Sunday, December 30, 2007

A skilled debut that works at various levels

The diaspora’s experience has been the subject of many recent Indian novels, most notably, the Pulitzer-winning The Interpreter of Maladies, and, to a lesser degree (because it dealt with other themes too), The Inheritance of Loss. Both these works have been beacons of light amid the otherwise unsavoury mass that stares the discerning reader at the bookstore. Now, Nalini Jones’s debut collection of short stories makes a skillful addition to this list.

The setting here is a close-knit Catholic family of Bombay: Essie and Frank Almeida and their three children, Marian, Simon and Jude. The stories flit from one member of the extended Almeida family to the next, and several characters appear in more than one story. Some seek lives in new lands, while others stay put. For everyone though, the angst of separation, both physical and metaphorical, is a bloodless gash that humbles the soul.

“In the Garden” focuses on Marian sneaking into the wardrobe to try the dress her mother has bought for her 10th birthday. Marian’s fear of ruining the family’s surprise is evoked masterfully. Indeed, something happens and the dress gets spoiled, and Marian’s guilt unravels with all the intensity that childhood bestows.

Almost all through the collection, incidents are revealed not in chronology, but at random, so that the reader comes across the fruits of the actions first. In “The Bold, The Beautiful”, a woman returns to India from the US to tend to her mother, Grace, who is to undergo a cataract surgery. Initially, we only learn that Colleen moved to the US many years ago and is now living with a roommate, Vanessa.

But all is not as it appears. Why does Colleen wince when she learns that Vanessa has sent Grace a “get well soon” greeting? Is she trying to hide something? Why has she never married? Is Vanessa more than a roommate — a lover? We don’t know for sure — yet. Then we are told that during a confession before she moved to the US, Colleen had confided in the pastor at the local church, “I am hurting my mother. I’m hurting her badly.” On being probed, she revealed, inscrutably, “I am leaving,” to which the pastor replied, simply, “That’s not a sin, my child.”

It is the unspeakable sins that hover above these stories. In the title story, an old man, Roddy, starts to see his father who has been dead for many years. Jones converts this haunting into a personal inquiry on mortality, as Roddy reflects upon the tenuous relationship he shares with his son Stephen, who is settled in the US.

“Half the story” takes us to Marian’s life in the US, where she marries a white man and settles down to happy, if dull, matrimony. During that lonely first year, she is befriended by the lively Vee, who is herself negotiating the aftermath of a divorce. Vee’s observations (“When it comes to men, never settle”) are typical Jones expressions: daring yet apt. The story works at several levels, including a not wholly connected strand of Nicole, Marian’s daughter. But like elsewhere, there is a curious intermingling of time and space to produce a wholesome effect.

Jones is especially adept at capturing the trials of childhood. In “We Think of You Every Day”, Simon sends home painful letters that depict his harrowing loneliness at a seminary in Mysore. Essie, heady with the promise of her son becoming a priest, does not let him return. She writes him long, ineffectual letters, asking him to look at his time at the seminary as “a sacrifice for your future happiness”. On one of his trips home, Simon performs an act of effortless cruelty — a pointer to his transformation at the seminary, where he went, ironically, to ultimately take Holy Orders.

While the stories stand well on their own, Jones would have done well to amalgamate them into a novel. Now, she ought to contemplate a book that blends the varied, sharp contours that her first work is laced with. If her debut work is any indication, her second work, in the hope that it is a novel, will find many admirers.

This review appeared in Business Standard.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Eros teases old age

J.M. Coetzee does not like to rest on his laurels. Having won the Booker Prize twice (the only other writer to have done so is Peter Carey) and awarded the Nobel in 2003, he has established his mastery at writing small, crisp novels which, while being simply written, give the reader rewarding peeks into their writer's sensibility.

He takes this device to its logical conclusion in Diary of a Bad Year. This book is about C, a middle-age author living in a nondescript apartment building in Sydney, Australia. An immigrant from South Africa, C is the writer of a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians. If this doesn't ring a bell, there is also the Nobel certificate hanging on the wall.

Yes, Coetzee has done something remarkable here. While there are clues that the narrator is not himself (C isn't childless, unlike Coetzee), it is impossible not to read this book as a late-life lamentation of the contrast of the academic life with the pull of Eros, a theme Coetzee has repeatedly broached in his work.

In the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, David Lurie, a middle-age professor, falls for a young female student and the scandal this excites is enough to ensure his termination. The play of power that follows this event provides Disgrace its narrative strength, and Coetzee has always been interested in the male-female dynamic.

C has been asked to compile his thoughts on the pressing problems of the day, a project commissioned by a German publishing house in which six world-renowned authors are participating. C's views run on the top of the pages, and make interesting, if sometimes labored, reading. Writing on al-Qaida, C says:

"If there were indeed a devilish organization with agents all over the world, bent on demoralizing Western populations and destroying Western civilizations, it would surely by now have poisoned water supplies all over the place, or shot down commercial aircraft, or spread noxious germs -- acts of terrorism that are easy enough to bring off."

This is laughable, of course. The fact that crimes that require great logistical backup can today be thought of as doable is, if nothing else, a testimony of the power al-Qaida weaves on the popular imagination. There are several such jottings, but they rarely go beyond being bons mots.

What gets the novel going, however, is the fictive plot of C's infatuation with Anya, who lives in the same apartment building as he. As C watches her for the first time in the laundry room, "an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me that I did nothing to stem." C's desperation to get Anya close to him by offering her the job of typist has resonance with Coetzee's typically dark evocation of desire.

And thus, we have the story of this "relationship," told from C's perspective, running on the bottom half of the page. As a storytelling device, it's fairly engaging, unless Coetzee decides to crowd the page with a third band, one that speaks in Anya's voice.

Anya is a headstrong young woman who shares her apartment with her boyfriend, Alan. Well aware of the power she wields on C, she is not averse to exploiting it: "As I pass him, carrying the laundry basket, I make sure I waggle my behind, my delicious behind, sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man, I would not be able to keep my eyes off me. Alan says there are as many bums in the world as there are faces."

What is rather fascinating about the idea of three strands running on one page is that it allows us to appreciate Coetzee's genius better. On the top is a truly academic enterprise, lofty in its studied concern. At the center is the lonely rambling of a writer who is losing his gifts. And at the bottom, the rushed monologue of youth, gravid with its concomitant impertinence.

It must therefore be asked: What is Coetzee's metier? Why does he write? The disaffected nature of his prose gives us clues to a will for silence, a preponderant instinct for quietude. Yet, Diary of a Bad Year is a loud book, filled with both verve for life and the enervating prospect of death. It's one of his more approachable reads, and it is a mark of Coetzee's talent that he is able to enmesh the philistine with the profound with such enviable ease.


This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times, along with another, of Andrew Lycett's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. Besides, my favorite read of 2007 is included in a compilation here. Just scroll down.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pakistan’s self-inflicting fight for survival

This piece was written in late November. Since then, General Musharraf has given up the Army Chief's post and has also, recently, lifted the emergency in Pakistan.

Democracy in Pakistan has had a checkered history right from the country's inception in1947. A healthy democracy has four pillars: an independent and impartial judiciary, free and fearless press, an honest legislature, and a committed and people-oriented executive. However, in Pakistan, democracy has a zeroth pillar, one which overrules the other four: the military. There, democracy functions only at the mercy of the military. A quick browse through the country's history proves this. The shameful debacle of the Pakistani army in the 1971 war with India, which resulted in East Pakistan declaring its independence, made the army very unpopular with the masses. This prompted a return of democracy. Zulfikar Bhutto, father of Benazir Bhutto, became Prime Minister in 1972. But the then Chief of Army Staff, General Zia-ul-Haq, ousted Bhutto in 1977 and imposed martial law.

