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.