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