Friday, June 29, 2007

Red Hot Chile Writing

An edited version of a review that appeared in the June 29 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Among the so-called ‘post-boom’ generation of Latin American writers, it’s the Chilean Roberto Bolano who’s the most manic, so evident from the just-released English translation of The Savage Detectives. This is the story of two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the “visceral realist movement”, who leave Mexico City to hunt for another elusive poet, Cesárea Tinajero. Despite a desert showdown, they stay on the run, even after two decades. Their search may have been rendered hopeless, but their fires remain unquenched.

What makes The Savage Detectives impressive is not the tale but the telling. Bolano’s sentences: are elongated and dramatic, dancing between action and thought with ease. The novel is structurally innovative, too: it opens with the part-profane, part-innocent diary entries of the teenage Juan Garcia Madero, and we’re introduced to Belano and Lima through his eyes. Then follows a long segment told in a multitude of voices containing memories of meetings with the poets over the years: a chorus of journalists, stowaways, architects, lovers, employers and more, from Central America, Europe, Israel, and Africa. Finally, we return to Madero to discover the outcome of the poets’ journey.

Worth your while? This is a sometimes dense, largely polyphonic work about doomed quests, youthful exuberance and the passion for poetry. It demands to be wrestled with till the end to make it yield its pleasures.

Song Of The Last Resort

An edited version of a review that appeared in the June 29 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

THE GARDENER’S SONG Kalpana Swaminathan

It’s time to be re-introduced to the 63-year-old Lalli (earlier involved in The Page 3 Murders), a retired police detective known to Mumbai’s men in khaki as L.R. (“Last Resort”).

This time, it’s to do with the murder of the aggravating Mr Rao, who lives in the same building as Lalli and her niece. As Rao is universally considered to be a meddlesome pest, all of the residents are suspect. Lalli’s niece tracks and recalls their prior movements, and it’s left to her razor-sharp aunt to fill in the blanks and apprehend the criminal.

The inhabitants of a building as a microcosm of society: it’s a device that’s been used before, two examples being Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu and Vikram Kapadia’s play, Black with Equal. What sets this apart is that Swaminathan structures it around a Lewis Carroll poem: she ingeniously takes absurd scenes – bears with no heads, a banker’s clerk, a bar of mottled soap – and transposes them into the quotidian lives of suburban Mumbai residents, markers in the mystery to be solved.

Swaminathan’s prose is almost Narayanesque, skewering pomposity with glee. Which makes up for a small complaint: Lalli doesn’t seem to do all that much, apart from making gnomic utterances, looking incisive and then, of course, masterfully making sense of the imbroglio. She should be dispatched forthwith to investigate the Curious Case of Bob Woolmer.

Worth your while? Yes, if you’re looking for a delightfully non-taxing way to spend time at home while it pours outside.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Out Of Place, Again


To an audience weaned on the immigrant fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri, Tanuja Hidier and Bharati Mukherjee, among others, Rishi Reddi’s debut short story collection will be welcome. These are yet more tales of square pegs in round holes, of the friction of fitting in.

Primarily drawn from the Indian American community of Massachusetts, most of Rishi Reddi’s characters face the double bind of detaching themselves from the way things used to be in their homeland, and coming to terms with the fact that their compatriots have made better adjustments to the American way of life. There’s the irascible, retired judge of ‘Justice Shiva Ram Murthy’, the lonely, compassionate housewife of ‘Lakshmi and the Librarian’ and the dreamy, unemployed Shankar of the title story, for example. Apart from an interesting use of the unreliable narrator in the first tale, Reddi also proves adept in creating connections between the outside world and the inner lives of her characters – the bonsai trees, melting snows and injured birds are evocative symbols.

There’s no denying that hers is a perceptive new voice, but the themes of her stories – arranged marriages, strained disaporic family ties, the strangeness of India after living abroad -- suffer from overexposure. A pity, given the author’s evident devotion to her characters and craft.

Worth your while? Well-written and well-crafted, but will bring about an acute sense of déjà vu because of all the other recent immigrant sagas, in film or print.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Good Doctor


With Complications, Boston-based surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande joined the ranks of Doctors Who Can Write. (Speaking of which, whatever happened to Abraham Verghese?)