Democracy again had a dash at survival when General Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. However, civilian politicians who came to power after his demise failed miserably. During, prominent civilian Prime Ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, did very little to uplift the living standards of the common man. Instead, they robbed the country. Little surprise then, when General Musharraf staged a coup in 1999, Sharif, who was then the Prime Minister, received no public support. Both Bhutto and Sharif continue to face serious corruption charges. Thanks to the vileness of civilian rulers, it is generally accepted that Pakistan is best governed under a military dictatorship.

After coming to power in a bloodless coup, General Musharraf fashioned himself as Pakistan's Kemal Atatürk. Seeking to make Pakistan a modern Islamic state and modernize the army, Musharraf said he was ready to do battle with the jehadis. But fate had other plans for the General. 9/11 intervened and redrew Pakistan's geostrategic alliance with the US. Musharraf committed himself to the war on terror in Afghanistan and as a quid pro quo, political and military aid poured into Pakistan. Since 9/11, financial aid worth $11 million has come to the country from Western powers, primarily the US. While this arrangement has helped Pakistan tide over many financial crises, it has also attached to General Musharraf the rather unwholesome tag of "America's poodle".

9/11 and the US occupation of Iraq have forced the Pakistani ruling elite to accept that democracy is the way of the future. Having said that, the country has to work overtime to ensure that the breeding of terrorists on its soil is stopped. Tough measures are required to curb fundamentalist activities in Pakistan. This, as is only too well known, is easier said than done. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's secret service branch of the military, has been training and supplying arms to militants, right from the time the Soviets were in Afghanistan. Militants were also used and are still being used against India in a bid to snatch away part of the border state of Jammu and Kashmir from Indian territory.

India, Pakistan's neighbor on perpetual watch, is in a fix on how best to deal with the new situation. Musharraf has been wont to running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. On one hand, recent reports have revealed that the General gave serious thought to the use of nuclear weapons during the Kargil war of 1999. Pakistan’s A Q Khan, the disgraced nuclear scientist also known as the “father of the Islamic bomb”, is widely believed to have run a flourishing nuclear black market with the General’s connivance. Pakistan’s naked nuclear ambition and the prospect of its nuclear bombs falling in the hands of the jehadis makes the international community's dilemma manifold.

But the General has shown remarkable ruthlessness to fundamentalism when it threatens his own position. In July this year, he ordered the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad to flush out Islamist militants holed there. The standoff lasted for several days. Hundreds of Islamist activists and students were killed, but the operation restored the law of the land, and jehadi activities were effectively checked. To India, which has suffered the maximum damage from terrorist activities sponsored by Pakistan, General Musharraf's firm stand was a welcome surprise.

India, on its part, has had ample experience of fighting terror and understands how difficult it is to contain this menace when one's own citizens take violence into their hands. Its experience in containing Sikh militancy in Punjab provides relevant pointers. The Indian army was ordered by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to invade the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to flush out Sikh militants who had made the temple their strategic headquarters. Fighting one's own countrymen causes emotional turmoil and may even threaten the unity of a nation. Titled Operation Blue Star, the operation against Sikh militants was undertaken under the cover of night in 1984. A total of 90 shells were fired and the separatists were brought down by the army. However, the holy temple was found to have been riddled by over 300 bullet holes.

The desecration of their holiest shrine caused immense resentment among the Sikhs. Retribution was swift and brutal. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguard within months of the operation. General A S Vaidya, the Army Chief at the time of Operation Blue Star, was also assassinated in 1986 in Pune. But the seemingly harsh decision of invading the Golden Temple resulted in a new era unfolding in Punjab. Today, Punjab is a peaceful state and progressing well in a democratic setup. So, hard decisions are at times essential in the larger interest of the nation, even though, and this is added with extreme caution, they may demand the life of a leader.

To be sure, fighting terror is a long-drawn struggle. It cannot be won in a year or two. This poses fresh troubles for General Musharraf, who is not a democratically elected leader. The crux of the matter is that the General draws his strength from America's support, and not from the general public. Moreover, sponsoring militancy has been ISI's bread and butter for over three decades. If now, thanks to the changed global geostrategic scenario, Pakistan wants to part ways with the militants, it's going to have to walk on a bed of thorns. Recently, many soldiers in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) preferred surrendering arms before pro-Taliban militia and tribesmen rather than fighting and killing them. The morale of the Pakistani army is at its lowest ebb. It would be a Herculean task to rejuvenate the army to fight its Islamic brothers in the guise of terrorists, particularly in the NWFP. For General Musharraf, it is an almost impossible job.

At the other end of the spectrum is the judiciary. The judiciary under Justice Iftikaar Chowdhary has repeatedly run into verbal fisticuffs with the ISI-backed ruling establishment. Earlier this year, the many contradictions within Pakistan's intrigue-ridden power structure set in motion a chain of events that concluded with the imposition of emergency.

This is what happened. On receiving inputs that Justice Chowdhary would not toe his line, General Musharraf sacked the Pakistani Chief Justice in March 2007. Countrywide protests in favor of Justice Chowdhary erupted. A wave of resentment for General Musharraf's policies amidst a feeling that Islamist extremists were being targeted on American instructions, swept Pakistan. Under pressure, Musharraf re-instated Justice Chowdhary on the backing of a majority decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court. With Musharraf's victory at the Presidential election held in October 2007 challenged in the Supreme Court, the writing on the wall was clear. Adding fuel to fire, Justice Chowdhary was to decide this case. The General was left with no option but to impose emergency. Thousands of lawyers took to the streets leading to clashes with the police. Armed personnel roamed the streets and curfews were imposed in several Pakistani cities for days on end.

To his credit, Musharraf has sent feelers he’d give up the post of Army Chief soon. He has named an interim Prime Minister until elections are held in Pakistan. So far so good, but the outcome of an election under emergency rule will largely be decided by Musharraf himself and not the public at large. Will Pakistan's enfant terrible be able to abide the many paradoxical promises he has made to his domestic and international constituencies? Only time will tell.

If, at the end of the day, and it's a very big if, General Musharraf succeeds in cleansing Pakistan's image as the breeder of Islamic extremism, and is able to secure Pakistan's vast stockpile of nuclear weapons from landing into the hands of international terrorist organizations, he will be remembered as a national hero and a world-class statesman. Else, history will dump him and treat him as cruelly as it has the other dictators in Pakistan's troubled past.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The son rises, again

James Murdoch's expanded role may help reinvigorate operations in India and China, write FT's Jo Johnson and Tom Mitchell:

James Murdoch’s expanded responsibility for News Corp's international operations reconnects him to Asia, where he was posted from 2000 to 2003 as head of Star TV, the Hong Kong-based satellite broadcaster.

People who worked with Mr Murdoch in the territory credit him with helping turn round Star, which had been losing money ever since his father first acquired it in 1993 from Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li.

“James is like a magnet. He pulls people’s focus together,” said one Star executive. “He put the focus back on finances and really put discipline into the whole structure. We definitely take risks – it’s part of our culture. But after James we looked twice before we leapt.”

Mr Murdoch concentrated the company’s efforts on India but, like Star executives before and after him, struggled to find an entry into the tightly regulated China market. “He was probably more passionate about India than China,” said a former Star executive.

“He found it tough going there. He just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

News Corp’s most recent quarterly filing painted a positive picture for Star. It showed that operating income rose by an undisclosed amount at the international TV business, which consists primarily of Star, for the three months to September 30 over the same quarter in 2006. This compared with an unspecified decline in the division’s operating income in the full year to June 30.

But Star has lost its lustre in India – its most important market – since 2003, when Michelle Guthrie succeeded Mr Murdoch as chief executive, and insiders at Star say that the return of a Murdoch would mean that the family could step in and stem the internecine management wars that have been such a characteristic of the Star executive suite in recent years.

Star was engulfed by a management feud bet­w­een Ms Guthrie, Steve Askew, then chief operating officer, and Peter Mukerjea, the respected chief executive of Star India. Mr Mukerjea was sidelined when profitability at his unit faltered and left to set up a rival network. Mr Askew and Ms Guthrie left the company earlier this year for no given reason. Ms Guthrie was succeeded by former Morgan Stanley banker Paul Aiello, Star’s recently appointed president.

