Saturday, July 26, 2008

Crying Wolf

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai. In passing, it's interesting that wolves should figure so prominently in mythology and folktales. There are the so-called fairy tales (at least two), the legend of Romulus and Remus, the son of Loki in Norse mythology and Charon, the ferry man from Greek mythology who had the ears of a wolf.


At one point in Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, an elderly herdsman tells the protagonist: “There are so many things you Chinese don’t understand…Chinese write their books to advocate Chinese causes. The Mongols suffer because they can’t write books. If you turn into a Mongol and write books for us, that would be wonderful.” Wolf Totem, then, is that book. Based on the author’s own sojourn in Mongolia in the 1960s during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it became a million-copy bestseller in Chinese, and is now available in Howard Goldblatt’s lucid translation.

Wolf Totem
is about the exploits of Chen Zhen, a Beijing student, one of four classmates who travel to the Mongolian steppes. Here, Chen discovers that life moves to a primeval rhythm, dictated by extremes of weather and the necessity of hunting for survival. Above all, he is made aware of a “complex attitude of fear, reverence and infatuation” towards the wolf, which colours all activities. None other than Genghis Khan is held up as the prime exemplar of the virtues of lupine wiliness.

The novel progresses via episodes of hunting and herding, with a supporting cast of dogs and gazelles, not to mention a wolf cub. Though many of the episodes are fast-paced there’s no overall narrative flow, which can make for heavy going -- heightened by regrettable overstatement. Rong’s case is that the Chinese have much to learn from the Mongol’s fortitude and view of the environment as an intricate organism of cause and effect, something repeatedly affirmed.

The novel ends with a eulogy for a vanished land; the losers are the Chinese, thoughtlessly replacing older systems. Wolf Totem’s strengths are ethnographical: much of the novel is clearly the outcome of close observation. Would that it had been more succinct, though.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cover Stories

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

The problem with satire is that people are apt to take it literally. Something you don’t need to point out to Barry Britt, creator of the by-now infamous New Yorker cover featuring Mr and Mrs Obama as radical Muslims. This, however, is only the latest in a series of provocative covers that American magazines have published over the years.

Some of Britt’s other recent covers for the New Yorker have mined the same vein of mordant irony – such as the one featuring occupants of the Oval Office drowning in post-Katrina waters, or another with Obama and Hillary Clinton in bed together, both reaching for a ringing red telephone.

More urbane covers for the magazine have been created by Saul Steinberg – notably, one that showed a map with “a view of the world from Ninth Avenue”, portraying the average New Yorker’s limited view of the universe beyond the Hudson. An update appeared on the 1 December 2001 issue featuring “New Yorkistan”, comprising areas such as Fuhgeddabouditstan and Bronxistan.

Unsurprisingly, President Bush has often been on the receiving end. A cover for the Canadian Maclean’s drew a moustache on him to make him look like Saddam Hussein; and one by The Nation likened him to Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. The resemblance is uncanny.

Some of the best examples of suggestive covers are to be found in the Esquire of the Sixties. There was the April1968 issue featuring a shirtless Mohammed Ali pierced by six arrows, mimicking St Sebastian, a comment on the pugilist’s prosecution for draft evasion. There was the May 1969 issue showing Andy Warhol drowning in a can of his own Campbell’s Soup, for a story on the decline of the avant-garde. There was the March 1965 photograph of a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike shaving, to accompany a piece on “the masculinisation of the American woman”.

Most of Esquire’s iconic covers were the output of advertising man George Lois, who said of his work, "The statements inside are useless unless there is a statement on the outside.” As a definitive statement on his creations, 32 of his most famous covers are at present on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Others have used cover pictures effectively, too. Annie Liebowitz’s striking photograph of a naked John Lennon curled up against Yoko Ono, taken just a few hours before the ex-Beatle was shot, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone on 22 January 1981. Another photograph by Ms Liebowitz that stirred debate was that of a naked and visibly pregnant Demi Moore on Vanity Fair’s August 1991 issue. A year later in the same publication, Ms Moore appeared in nothing but a painted-on power suit – something Movie magazine attempted to replicate with Pooja Bhatt. Thank goodness the Nineties are over.

Of course, it’s not just photographs or illustrations that have the power to provoke. One of Time magazine’s most controversial covers appeared in April 1966, comprising just three words: “Is God Dead?” Another striking one appeared in April 1997 featuring TV show host Ellen DeGeneres with the headline: “Yep, I’m Gay.” You could say that more than just the magazine came out that day.

Even paragons of rectitude will occasionally cause comment with their choice of cover. The Economist, for example, chose to accompany a September 1994 story on “the trouble with mergers” with a photograph of two camels mating. That’s one hump too many.

In India, alas, such ‘concept covers’ don’t seem to have caught on. Exposure is the order of the day, be it of politicians or starlets. Making one speculate whether the best ones on the stands are the descriptive, typographical covers for the venerable Economic and Political Weekly.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Well-thumbed Thesaurus

Just in case you were too busy to read Shashi Tharoor's short encomium in today's Times of India on Rushdie's Midnight's Children being voted 'the best of Bookers', these adjectives from the 180-word piece should give you the gist of it:

- Astonishing
- New
- Teeming
- Myth-infused
- Exuberant
- Restless
- Breathtaking
- Risk-ridden
- Imaginative
- Rare
- Intellectual
- Polyglot
- Multi-ethnic
- Post-colonial
- Extravagant