Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dealing with frayed family ties in Kim Jong-il's North Korea

Jeff Talarigo has worked as a teacher in Japan for 15 years, and is deeply familiar with the region. Little wonder then, his second novel, after The Pearl Diver, is set on China's rugged border with North Korea. The Ginseng Hunter (Doubleday, 192 pages, $21.95) is a harrowing tale of political oppression under the communist regime of Kim Jong-il.

The nameless protagonist of the tale is a hunter of ginseng, a valuable root that has medicinal properties. Living on China's border with North Korea, overlooking the Tumen River, he spends his days in solitude, unperturbed by the happenings of the larger world. A simple man, he follows his family tradition of respecting the ginseng root and shares an almost spiritual connection with the plant.

But his uneventful life is about to be shaken up by horrific tales from across the border. On one of his regular visits to a local brothel, run by the no-nonsense Miss Wong, he spends the night with a North Korean refugee. Mysteriously drawn to her, he finds himself fretting over her difficult past and her few chances of survival if she were to return north.

Alternating with the story of the prostitute is the very believable story of a North Korean mother and daughter who must do anything to stay alive in the face of extreme hardship and the criminal indifference of the regime of the "Great Leader." Talarigo has a sharp eye for the intense ties that bind family, and how they are manipulated by oppressive regimes to strip people of their humanity.

The two disparate strands are joined together when the daughter appears at the ginseng hunter's door, and he starts to feel protective toward her, including his quest to "buy" the prostitute from Miss Wong so that she may become a mother to the little girl. But what about the girl's real mother? Is she dead or alive? And is her story, in any way, connected to the prostitute's?

There are no neat endings to this psychologically affecting portrait of desire and guilt. At a time when America's gaze is directed toward the Middle East, The Ginseng Hunter is a scathing reminder of the perils that communism continues to wreak in pockets across the world.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

'Animal's People' puts human face on Bhopal tragedy

Anglo-Indian writer Indra Sinha's second novel, "Animal's People," dramatizes a real event, just like his first, "The Death of Mr. Love." In "Death," he fictionalized a shocking case of adultery and murder involving a naval officer and his beautiful wife that had gripped India in 1959.

In his latest novel, however, the territory is broader, and more promising - the gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1984. The Bhopal tragedy has become a permanent blot on the world's conscience, not just because of the many thousands killed immediately and in the aftermath but also because of the deafening lack of accountability attached to the incident.

"Animal's People," which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, is narrated by Animal, a "creature" condemned to walk on all fours because of a deformity in his spine. But this is no ordinary genetic defect. Animal was born on the night the gas leaked into Khaufpur (the city of dread). Having lost both his parents on that fateful night, Animal was also burdened with a disfigurement that has played havoc with his life and his, er, roaring sexual appetite.

The villain is Kampani, the invisible corporate behemoth that is cocooned in indifference. So even as Animal introduces us to humans and half-humans like him irrevocably damaged "that night," there's no redemption for the evildoers.

Only Sinha could have tackled a tragedy of Bhopal's scale by making his narrator a slightly comic, and mostly bawdy, sex maniac. Peppering his narration with such scatological details as the prodigious size of his member, Animal regrets that his crooked posture leaves him no scope to woo the beautiful Nisha. His dilemma is compounded by the presence of a potential rival - the handsome Zafar, an anti-Kampani protester.

Somewhere along the way comes Elli, an American doctor who, seemingly wracked by her conscience, opens a free clinic in Khaufpur. But Zafar is wary of her, thinking she is a Kampani agent. He sets up Animal to spy on Elli, a task Animal, ever hopeful of his chances with women, takes up happily. The rowdy but lovable Animal then undertakes a series of adventures that climax in a hallucinogenic night reminiscent of "that night."

"Animal's People" shifts focus on a tragedy that threatens to drop off the map. At a time when globalization has been accepted as an ideal that spreads prosperity, this book is a timely reminder of the many tiny players left damaged in its wake.