“There is no one who understood the Asian viewer psyche better than James Murdoch,” said Suhel Seth, chief executive of Counselage, an Indian brand consultancy. “When Star was previously under him, he was not micro-managing it out of London, but was based in Asia and made a point of travelling to India once a month. To my mind there was at that point a far greater consumer connect which was lost [after his departure],” he said.

Mr Seth added: “James has the most non-Murdoch style of operating of all Murdochs in that he’s extremely engaging and humane and appreciates that business in India is done more as if you’re dealing with family members, with a pat on the back and a bit of hand-holding. It’s high time that Star returned to the high ground in India, where they’ve committed corporate hara kiri even though it is a critical market for them in terms of making their Asian numbers work as a group. His experience at Sky will be invaluable at a time when India is just about to start its love affair with pay per view. All these learnings will start to come to life.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

As Christmas approaches...

...dip into a "pretty little hardcover book wrapped in an old-fashioned watercolor scene" (in the words of a reviewer), The Last Christmas Ride by Edie Hand. It's out by Cumberland.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

On the eve of Gujarat elections...

...appropriately, a review of Raj Kamal Jha's Fireproof:

Raj Kamal Jha, the executive editor of Indian Express, has been preoccupied with the Gujarat riots of 2002 since he went to the state in their aftermath. He wrote a long piece on the topic in his newspaper after touring the riot-torn state. It has been long supposed that the material of his journey would result in a novel. Fireproof, the result of that effort, is Jha's third book.

The 2002 riots started after fifty-nine passengers, all Hindu, were killed when a train – the Sabarmati Express – was stopped and attacked near Godhra, a town about 150 km from Gujarat's capital city of Gandhinagar. Among those killed were several activists on their way back from Ayodhya where they had been campaigning to build a temple in the name of Lord Ram (this is the same site where the Babri mosque was demolished in 1992, leading to widespread rioting in the country). Against this backdrop, the killing of Hindu activists was looked upon as a blatant provocation. In the riots that followed, over a thousand men, women and children were killed, more than 70 per cent of them Muslim.

The novel begins with the narrator, Mr. Jay, discovering that his just born child is severely deformed. Ithim – that's the name the father gives his boy, a combination of it and him, for the child was barely human – is born prematurely, a child who has no limbs, nose, ears – only eyes. He has large expressive eyes, with perfect lashes and brows. As the book proceeds, Ithim's story becomes less and less important—its relationship to the central theme of the book is, at best, tenuous. Yet, Jha sends out a distinct signal in contrasting Jay's love for his deformed son against the willful murderousness of the riotous mobs. By speaking through a tired, broken man, Jha alerts the reader to the futility of violence and by showing this man's love for his abnormal son in a city of forced abnormality, lifts the tale to a higher plane.

The book comes through as a painstaking process of dwelling into the mind of a man who is at his wit's end figuring out how to look after his infant child in the midst of unforgiving violence. This is where the mysterious Ms Glass steps in. Hounding Jay over bafflingly anonymous phone calls, she invites Jay to a train journey "to set Ithim right". What follows is a hodgepodge of dream-like sequences with a surprising twist at the end.

An easy way to write such a book would have been to recreate the violence – restage the acts of grotesque brutality – which Jha does at one level. But what is noticeable about the violence is its banality. The Muslims who were killed were regular people – doctors, nurses, fruitsellers. Jha's use of the footnote to convey the agony of the dead is a way of showing the heart-wrenching banality of it all. In fact, the people who committed the murders weren't political activists at all. They too were ordinary folk, going about with their daily lives, until Godhra happened and they latched on to it to make a political statement. While Gujarat is one of India's more prosperous states, it is pertinent to question the extent to which economic background, unemployment and illiteracy play a part in the sort of marginalization that breeds antipathy for "the other".

Fireproof is an unusual book because Jha employs several different narrative devices to drive home his point. None of the dead victims seek retribution. All they are worried about is the fate of those who have survived. Jay, on the other hand, comes across as the one bearing the cross of a city, a state gone astray. Nightmares and dreams and mini-acts are Jha's way of seeking to repair the damage.

Jha has a penchant for emblems – acts of devious brutality come alive when newscasts about the killings are interrupted by advertorials for the upcoming Oscars or dead bodies rain from the sky. Scenes of violence couched as dreams jostle for space in this crowded narrative. But what jars is Jha's tendency to introduce rhyme to bring out the victims' suffering. Seeking to draw the menace that four random rioters A, B, C and D wreak, he pens this:

A wears glasses,

B, a striped shirt.

C ties his shoes

And D means to hurt.

A pulls her hair,

C gives a shout,

B just watches

As D lashes out.

So scheming is the violence to embellish which the poems are written, that Jha's efforts at rhyme not only come across as amateurish but also unsympathetic.

A book that deals with an issue as pertinent as religious violence should ideally explore what drives otherwise sane people to become casual murderers. What makes them reject "the other" and how this notion of otherness is played out during normal times. Given Jha's profession, it would have been interesting to see the media's role in all this. Does it sensationalize events to boost readership or does it promote genuine debate? How far is the media responsible for stoking passions? Do reporters for television news channels present things in a more vile way than they ought to? What are the pros and cons of excessive media intrusion? All of these questions would make for fascinating fiction. Jha's response to the tragedy is one of, deservedly so, immense shock, but his book fails to address these questions.

Perhaps the narrative technique employed is to blame for this, since the book is ultimately a personal response to the tragedy, which Jha witnessed first hand. Jha seems to deliberately shun the political to embrace the personal, conveying to the reader the private tragedies that get drowned out in the din for big answers. The book, from start to finish, is a requiem to a world that Jha sees as having vanished for good. This attitude may inspire both people willing to engage themselves in readings about the riots as also the common man who faces the brunt of violence. Jha has directed his anger towards constructing something that can surely aim at making a difference.

Monday, December 03, 2007

"DIY cataloging"

Via the Sunday Inquirer page, I was introduced to this charming website called LibraryThing (at the time of posting, the site's down for maintenance). Katie Haegele gives you the lowdown:

It's kind of like playing librarian. You use the site's software to catalog your own book collection, and for free you can list up to 200 books. But maybe the point of cataloging your book collection isn't immediately manifest to you. It wasn't to me. I read a lot, but I don't keep all the books I read, nor do I keep a record of them. I do, however, treasure my zine collection, both for the zines' content and for their value as cultural artifacts. I thought it might be interesting to account for the ones I've hoarded over the years, so I sat down at my laptop with a mug of tea and a few teetering stacks of these handmade, homemade publications and got to work.

Read here on how Katie found a way to catalog her zines.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review—Gods Behaving Badly

Aphrodite as the girl next door? Greek gods get a taste of mortal life in modern London

Imagine that the Gods have descended on earth, not to fulfill some suitably divine mission, but to eke out an existence in a dilapidated London home. This outlandish premise is the basis of Marie Phillips's uproariously funny Gods Behaving Badly. Saddened by their declining authority, the Gods make a last-ditch effort at engaging, literally, with humans.

So, we encounter all the heroes (and heroines) of classical Greek mythology crowded in a house near Hampstead Heath. There is Apollo, who is trying desperately, and somewhat successfully, to discover his calling as a TV psychic. There is his sister Artemis, formerly goddess of hunting and chastity (ironic, given her family's concupiscence), who is now reduced to the rather pitiable state of walking dogs.

Dionysus runs a night club; Aphrodite, understandably, runs a successful phone sex agency, much to the bewilderment of her righteous son, Eros. Athena's wisdom shines through in the rather literary way she continues to address the household, much to the chagrin of the other, long-dissipated Gods.

