Thursday, 4 March 2010
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
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 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.
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
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.’
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.