Sunday, October 28, 2007

Life Stories

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


One of the characters in this collection of stories asserts that art comes from life stories: “That’s what art is, he said, the story of life in all its particularity”. This, it seems clear, was the aesthetic credo of Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolano, the most ebullient among the so-called post-boom crop of Latin American writers. His polyphonic novels – such as The Savage Detectives or 2066 -- feature peripatetic protagonists encountering a dizzying variety of characters, mainly failed litterateurs in exile filling their melancholy lives with literary debate, philosophical speculation and unhappy relationships.

Last Evenings on Earth comprises stories drawn from two of his earlier books and now felicitously translated by Chris Andrews. Many of the tales here turn on the ambiguous relationship between a younger and an older writer. In ‘Sensini’, a 60-year-old Argentine novelist in exile in Mexico corresponds with a 28-year-old fledgling author, offering sly tips on how to enter and win provincial literary competitions. In ‘Enrique Martin’, the narrator, named Arturo Belano (a stand-in for Bolano, as in his novels) tries to make sense of the eccentric behaviour of a senior magazine editor and science fiction fan. And in ‘A Literary Adventure’ and its later echo, ‘Days of 1978’, younger narrators both simply named “B” share uneasy love-hate relationships over the years with more experienced and successful writers. Such Oedipal fancies are carried to their extreme in ‘Dance Card’, the most playfully inventive story here, in which Bolano presents 69 reasons for poets to dance with Pablo Neruda – or not.

Other tales simply capture the messy ups and downs of life. In ‘Anne Moore’s Life’, set in the United States and Mexico, a young American woman goes through a string of failed relationships across cities over the years. The narrative contains a multitude of detail and incident – but is consciously without an overt defining moment to give it shape.

Some of the tales radiate eccentricity, with the best example being the one that gives the collection its name. It deals with a vacation that the narrator takes with his father to Acapulco, a trip that slowly takes on the quality of a dream that turns threatening without ever clearly spelling out the reason why.

No, these aren't your garden-variety, conventionally-fashioned short stories that sit primly in the corner hoping to attract attention; these, instead, are sprawling, rambunctious narratives spilling over with the raw material of life and demanding, in all their organic and apparent artlessness, to be paid attention to.

Worth your while? Yes: this volume is the perfect introduction to Bolano's art.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Song Sung Blue

This appeared in the September-October issue of Biblio.


In his much-debated 1961 essay 'Writing American Fiction', Philip Roth argued that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality…The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”.

Consider now the spate of so-called 9/11 novels, from Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to DeLillo’s Falling Man. None of these can be said to particularly successful as novels: it’s as if the effort to be topical has enervated the imagination.

When it comes to writing from the subcontinent, the dark cloud of communal violence is fast becoming our version of 9/11. In recent times, there was Raj Kamal Jha’s Fireproof, David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors and now, M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin's Song. Though Vassanji was born in Kenya, grew up in Tanzania and has been a resident of Canada since 1978, this, his sixth novel, is set primarily set in India. How successful is he in delineating the impact of communal tensions on everyday life?

The Assassin’s Song features another one of those introverted, out-of-place narrators whose alienation from his surroundings spurs on the narrative. It is the story of Karsan, first son of the guardian of Pirbaag in Gujarat, the interdenominational shrine of Sufi Nur Fazal, known as the Wanderer. Now ensconced in a room at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, Karsan narrates the tale of how his life has come full circle. He recalls his childhood days, his early friends and relationship with his brother and parents; having to bear the load of knowing that he is to be the next keeper of the shrine; and his escape to Harvard and attempt to establish a family life overseas, away from the weight of history.

Though all else falls away, the sufi’s songs stay with him. What also remains is the question he is compelled to ask himself: “Do we always end up where we really belong?”

Interwoven into this narrative is the tale of Nur Fazl himself, of how he came to Gujarat from Central Asia in medieval times, his reception in the royal court, his wanderings and dalliances, leading to the establishment of his shrine. The contrast between the Sufi’s all-inclusive message and contemporary, polarized times is clear.

Vassanji’s is a quiet, unshowy voice with the ability to rise, on occasion, to a muted lyricism: “The past was told to me always accompanied by song; and now, when memory falters and the pictures in the mind fade and tear and all seems lost, it is the song that prevails”. This is embellished by the infrequent, judicious use of metaphor: the sufi’s songs are “as precious as pearls”; Karsan stands “silent as a shadow”; and a library’s oversized volumes lie flat on their sides “like basking reptiles”. Moreover, the sections that deal with the sufi’s ascendance are texturally dissimilar to those that involve Karsan’s experiences. Which is apt, as the former partakes of myth and legend, while the latter is essentially a personal exploration.

Of course, in the background to all of this, like a refrain waiting to announce itself, is the spectre of communal violence, something that’s touched upon in the Sufi’s interactions with the Indian people, in the character of Pradhan Shastri, in historical conflicts with Pakistan and in the other religious shrines that Karsan and his family visit in his boyhood. All of this comes to a head with the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which will have a pulverizing effect on Karsan’s ancestral home, causing him to reflect even more cogently on his inheritance of loss.