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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Second novel is so passive, it's aggressive

Andrew Sean Greer's second novel, after the critical and commercial hit "The Confessions of Max Tivoli", is based in the post-World War II era, when a large number of American soldiers returned to make halting lives with their new families.

Pearlie Cook is the wife of one such soldier, the emotionally battered Holland. Pearlie has known Holland since childhood and had inadvertently played a central role in his drafting. The war experience has shaken Holland to the core, and has given him, what Pearlie calls, "a transposed heart".

Squeezed in between caring for a polio-afflicted son and looking after a husband who refuses to share a room with her, Pearlie has us believe she is happy. Until, of course, a stranger, Buzz Drummer, walks up to her one day and reveals something about Holland's war past that makes Pearlie, and the reader, question the already lightweight claims of her happiness.

Buzz and Holland were lovers, and Buzz takes Pearlie through the myriad moments of their togetherness during a time of conflict, when male bonding could easily spill over to romantic interest. Then there is Annabel, the daughter of Holland's employer, with whom, if rumor is to be believed, Holland is having an affair.

With so much open to question, Greer had the perfect script in hand, but his tendency to avoid conflict at all costs, kills the novel. Why is Pearlie so accepting of her husband's transgressions? Why is she so prone to philosophizing her pain? Why, hell why, does she not create a ruckus and pull some answers out of her wayward husband?

Greer has an eye for the apt phrase, and his words lull the reader with their smooth flow. His description of an out-of-place wife, trying hard to build a home for her son and husband, is
visceral—reminiscent of the angst-ridden Laura Brown from "The Hours" (Greer has revealed his fondness for that novel).

But as a novel, "The Story of a Marriage" does not work. For Pearlie's sacrificial self to hold any meaning, the book ought to have built to a crescendo, ideally involving violence. But that does not happen. Besides, the denouement, like much of what comes before it, is contrived.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The pull of antithetical forces

Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of a Beijing writer who spent eleven years beginning 1967 in Inner Mongolia as part of a voluntary exercise that involved young intellectuals. Their aim was to familiarize themselves with life on the Inner Mongolia steppes.

"Wolf Totem", a fictional take on Rong's experiences of the time, has sold over a million copies in China, making him an instant publishing sensation. In 2005, Penguin bought the global English language rights to the novel, and thanks to Howard Goldblatt's excellent translation, we can now read a landmark in publishing history.

"Wolf Totem" is the story of Chen Zhen, who arrives in the Olonbulang, a remote grassland in Inner Mongolia, in the late 1960s. The Mongolians are a proud, valiant people who lead nomadic lives on the grassland. When Chen Zhen settles with herdsmen of the Olonbulang, he is witness to a remarkable, beautiful way of life that is endearing despite its hardships.

The Mongolians consider the wolf as the soul of the grasslands, a creature in direct communion with Tennger, the Mongolians' heaven. They look upon the wolf as a savior of the grasslands, primarily because it keeps the small animals' population in check. Yet, the blood thirst of the wolves is a permanent danger that the herdsmen live with. The herdsmen's relationship with the wolves is, therefore, one of uneasy admiration.

Guided by a strict yet benevolent herdsman, Chen Zhen finds himself getting drawn to the legend of the wolves, to both their savagery and their warrior spirit. He decides to steal a wolf cub from a den and raise it secretly.

The book gradually moves into its other major theme: the subjugation of ethnic tribes. When the Chinese government sends its representatives to the grasslands to oversee the creation of farming collectives, the first target is the wolves. In the battle between the herdsmen and the Communist government, there is little doubt who Chen Zhen will side with.

In many respects, "Wolf Totem" goes beyond definitions. The fight between Mongolia and China, grassland and mainland, wolf and human, is a study in anthropological contrasts. In its scope, the book resembles Tolstoy's "War and Peace", and in its evocation of the hold of the animal spirit on human imagination, it surpasses "Moby Dick".

