Category Archives: novel

Fury by Salman Rushdie

 Professor Malik Solanka, a man in his mid fifties, scholar and dollmaker extraordinaire, is having a rather belated mid life crisis. “Fury”, which he sees around him, in the rage of destruction, or the fire of creation, overwhelms him suddenly, when he leaves his wife and three year old son in London. He travels to New York, to resolve his existentialist dilemma, but gets entangled in the “fury” of the city, and the people he meets there, in the dawn of the new millennium.

 

Rushdie’s world is chaotic as ever, his penchant for sarcasm undiminished. There’s also the arbitrary, even whimsical, emerging from time to time. Who would name a character Krzysztof Waterford-Wajda, and mention Kieszlowski in the same book? It seems Rushdie had been into Polish directors at the time of writing the book (Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrjez Wajda. two of Poland’s most famous directors ). 

There are perhaps echoes of his own life in the Solanka character, how he befriends and falls in love with head turning beauty Neela Mahendra in NY.  For a while, it is not difficult to put Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi in their shoes. 

 

Things seem to be coming together well in the Rushdie world, the angst of the disenchanted professor, the lunacy of modern living – personification of fury itself, love, incest, sexual obsession, even a little of fashionable anti Americanism here and there. But things really begin to tumble when Rushdie jumps into hyperspace, with Solanka’s venture into the Internet (remember, this book was written around the time of the Internet bubble, talk of cashing in) – with his sci fi dolls and the world of Akasz Kronos, Baburia and what have you. The latter half of the book, as we quickly enter the political crisis in Lilliput-Blefuscu via the imagined life of space age puppets, thus deteriorates into mindless prattle. It is a huge letdown.

 

There’s no question of Rushdie’s intellect, but when great minds wander, it is not difficult to foresee that illusions of grandeur persist in all. A disgruntled reader begins to question: To whose benefit is the writing, so devoid of the possibilities of social satire or poignant introspection with which it begins, but the kitsch waste into which it eventually degenerates? The outcome is thus the loss of trust between the reader and writer, originating not only from the question of whether the reader has been wasting his precious time behind the book, but whether the writer has been wasting his, disguising something fickle in a seemingly profound package. Whatever the answer, it is certainly not a win-win.

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An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Michael, a brilliant but temperamental violinist, finds that the love of his life happens to be living in the same city he calls home: London. Julia, a pianist, his first and only love, is someone he cannot forget, though they had parted on unfavorable terms ten years ago. He clings on to her memories, from their days in the conservatory in Vienna, the deep influence she has had on him. Initially aimless after the separation, Michael eventually finds some footing in life, joins a quartet, has a schedule of sorts and a decent livelihood, though her absence haunts him constantly.  She has moved on, has married, and has a son. But when they meet again, she discovers that she still loves him. Michael, blinded in rekindled passion, refuses to acknowledge the futility of their tryst. Impetuous, the possessive lover begins to form an unbearable threat between Julia and her family. Deeply hurt, she tears herself away with steely resolve. Michael, heedless of his career as a musician, withers away. Yet, despite the irreconcilable separation, it is music that strangely binds him to life, and the cause of living.

 

An Equal Music is a love story. But not just so. Music, and the lives of musicians, is a parallel theme, which becomes inevitable, an outcome of the central character’s profession and the first person narration. Michael’s world, his friends, his activities and interests involve classical music at some level. Seth paints this world with authenticity – whether bringing up an arcane Beethoven Opus, discussing contrapuncts or fugues, or with musicians talking about the finer aspects of playing a piece – everything is very realistic. This is to such an effect that it could lead a reader who is only somewhat familiar with classical music, to delve deeper. Seth’s accomplishment is not merely in the depth of his writing about music, but also his success in keeping the work extremely engrossing at the same time. Divided in short, manageable chapters, the book is a page turner, in the restrained manner of his earlier novel – A Suitable Boy.  Love, the central theme, comes in many forms. The illusory passion possessing Michael, his bonds with his father, and the altruistic love of true friends. Finally, there’s the love of music, which permeates, without intrusion, the entire course of the novel. The fact that Julia, like Beethoven, is deaf, and yet continues playing, which sustains her, as it does Michael, is Seth’s tribute to the redemptive powers of music. There is also subtle humor now and then that keeps one light hearted. The eccentric Piers, a member of the quartet that Michael belongs to, is probably the most memorable of the side characters, his tactlessness reminding me of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.