The Greeks live amidst such squalor (they are Gods, not sweepers, they remind us) that it becomes imperative to hire a cleaner. Enter Alice, the innocuous mortal who has the nerdy, Scrabble-obsessed Neil for a boyfriend. Trouble brews when Apollo sets his sights on her, and Alice, attracted to the lusty charms of the classic Greek hunk, returns his advances.

Phillips is obviously at home with Greek legends, and the artifice of plotting one God against another to ensure the survival of mortal love is a likable guise. Artemis extracts a promise from wayward Apollo to never harm mortals, but when circumstances deem otherwise, she is not averse to the idea of Olympian justice.

In this endlessly funny novel, some scenes manage to stand out. Especially endearing are moments of desperate confusion worked upon Neil and Alice as they divine that they are at the center of unearthly affairs. Neil's reprising of the tale of Orpheus to rescue Eurydice, accompanied by all the trappings of sneaking into the underworld, is absurdly droll.

Perhaps the only weakness this book can be faulted with is too much action, a frantic tendency to humor at all costs. Hermes, the Olympian God of travelers, may have a role to play in this, bringing on and casting off coincidences at his sweet will. But that, given the originality of Phillips's idea, is a minor irritant in an otherwise deeply rewarding read.


Here's a YouTube video on the book

Monday, November 26, 2007

Scandal at school

In The Headmaster’s Dilemma, a student accused of homosexual rape, while defending himself, tells the headmaster: “I was aroused, yes. What man wouldn’t be? I’m only human. I fucked the hell out of the kid. And did he love it!” This statement marks a departure in an otherwise cleanly written novel of manners, populated by the upper class specimens of America....Read more

Monday, November 19, 2007

Review—The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker street sleuth who, along with his sidekick Dr Watson, solved many an intractable mystery. Little is known about other facets of his personality, notably his late-life interest in the occult. Now, Andrew Lycett (pictured below), well regarded for an illuminating biography of Dylan Thomas, expertly resurrects a life that is fascinating for the many contradictions it juggled.

Arthur didn't always harbor writerly ambitions. Born into a modest Irish family in Edinburgh in 1859, Arthur's uncle and grandfather were celebrated caricaturists. Arthur's father Charles, however, was a self-doubting man, prone to frequent bouts of drunkenness. While Charles was an uninspiring figure, his wife, Mary, ran the affairs at home capably. It was her dogged approach to ensuring a better life for her son that brought about a radical departure in Arthur's education vis-à-vis his less-than-salutary home environment. He attended a leading Roman Catholic boarding school, the tony Stonyhurst, before studying medicine at Edinburgh University. Lycett draws a frank portrait of Arthur's childhood, relating incidents of his father's drunkenness and Arthur's lonely jottings in school. Given the kind of personality he inhabited as a boy, it is little wonder that Arthur devoted himself to a life of contemplation when he came into his own.

He trained to be a physician and practiced for a while in Southsea. But his practice, whatever little it was, never brought him professional satisfaction. So, even as he awaited patients, his mind began to shape up the image of a detective who would be well-versed in the tricks of the medical trade. Little wonder then that Holmes is one of the few sleuths in literature who is equally at home with venoms and chemicals as he is with guns and revolvers. Arthur, even as he still continued his practice, began submitting his stories to journals. Soon his work was being published, so much so that after a while, it became financially feasible for him to contemplate a life devoid of medicine. By the late 1880s, Arthur had established his name as a respectable wordsmith, and thus, Sherlock Holmes was born. While Arthur modeled the sleuth on himself, there were notable aspects in Holmes' personality that differed from his own. Psychologically, a creation famous for his restrained, self-assured masculinity must have provided succor to a man with a deeply troubled childhood.

Arthur's unfortunate marital situation is tackled with grace by Lycett. Married to the sister of a patient, Arthur never experienced bliss with Louise Hawkins. In 1893, Louise contracted tuberculosis and was mostly bed-ridden for the remainder of her life. Other accounts of this marriage have tended to be sympathetic with Arthur, especially in his treatment of his wife. Lycett, however, is unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even as he narrates Arthur's growing closeness with Jean Leckie, an attractive young woman he met in 1897, Lycett is loath to indicate, like others have done, that Arthur was committed to his wife during her protracted illness. This is made all the more apparent in the quick marriage between him and Jean that ensued shortly after Louise's death. The affair must have been especially troublesome for a man who liked to think of himself as an upright British gentleman. Perhaps it was a need to reclaim his honor that forced Arthur to champion various causes with a missionary zeal in the aftermath of Louise's death. Prominent among them was the George Edalji case, the story of the injustice perpetrated on a half-Indian solicitor and fictionalized in Julian Barnes' Arthur and George.

Then the First World War intervened. It resulted in grave personal losses for Arthur—the death of his beloved son, Kingsley, and brother, Innes, both of who had bravely participated in the war deeply shook him. To tide over the crisis, Arthur took to spiritualism, a belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted via mediums. The paradox of a rationalist writer giving in to a belief in séances and table-rapping was, in no small measure, detrimental to Arthur's literary reputation, but like in other things, Arthur was resolute in his beliefs. Indeed, he advocated a scientific basis for the possibility of communing with the dead. Andrew Lycett's book is a fascinating study of a man who brought every bit of his vast humanity to bear upon his exploration of life and matters thereafter.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Elling review

Elling is Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjørnsen's (pictured below) bestselling novel, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2001. It' the heartwarming story of two mentally disturbed people, Elling and Kjell Bjarne, who have been released from their rehabilitation center and given a flat in Oslo to attempt a life of normalcy. Elling and Bjarne are as different as chalk and cheese. If one is sensitive to the point of abnormality, the other is loud and stocky. The novel is narrated by Elling, the anxious one, who has never quite gotten past his mother's death, with whom he shared a nearly Oedipal connection.

He and Bjarne are admitted to the same rehabilitation center--the Broynes--and come to occupy the same room. Elling regales Bjarne, who has a preternatural tendency for vocal sex, with tales of sexual prowess. When in truth, he can hardly find it within himself to even approach a woman. When the reality comes to the fore, instead of self-righteous posturing, Bjarne, in his inimitable style, asks Elling not to discontinue his randy tales. It is these anticlimactic revelations that bind this tale and supply it its emotional center. A trip to a restaurant becomes a life-affirming exercise in self-rejuvenation. There is also tender comedy lurking behind the scenes, as in Elling's urinary distress when closeted with a stranger. Frank from the Oslo City Council is supposed to watch over them, and the novel finds many instances to contrast his studied fastidiousness with the simpletons' love of life.

And indeed, who else should enter their lives but a damsel in distress? Reidun Nordsletten (Elling has an irritating, though funny propensity to address everyone every time by their full names) is pregnant and stays in the same building as Elling and Bjarne. What starts as a rescue operation turns into an unlikely friendship for Elling and a fulfilling relationship for Bjarne. Ambjorsen is adept at amalgamating the funny and the sublime. Elling, who fancies himself a "faceless, underground artist," offers us interesting and unabashedly personal insights into topics as diverse as Edward Munch and the poetry of a gravid tummy.

More than anything else, Elling offers us a fascinating peek into the minds of the mentally unstable. Are they abnormal people looking into a normal world, or is it the other way around? Who defines normal anyway? Is a man who loses his mind after his mother's death abnormal, or merely a paragon of excessive love? We'd never know.

Were you one of those who fell helplessly in love with the admirable Forrest Gump? Well, Elling is similar territory and if you like your tales simple and touching, pick this one up.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


One crafty move after another

Zugzwang, Ronan Bennett informs us in the beginning, is a German term that in chess, is used to describe a position in which a player "is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse." Something similar can be said of the state Otto Spethmann finds himself in. A psychoanalyst, Spethmann is asked to treat Rozental, a gifted chess player who is to compete in the international tournament to be held in St. Petersburg in 1914, one which really did take place.

