Sunday, July 25, 2010

The A-Z Of Christopher Hitchens

This is the first version of a review I did for DNA, the more 'conventional' form of which you can read here.

HITCH-22 Christopher Hitchens

As the index to this journalist, author and polemicist’s memoirs is crammed with people and places from recent times, here’s a return of favour.

Amis, Martin. One of Hitchens’ closest friends, whom he met while at Oxford. In Amis’ memoir, Experience, there’s an account of the trip both of them undertook to visit Saul Bellow; here, Hitchens’ provides his own version, filling out the details.

Balliol College, Oxford. Where Hitchens first flirted with and then committed to the Trotskyite Left. There are thus many passages of meetings with and activities of the International Socialists. Oh, and he also recalls homosexual dalliances with, among others, unnamed future members of Thatcher’s cabinet

Citizenship. After living with a US green card for over two decades, Hitchens finally received full American citizenship. This, it would appear, only strengthened his zeal to defend most of that country’s overseas incursions. With a new convert’s enthusiasm, he takes a few paragraphs to describe his passport.  

Doubles.  Hitch-22 refers to the author’s ability to lead two lives: for example his initial commitment to workers’ causes combined with long, drunken lunches in Notting Hill. As he writes: “What I hope to do now is give some idea of what it is like to fight on two fronts at once, to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind, even occasionally to show two faces at the same time”

Elsinore Vacillation, The. What Rushdie came up with in place of Hamlet when asked to devise Ludlum-like titles for Shakespeare’s plays.

Friday lunches. Hitchens recreates the goings-on at these now legendary 80s sessions, weekly gatherings of, among others, Amis, James Fenton, McEwan, Rushdie and Clive James. Not all come across as engaging: as he says, you had to be there.

God is Not Great. His earlier book supporting atheism, mentioned here to affirm that he hasn’t changed his mind.

Habits. He may give the impression that his life is all alcohol, friends and travel, but he’s a very hard worker: “On average I produce at least a thousand words of printable copy every day, and sometimes more. I have never missed a deadline. I give a class or a lecture or a seminar perhaps four times a month and have never been late for an engagement”.

Iraq. His visit here made him conclude that Saddam Hussein was a menace -- to put it mildly -- and he charts his final break with the Left over his support for the second Gulf War.

Jewishness. Hitchens records the revelation that his mother was of Jewish descent, and his researches into his family tree. Though he supports Israel’s right to exist, he’s critical of its expansionism.

Knowledge. With a skilled journalist’s legerdemain, Hitchens leaps from literary associations to eras, people and events throughout.

Left Movement. In his early years, Hitchens was a firm believer. The events of 9/11 caused a turnaround; he went from, as one critic puts it, “British Trotskyite to American neo-con sidekick”.

Mawkishness. Something Hitchens comes very close to when describing the life of an American soldier killed in Iraq.

Name-dropping. Hitchens seems keen to claim acquaintance with practically everyone who matters; indeed the expression “my dear friend” appears too many times to count.

Outspokenness. Bluntness has always been a part of the Hitchens persona, and he doesn’t disappoint: the Nobel Prize is “a huge bore and fraud”; “I neither know nor care anything about sports”; Cuban socialism “was too much like a boarding school in one way and too much like a church in another”.

Ps and Qs. Hitchens is not one to mind them, taking potshots, sometimes peevishly, at those such as Gore Vidal whom he once lionized then fell out with.

Rushdie, Salman. Another of Hitchens’ close friends, to whose defense he sprang after the fatwa. His reactions to this edict: “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”

Self-esteem. Not something that’s in short supply; he even refers to himself as “not all that bad-looking” when in school.

Travels. Beirut, Greece, Portugal, Algeria, Cyprus, Argentina, Cuba, Poland and more:
Hitchens has visited all of these countries, learning, debating, and arguing along the way.

United States of America. In his words, a “celebrity-making machine”, and his adopted country.

Voluminous. His style can be prolix, not to mention allusive, as though the pen is hurrying to put onto paper all that his mind teems with.

Words. When dealing with a schoolyard bully, Hitchens discovered that these can be weapons; moreover, “if you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you need never dine or sleep alone.”

X ray. He has a strong urge to dissect and get to the bottom of issues, not willing to be led by popular sentiment.

Yvonne. The author’s mother, who tragically committed suicide and who said, “If there is an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it”. Some of the warmest passages of the book revolve around her: “She was the cream in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores or purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes”

Zeal. Whatever else you may say about him, there’s no denying that he pours himself into anything he likes, and marshals all arguments possible against what he doesn't.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Thousand Details Of David Mitchell

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


The human brain, it’s believed, processes only a fraction of what’s out there in the ‘real’ world. With his fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell demands that we widen the frame and absorb as much as possible about the period and place the book is set in – a corner of Japan towards the end of the Edo era in the 18th century.

It’s clear from the first few pages itself that a vast amount of research has gone into the novel, revealing itself in details of clothes, interiors, patterns of speech, food and, of course, the shifting political compulsions of the time. That, however, can be a two-edged Bushido blade. While this saga of administrators of the Dutch East India Company and their dealings with a walled-off Japan has more than enough thrilling incident to keep one reading, the forest of narrative does at times get obscured by the trees of detail.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet concerns itself with the travails of its eponymous hero, a Dutch clerk who arrives on Dejima, an island linked to Nagasaki. This is where the Dutch East India Company has been allowed to establish a trading post, contact with the mainland being forbidden. The green-eyed, red-haired pastor’s son hopes to make his fortune in order to return to Holland and win the hand of his beloved there.

The book moves at a cracking pace from the start. Dutch officials – some corrupt, some upright – walk through its pages, each one as garrulous as the other. They’re matched by Japanese interpreters, magistrates and abbots, some valiant, some seduced by power.