It is not a dark and serious work like, for instance, Disgrace. With hope and humour, Seth counterbalances delusion and disjointedness. While this makes the work less depressing, it also takes some of the edge off.

 

The title of the book is from a John Donne verse, which appears before the beginning of the novel:

 

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they 

shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no

darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor

silence, but one equal music…

 

In the course of reading, it becomes apparent that this kind of writing would not be possible without the writer’s love and interest in music. At the end, in the Author’s note, Seth acknowledges that, saying: “Music to me is dearer even than speech.”

It his his love for music that enables such a virtuoso performance.

Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

After the prolix of Love in the Time of Cholera, Train to Pakistan was a refreshing change. Not merely for its brevity and directness, but also for a context with which I could very much relate.

Although fiction, the background events are real. Thousands of refugees perished during the exodus, when a Pakistan was split from India. Instead of joy in freedom, it was misery and bloodshed that greeted many of the new citizens. Trainloads of dead crossed the border, as people in vengeance sought an insane form of justice.

The copy I have is a 1961 Grove Press edition, which cost 50 c. then, and which I bought for $3.50 circa seven/eight years ago. Here’s what the cover blurb says:

The brew is indeed acrid, and would leave one rather burned, but for the salve in the end. The sacrifice of Juggat Singh, alias Jugga, for the love of his Muslim fiance.

The train went over him, and went on to Pakistan.”

The train with Jugga’s fiance. Whom he will never marry, in whose womb grows the child he will never see. The brawny thug had the wisdom which political leaders of the time lacked.

The story is set in an isolated border village, Mano Majra, where Sikhs and Muslims lived in harmony, till the wake of the partition. There are several relevant characters. There’s the tough guy Jugga, a convict in parole, in love with a Muslim girl. There’s the Europe returned intellectual Iqbal, a communist social worker seeking to reform the simpletons, but becomes a frustrated victim of bureaucratic quagmire instead. Then there’s Hukum Chand, the seasoned district magistrate, scheming, playing his moves as in a game of chess.

While Jugga, in denouement, is a portrayal of how love can elevate the motives of a common criminal, Iqbal and Hukum Chand, from their own different perspectives, reveal the bitterness in the abject failure of a political move. A move that heavily cripples both countries to this day, and is likely to do so for many more years.

Khushwant Singh, with his acerbic prose, effectively drives home the dual themes of the novel: the brutality of partition, and the incapabilites, even indifference, of an inept politcal class

To end this piece in a less sombre note, here is Khushwant Singh’s translation, in this novel, of the first few lines of a famous Hindi number of yore:

In the breeze is flying

My veil of red muslin,

Ho sir, Ho sir.

If you’re still fumbling, here’s the song itself.

Interestingly, this is an anachronism, though minor. The film was not released till two years after 1947, the year of the story.

Love In the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the time of Cholera did not impress me. It is, of course, a translation. Thus, I do not know how much of its original essence was lost. But surely, the story would be the same, which, I found quite uninspiring, even boring and inane at times. There is very little dialog in the nearly three hundred fifty pages of leisurely story telling, which adds to the misery. There is nothing in the main character, Florentino Ariza, that I find worthwhile. If remaining a promiscuous libertine while pining away for one’s unrequited love could be symbolized as a great sacrifice on the alter of love, I certainly am not one to bow to it.