Bennett has bravely ventured into historical themes in his earlier fiction. The Catastrophist was set in the Belgian Congo and concerned itself with anti-Communist conspiracy. Havoc, in its Third Year, a grim tale on Catholic insurgency, was set in Yorkshire in the 1630s. It is in Bennett's nature to lend a contemporaneous spin on bygone events. So, in Zugzwang, the fight between Communist terrorists and the Tsar's intrigue-ridden police force is painted in strokes not dissimilar to the current discourse on the War Against Terror.

The novel begins with the murder of O. V. Gulko, a respected newspaper editor. But we learn soon enough that the body of another man, who goes by the moniker of Yastrebov, has also been discovered. Are the two murders connected, and what relation do they have with Spethmann, who is accosted by an eccentric police officer? It turns out that the women in Spethmann's life have a lot to account for. There is his daughter Catherine, a motherless child who harbors an elaborate trove of secrets of her own. And there is the enigmatic Anna, the estranged daughter of a local baron, who wields an inexorable pull on the unsuspecting Spethmann.

Oddly enough, Bennett uses well-worn tropes of the thriller genre—deceit, spy rings, propaganda—but his atmospheric evocation of pre-Revolution Russia, and the clever melding of chess moves with political subterfuge lend genuineness to his treatment. Zugzwang was serialized weekly in London's Observer in 2006, and one can see why. The book is composed of bite-sized nuggets, riveting in their own right, even as they merge into a satisfying whole.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Review—Hold Everything Dear

John Berger, the writer of such acclaimed works as "G." (which won the 1972 Booker) and "Ways of Seeing", an insightful collection of art criticism which was adapted into a BBC series, has been voicing his protest against the prevalent global order for some time now. He donated part of the Booker money for "G." to the Black Panther Party in Britain, and converted the ceremony into a cry against the capitalist excesses of its sponsors.

He now returns to familiar territory with a collection of essays that he penned while roaming occupied territories, from Palestine to Iraq. While Berger is always forthright, he does tend to suffer from a bias for the so-called victim, which he proudly displays in an unabashed love for Marxism. His writing is filled with the voice of death. When he travels Ramallah, he moans the breakdown of a city since the Nakbah of 1948 when "ten thousand Palestinians were killed and 700,000 were forced to leave their country." He speaks about the "stance of undefeated despair," which compels young Palestinians to "sacrifice themselves in suicidal counter-attacks." There is a willful ignorance of the other side of the story, which drapes Berger's linguistic flourishes with a plastered sense of reality.

Berger falls for the convenient myth about terrorism: that it breeds in the despair wrought by the excesses of the Superpower. So, links between disparate events are sought out and parlayed when none exist. "Bin Laden was certainly planing his attacks against the West before the Iraqi war, but that war and what was and is happening there, is supplying Al-Qaeda with a steady flow of new recruits," says Berger, in a reference to the attacks on the London and Madrid train networks.

This argument is fallacious. Must the civilized world keep seeking justifications for acts of terror in past and present historical wrongs? Do Berger and his ilk really believe that Al-Qaeda's nefarious designs would be tossed aside if the US mended its ways, as it were? Terror is now an international industry, working with the latest inventions and methods of the globalized world, and too sophisticated an enterprise to be obliged to history and politics. Thankfully, Europe has begun to see that traditional criminal processes of trial and punishment will not suffice in dealing with terror.

Berger's knowledge of poetry and art is exemplary, and he weaves a passionate dialogue for reclaiming the power of language, but perhaps he should stick to fiction and not indulge in rhetoric. For that is what "Hold Everything Dear" ends up being.

Review—The Gathering

Irish literature is reinventing itself in the 21st century, with robust writers like Colm Toibin and John Banville achieving both critical and commercial success. Curiously, these writers, along with Anne Enright, also share the way they treat their narratives. Be it the solitary protagonists of Banville’s The Sea and The Untouchable, or the haunting wretchedness of Toibin’s The Master, there is silent grimness to their tales, which gives off the odor of death. Enright tackles this issue head on, in The Gathering. Veronica Hegarty is passing through the aftermath of her beloved brother Liam’s death by suicide. Liam, a struggling alcoholic, walked into sea at Brighton with rocks in his pockets (strangely reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s death). But that is not the point of the story, neither is it the “gathering” of the large Hegarty family for the funeral, though they are important events in the timeline.

Rather, it is the personal, the intimate, the shattering revelations of love and betrayal that form the backdrop here. The book encapsulates very little by way of plot, yet the sights and sounds within Veronica’s mind create a smorgasbord of emotions, whose template is brilliantly woven by Enright. Liam, the enigmatic: merciless in love, magnanimous in doling largesse. Indeed, he comes across as a stock left-liberal, gone to waste against an incompatible world. It’s interesting how Enright looks through the glass into many of our times’ preoccupations: materialism, denunciation, the battle of good and evil, and offers a uniquely inverted view on each. Like where Veronica sounds out her dissatisfaction with the hint of pride that Liam showed in his encompassing of the poor and the lonely: “I know I sound bitter, and Christ I wish I wasn’t such a hard bitch sometimes, but my brother blamed me for twenty years or more. He blamed me for my nice house, with the nice white paint on the walls, and the nice daughters in their bedrooms of nice lilac and nicer pink.”

And yet, there is the contradiction in defending her prim life versus her own exasperation with the mawkishness that wraps her at home. Her husband is fine, but he is just another person in the long litany of her acquaintances. So are her daughters. There is nothing special about their presence in her life, as there has been nothing special about her elongated string of siblings and her mother and her dead father. But with Liam, it was different. A sort of violence existed between them, Liam and Veronica, a sort of love. Something that she cannot hope to replicate in her marital situation. For Liam was generous, he was great, but above all, he was broken. He was so attractively broken. Why did he fall over the abyss and not she? And why, in spite of the presence of every known comfort, does his absence keep hurting?

Veronica darts back and forth between memories and recollections and nobody wins out at the end. In Enright’s world, lives are too mixed up in the equations of love to be vindicated, even in death. There is a raucousness to the writing. It gives one the impression that Enright may have recorded her voice before transcribing it on paper. This is brought especially to light in descriptions of sex, which invariably include references to animal flesh. In Enright’s hands, sex is not something to celebrate, but a demeaning act that leaves vague impressions on the soul: “...I felt like meat that had been recently butchered, even as he felt terribly moved. If that is what he felt. He was very gasping and juddery, at any rate, like his nerves were all alight...So I lie there, side by side with him, and I contemplate the spreading bruise of my private parts.”

There is also a convoluted though strangely satisfying coda about the grandmother, Ada, who makes recurring appearances right from the start. She is to blame for something, the reader gathers, but what exactly? Then, short of the finish, Enright brings it on, in another nuanced reflection of culpability and the truths and semi-truths our lives are encumbered by. The Gathering is a well-deserved addition to Anne Enright’s redoubtable oeuvre, and indeed, to the Irish canon.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Height of duplicity

Sis and I watched Heights last night. It's the story of Isabel, Jonathan and Alec. Isabel, a wedding photographer, and Jonathan, an attorney, are to get married in a few weeks. Unknown to her, Jonathan is having an affair with Alec, an actor, who lives on the fifth floor of the same apartment building. The movie follows a day in the lives of the three and ends with Isabel discovering the truth about her fiancé.

Elizabeth Banks as Isabel gives a mellow performance. Vulnerable and credulous, she is mildly disparaging of the open relationship that her mother -- played by an exquisite Glen Close -- and father share. She believes her love with Jonathan to be life-affirming, and is willing to sacrifice great job prospects and the promise of a torrid affair with an ex for the sake of her upcoming wedding.

Jonathan is, of course, a closeted gay guy, who had a brief passionate fling with a world-renowned photographer Benjamin Stone. Stone has a reputation of sleeping with his muses, and when his current lover, a journalist, sets out to meet all his exes for a Vanity Fair cover on Benjamin, the skeletons in Jonathan's closet threaten to tumble out.