Almost at first sight, Joseph loses his heart to Orita Aibagawa, midwife and assistant to a Dutch doctor, and much comedy accompanies the course of his hesitant wooing, including the unexpected administration of an enema. The things men do to pursue matters of the heart.

When not having his extremities assaulted, Jacob pores over ledgers of those before him, who have been busy swindling the company in order to sell the excess for tidy sums. No surprises there: the esteemed officers of the East India Company were not above the same feat.

In these and other actions, Jacob reveals himself to be both clever and upright, although unaware of the effects his actions have on others. As the chief resident puts it, he’s “an honest soul in a human swamp of back-stabbers, a sharp quill amongst blunt nibs...”

The mood of the book becomes grimmer in the next section, where the setting moves to a monastery in Japan that is beset by sinister goings-on involving young women, largely due to a nefarious abbot. Orita finds herself sequestered within its walls and plans an escape while contemplating her sorry future if she doesn’t. Once more, the book segues away in its next section to display the consequences of the weakening of Dutch colonial power and the rise of the English. The island comes under siege, and Jacob and his compatriots deal with the outcome in this “land of a thousand autumns”.

The prose has an air of living immediacy because it unfurls in the present tense and -- in a first for Mitchell -- in the third person (which, as he’s put it, is the art of “He, She and They”). Paragraphs are often short, at times single sentences, which add pace and throw the occasional metaphor into relief: “The clock's pendulum scrapes at time like a sexton's shovel”.

At times, though, the twists and turns veer towards the lurid. This creates a dissonance with the texture of the narrative, crammed as it is with specifics and particulars. Take for example, a missive from the Shogun: we're told, in succeeding paragraphs, that it's a scroll in a cylinder emblazoned with hollyhock insignia on a lacquered tray, needs a clockwise twist to open, and the parchment within is wound tight around two dowels of cherry wood, with ornate columns of brush-stroked calligraphy. Some letter, that.

Those who seek the writer of Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas won’t find him here; neither is this novel akin to his last work, the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green. Instead, the protean, gifted Mitchell explores the effects of the opening up of a hitherto-closed society to outsiders who may not always have its best interests at heart. Interpreters from both sides struggle to find the mot juste, and the Japanese grudgingly embrace the advantages of European medicine and science. Orita herself is a midwife – a word pregnant with meaning in this context – and much of the novel’s action takes place on the island of Dejima, quite literally a bridge between two cultures.

At one point in the novel, Orita equates narrative with other necessities: “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories”. The exuberance of the storytelling on display here does more than satisfy that craving.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Choice Cuts

This appeared in today's DNA.


If you hold fast to the belief that everything is predestined, Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing isn't for you. If, however, you've ever pondered over a career, rejected an arranged marriage or stood bewildered in front of crowded supermarket shelves, this book offers much to reflect upon.

Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor, examines choice from different vantage points, backed by experiments devised by her and other social scientists over the years. Her book is grounded in psychology but draws upon other disciplines, from economics to medicine. It’s far from a dry-as-dust report: there are personal asides, such as details of her parents’ arranged marriage, and other cultural references from the novels of Don de Lillo and William Styron to scenes from The Matrix to the music of Wynton Marsalis.

In her hands, choice is the thread that, when tugged, unravels the skein of our personalities and the way we live. “When we speak of choice,” she writes, “what we mean is the ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment”. Loss of control leads to stress, which in turns lowers immune systems. For those facing daily commutes, this means that being stuck in a traffic jam is bad for health.

Then again, the amount of control we’re happy with depends on where we live. Drawing an interesting parallel between Cinderella and Mumtaz Mahal, Iyengar demonstrates that ethnicity determines how we see the world. This is the much-talked-of difference between Asia and the West, the former placing society first, the latter driven by Enlightenment values. There are lessons for HR managers here: on one side, Emerson’s rugged individualism and on the other, F.W. Taylor’s “scientific management”.

Another opposition is between “freedom from” and “freedom to” You can be free from social restrictions, but what is it that you’re free to do? Iyengar draws upon interviews with those from former East Berlin to show how their disaffection with the current state can be traced to this duality.

Of course, it’s a truism to say that it’s our choices that make us who we are. But, as Iyengar points out, it’s not that simple. There are inbuilt biases: we seek information to support our prejudices; we delude ourselves of our uniqueness; and when it comes to expressing identity, we need others to see us as we see ourselves. Awareness is vital: “We are sculptors, finding ourselves in the evolution of choosing, not merely in the results of choice”.

The way people choose is, of course, also of interest to marketers. Here, Iyengar recounts the modus operandi of the famous “jam study” undertaken by her and fellow researchers wherein two sets of shoppers in a department store were asked to pick from different flavours of jam – 24 in one and 6 in the other. Those with fewer options ended up buying more than those confronted with a wide array. The human brain, as it turns out, isn’t wired to differentiate between so many: we like our bread and butter with only a bit of jam.

Iyengar feels that in such cases, it’s best to rely on the knowledge of experts. ( Zagat’s restaurant guides, anyone?) Knowledge is also important when brands such as bottled water, cigarettes or cosmetics offer an illusion of choice but, because most are owned by few corporations, the differences between them are extremely slight. As Socrates said in the marketplace: “What a lot of things I don’t need”.

Undeniably, though, Iyengar’s enthusiasm for citing studies as well as her thorough exploration of the ramifications can bog the book down. There are no easy solutions: she explores issues, points out corollaries and stops short of being prescriptive. As she says, given life’s uncertainties and contradictions, the act of choosing will always be more art than science. To beat the odds, choose to read this book.

Friday, July 9, 2010