There seems to be a deep confusion about love, which is somehow deeply, intricately intertwined with sex and easily, mistakenly substitutable. So, Florentino Ariza has no qualms in his quest to find that illusory thing, but remains true at heart, to his first love, Fermina Daza, who meanwhile has forgotten him and is enjoying life with an illustrious husband (whom she doesn’t love passionately, but is practical enough to hold on to) and children. They eventually do meet and mate in their dotage, when she is a widow and when all his teeth have fallen off (I’m not sure if I’m making this up, but you get the idea), and by which time the reader is throughly disgusted and is holding on to the book merely because it is backed by the fame of the writer.

Reading fiction is enjoyable for two things: story and characters. If the story isn’t very good, it could still be a great read if the characters are interesting and memorable. I found none of this to be true in this novel. One simply is not drawn into the work, which somehow seems to hover around the periphery of things. As an example: there are numerous descriptions of the stuff that Florentino Ariza writes (poetry and prose), both full of juvenile love sickness and sagely wisdom in old age, but none of what is actually written by him comes through to the reader. How is one to plumb the depths without the real thing? Mere descriptions are not enough.

But I must also admit my lack of knowledge on the historical perspective, the Caribbean socio economic heritage and river navigation history, which provide a significant background. So it could well be that my aversion was partly due to the absence of anything identifiable. Yet, I cannot deny the fact that a good work should be able to transcend such obstacles.

So, where do Love and Cholera combine? In the end, of course, when, to escape inquisitive minds, Florentino Ariza quarantines their pleasure boat. And it is with a sigh or relief that I put the book aside, as Florentino Ariza decides to keep navigating forever with his eternal love to escape the world. Symbolic? Of course. But I was happy to be spared the journey.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace is a relatively short work. It is also quite unputdownable. This was my second reading of it, having first read it about four years ago. And it was a far more vivid experience this time.

Professor David Lurie is a University English professor with a penchant for Romantics, whose “disgraceful” sexual liaison with one of his students suddenly lands him in trouble. Though we despise this fifty year old divorce’s lust for someone so much younger, there’s something heroic in his frank admission, in the way he denies an attempt by the inquiry council to elicit an apology, disregard its self-righteous intent to make him grovel in guilt. According to him, at that moment, “I became a servant of Eros.” Yet, finding himself out of a job at the fag end of a career is only the beginning of his woes.

He leaves Cape Town, to visit his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy, who runs a farm, hoping to put his turmoils behind him. But soon after his arrival, a gruesome tragedy strikes their lives (sorry, read the book), leaves both father and daughter shattered(especially daughter). With concern for Lucy, Lurie lingers in the farm far longer than he had wanted, discovering strange solace in incinerating dead dogs (a task he performs with uncanny diligence), finding time to put together a Byronic opera he’s been wanting to write, and trying to pursue his daughter to seek the justice he thinks she must. Yet, it’s also a place where none of his old rules work. As his old world (and life) gradually spirals downhill, Lurie is forced to adapt to a new reality, in which he, remarkably, begins to find both sanity and love.

Coetzee’s prose is terse and powerful, evoking compassion and anger. The undercurrent of racial tension in Lucy’s farm in Eastern Cape is undisguised. But the book’s biggest achievement is in how it engages one to empathize with Lurie, despite his flaws, makes one see his idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, yet makes one feel at times – “that could be me.”

I eagerly await the film version. While not expecting it to match the book, I do think John Malkovich as Lurie would be captivating.

The book won the Booker in 1999 and Coetzee is one of the only two authors to have won the Booker twice.

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small ThingsAfter plodding through the last few books, “The God of Small Things” was a refreshing change. It drew me in, into the lives of Estha and Rahel, into Kerala, Ayemenem, onto love and its fragile boundaries, easily crushed by blind traditions, by selfish, hypocritical motives.

