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


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.


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 √©lan, 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


'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.

Friday, 7 March 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Mohsin Hamid's second novel, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', captures 'the recent episode of distrust between the East ant West'. (Kiran Desai) More than that, it explores the psyche of germinating fundamentalism in an educated, well placed Muslim youth - the genre that haunts and pulverise the minds of all modern and educated masses who pride themselves as being above all manner of parochialism and fanaticism.

The narrative is stunningly simple. A bearded Pakistani converses with an American in a downtown cafe in the buzzling city of Lahore. As the day progresses towards dusk and the darkness of the night, the story of the bearded young man comes out in a monologue. The American is a captive listener in what is a stunning portrayal of the schism that created the biggest divide in history - after the Inquisition - the terror strikes on the twin towers of WTC.

Changez, among the brightest and the best of the graduating class at Princeton University, is snapped up by Underwood Samson, an elite firm that specialises in valuation of companies ripe for acquisition. The symbolism of 'acquisition' is replete with insinuations. Parallel to the story of Changez's climbing the corporate ladder is his deep and passionate love for Erica, an all American girl, who is sadly still living in the past in a lost identity, and is prone to schizophrenia.
After 9/11 Changez's identity is also changing, in a seismic shift as well, 'unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power and perhaps even love.'

Till the end, the identity of the American is not revealed. Mohsin Hamid writes in a rivetting style, building up an eerie suspense and controlled irony. It is a tale of love and hatred in unequal measure, though there is a constant balancing of the political with the personal. 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', although a complex portraiture, does not delve deep into the workings of the mind in such an altruistic situation. Yet, it is a reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, the breakdown of communication and religious intolerance.

Mohsin Hamid grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and attended Princeton University and the Harvard Law School. His first novel, 'Moth Smoke' was described as a 'brisk, absorbing' novel. He writes about world politics from a Muslim point of view.

Tailpiece - There are some parts in the otherwise well written novel that are jarring. After the mammoth tragedy that takes place on 9/11, the author does not seem to notice the larger tragedy - of lost human lives - instead he is shown to be paranoid about his lady love, although the way in which the author describes the spontaneous reaction of Changez while watching on television the collapse of the WTO twin towers is magically remniscent of most viewers of the scene, outside of America. But as far as his observations of India are concerned, as an agressor - neighbor, who is bent on overtaking Pakistan seem childish. At one one point, Hamid questions the arrogance of the American army fighting a war on terror on the Pakistan soil, of not retaliating to India, though they, Pakistan and America are fighting on the same side! Indian readers would guffaw on this one, for sure.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Two Paradises

The Way to Paradise

As soon as my eyes fell on the cover of Llosa's 'The Way to Paradise', I knew I had to read it and read it fast. The cover photograph showed Paul Gauguin's master piece painting 'Manao Tupapao' - The Spirit of the Dead Witches. More surprises were in store for me - the novel turned out to be biographical in nature - featuring Paul Gauguin, Post Impressionistic Painter and of Flora Tristan, his grandmother. A little research and it rather stunned me to realise that the dates, paintings and the the names of characters mentioned were true to a T. Even then Llosa's Docu-novel is more fiction than real. As I read the book, I could think of nothing better to describe it than those oft quoted lines, Life is stranger than fiction and at times, truly Fiction is sranger than Life.

The two protagonists, Flora Tristan and Paul Gauguin, both in search of their own Paradises. Paradises so different that time seems suspended between the travails of the two. The novel alternates between the two in a unique style, which I have not read so far - the narrative, powerful and turbulent - seems to zig- zag between the two.
Flora Tristan embarked on a tour of France in 1844 to compaign for worker's and women's rights. Her grandson, Paul Gauguin set sail for Tahiti in 1891, determined to escape from civilisation and seek inspiration for his primitive masterpieces. Flora is the illegitimate child of a a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother. Flora grows up in utter poverty and after fleeing a brutal husband, journeys to Peru to demand her inheritance, which she is denied. On her return she makes a name and space for herself as a writer and champion of the depraved and the dispossessed. Flora's arduous journey to achieve her goal is breathtaking and stupendous in its very inception. She tours the vast countrysides of France to recruit members for her Worker's Union.
On the other side, there is Paul Gauguin whose journey brings him to Tahiti, and to an entirely different way of life. He has abandoned a cushy bourgeosie job as a stock broker at Paris Stock Exchange, though he remembers his mother Alina and daughter of the same name. Alina, his mother was brutally raped by her own father to avenge Flora Tristan's escape from the hell she underwent in her marriage. Gauguin in his search for Paradise, looses all his civiity but sruggles against poverty, syphilis and the stifling forces of French Colonialism, though he has his pick of teenaged Tahitian lovers. As a profligate painter, using vibrant colors, Paul paints some of his greatest masterpieces.
Both Flora and Paul are are fired by ambition and determinedly pursue greatness in the face of illness, death and destructive forces. But there the comparison ends. Paul's degenerate life throws up no vision, though he is a profligate painter who achieved fame after his death in 1903. Flora Tritan's sstory looms in front of the reader as the penultimate story of a born fighter in search of an impossible dream and and an unimaginable paradise.
Llosa's work is a rare study in passion, ambition and the determined pursuit of greatness. This work shows that Llosa is the contemporary genius and a master story teller.

Earlier I had not got a chance to read 'Lust for Life' based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. In Paradise, there are several references to Van Gogh, the mutilation at Arles ( Van Gogh had cut off a portion of his ears and presented it to his favorite prostitute as paynent ) and his suicide later by shooting himself. Gauguin calls Van Gogh, the mad Dutchman. We call him the Mad Genius. In the same vein, Gauguin is referred to as the original Western savage.

I am left stunned at the mastery of Llosa - the desriptive and knowledge power that is packed into every line of the book. Every point being well researched or is it perhaps intuition that takes over when a writer of such caliber puts pen to paper? The four stages of Syphilis described in meticulous detail, the daring of Flora as she battles for life with a bullet lodged in her feeble chest, her hatred of men and sex, her trysts with lesbianism as also Paul's encounter with homosexuality - every color is etched on to the canvas with an unwavering pen.

A great work. A must read.