by a person who himself does not have the confidence in what he extols. He could have been pursuaded to write the book by the CIA itself.

What is the book all about? Is it a new message by a new Prophet? Is it a revised and embellished Quran? In the poetic metaphor of a parable, it is not easy to find answers.

Pamuk's philosophical and lyrical style remains the same, though the joy of reading and the deeply mystifying sense of drama that his other works abound in, are missing in this book.

I have been enthralled by Orhan Pamuk. I have read all his major novels, including MY Name is Red, The Black Book, Snow and Istanbul. This book could be given the miss - except for its opening lines. Read those lines and be awed.