For someone who loves traveling and who loves reading, I read surprisingly few travel books – its sort of like the way I love chocolate and I love ice cream, but I don’t like chocolate ice cream – however, I am always in search of good travel books, in the hope that some day, one…
I am sitting at the most comfortable spot in our sofa, playing with Bolano’s 2666 in my hands. It was a birthday gift from six months ago and I still haven’t got to it. I want to read it, oh! I have wanted to read it for so long – but I am thinking of…
It is not easy to find good travel writing – most of the time, they read like an itinerary of “I did this, and then that, and that” and you are left wondering whether you picked up a brochure rather than a travelogue. Sometimes, the writers go overboard and describe each little stone on the…
The Orange Prize Short List had been announced, Waterstones screamed a 40% off with free postage, and I had the irresistible urge to buy a book. I mulled over which book to pick – I don’t have the time to read all the six books on the short list, but wouldn’t it be awesome if…
Srijith and I have different interests in movies – an occasional chick flick or a romantic comedy are stuff I enjoy, while the not-so-better half is more of what I call a cine-snob: those artsy movies which make me snore after about ten minutes are more his cup of tea. After nearly ten years together,…
I just started reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer. It makes me wonder why I choose to read the books that I read.
I read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Long a Solitude, because the life of a book destroyer in Prague intrigued me, it was beyond my imagination before I read it. I read Briane Greene’s The Elegant Universe because I was in a phase in my life where string theory fascinated me, and thought perhaps that this was indeed the answer to all man’s questions about the universe. I read Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower, because I admire the woman for her grit – how many Somalian women have managed to fight every adversity that fate threw up and go on to become a famous model? I read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun, because I was on my way to Africa for the first time, I was alone and a bit scared of what awaited me in the dark continent and I mistakenly thought the book might make me feel better on the flight. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t read book after book about Bengali immigrants in America, but I devour every Jhumpa Lahiri book I can lay my hands on, because every sentence she writes is like a musical note that has been perfected through hours and hours of playing.
I might read for many reasons, but I admire writers for one quality. A rare quality that not even every one of the great ones share – honesty. It is hard to write an honest book. It is hard even to write an honest post. Yet, those are the stories that grip you and make you realize that life is not all pretty and dainty, but you are not the only one confronting the ugliness either.
I recommend Doris Lessing’s Grass is Singing, for anyone who wants an honest read. If you are in a mood for a comfort read, this is not it. But if you are ready to look life in the eye, with its ugliness right there with all the beauty that we like to see, this is one of my favorites.
“When she saw him, she stopped dead, and stared at him with fear. Then her face, from being tormented, became slowly blank and indifferent. He could not understand this sudden change. But he said, in a jocular uncomfortable voice : `There was once an empress of Russia who thought so little of her slaves, as human beings, that she used to undress naked in front of them.’ It was from this point of view that he chose to see the affair; the other was too difficult for him. `Was there?’ she said doubtfully at last, looking puzzled. `Does that native always dress and undress you?’ he asked. Mary lifted her head sharply, and her eyes became cunning. `He has so little to do,’ she said, tossing her head. `He must earn his money.’
(The Grass is Singing, 1950)
Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule and slavery, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate, and like almost all of Lessing’s work portrays life as it is; no apologies, no excuses and no smoke curtains.
The first writer whose honesty struck me was Kamala Das or Madhavikutty or Suraiyya (I don’t know the other names she goes by). A true icon of Malayalam literature, I have read her works in English or the ones that had been translated, never quite attempting to read page after page in my mother tongue. When she passed away last month, she left a void in Malayalam literature that no one can really fill.
When I was younger, I used to wonder why a woman born to a comfortable life in Kerala would have subjected herself to so much controversy? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to write beautiful stories about pretty things and let the harder facts rest in peace? But then, now I realize, it is not the easier road that is the more fulfilling road, and a writer’s satisfaction comes from writing whatever it is that he/she feels like, the consequences be damned.
But why does honest writing have to have so many consequences? Why is it that if a woman writes:
“Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers …”
(The Looking Glass, from The Descendants, 1967).
