Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, April 10, 2017

V.S. Naipaul Bend in the River


Written prior to "Half a Life" and "Magic Seeds", the novel covers the same territory: a ethnic South Asian man living in war torn Africa - possibly the Congo - compensating for his hopeless situation with sexual adventure.

He became a writer in order “to fill out my world picture . . . to make me more at ease with myself”. Seen through this prism, his tropes of African malaise appear more personal, less judgmental; an attempt to understand the follies of the colonial and postcolonial conditions (what he calls “colonial schizophrenia”) rather than a simply reflex rejection of their failures. -- Colin Murphy, reviewing the "Mask of Africa"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

V. S. Naipaul : Magic Seeds

"It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world.  That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unravelling.  But I can't write to Sarojini about that"

With this sad-but-wise conclusion, Willie brings an end to "Magic Seeds", the sequel to "Half a Life".

And I disagree -  at least with regards to Willie's life.  It could not begin to unravel because it was never raveled together in the first place.  As Naipaul has told his story, he was a lost soul  the moment he  was conceived by a Brahmin father and a Dalit mother.  He has never cared about anything but himself - and even regarding himself - he  only cares about sexual urges.   He is a cockroach - albeit a very intelligent and introspective one.

This novel begins in Berlin where Willie had fled Mozambique to finally begin living his own life.  I had predicted that he would just continue his sexual adventures, but I was wrong.  Instead, his sister sends him to join the Maoist insurgents in India.  Given his absent personality, he has a natural ability to hide in plain sight - but that is his only martial ability.  Eventually he manages to half-heartedly kill some hapless peasant -- and then as the local insurgency collapses, he finds himself in jail.

I'm not sure that we can rely Naipaul to know anything about Indian prisons (or Maoist insurgents) -- but if his depiction is accurate, those prisons exemplify a wrong-headed compassion where captured rebels are encouraged to organize their own ideological activities.   

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

V.S. Naipaul : Half a Life

Alas, poor Willie.

His father a Brahmin - his mother a Dalit - and he's a talented writer with opportunities but no idea of what to do with life except fuck.

Compassionate - sharply observant - but ultimately self centered - just as the  book is Willie centered -  with secondary characters that are fascinating but sketchy.  How does his wife spend her time? How did Willie himself spend his time before he became more curious about his sexuality? We are told  nothing about whatever challenges he faced in agribusiness or as a husband. Would he have lived in Africa his entire life if the insurrection had never happened?

Presumably this novel  targets readers with a taste for colonial guilt and sexual perversity.

Yet the story breathes with life -- the narrative is unpredictable and exciting. It seems to diverge - instead of converge - as the story progresses.  When we're told that Willie has left London for Mozambique and will stay there for 18 years -- it's like jumping off the high board at a swimming pool. 

The story ends abruptly as Willie leaves Mozambique without career, family, or cash.  There is a sequel that begins in Berlin - so I suppose I'll next be reading about his German girlfriends.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anisul Hoque : Freedom's Mother

This story is more of a panegyric tribute to ideal heroes  than a modern novel.  There is no complexity - no character development -  no ambivalence.

Azad was a young participant in the Bangladesh War of Independence.who was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Pakistani army. Sofia Begum was his mother who never accepted or recovered from his disappearance.  She mourned him every day of the fourteen years she had left to live.

It's not hard to see Azad as a Romantic young fool, too immature to take even the simplest precautions as he enters into the life of an urban terrorist.   It's not hard to see his mother as a foolish old woman too proud to reimagine a new life for herself after her husband takes a second wife -- and then later --- after her son is killed.  All she can do is gradually sell off her jewelry and cook for her family and friends. Someone needed to tell her son that he was on a path to destruction -- and it was not going to be her. His father might have intervened - but she firmly rejecting having him back in their lives - despite his  repeated entreaty.

A reviewer, Robert Hutchison (is he the writer of popular books on Christianity?), tells us that "by her strength of character and incredibly dignity, Safia Begum offers an example for us all".  Sadly, this may have been the message that Anisul Hoque wished to convey,  bit this is the death-cult world of orthodox Islam.  Everybody's honor is preserved - but their lives, along with many others,  are lost.  In the end, the world is no better off - just more of same.