The futility of such hatred apart, another theme in The Assassin’s Song is that of the burden of being the first-born and the weight of expectations this throws up. This is seen in Karsan’s relationship with his intransigent father, as well as in his dealings with his brother, who adopts the name Mansoor and is suspected of dallying with militants from across the border. A passage late in the book perhaps could be said to sum up its aim: “…I have resolved to remember, construct a shrine of my own…a bookish shrine of songs and stories. This is my prayer, if you will, this is my fist in the air, my anger so unlike [my brother’s]; it is my responsibility, my duty to my father and all the people who relied on us as the sufi’s representatives and whose stories are intertwined with ours”.

It must be said, however, that the quality of writing grows noticeably flabby as the book progresses. It is as though the author is using up his richest material to begin with, and then improvising as he realizes that he’s running out of steam. Thus, for example, when it comes to Karsan’s boyhood, there are etched portraits of his schooldays and interactions with his associates: the truckdriver Raja Singh, the schoolteacher Mr David, Pradhan Shastri, head of the local mock-RSS league, Shilpa, a shrine volunteer and Karsan’s “voluptuous torment”. These evocations fade away once Karsan reaches America: in contrast, we find here fewer scenes and more summaries, fewer portraits and more over-simplified character sketches.

In particular, a short essay on communal violence late in the book comes across as all too polemical: “That the most ghastly violence imaginable, perpetrated on women and children, could occur in the state of Gandhi makes one wonder too how aberrant was the Mahatma; was he real after all?” Here, and elsewhere in the book, the humanism is conventional, a form of sentimental realism.

In fact, the contrast between this and the sections dealing Karsan’s boyhood and relationship with his father lead one to wonder if the novel would have been more successful had Vassanji steered clear of the topic of contemporary communal violence. As Roth would have said, the extravagance – and horror -- of reality still trumps novelistic invention.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Long Division

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

DIVISADERO Michael Ondaatje

At one point in Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical but frustrating new novel, a character visits a nightclub called “the Stendhal”. This is described as “a small city of moods”, comprising various rooms, each of which is devoted to a different activity. Which isn’t a bad way of looking at Dividasero as a whole: in one room is potted biography, in another, incidents of love and violence; in yet another, there is tenderness and isolation. The question is, does all this come together to make a cohesive whole?

The novel tells of the fates of Claire and Anna, brought up in a settlement near Sacramento, and of their hired hand, Cooper. Following an illicit love affair that ends in an act of brutal violence, the three go their separate ways. Claire winds up working for a law firm in San Francisco, Cooper becomes a cardsharp who flirts with dangerous company and Anna obsessively researches the life of the French writer Lucien Segura. Years later, Claire and Cooper cross each other’s paths again, while Anna, in France, drifts into a relationship with the guitar-playing Rafael, who knew Segura when he was a boy. At this point – about two-thirds of the way through the book – Ondaatje segues into an account of Segura’s own life, patched together by Anna: his boyhood, family relationships, writing career and experiences in the Great War.

Readers of Ondaatje’s previous novels have come to expect temporal, spatial and points of view shifts, and so it is here as well. His prose, as ever, is atmospheric and poetic, even though the aphorisms don’t always work. Take this one: “The past is always carried into the present by small things. So a lily is bent by the weight of permanence.” Sounds impressive, but what on earth does it mean?

The novel takes its title from a San Francisco street that, as Ondaatje points out, could either come from the Spanish word for ‘division’ or ‘to gaze at something from a distance’. It’s ironic, then -- however carefully crafted, with its villanelle-like repetition and circling – that Dividasero is too divided and inconclusive to be called successful

Monday, October 15, 2007

No So Fine A Specimen

Apologies for the absence. Work apart, have been busy completing reviews of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, Orhan Pamuk's Other Colours and M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song; and at present working on Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, Roberto Bolano's Last Evenings on Earth and Ronnie Govender's Black Chin, White Chin. Will post them as and when the publications carry the reviews. Meanwhile, here's an edited version of an earlier review, one that appeared in The Times of India at a time when they actually had a books page.

SPECIMEN DAYS Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is in much the same structural vein as The Hours -- only this time, the presiding deity is Walt Whitman. (The title, in fact, is taken from Whitman’s own collection of writings on the American Civil War.) However, while The Hours was evocative and unified, Specimen Days comes across as decidedly more tentative.

Each of the novel’s sections deals with the interaction between a young boy, a man and a woman. The first describes the travails of an Irish-American youth in a sinister, industrialising Manhattan of the last century; the second mimics a noir thriller, delineating a black woman detective’s attempt to curb a posse of suicide bombers in the near future; and the third is sci-fi schmaltz, dealing with the efforts of a semi-human personality to rise above his programming.

In each section, one of the characters is compelled by the urge to quote Whitmanesque stanzas, while the poet himself makes an appearance in the first part: “Here was his grey-white cascade of beard, here his broad-brimmed hat and the kerchief knotted at his neck”.

Though Cunningham’s prose is lustrous and lyrical, his attempts to bend alien genres to his needs in the last two sections don’t quite come off. That his characters are so divergent in attitude and circumstance is another reason that the novel doesn’t cohere. Cunningham’s theme -- the need for spontaneous human connection unaffected by outward circumstance -- thus isn’t established in a unified manner.

Worth your while? Though not as fine a specimen as one would have liked, it is, nevertheless, an attempt to seek an experimental manner of singing the body electric. In this age of creative conformity, that itself is no mean feat.