In his next work, Better, Gawande continues his Montaigne-like ruminations on his profession. The essays here are centred on the theme of improving medical performance, and the book is structured around the three ways to do this: diligence, doing right and ingenuity.

In prose that’s limpid and affecting, Gawande walks us through subjects close to his heart, from the importance of hand-washing to medical malpractice lawsuits to doctors’ earnings. As before, his accounts of the patients and medical practitioners he’s encountered are riveting. Especially interesting are essays on how the C-section is becoming the norm for childbirth, on treatments for cystic fibrosis and on his visits to India, where he finds surgeons getting the better of trying conditions.

You don’t have to be a doctor to take his conclusion to heart: "[Performing] better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all it takes a willingness to try.”

Worth your while? Definitely, even if accounts of illnesses appearing out of the blue cause acute hypochondria.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Not Midnight's Children

While I'm waiting for the reviews of the books mentioned in the last post to be published so I can post them here, here's a little diversion from this blog's stated theme that appeared in today's Mumbai edition of The Hindustan Times.

An association of people who were not born at midnight today issued a statement deploring the British Queen’s decision to confer a knighthood upon author Salman Rushdie.

“Rushdie has discriminated against all of us,” said the President of the association. “His novel Midnight’s Children is a deliberate and wilful act of provocation that has hurt the feelings of those who were born at other times of the day.”

All copies of Rushdie’s novel, the statement said, ought to be pulped and the remains mixed with glue to create papier-mâché toys for the children of the association’s members. This, said the statement, will help soothe sentiments.

“Rushdie himself was not born at midnight,” said one of the members at a press conference called to announce the protest. “He is full of self-hate and has crossed over to the other side to belittle all of us. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the only reason he wrote the novel was to poke fun at people born during the day”. Cutting a large chocolate cake, he went on, “I myself was born at 4.15 p.m. and as a matter of fact today is my birthday, so all of you can leave your presents in the large box beside the exit”.

The association plans to carry their protest to the streets soon, with a 24-hour sit-in in front of the Rajabai Clock Tower in Mumbai. “After all, what is midnight?” said another member. “We do not work at midnight. The economy does not grow. It is daytime that is more important. By honouring Rushdie, the Queen has insulted the more productive hours of the day.”

It is learnt that the London chapter of the association plans to march to the observatory at Greenwich to carry out a similar protest. There, they will also issue a proclamation calling for the dropping of the letter ‘w’ from the spelling of Greenwich, thus making is easier to pronounce for everyone. “We are nothing if not democratic,” said the leader of the London chapter.

The official astrologer of the association has selected 9.15 a.m. as the most propitious hour to begin the rally. “This is only the first step,” he said, consulting his almanac. “Next, we will call for a total ban upon the midnight hour as well. It should cease to exist. This will also solve the traffic problem, as everyone can get to work an hour earlier.”

There is no official reaction yet from the knighted author or the Queen, although unconfirmed reports suggest that the Lady Rushdie has indefinitely postponed the shooting of her new TV series, Midnight’s Snacks.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Watch This Space

Coming soon: Assessments of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (remarkable and moving), Woody Allen's Mere Anarchy (his first collection in over 25 years), Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (the most manic of the 'post-boom' Latin American writers) and Kalpana Swaminathan's The Gardener's Song (Lalli's back!).

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Falling Down

A condensed version of a review that appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


The sense of being let down by Falling Man is acute. This isn’t the incisive, poised DeLillo of the clairvoyant Mao II or the “super-omniscient” Underworld, but the novelist who’s also written the more recent and disappointing Cosmopolis and The Body Artist.

It begins promisingly enough, with the aftermath of the destruction of the first Twin Tower. A shell-shocked Keith Neudecker stumbles through the ravaged site and to the house of his estranged wife Lianne and son Justin, where he takes up residence. The couple attempts to regain balance in the days and years that follow: Keith embarks upon a brief affair, then finds succour in poker; Liane conducts workshops for the Alzheimer’s-stricken, tries to make sense of the relationship between her mother and her lover and watches the eponymous “falling man”, a performance artist. Inserted into this are interludes dealing with the pre-9/11 preparations of a suicide terrorist, Hammad, his hesitations and his holding onto his faith.