One might also note that the characters are apparently oblivious to the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and 300,000 to 500,000 people killed. Apparently honor was not involved.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hanif Kureishi : The Last Word

Thomas Rowlandson

"He had completed his work, which was to inform people that Mamoon had counted for something as an artist, that he'd been a writer, a maker of worlds, a teller of important truths, and that this was a way of changing things , of living well, and of creating freedom"

I do admire the above words - the very last words in this novel.

They refer to Henry, the character who has been writing a biography of Mamoon, a controversial  English/Pakistani writer who resembles V.S. Naipul.  Henry's task - given to him by his editor - was to write something sensational about the old man's sexual behavior that the general public would like to read. As it turns out, Henry's current sexual escapades are even more prolific.  Women have always found him as irresistible as a box of chocolates - and he has no interest in settling down with any of them.

Unfortunately, we don't get to read anything by Mamoon, only Kureishi, and his story of Henry does not seem to reveal any important truths - other than that some writers work hard and enjoy sex.

Many of the chapters seem to have been dashed off in record speeds. As a critic in Guardian wrote:
"Kureishi's output is so erratic that the reader can sometimes only assume that he has been intermittently coshed on the head, dragged from his writing desk and replaced by an enthusiastic but untutored impostor"

I liked how every character is capable of surprising behavior - but it did get tiresome keeping track of it all. 

Henry ends up living with a girlfriend who has no back story.  She was casually introduced as a colleague of his editor - and then, whoops, suddenly she's in bed with the main character.

I suppose the point of it all is that South Asian Muslim intellectuals, like Mamoon and Kureishi, are both thrilled and baffled by the sexual freedom of English women.

On reflection, it might be noted that Mamoon, famous as he was, was never seen to engage with peers - only service staff, sexual partners, and people who wrote about him. A rather lonely way to end a long and allegedly productive life. 

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tahmima Anam: Bones of Grace


I'm not sure how this book would read outside the context of the entire trilogy, beginning with "A Golden Age".  Set in the Bangladesh War of Independence, it introduced the fiercely loyal,  tender, ruthless, and occasionally  vindictive grandmother.  Her daughter becomes the central character of the next installment,  "The Good Muslim".  As the title may suggest, it's a screed against the violence, hypocrisy, and misogyny of orthodox Islam. That woman's adopted daughter,  Zubaida, becomes the central character of the third installment,  "The Bones of Grace".

Like the author herself,  Zubaida was born after the war, got a PhD in science from Harvard, never moved back to Bangladesh, and eventually became a writer of fiction.  She is the first character in the trilogy to narrate her own story.  Her similarity to the author has allowed this book to be far more intimate, informed, and compelling than the first two.

This story is told as a letter to an American boyfriend, the quite brief but still great love of her life.  Like all the other males in the trilogy, he is a shallow, cardboard puppet.  But he is probably how both Zubaida and Tahmima would view me, if I were the one she had met at the Shostakovich piano recital in Boston.  Or, at least, that's how I  hope they would see (and smell) me: as a tall, handsome,  healthy, blue-eyed, bright, somewhat lost young man of the northern climates.  (I'm not so young any more -- so I've got to imagine myself forty years ago).

Zubaida/Tahmima is my dream lover: exotic, passionate, and brilliantly creative and insightful.  She's also hopelessly self centered - inadvertently hurting everyone with whom she comes in contact. Everyone is collateral damage in her obsession with finding her unfindable self.  (But that's OK with me --  I don't have to live with her.)

This novel is disappointing in the way that so many television mysteries can be.  The puzzle is set slowly and beautifully -- while the resolution is fast and incredulous.

Yet so many of the mise-en-scenes are wonderful- as the narrator's voice takes us through a dialogue between two characters as well as between the narrator herself and the distant boyfriend to whom she is telling the story. Incidental details of landscape, social conventions, and furnishings are to be treasured.  (I loved her mother-in-law's four sofas)

My favorite scene may be the moment when Zubaida asks her adoptive mother for more details of her birth mother, while  beginning to reveal her estrangement from her more-than-perfect husband.  They are sitting at a trendy café (Zubaida's choice). The food is burnt, her mother begins to tear up, throws some cash on the table and walks out, not turning to see whether her daughter will follow or not - as the waiter follows to collect the balance of the tab.