James Marsden, as the despicable, double-faced Jonathan, is quite good, though perhaps, the director could have done more with a sinister-looking man, which Marsden is not. Even so, it is impossible to feel sympathy for a man who has the nerve of ruining so many lives because "I was ashamed." Likewise for Alec, played by Jesse Bradford. Is it really so difficult still to live the life of an openly gay man in America, that too Manhattan? I don't think so. But what do I know?

So, here is to all closeted gay men who imagine they can convert themselves by sleeping with women. Just grow up already! Accept that you like man-on-man action, and stop living a lie.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Shashi Deshpande...

...on the gendered reader:

To say that all women’s writing is sentimental, emotional, light-weight and about small issues is to imply that all male writing is large in scope, intellectual, tough and about important issues. Absurd, perhaps, but negative ideas about women’s writing are so pervasive, that women have looked for ways out: using a male pseudonym (popular once), not disclosing first names (A.S. Byatt, P.D. James), keeping their gender strictly out of their writing, sticking to male protagonists and so on. At times women may even have felt the need to ask themselves: if men are so averse to reading us, is there something wrong with our writing?


Sunday, October 28, 2007

The pursuit of liberty

"The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work." This quote of William Butler Yeats' is the bedrock of Ha Jin's latest novel, A Free Life. Set entirely in America, this book, which follows Jin's critically acclaimed Waiting and War Trash, is an intricate peek into the artist's sensibility and ways of surviving material dissipation.

Nan Wu, a poet at heart, emigrates to America from China with his wife Pingping (followed later by their son Taotao), and after passing through a series of low-paying jobs, opens a Chinese restaurant, the Gold Wok, in Atlanta. But Nan, forever trying to make a name for himself as a poet, does not locate happiness in his dreary existence. He is happy at having escaped the Communist excesses of China, but his new position, of a man working day and night to make ends meet, is little consolation for "a free life."

Within this banality, Nan searches for the perfect muse, in the image of Doctor Zhivago's Lara. He senses a deep connection with the book, in its exploration of a poet-doctor, a man torn between two women. It troubles him that Pasternak does not explore the effort that Yuri takes to develop his poetry, and he cannot see how the poems at the back of the book relate to the prose. Jin uses this device masterfully, and includes a stash of Nan's fictitious poems at the end of A Free Life, in an indication of how Nan's personal growth mirrors his evolution as a poet.

Nan also pines for his long-lost love, the beautiful, irresistible Beina Su, who had spurned his advances all those years ago. While he loves Pingping, he sees his life with her as stolid and seeks a return to the passion of his youth. He wishes to write poems that are "dark, luminous, and starkly elegant."

Amidst drawing out a Chekovian portrait of life and its soothing dailiness, Jin is also a deeply subversive writer. On a trip to Beijing, Nan encounters a city intent on destroying every fragment of its past in a race to showcase its modernity to the world. The hypocritical duplicity of a regime that must touch up its Communist ills to make them palatable, is a recurrent theme in the novel.

But this does not imply a simplistic view to life in America. Jin is too nuanced a writer for that sort of easy resolution. Nan must accept his shortcomings and compulsions, yet he must, for his own sake, keep trying to live the life of the artist. It is in Jin's evocation of this compromise that A Free Life breaks free of the shackles of the novel to become something greater--a love song to the pull of art.


From St. Petersburg Times

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Eunuch Investigator In Nineteenth-Century Istanbul

Our current crop of writers is a brave lot. There is Sarah Waters, who trots out “lesbo-Victorian romps” with Dickensian skillfulness. There is Stef Penney who won the Costa award for her atmospheric first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, which was set in the wilderness of nineteenth-century Canada. That when she never set foot on the Canadian landmass.

And there is Jason Goodwin. Goodwin situates his tales of the eunuch investigator, Yashim Togalu, in nineteenth-century Istanbul. Yes, you heard that right. And they are no ordinary tales: they are mystery novels, oozing with murderous intrigue.

Goodwin sets them up firmly in the city already popularized by the sexually charged metropolis of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. And his stories are deeply imagined, evoking the city, its sultan and the courtesans, its “muezzins in their minarets”, the Bosphorus flowing though their midst like a dark stain.

In 2006 came out The Janissary Tree, the first in a series of books which track Yashim as he goes around solving murder cases and throwing a light to the darkness. Yashim is a unique investigator, as removed from the classical western tradition of the Holmesian detective as one can get.

For one, he is a eunuch which is an added advantage for his profession, for it affords him unfettered access to the sultan’s harems, given that the women have nothing to be afraid of in his presence. The Janissary Tree was a murder mystery in which the janissaries, “new soldiers” whose force was disbanded by the sultan, were involved in a plot as thick as the aromas that waft in the alleys that Yashim traverses.

Goodwin now returns with another mystery, a tale as exotic as the first one, delicious in its evocation of the last days of the Ottoman dynasty. Here, however, the territory is dangerously personal. Max Lefevre, a French archaeologist with a rather shady reputation, is in Istanbul with a text that ostensibly holds the key to an ancient Byzantine treasure. Lefevre knows that his possession is a source of danger to his life, and he seeks Yashim’s help to plot an escape.

However, within hours of his supposed departure, Lefevre’s mutilated body is discovered and the needle of suspicion now points starkly at Yashim himself, who was the sole person in Lefevre’s company prior to his death. Yashim realizes that it is imperative for him to clear his name of any wrongdoing if he is to maintain his vaunted status inside the palace and also continue his profession.

Goodwin’s breath of knowledge frequently shines through in this work. He doffs his hat to Petrus Gyllius, the sixteenth century traveler who wrote extensively on Constantinople. Yashim is shown reading his work for similarities between the Constantinople of the past and the Istanbul of the present:

“He turned the page. Gyllius described the layout of the city and its walls, discussing Aya Sofya in detail, with reference to ancient sources. There were a few remarks about the Hippodrome, and the Serpent Column: Yashim made a penciled note beside them, intending to check against Lefevre’s copy.”

For readers looking for sexual bewilderment given the ambiguous status of the protagonist, there is disappointment in store: Yashim is unabashedly straight. There are mouth-watering bits of conversation between him and Amélie, Lefevre’s widow, who plays a decisive role in cracking the mystery. Yashim thinks she is “fresh, with a face that told him everything he wanted to know.”

The Snake Stone boasts a sprawling cast of characters, many of who make occasional appearances in the list of suspects. There is Dr. Millingen, inept medical officer, who is famed for his fatal association with Lord Byron. He seems to be making little headway in the cure of the sultan.

Even as a standalone piece of art, The Snake Stone retains the reader’s interest for the sureness of touch with which Goodwin wields the pen. Look at how he conjures the sultan contemplating his imminent death:

“The curtains of muslin and silk brushed together, stirred like a breath by the night air. Sometimes he could see a tiny diadem of stars through a chink close up by the rail and it came and went, came and went, the way people did when you were dying, looking in to observe the progress of death, to render a report on the invisible struggle; all that was left.”

As the mystery gains strength, so also the enigma of Istanbul. Familiar places acquire a menacing sheen and the conclusion races forth in an explosion of pellucid satisfaction. Indeed, the mystery morphs into an historical inquiry: of the presence of secret societies that have defied the inexorable march of time. The nostalgia for a bygone age seeps through the pages as the book combines literary acuity and mystical exoticism with formidable skill.


From the California Literary Review

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Don't travel with preconceptions

The first novella in this collection set in India, "Monkey Hill," has a definite resonance with Paul Theroux's own life. During his time in Uganda, where he was a visiting scholar at Makerere University, a violent mob attacked his car. Theroux was traveling with his pregnant wife, and the incident was enough to put him off Africa. He left the continent for good.

Something similar happens to the Blundens in "Monkey Hill," but they are not so fortunate as the Therouxs. As a character in another story puts it (people keep visiting and leaving one story for another), "He has left the body" - a typical, if somewhat well-worn take on how Indians address death.

