Thursday, November 29, 2007

Chain Letter Wickedness

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

RING Koji Suzuki

Most stories of the supernatural are, in essence, simple morality tales: grievous wrong has been committed and, over time, people pay the price for this until restitution of some sort has been made. Koji Suzuki’s Ring is no exception. It was first published in Japan in 1991, translated into English more than a decade later and now re-issued because of the success of the Japanese and Hollywood films that it inspired.

For those who haven’t seen the celluloid versions, Ring deals with the travails of Asakawa, a journalist with Tokyo’s Daily News, who starts to probe the mysterious deaths of four teenagers at the same time on the same day. His investigations lead him to a resort cabin where he watches a video cassette of impressionistic scenes which ends with the dire pronouncement: “Those who view these images are fated to die at this exact moment one week from now”. Asakawa’s rising panic now competes with the need to solve the conundrum. In this, he’s joined by his cynical, amoral friend Ryuji, who may just have a skeleton or two in his own cupboard.

The writing is cool and fast-paced – though sometimes clunky and with a few annoying Americanisms thrown in – thus acting as a fitting foil to the occasional gruesomeness of the subject matter. The series of revelations that lead to the denouement reveal a plot of fiendish ingenuity, involving the basic premise of a chain letter taken to a wicked extreme. In case that wasn’t enough, paranormal phenomena, rapes and a mutating virus play leading roles, too, making it all a tad more portentous than necessary.

As for whether it all ends in tears or smiles, this reviewer is, alas, in no position to offer enlightenment. You see, the book ends with the terse announcement that the saga continues in Suzuki’s next book, Spiral. Which, no doubt, leads on to the last in the trilogy, Loop. They ought to have printed some sort of warning on the cover itself.

A Spirited Thriller

THE GHOST Robert Harris

Alternative history scenarios have been at the heart of many of Robert Harris’ intelligent thrillers, from Fatherland to Enigma. Taking a break from his proposed trilogy of books on ancient Rome – of which I thoroughly enjoyed Imperium – he now delivers The Ghost, a book clearly inspired by the author’s falling out with Tony Blair over Britain’s support for the Iraq war.

This isn’t a conventional ghost story, as the title may lead you to believe: it concerns itself with the predicament of an unnamed ghostwriter called upon to collaborate on the memoirs of Adam Lang, former British Prime Minister. The earlier ghostwriter, the former Press Secretary, was found drowned in mysterious circumstances. The writer travels from London to Martha’s Vineyard to meet the former PM and some other members of his entourage, including his wife and personal assistant.

As it happens, Lang is accused of aiding and abetting the capture and torture of suspected terrorists in Pakistan, an imbroglio that the narrator gets sucked into; further, in attempting to unearth ghosts from Lang’s past, he stumbles upon puzzling inconsistencies that may just be the clich├ęd tip of a political iceberg.

The voice is just right: acerbic and world-weary, but not above being shaken by the occasional revelation. Though the first part of the book is clearly more robust, it’s well-paced, with deft twists and foreshadowing, including a sting in the tail that one really ought to have seen coming, but didn’t. Ah, there’s nothing like a good thriller.

Worth your while? Yes: make sure you don’t have to awaken early, for it may well keep you up till the wee hours.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Away

Am away for two weeks, with only intermittent e-mail access. Sadly -- and unusually -- I won't be able to carry too many books with me, but reviews will resume in the last week of November -- including Ann Patchett's Run, Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases, Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and Robert Harris' The Ghost.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Love And Longing In Mumbai

WHAT YOU CALL WINTER Nalini Jones

Another one of those debut collections of sensitively-written short stories by a half-Indian-half-American writer. So far, so ho-hum. But what makes Nalini Jones’ book unusual is her material: not the psyche of confused second-generation immigrants, but the human condition of the Catholic community in a suburb of Mumbai (called Santa Clara in the book, but obviously Bandra). It’s a subject rich with possibilities, and Jones does it full justice in these intertwined tales.

Subject apart, what’s also noteworthy is the author’s prose: in sentences that are affecting, patterned and skilled, she adroitly intermingles past and present as well as shuffles points of view. In many cases, the facts on which the story’s impact rests are embedded in matter-of-fact statements, but resonate throughout.