Zubaida is crazy.  The story ends on a happy note: enough bone fragments of her beloved walking-whale have been shipped to her paleontology department at Harvard for her to share them with colleagues. But the end-middle-beginning  structure of the novel shows us a mind in perpetual perseveration.   The violence, crimes, and trauma of each generation have been handed down to the next, just as it was in one of the world's first great trilogies: the Orestaia.

As the object of her paleontological study, the walking-whale Ambulocetus, would suggest, Zubaida, like the author, is an awkward,  transitional  life-form:  part traditional South Asian Muslim woman -- part modern, international,  academic elite.  Though told from that secular POV, the old-school characters don't come off all that badly.  Even the mother-in-law -- who appears to Zubaida as a rich-bitch -- actually has had more of a positive impact on people's lives than her prodigal critic has ever had.  Her wealthy family is actively involved in a  growing third-world economy -- whereas Zubaida is passive and ineffective as either scientist or  social critic.  (her project to help the ship scrappers is casually abandoned). Her abandoned husband, by contrast,  is saint-like in his toleration and devotion to her.  His only crime being that he will not adopt Zubaida's long lost neice (whom, as it turns out, Zubaida can't live with either)

This story does not suggest to me that Ambulocetus was better off losing his legs and living in the deep. Though it's true that if Zubaida and the author who created her had remained embedded in South Asian society, I would not have had so much fun reading about them.

As it turns out, the above discussion omits two of the outstanding features of the narrative: the once luxurious ocean liner, "Grace" as mentioned in the book's title -- and the bleak descriptions of life among the underclass of Bangladesh.

In contrast to Ambulocetus who moves from land to sea - the Grace is an ocean going vessel that has been pulled up on the beach to be dismantled and salvaged.   It's size and state of disrepair stimulates the reader's imagination with catastrophic images of  magnificent  ruin.  I Google-earthed a  map of coastal Bangladesh -- and indeed satellite images do display quite a few great ships pulled up on shore.

The men who cut down those hulking wrecks risk their lives and  are paid pennies a day -- most of which is then taken from them for rent and food.  It's the worst kind of exploitation -- though if entrepreneurs had not created those jobs by buying the old ships, what other options would those men have had?

One of the other thrills of this narrative is the story told  by one of those men, Anwar, the most complete and complex male character is the entire trilogy. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

JAYAKANTHAN : A Man, A House, A World

This is a curious story.  It's not driven by a dramatic conflict -- but the consequences of dramas are everywhere.

An unusually gentle, spaced-out young man  returns to the village that his adopted father
had left thirty years before to claim the family home.  His father's younger brother has been taking care of his older brother's property - but has left the home untouched, allowing it to disintegrate in the tropical environment.  He does not want to disrespectfully act as if his brother would never return. He is more than happy that a nephew has appeared to restore it.

All of the story's  drama happened in the past -- when the older brother's  wife ran off with a low-caste barber -- and the older brother himself ran away to avoid disgracing his family name.  He had been a very successful young agri-business man -- but his life is out-of-whack ever after.  He joins the army - and later works for the railway.  He never remarries - but co-habits with the Anglo  widow of his best army friend with whom a adopts an abandoned infant.  The infant is given an English name, Henry, and he will grow up to become the gentle fellow at the center of the story.

Tangentially, other stories streak past, like comets across the sky.  Henry meets a neighbor, a young school teacher, whose wife recently left him.  She would not accept the dominant role that her husband's older sister played in the household. (both parents in the family had suddenly died and the older sister had effectively acted as his mother). Henry also meets a  young woman who wears no clothes and does not talk.  He names her "baby" and takes her home where his neighbors clothe, feed, and care for her. And Henry also meets the village elder who approves his claim on his adoptive father's home, and who later is arrested for intoxication.  Deeply ashamed, he hangs himself.