,she is judged to be sexually provocative, not just as a writer, but also as a person. By the time I had reached a mature reading age, I think the literary press was more interested in sensationalizing Kamala Das’ personal life rather than her literary achievements. Magazines printed more of her life’s stories rather than her short stories, which was a real loss for my generation.
But then, perhaps, asking a reader to judge a book without judging the person is hypocritical too. Afterall, there are times when I read Lessing and I wonder whether she experienced any part of her stories herself? Whether it is her opinion or the character’s? How much is fact and how much is fiction? But fact in fiction, or fiction in fact – does it really matter?
I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a yellow sun a little while ago. A haunting book, it has many raw scenes and offers an honest look at the Biafran war that changed Nigeria forever. Towards the end of the book, the narrator opines that the story of a Nigerian war is best told by Nigerians. Why really? What is the point I am missing? A different perspective doesn’t make the story any less honest, it is just someone else’s view point. If we all chose to write stories about the lands we were born to, the literary world wouldn’t be half an interesting place as it is today. Should we all just be reading the story of India by Indians or the story of America by Americans? Why is Nigeria any different? Whatever be the context, aren’t we all better off reading multiple perspectives?
Ben Okri, the booker prize winning author, was one of the panelists at the Oxford Lit Fest last weekend. And that’s what he autographed for me. Me like..:-) Funny thing was, he wanted the book. Apparently, he had never seen this edition of his own book. Think it was bought in South Africa, and…
James Lasdun at the Guardian has a wonderful piece on the short story as an art form and reviews some of the best collections of 2009: “…it raises the question of whether there is any special quality, aside from length, that distinguishes the short story from other literary forms, and if so to what extent…
I love traveling and spend a lot of time on the road. In every trip, no matter how short and in every city, no matter how beautiful – I visit the bookshops. Prague was no exception. People fondly recall many things after they return from a trip to Prague – after all, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – but I remember the bookshops the most. There were so many of them, and so many Czech authors whose books I had struggled to find elsewhere. From Jan Neruda to Josef Barák to Jaroslav Seifert and of course, the Kafka, I returned with two bag-loads more than I left with.
Today, I will write about Too Loud a Solitude. Of all the books I picked up, this one tugged at my heart strings a little bit more than the rest. For Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude is a book which is deceiving in its simplicity, scathing in its humor and uncompromising in its honesty, but most of all, it is profound in a way that makes you think about it for a long time even after you have turned its last page.
From the very first line,
“For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.”
I was hooked. Fortunately, the book was short enough that I did not have to skip too many meals to finish it one sitting.
The book is about Hanta, an old man who has spent his entire life compacting paper, but is overflowing with ideas.
“I am jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.”
An unusual character, the book explores his world in minute detail and within the narrow perspective of his vision, which rarely expands beyond the compacting mill in the cellar, rife with mice and his home, that is so full of books that it might he collapse if he turns in his sleep.
Hanta is also an alcoholic, claiming that he has “drunk so much beer over the past thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery”, but it is only to “muster the strength for his godly labors”. Despite his job of destroying books, he has saved quite a lot of them from the evil shredder – either giving away or selling, but mostly just stacking up in his tiny home. But Hanta, who may be a nitwit according to his boss, is also a fountain of knowledge, from which can sprout Talmud, Hegel, Kant or Lao-Tzu.
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel”
In Hanta – the destroyer of the written word, yet also its perpetrator – Hrabal has found the perfect setting to examine the permanence and abstraction of ideas, the inevitable march of time which threatens the relevance of all of us, the different kinds of relationships one can have with the written word and the myopic nature of an individual’s perspectives.
“And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
The novel might have a narrow focus, but it also covers the gruesome details of Hanta’s existence, from the mice in his cellar to the details of his mother’s and uncle’s deaths and his haranguing boss. He also talks about his unlucky love life: of Manca, “who never having known glory, will never relinquish shame” and the nameless gypsy girls who “had their pictures taken everyday, but never saw a shot of themselves”.
Despite its short length and outlandish setting, the novel is rife with symbolism. It is as much a thought-provoking satire as it is a literary treat. If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t know what you are waiting for.
Link: Buy from Amazon
I just read Albert Camus’ The Plague – Camus being Camus, I was ready for a slow read , but after part I (the book is divided into five parts), I could hardly put the book down. Consequently, I am done – in the literal sense of the word. But perhaps, not really. Even after starting on my next book, I feel my thoughts returning to the life and choices of the characters of The Plague.