In these quiet, restrained tales of vulnerability and adaptation, housewives travel on secret assignments to find information on children to adopt; a young girl comes of age; a middle-aged bachelor ruminates on roads not taken; a mother obsesses over her son’s progress in a seminary; a professor handling changes in the world around him glimpses his deceased father on a bicycle. Many of the stories talk of migrants returning home, and of the impact this has on them and the ones they have left behind. And every now and again we glimpse old villas and habitations being torn down by avaricious builders to make way for high-rises, an abiding metaphor.

Worth your while? Definitely. This is an impressive achievement.

My Name Is Red, Blue, Green And White

You'll find this in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

OTHER COLOURS Orhan Pamuk

It was Salman Rushdie who pointed out that the Bosphorus, which Orhan Pamuk’s writing room overlooks, can be said to both separate and unite Europe and Asia. It is on this fault line that Pamuk’s work is born, something made abundantly clear by Other Colours, a collection of “ideas, images and fragments of life”.

This, however, is not a cohesive rainbow but a Pollock-like splatter. There’s been an attempt to shape it into an autobiographical sequence by the author, with selections from short essays, newspaper columns, speeches and interviews over the years -- one of the first pieces, for example, is on his father’s death, and the last one is of his relationship with his father and his writing.

Unfortunately, the first section is the least impressive, drawn primarily from short sketches originally written for Okuz, a Turkish magazine. Here, there are ephemeral meditations on spring afternoons, on giving up smoking, on wristwatches, on staring outside one’s window at seagulls and wholly unselfconscious accounts of his time with Ruya, his daughter. These, however, are leavened by evocative observations on the city of his birth: its earthquakes, fires and ruins, barbershops, street food and ferries on the Bosphorus – some of which now read like trial runs for his later book on Istanbul.

The more notable pieces in the next segment deal with the pleasures of immersing oneself in books. In reviews and literary analyses, Pamuk speaks of an affinity towards Dostoevsky for “his familiarity with European thought and his anger against it, his equal and opposite desires to belong to Europe and to shun it”. In another essay, speaking of Mario Vargas Llosa, Pamuk comments on his “lively innocence”; it is a trait that the latter, too, can be described as possessing.

In later sections, Pamuk displays his constant fascination with “otherness” in the context of European identity. In the allegorical essay ‘No Entry’, a sign on a door leads to a meditation on xenophobia, and elsewhere, he states: “For people like me, who live uncertainly on the edge of Europe with only our books to keep us company, Europe has figured always as a dream, a vision of what is to come; an apparition at times desired and at times feared; a goal to achieve or a danger”. (Interestingly, he asserts in a later essay that an understanding of the “other”, the “stranger” and “the enemy” is a central concern of the art of the novel.

His take on a post-9/11 world is nuanced: rather than the tenets of Islam or financial deprivation, what makes people of developing countries sympathise with terrorists is the “crushing humiliation” they have felt for years. In another well-measured piece written just before Pamuk went on trial for the crime of “denigrating Turkishness”, he points to this as the prime cause.

The section on the writing of his books is rich fodder for Pamuk enthusiasts, comprising reassessments, selections from interviews as well as, memorably, an essay on the trips he took to the city of Kars to get the background of Snow just right. However, the new short story included here, ‘To Look Out The Window’, reads suspiciously like straightforward autobiographical material, dealing as it does with errant fathers, fractious older brothers, and memories of Istanbul in the Fifties.

The crown jewel of this collection, though, is Pamuk’s Nobel lecture, ‘My Father’s Suitcase’, which in many ways sums up recurrent themes: his turning from art to literature, his love of Istanbul, the hours he spends writing, the competing lures of East and West and his warm though troubled relationship with his father. It’s a speech that is both moving and revealing, with a tone of unforced -- and because of that, appealing – sentimentality.

Throughout, Pamuk makes clear his undiluted love for reading and writing, his fascination for painting the world with words: “For thirty years, I’ve spent an average of ten hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk”. Which brings to mind Kafka’s aphorism: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked…” By remaining at his table, Pamuk has become the foremost among those who unmask today’s world.