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Loneliness, madness

While it may end up being an important book in the gay canon, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, Neil Bartlett's second novel, is not a greatly written work. Sure, it has all the dark dealings that have come to typify his writing. But it is nowhere near Skin Lane in its convoluted plot and 1920s' London setting.
The novel is narrated by Mr. Page, describing the incidents of four eventful days during Christmas time, 1924. This was the period of the worst repression against gays in England, with the memory of Wilde's trial still fresh. Homosexuality was illegal and anyone found indulging in "those acts" was incarcerated. In this scenario, Mr. Page, a regular visitor to the Turkish Baths in Jermyn Street meets one Mr. Clive, a spitting image of him, which may mean that they are long-lost brothers (or not). Clive is a fabulously rich man who comes to Jermyn Street ostensibly to get his cuff links stitched, but really, to measure his chances with men emerging from the Turkish Baths.

He invites Mr. Page to his house on Brooke Street
, a magnificent structure dating back to the nineteenth century. The novel is as much about the beauty of houses as it is about the beauty of men. (It starts with an account of Richardson, a well-known architect, who built a house on the South Side of Chicago in 1886.) Like Skin Lane, dreams play an important part in the story—Page begins to dream of the house and of Mr. Clive's handsome, blond manservant, Gabriel. Later, after the disappearance of Mr. Clive and Gabriel, Mr. Page is called up to give testimony into the "unmentionable things" that went on in the house. Here really, the dream-like sequence reaches its zenith, with the boundary between Page's fantasy and the reality blurring with rapid frequency.
Mr. Clive and Mr. Page is a far more optimistic work than Skin Lane, and therefore, also more forgettable. However, the two works share certain themes. Dreams as pointers to our desires, the loneliness and madness within the gay community, and the penultimate intense encounter between the main characters, heavy with sexual tension, that propels the books to their respective ends.

Now, read this.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Fact disguised as fiction

Surely, this is the age of fact disguised as fiction in Indian writing in English. While, at one level, all fiction is autobiographical, Indian writers seem to be increasingly pouring personal details into their writing. When Arundhati Roy dedicated her 1997 Booker-winning novel, The God of Small Things, to her mother, “who taught me to say ‘excuse me’ before interrupting her in public”— a line repeated in the novel—it was no ordinary dedication. It was Roy’s way of letting the reader know that Rahel and Estha, the protagonists of her novel, had more to share with herself and her brother than fiction would, or should, allow.

Now comes The Konkans by Tony D’Souza, the Chicago-raised son of an Indian father and American mother. The hero, and narrator, of this novel is Francisco D’Sai, also the Chicago-raised son of Lawrence, an Indian, and Denise, a white American woman. If that’s not enough, Denise, like Tony’s own mother, serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in India, where she meets Lawrence. Putting two and two together, it is hard not to think of The Konkans as autobiographical fiction. Whiteman, D’Souza’s first novel, about an aid worker in West Africa, also had autobiographical elements.

The Konkans are a close-knit Catholic community in India, who, as a character in the book recounts, “had been waiting” for the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama “since the beginning of time”. As with all myths, there are truths and semi-truths in this contention. While the Konkans indeed converted to Christianity, the process was brutal, and involved outlawing Hindu sacred texts, music, clothing and foods. In The Konkans, D’Souza enmeshes the historical with the personal in constructing a story of identity and the timelessness of love.

Lawrence D’Sai is the first-born son of an illustrious Konkan family of Chikmaglur, a prosperous town in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Right from childhood, he has been treated differently from his siblings, because of the vaunted status of first-born sons in Konkan families. So, while his brothers while away their time in Chikmaglur doing menial jobs, Lawrence is sent off to Bombay to work as a banker.

However, when a white woman, Denise, visits Karnataka on a Peace Corps mission, Lawrence sees this as an opportunity to rise ever higher, and returns to Chikmaglur to woo her—she is, after all, his passport to a land removed from “all the noise, the crowd, the filth…the corruption and lack of opportunity.”

In describing India from Denise’s view, D’Souza expertly presents the country from the eyes of the outsider, much like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala did to resounding effect in Heat and Dust. So while Lawrence cannot wait to marry Denise and move to the US, the lady is unsure of returning. Where Lawrence sees crowd and filth, Denise is more prone to noticing

    “the flowers in the women’s hair, the call of the fishmonger in the mornings as he pushed the cart through the streets, the fuss and hullabaloo that went along with every simple transaction in the market for the day’s salt and rice.”