What Arundhati Roy achieves in her debut novel, her only work to date, is quite remarkable. She has the Booker (1997) to show for that, though an award is not always well deserved, as I recently discovered. In this case though, it is. One hundred percent. May be one hundred fifty. The lyrical quality of the prose, the evocative locales, passionate, intriguing moments reaped to the fullest, all belie the fact that this was only a first work. What a first! One that masters would be proud of and imitators love to worship.

The story, strongly influenced by the writer’s own life, is set in a Kerala village, Ayemenem, where the twins Estha and Rahel, return after twenty three years. Reliving a past that had separated them and split a family terminally apart. A past where their mother, Ammu, had loved an untouchable. An affair they paid dearly for. Estha and Rahel return to the present, to a “hideous grief”, to be haunted by death. Like their mother, they break “the Love Laws. That laid down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

 

Why a writer of such talent would forsake writing after her first work is baffling. Maybe political activism is more alluring. Maybe that was all she had to say. Maybe she is destined to be another Harper Lee. Whatever the reason, I hope she is able to repeat her tour de force. At least once, for the sake of literature.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance Of LossIt is not a badly written book. But not one “that” well written to deserve an award, and least of all one as prestigious as the Booker. So why did The Inheritance of Loss win the Booker?

Answer:

a) The rest in running were no better

b) The judges blundered

c) My perceptions are, well, questionable.

 

I hope it is option c. But reading the book I felt otherwise.

 

Sai, an orphaned teenager whose parents died tragically in Moscow, is left to the care of a reclusive and disillusioned grandfather, a retired Judge and former ICS officer of the British era, now residing in a desolate Kalimpong bungalow. The judge has a cook, whose son Biju is an illegal immigrant in the States, jumping from one small time job to another to stay afloat. The book hovers between the present life of Sai, the judge and the cook in Kalimpong in the backdrop of the Gorkhaland movement, and Biju’s struggle to find a foothold in New York, interspersed with flashbacks of the judge’s past, his cruelties and illusions of grandeur that have soured his taste for life

 

 

So why is this much vaunted book undeserving of its praise and accolades? Here I attempt a brief five point reasoning:

  1. Stiltedness : The overall effect appears stilted. It seems the author has tried to force fit herself into ideas of the region and its political climate (Kalimpong, Gorkhaland), the characters, and the result has carried forth in the writing. It has lead to characters hard to empathize with, despite numerous situations where it is called for.

  2. Exoticism : There seems to be a clear intent to sell this book to people who are not familiar to India. Exoticism can go beyond mangoes, guavas or chutneys. They tread into long stereotyped rituals like child marriage, subjugation of women, negativism among low level business class Indian immigrants in the USA and so son. The writer’s desire of satire, if any, falls flat, the humour impotent.

  3. Incoherence : While the narrative shifts from present to past, from Kalimpong to New York, from Gorkhaland politics and marginalised victims to Saeed Saeed and his desperateness of becoming an American citizen, the transitions are ill made and jittery, hardly Booker calibre.

  4. Bad dialogue : The dialogues in Inheritence are not only pathetic but also profuse, which adds to the pain.

  5. Failed experimentation: Desai tries non conventional structures, like an oddly punctuated list, or expressions, in the middle of a paragraph. Or even broken half formed sentences given the fullness of whole. While this is novel and does garner some attention, it is not hard to notice the lack of any resounding effect in outcome. Experimentation for its own sake. While Rushdie creates power and Arundhati Roy almost poetry, Desai manages only a hodge podge of something needless.

 

Is the book really that bad? By no means.You can certainly give it a try, though you might be hard pressed to finish it. Desai deserves credit for the research in hill politics and civil servant’s lives, for coming up with something substantial to say in over three hundred pages that perhaps took her years to write and which in no way can be undermined by a review that has taken only minutes. My regret is that with all the content for drama and conflict, the possibility of scintillating characterization and scope, the work frizzles out to produce only something average, that someone will read and forget, with its characters hardly lasting in our memories.

That is where the book fails, and the reason why I felt that option (a) or (b), or both combined is the most plausible answer to the question I had earlier asked.