The Blundens, an American couple looking for enlightenment, textbook-style, arrive in Agni, a tiny resort nestled in the Himalayas. The resort is uncomfortably close to Hanuman Nagar, a hill town renowned for a famous shrine devoted to the Monkey God, Hanuman. Mixing politics with his adeptness at travel narrative, Theroux establishes a realistic backdrop of conflict over the status of the shrine, where a Muslim structure now stands. A close study of India's recent history provides rich saplings for religious confrontation in this nuanced tale. As Audie and Beth Blunden examine the fragility of their relationship, the knock on the door keeps getting louder and louder. Ultimately, as they fall in lust (and love?) with locals, the Blundens commit the error of romanticizing India, little aware of the consequences.

But that's jumping a bit. The real theme of Theroux's work is the conflict between the stylish, innocuous American and the earthy grimness of the subcontinent. In "The Gateway of India," a Boston marketing executive is driven by the pull of the country to demand extensions of his sojourns, which, in the eyes of his American coworkers, are trips to hell. Dwight Huntsinger, recently divorced and looking for sense in a senseless world, is uncontrollably drawn to a street woman, Indru, whom he meets at the Gateway in Mumbai, directly opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, whose Elephanta Suite is a recurring point of reference in the stories - a witness to acquisitions and losses.

Amid conventions and business meetings, Huntsinger discovers the ineluctable truth about India - that, if the country seemed puritanical, "it was because at the bottom of its puritanism was a repressed sensuality that was hungrier and nakeder and more voracious than anything he'd known." Indeed, the string of women Huntsinger beds brings him a satisfaction his prim American life never afforded him. In India, he could be dissolute - the reeking slums a compassionate complement to his weaknesses. Even as he receives pious homilies on life and renunciation from Shah, his Indian business partner, Huntsinger is grateful for this essentially humane space.

But his comfort is short-lived, as he realizes he is a pawn in the hands of the perpetrators of an Indian drama - he is merely a typical buffoon character, a firangi, given to grand ideas of self-flagellation. Surrender is a repetitive stance with Theroux's characters; the tide of India churns them so violently that they willingly accept sweet death. To Huntsinger, nothing is taboo anymore and he allows himself to be sucked into a dust of holiness.

The most terrifying story in the collection is Alice's in "The Elephant God." She comes to India to attend the Satya Sai Baba ashram in Bangalore, but gets molested by a coworker from the call center where she works. Alice looks to India for renewal, yet undergoes a transformative tragedy that leaves her shattered. But always, her filial connection with an elephant - the embodiment of her esteem for Ganesha, the vighna-harta (remover of obstacles), rejuvenates her: Initially a source of comfort, it becomes, by way of animal fury, the restorer of her honor.

What everyone in this collection comes to learn in the end is that India is not transitional, but permanent, not an idea, but an entity. Its scars and its beauty alike are brutal gifts to be partaken by the Western traveler. It challenges all notions of the other that the traveler may have had. "This was what travel meant, another way of living your life and being free," Alice says early on in "The Elephant God." Never mind that that freedom comes at a price.


From Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Anne Enright wins the Booker

I was writing a review of The Gathering last night, and kept deleting the Man Booker reference because I didn't want to say "shortlisted" in case Enright went on to win the Prize. Finally, I decided not to wait and sent the review without any reference to the Prize. Bad decision! Enright grabbed the Booker in London on Tuesday night. I liked the book. It's honest and deeply personal. Not everyone will find it up their alley though. As Enright said, "My book is the equivalent of a Hollywood weepie."

Because of exclusivity commitments, I cannot post the review right away, but here is a teaser:

Veronica Hegarty is passing through the aftermath of her beloved brother Liam’s death by suicide. Liam, a struggling alcoholic, walked into sea at Brighton with rocks in his pockets (strangely reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s death). But that is not the point of the story, neither is it the “gathering” of the large Hegarty family for the funeral, though they are important events in the timeline.

Rather, it is the personal, the intimate, the shattering revelations of love and betrayal that form the backdrop here. The book encapsulates very little by way of plot, yet the sights and sounds within Veronica’s mind create a smorgasbord of emotions, whose template is brilliantly weaved by Enright.

Liam, the enigmatic: merciless in love, magnanimous in doling largesse. Indeed, he comes across as a stock left-liberal, gone to waste against an incompatible world. It’s interesting how Enright looks through the glass into many of our times’ preoccupations: materialism, denunciation, the battle of good and evil, and offers a uniquely inverted view on these.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Coming soon...

We delve into mystery and biography, politics and philosophy, history and satire. Reviews of the following:

Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Elling by Ingvar Ambjornsen

Review—The Almost Moon

Darkness looms

Alice Sebold is an unhappy writer, or rather, she is the writer of unhappy stories. Her characters wander the grim space between the socially adjusted and the viscerally misfit. And it is in these nooks that she finds her muse. Her bestselling "The Lovely Bones" was the tale of a dead girl who speaks to the reader from heaven. A heart-wrenching portrait of a tragedy breaking apart a family, it was one of 2002's major triumphs.

In "Almost Moon" the territory is as desolate and the subject matter as drenched in darkness. "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." So begins Helen Knightly on the evening she has killed her dementia-affected mother. Herself a mother of two, Helen had been looking after her mother since the suicide of her father.

On that fateful night, after years of long and numbing drudgery, Helen brings herself up to snuffing the life out of her old mother with a towel. As a premise, it's a fairly robust one. This is not a usual case of matricide. It's the cry of a woman caring for an ungrateful, bitter hag who's losing her mind.

But Sebold fritters it away. Helen loses the reader's sympathy within the first 50 pages as the novel progresses to detail her attempts at dealing with the dead body. Over the next 24 hours that mirror the course of the novel, the reader is taken into the depths of the Knightlys' history, often with abrasive descriptions keeping us company:

"I could hear the neighbor's baby scream. It was a child whom I had never seen but whose screams were the unhappiest I'd ever heard. And long. They arced and warbled and started up again. It was as if the mother had given birth to an eight-pound ball of rage."

Rage is what the reader feels at such gratuitous displays of grief spilling over from sadness to turn into something sinister. The story of Helen's mother, who had been a model and whose New York ambitions were curtailed by a quick marriage, is never fully explored to justify her dissatisfaction with the world at large.

In fact, Sebold does not seem to have decided whose story this is meant to be. Is it that of Helen, with her broken marriage to the considerate Jake, or that of the mother, who flits through the book as a corpse, dead or alive?

The book is a collection of dazed soliloquies aimed at seducing the reader into lamenting the Knightlys' collective tragedies. Sadly, this "American Beauty" fails to enthuse.


Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Eric Forbes takes us into the sights and sounds of the 2007 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is this the way the world ends?

The title of this book is misleading: "Have a Nice Doomsday: Why millions of Americans are looking forward to the end of the world" implies a sort of nervous temptation to believe that all the myths about global warming, nuclear terrorism and other such apocrypha would come true.

But Guyatt's book is nothing of the sort. It touches upon the eschatological ambitions of nearly 50 million Americans who believe that the coming of the Antichrist is on hand, and we need only prepare for ultimate doom. Guyatt, an English-born history lecturer at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, spent several months in the US meeting doomsday enthusiasts and proponents.

Guyatt speaks about the booming apocalypse industry that comprises books, DVDs, stickers, pamphlets and so on. He focuses attention on the likes of Joel Rosenberg, Tim LaHaye and John Hagee who have made a fortune for themselves by linking sayings in the Bible with the destructive forces shaping our world today.

One such book he discusses is The Last Jihad by Joel Rosenberg, which predicted 9/11 and the war in Iraq before these events occurred. Rosenberg bases his claims on the Book of Ezekiel, which he claims, "is an intercept from the mind of an all-knowing God." Guyatt maintains a calm disposition throughout, though he cannot escape being surprised and even, at times, appalled by the extent to which Biblical prophecy has been made into a contemporary art.