For the uninitiated, The Plague is an account of life in Oran, a city in Algeria that finds itself, rather unexpectedly, in the middle of a deadly epidemic. The book follows the reactions of various individuals as well as the collective, as they progress through the various stages of the plague. I am not sure I would call it an existential classic, but it definitely does a phenomenal job of examining the absurdity of life, its irrationality and human reactions to anything that they have no control over.
One of the emotions that Camus paints beautifully, especially in the early stages of the plague, is the feeling of exile. The town walls have been closed and almost all means of communication have been stopped. Telegrams have become the only means of sending and receiving messages of any sort.
“Creatures bound together by mutual sympathy, by flesh and heart, were reduced to finding the signs of this ancient communion in a ten-word dispatch, all written in capitals. And since, as it happens, the forms of words that can be used in a telegram are quickly exhausted, before long whole lives together or painful passions were reduced to a periodic exchange of stock phrases such as “Am well”, ‘Thinking of you’, ‘Affectionately yours”.
We don’t need to imagine a plague to appreciate the gravity of the message. Perhaps it has been exaggerated by the unusual circumstance, but it is hard to deny that this is increasingly relevant in our interconnected global world. Far from isolation we are, you might say. But then reducing exchanges to stock phrases must be all too familiar. Loved ones who knew every aspects of our lives are reduced to being recipients of abstract accounts of general happiness, on account of the distance that separates us. Friends are emailed that all is well and that the summer is bright. For, after all, how much distance and isolation can you conquer with a message, no matter how much it is filled with love?
Which brings me to abstraction. To not experience something is to, in a way, alleviate it to a level of general abstraction.
“He tried to put together in his head what he knew about the disease. Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination. The doctor recalled the plague of Constantinopole which, according to Procopius, claimed ten thousand victims in one day. Ten thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large cinema. That’s what you should do. You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them into a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better.”
Even after reading the book, the whole concept of the plague remains an abstraction to me, the removed reader. Just a means to understand the message, the object that is separate from the idea. And as long as I haven’t felt it, seen it, heard it, touched it, it will remain an abstraction. As will most things in life, some pleasant, some unpleasant. Such is the blessing of life, though perhaps one less acknowledged.
Tarrou, undeniably one of the more interesting characters in the book, notes in his diary:
“Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist’s waiting room in an uncomfortable chair; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, …”
If we want to save time, and if doing unpleasant things seem to stretch time, why don’t we do it? Sure, you can appeal to the conventional wisdom that the time you have is constant – 60 seconds is 60 seconds no matter what you do. But then, I could argue that fragmentation of time itself is artificial and really, just a convention. When you wish you had 48 hours in a day, you don’t wish for 48 equally fragmented segments of time, but that you could achieve double the amount of whatever it is that you wish to achieve in 24. The end goal is not to save time, but really to have the perception of saved time. Then why not do something that manages not to lose time, especially when it is so obvious and easy?
Paneloux, the priest, no less of an interesting character, first thinks of the plague as punishment from God. Towards the later part of the book, after coming in direct contact with the disease, he delivers a controversial sermon, where he claims in effect, that there is no middle way – either you love God, or you hate God. Either you accept or you reject. Or more eloquently,
“When innocence has its eyes gouged out, a Christian must lose his faith or accept the gouging out of eyes”.
In other words,
“If a priest consults a doctor, there is a contradiction”.
The book reaches its epitome of eloquence in Rieux’s thoughts, almost towards the end of the plague, when the town had begun rejoicing over the imminent freedom from pestilence:
“But what had he, Rieux, won? All he gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known affection, and to have one day to remember it. All than a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory. Perhaps that was what Tarrou called winning the game! But if that is what it meant to win the game, how hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, deprived of what one hopes. ”
Perhaps the book was an allegory on France’s Nazi occupation. Perhaps it was a fictional account crafted as a medium for exposition on the absurdity of life. Perhaps it was meant to exposit and acknowledge the sterility of life without illusions. Perhaps what I had read from it was nothing which the writer intended.
Does it matter really?