To Denise, India is a spiritual destination, where “wearing a white sari and teaching low-caste women how to make smokeless ovens” come to her naturally. But ultimately, she and Lawrence do depart for the US, leaving in their wake an expectant Konkan family and, for Denise, the promise of an eternal Indian connection. Neither is aware yet that what they have taken for happiness, will only be a livable compromise.

It is to D’Souza’s credit that he does not resort to clichés in sketching the matrimonial failures of the D’Sais. To Lawrence, America is the land of opportunity, where his insatiable thirst for recognition will launch his family on a never-ending spiral. To Denise, however, it is a land that she does not, and never will, identify as home. Battling nostalgia and regret, she goads Lawrence to sponsor his two brothers, Samuel (Sam) and Lesley to come to the US.

It is the love between Sam and Denise that forms the other major strand of the book. D’Souza writes of their friendship, and the later discovery of a taboo love, with sensitivity and candor. Sam is the man that Lawrence could never be, and though Denise and Lawrence will never go their own ways, they will never truly be one either.

The Konkans is a sprawling work, suggestive of the history of this tiny Christian community. It tackles, though only in passing, issues like racism and colonial intrigue. It is also a very personal book, reminiscent of all family histories and myths. Tony D’Souza, like Arundhati Roy, is a courageous writer. He has given us a work that will guide us on the journey of life even as it brings a smile to our face.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A move to darker territory

The Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection "Interpreter of Maladies" and the novel "The Namesake" have established Jhumpa Lahiri as a sharp and affectionate raconteur of the trials and joys of expatriate Bengalis who have made America their home. While her first story collection was more broad-based, her latest collection, "Unaccustomed Earth", is more in sync with her novel, "The Namesake", in dealing substantially with the loves and losses of first-generation Indian Americans.

The title is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" ("My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth"), and points to the dilemma of not only "striking roots" into unknown soil, but also growing up with a sense of permanent exile.

In the title story, an aging widower with a happily married daughter, Ruma, is loath to give up his life of freedom to stay with his daughter, who is insistent that he live with her. Finally rid of the demands of the family, he has recently been taking trips to Europe with a widow, the mysterious Mrs. Bagchi, a relationship he is worried he will have to reveal to Ruma one day. Ruma has doubts of her own. She has never been expressly close to her father, and her husband thinks it will be unnecessary trouble (though, to be fair, he leaves the decision to Ruma).

The story takes place during a week that the father spends at Ruma's new home in Seattle. With the husband away on official business, the house is filled with just three people: Ruma, her father and her son, Akash. There are several cross-currents at play here. As Ruma's father and Akash develop a mutual admiration, it becomes clear that this will only be just another holiday for the father. The crests and troughs of Ruma's feelings contrasted with her father's inability to reveal the truth about Mrs. Bagchi give the story its emotional heft.

Matrimony and the flawed sense of security it provides in certain cases are an abiding concern in this collection. In "A Choice of Accommodations," Amit and Megan are to attend the wedding of Pam, who may or may not be an old flame of Amit's. While the wedding weekend starts on a promising note with the hope of some quality time together, Lahiri brings out the lack of trust between Amit and Megan in gradual, dark shades.

When, during the wedding, Amit has a drink too many and blurts out the truth about his married life, it only brings out to himself the dishonesty that marks his relationship with Megan. The weekend drags on, and the growing tension between Amit and Megan, always just beneath the surface, threatens to explode and engulf their relationship. However, the story ends on a suitably optimistic note, after closely — and in retrospect, meaninglessly — guarded secrets are revealed

The book is divided into two parts, with the first containing three other standalone stories. The second part, titled "Hema and Kaushik", has three interconnected stories of two people who continue to meet across different time spans and places. Buoyed by their shared past and the promise, but only that, of love, the characters effect a powerful resonance on the page.