Even more insidious, in Guyatt's view, is the acceptance that eschatologists seem to find in the corridors of power. By Rosenberg's own admission, he has been invited to a bipartisan Congress meet, in which not less than eight Congressmen expressed curiosity at his ideas. "Has Joel Rosenberg completed the circuit between apocalyptic Christianity and American foreign policy?" Guyatt asks the reader, and one can read the dreadful scenarios crisscrossing his mind.

The only trouble with Guyatt's account is his blatant left-liberal propagandizing. Nearly all the actors in the book are tech-savvy right-leaning xenophobes, falling over each other to bring Israel's voice to Washington. Surely that cannot be the case. Barring that, the book offers a timely and cautious look on why Americans need to know who's driving their foreign policy, stuck in one too many quagmires as it is.


From St. Petersburg Times

Friday, September 28, 2007

The return of old masters

Denis Johnson, whose best is arguably still Jesus' Son, returns with an apocalyptic Vietnam novel, yes, a Vietnam novel replete with spy rings, delirious patriots and shattered lives. It is, to employ a cliché, a tour-de-force.

Essentially, the story revolves around the capers of the "Colonel," a legendary CIA "man with a message," prone to grand theorizing about the psychology of warfare. Not so charismatic is his nephew, Skip Sands, a novice at the game, who, inspired by his uncle, joins the CIA and finds himself in the dungeons of Vietnam.

While the novel flits between time zones and places as disparate as the US, the Philippines and Malaysia; the bulk of it is centered around the American experience in Vietnam, where the Colonel devises a massive counter-intelligence framework, called the "Tree of Smoke".

Assisting him in the operation, which, in the words of a character "is neither desk nor field. It's somewhere out in the jungles of romance and psychosis" is Nguyen Hao, a Vietnamese, who in turn hires his friend Trung Than for the task.

Trung (referred to intermittently as the Monk for his sublime spiritual forays) is a disillusioned former Communist sympathizer: "I remember when the cadres came to my village in 1945 and read Ho's speech to us. A young woman got up and read in a voice like a song. The world rang with Ho's words. In the girl's beautiful voice he talked about freedom, equality." Johnson seems to be saying, it is because of such epiphanies, that people both go forward and regress in their lives.

These are broken people, racked by guilt and the trappings of conscience. If it was not for the war, they may have found themselves leading virtuous lives, devoid of deception. On an ordinary morning, Hao is seen waking up; "thinking what it means to do battle with––no, not to fight against, but simply to face unwaveringly––the dragon of the Five Hindrances: lust, aversion, doubt, sloth, restlessness." Johnson's keen eye solidly keeps us company amidst the dense undergrowth of symbolism and mysticism, as when he here transforms a game of bowling into a philosophical inquiry:

"Skip had never bowled, never before this moment even observed. The appeal was obvious, the clean geometry, the assurances of physical ballistics, the organic richness of the wooden lanes and the mute servitude of the machines that raised the pins and swept away the fallen, above all the powerlessness and suspense, the ball held, the ball directed, the ball traveling away like a son, beyond hope of influence."

Not only is the war addressed through the macro, but from the ordinary foot soldier’s point of view as well. In the story of Bill and James Houston, the romance of the distant conflict tuning into the horror of reality is elicited in sorrowful tones. It's surprising how well-worn attempts at retracing the utter shock of conflict succeed in unsettling the reader.

In a novel awash in masculine motifs (understandable, given the subject matter), only one woman manages to get heard. Kathy Jones, a one-time paramour of Skip, is wonderfully evoked through the letters she writes to him. In spite of her absences during much of the text, she appears triumphant in the end, when her message meets the novel's purpose.

This is a big novel, not just in size (which lumbers to a mammoth 600-plus pages), but also in its scope. Rich in Biblical imagery, Tree of Smoke is an irreplaceable addition to the teeming literature on the "Asian war".

More than anything else, at a time when the US is embroiled in another messy foreign intervention, this book is a reminder of the dangers of false belief and the extent to which we let our prejudices taint our perceptions.

Another old master makes a long-awaited comeback this fall, with his unerring portrait of working class America. Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs is his first novel since the widely appreciated, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls.

Certain themes resonate from that seminal work, like the deterioration of small-town life. In Bridge of Sighs, the fictitious town of Thomaston is in the grip of an impending disaster. The local tannery is spewing pollutants into the town's lungs, causing many residents to develop cancers.

At one level, the book is an ode to the memory of Russo's childhood, his imagining of places where "the only taxi service was Hudson Cab. Their ad in the Yellow Pages refereed to a 'fleet' of taxis, all clean and spacious, with courteous, punctual drivers—proof, my mother said, that you could claim just about anything and get away with it."

At another level, however—and it is at this plane that the novel truly finds it voice—it is the story of three people whose circumstances bind them together for life. Louis Charles Lynch is the owner of a local grocery store, married to Sarah Berg.

Louis—or Lucy—was a childhood friend with the artist Robert Noonan, known to loved ones as Bobby Marconi. The novel traces the lives of these three––Lucy, Sarah, and Bobby––from a shared childhood in Thomaston to the parting of ways in adulthood.

If one thing is taken from Russo's work, it’s his magnanimity of spirit. Nearly all characters are imbued with a generosity so large it’ll make you smile (or wince). We first meet Lucy as he begins narrating his story: at 60, smug with life, looking forward to a trip to Venice, his first time outside Thomaston. Slowly, by way of carefully selected––almost tender––words, Lucy takes us into his world.

Lucy is portrayed as suffering from occasional spells, a result, it is believed, of a traumatic childhood event, during which he was enclosed inside a trunk and abandoned by a group of boys. Rewind to the past where this incident elucidates ties to his family.

Lucy has a devoted relationship towards her father, and Bobby, a tumultuous one with his own abusive old man. In spite of their differences, the boys come to develop a close bond, a bond that will be tested on the altar of love and fidelity.

This ordinary friendship becomes the emotional fulcrum of Russo's tale when both men fall for the same girl. Sarah is a free spirited daughter of the local English teacher, who wishes for one thing but ends up with another. Russo takes us through these lives with an expert's hand, revealing the most enticing parts through letters the main characters share. In that respect, this novel closely mirrors Johnson's.

Life and its tragedies take Bobby to Venice, where he comes into his own as a painter. But the memory of a painting, deceptively titled Young Woman at a Window, haunts the book like a phantom, threatening to open old wounds and re-ignite dead passions.

But it isn't romance alone that provides the artist his muse. As Bobby basks in the glory of his artistic success, Russo ponders:

"Bobby Marconi had always treated his loathing of his father like a precious commodity, something to be hoarded, something you could run out of, or that could be stolen if you weren't vigilant. Bobby had been a miser [...]fearing what sympathy might cost, he'd concentrated on protecting and growing his bitter stash."

The titles of both novels are symbolic (the meanings of which are clarified in the course of the narratives). There is a passage in Joel 2:30-32, which augurs the coming of the apocalypse:

"And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, when the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes."

Indeed, the "tree of smoke" of Johnson's book is a map of doom, sucking its adherents into a morass from which escape, even when it comes, remains tinged by the threat of lasting trauma.

So it is with the so-called "Bridge of Sighs," a bridge in Venice which gets its name from the sighs of the condemned prisoners who walked across it to their incarceration. In Russo's book, the bridge is both an unattainable symbol of love and the title of one of Bobby's paintings, whose subject is his father. Contrasting it with Young Woman, Bobby launches a brooding meditation into art, and finally rids himself of the burden of hate.

What both novels accomplish to devastating effect is to capture the voices of their characters. In Tree of Smoke, that voice is the hurried, rushed lingo of the soldier in the field; in Bridge of Sighs, it is the contemplative murmur of a man drawing out the past. It is our good fortune that we can be party to such diverse paradigms.


From The Fanzine