The neurosis of survivors; the battle against forgetting; the randomness of events; the creation of art out of tragedy -- all the elements are in place, but the whole is still unsatisfying. Barring some flashes and effective set pieces (such as the rituals of the poker players), the prose is stiff; in particular, the sections dealing with Hammad’s psyche are pedestrian. Overall, this is an alienating and constricted novel, almost a series of mechanistic fragments belonging to an unwritten larger work.

Worth your while? The best work on the subject still remains the US government’s 9/11 Commission Report.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Immigrant Song

TWO CARAVANS Marina Lewycka

In this follow-up to the charming A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, Marina Lewycka takes the same theme – immigrants from the former USSR searching for a better life in the United Kingdom – to come up with a novel that tries to be technically superior, and is as droll as her debut.

It opens on an idyllic English countryside – only, this one is populated by strawberry-picking migrants. They’re from Poland, Ukraine, Africa and China, including the Dylan-loving Tomasz, the determined Andriy, the naïve Irina and the wide-eyed Emmanuel. After a fracas precipitated by a farmer’s wife, their lives become a series of farcical travails.

Lewycka details the occupations they’re forced into for less-than-minimum wages: chicken farming, waitressing and dishwashing, among others. (Warning: the section on chickens will put you off your next non-vegetarian meal.) Ultimately, the book becomes the love story of Andriy and Irina, taking a road trip to outwit thuggish employment agents. Pity: this narrowing of focus and dependence on coincidence is a let-down.

The prose is cheerful and twinkling -- though the patois of Emmanuel’s letters and the delineation of a dog’s consciousness get a trifle wearying. It’s the ironic, witty sensibility that keeps you engaged.

Worth your while? Yes: a good example of how unpleasant subjects don’t have to be written about in grim tones to engage the heart and mind.

Monday, June 4, 2007

9 To 5 To Eternity


Considering that most of us spend most of our time in cubicles, it’s surprising there aren’t more novels about office life. Which is among the reasons that Joshua Ferris’ debut novel is so welcome. (The title, by the way, is drawn from the first sentence of DeLillo’s Americana.)

Based in a Chicago ad agency that’s undergoing hard times, it shows how copywriters, art directors and account people spend their time gossiping, backbiting, reacting to layoffs, playing musical chairs and – occasionally – working. Told almost entirely in first person plural (also employed by Jeffrey Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides), it is irreverent, ironic, black-humoured and, surprisingly, touching. Ferris navigates the challenges of this point of view with aplomb, never letting it become too impersonal: will the ageing copywriter get over being laid-off, will the managing partner recover from cancer, will the couples stay together or part ways?

In many ways, Then We Came to the End is a cross between BBC’s The Office and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, with sprinkings of Dilbert-like absurdity and Bartleby-like resignation. What’s original is Ferris’ satirical take on employees veering between camaraderie and ennui.

Worth your while? Yes, if you’ve ever looked around your workplace in the middle of a long day and wondered what on earth you were doing there.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Refreshing Rereading


If I’ve been tardy about replenishing this blog of late, blame it on Sven Birkerts. In this new collection of essays, he waxes so eloquent about the experience of re-reading the books that have mattered to him that one has been compelled to start re-reading some of them oneself – having just finished Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, one is about to embark on Ford’s The Good Soldier.

It’s typical of the Harvard professor and Agni editor to eschew academic posturing and jargon; instead, his essays deal with episodes from his life when he first read the books – teaching experiences, shifts of residence, childhood incidents, break-ups – and what he now feels upon re-reading them. (One of the essays, in fact, was earlier published in Anne Fadiman's delightful Rereadings.) Thus, we learn of his students’ reactions to Lolita, of his former girlfriend’s enthusiasm for Women in Love, of his finally managing to complete The Ambassadors on his fifth attempt and more: an account of the books that are his “personal signposts”.

His enthusiasm for literature and reading is infectious, and his conclusions and revelations are always interesting. Which makes this a most engaging collection. (Okay, enough adjectives.)

Worth your while? In his recent essay, The Curtain, Milan Kundera quotes Proust: “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth”. If that’s your credo, this book’s for you.