The first story, "Once in a Lifetime", is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1981. The adolescent Kaushik and his family are returning to the US after having spent a few years in India. Until they find a place of their own, they arrange to stay with Hema's family, who are longtime friends. The awkward intimacy that this arrangement forces on Hema is evoked sympathetically by Lahiri, especially as the quiet, brooding Kaushik holds a special place in her heart.

The story is burdened by the weight of the unexpected, and seemingly foolhardy, decision of Kaushik's family to return to the States after only a few years in India. When the truth behind this move is finally disclosed—Kaushik's mother is dying of cancer, and they have come to the US for her treatment—Lahiri sets Hema and Kaushik in sudden intimacy, the reader's hope for Hema deflated by the shock and grief of the revelation.

The most stunning story in the second part, and indeed in the entire collection, is "Year's End", the middle story. It is narrated by Kaushik, and is set three years after his mother's death. Kaushik has just been informed that his father plans to remarry a widow from India, Chitra, and that he will meet her and her little daughters, Piu and Rupa, when he comes home for Christmas. The story builds slowly, as Kaushik is forced to cede ownership of his mother's objects to a stranger. The beauty of Lahiri's writing is not that her stories lack in violence, but that the violence is so large, so affecting that it must be channeled into other, wholly unwelcome directions.

Which is why, even as Kaushik feels protective toward Piu and Rupa ("they needed me to guard them, as I needed them, from the growing, incontrovertible fact that Chitra and my father now formed a couple"), it is the girls who become the target of his biting fury when they unwittingly chance upon photographs of Kaushik's mother. In her signature style, Lahiri draws out the cycle of guilt and silence this entails.

Hema and Kaushik meet one final time years later in Rome, in the final story, "Going Ashore". Now adults, set in their choices and errors, their meeting and the next few days have the rushed quality of time nearing its end. As they go their separate ways, uncertain of the future, the story closes on a tragic note, finally, soothingly, bringing the expectation of happiness to an end.

Devoted readers of Lahiri will locate in this collection a move to darker territory than in her previous works. No matter. Lahiri is as magnanimous in her themes, as exact in her imagery, as controlled in her treatment, as she has always been.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

In Docx's 'Pravda,' little steps build a life

Pravda begins with an odd, frantic conversation between Maria and Gabriel, mother and son, the former in St Petersburg, Russia, the latter in London. It's not a typical mother-son conversation, interspersed with calls to "inhabit yourself fully" and "to be fierce in the face of all the cowardice you see around you."

Maria is not well. A passionate Marxist in her youth, she has witnessed her health—and her ideology—wither with time. There is a desperation in her voice, an urgency that impels Gabriel to catch the next flight to St Petersburg. After much trouble, he lands in her apartment only to find her dead. This is the template on which Docx starts his book, and it is a fascinating, superb read.

Soon, we are introduced to the other characters: Gabriel's twin sister Isabella, who is a PR manager for a New York media firm, and their estranged father Nicholas, a failed painter prone to grandiose ideas about the artist's place in the world. Then there's Arkady, a gifted—but penniless—pianist and his heroin addict flatmate, Henry. There is something in Maria's Marxist youth that points to a connection with Arkady, and Docx takes his time to fully flesh it out.

In the meanwhile, he gives us a novel rich in scope and description. Spanning four cities, Pravda is a biting commentary on the state of the world today. This is brought out most tellingly in the contrast between Gabriel and Arkady, two men fated to discover the bond between them.

While Gabriel has typical upper-class concerns of juggling two lovers, Arkady faces the prospect of his talent going to waste in the absence of any resources. Via its astute portrayals, the novel's chief concern is to illustrate how seemingly minor decisions can make the difference between glory and failure. While Gabriel is too intelligent to not concede the weightlessness of his life, it is Arkady—and his devoted flatmate—who live "real" lives, lives governed not "by exercise of the mind but of the body."

This is Docx's second novel, and closely missed out on a Booker nomination last year. Having read it, one can only rue the Booker committee's decision. But take heart, Docx is here to play a long innings.

Also read this.

(This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.)