Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011's 11

To summarise one’s favourite fiction of 2011 this late in the year is to write about books that have been written about many times already -- especially in other best-of lists. Despite varying tastes, by a curious process of osmosis, there will always be some titles common to most year-end round-ups. There’s also the problem of not having read widely enough, and – to point out the obvious – any such list therefore is always tentative and incomplete. Having got that off my chest, here, in no particular order, are the fiction titles of 2011 that I found noteworthy.


Is this a novel? A series of linked meditations on mediocrity and ambition in so-called end times? A collection of hyper-intelligent blog posts? All of the above. Danish-Indian Lars Iyer’s puckish, incisive series of vignettes recording the conversation between two philosopher friends – both self-confessed Max Brods with no Kafka in sight – is both funny and gloomy. (Also worth reading are Iyer’s thoughts on the future of the novel: A literary manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos.)

Excerpt: What are the signs of the End?, I ask W. - 'You. You are a sign of the End', says W. 'Actually, we both are. The fact that we have careers or flourish at all is a sign of the End. Of course, the fact that we won't have them for much longer is a sign that the End is coming closer'. 

SEVEN YEARS Peter Stamm (Trans. Michael Hoffman)

Those in the market for likeable characters in fiction should stay away. This Swiss author’s cool, clear-sighted account of a self-centred man with a charming wife, but obsessed by a plain  mistress,  is an acute meditation on longing, passion and the inability to remain content with what one has. Ably and fluently translated by Michael Hoffman, down to the comma splices.

Excerpt: All I know is that I got to be more and more dependent on Ivona, and that while I continued to think I had power over her, her power over me became ever greater. She never demanded anything from me, was never hurt when I stayed away for days on end because I was busy in the office or didn't feel like visiting her. Sometimes I'd tell Ivona about other women to get her upset, but she took it, and listened, expressionless, while I raved about the beauty, the wit, and the intelligence of other women. Perhaps she didn't know she had power over me.  Perhaps she mistook my submissiveness for love.


Too much has been written about this Booker winner already for me to add to the torrent. Suffice to say that more authors in our ultra-kinetic times should borrow a leaf from Barnes and create well-shaped magnetic novellas rather than coming up with page after page of bloat.

Excerpt: We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

OPEN CITY Teju Cole / MY TWO WORLDS Sergio Chejfec (Trans. Margaret Carson)

The first by a Nigerian-American, the second by an Argentinian; both delightfully complementary. Owing more than a little to W.G. Sebald, both feature narrators who embark on long walks – the first, around Manhattan, and the second, around a park in an unnamed Brazilian city. In both, the external becomes a symbol that reveals the internal. Rambling, revealing and refreshing, like the best walks should be.

Excerpt, Open City: At first, I encountered the streets as an incessant loudness, a shock after the day’s focus and relative tranquillity, as though someone had shattered the calm of a silent private chapel with the blare of a TV set. I wove my way through crowds of shoppers and workers, through road constructions and the horns of taxicabs. Walking through busy parts of town meant I laid eyes on more people, hundreds more, thousands even, than I was accustomed to seeing in the course of a day, but the impress of these countless faces did nothing to assuage my feelings of isolation; if anything, it intensified them.

Excerpt, My Two Worlds: When I walk, my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me, one governed by overlapping windows. I say this not with pride but with annoyance: nothing worse could happen to me, because it affects my intuitive side and feels like a prison sentence. The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links, and this isn’t only true for the objects themselves, which are generally urban, part of the life of the city as a whole, shaped precisely and distinguished from their surroundings, but also the associations they call to mind, the recollection of what is observed, which may be related, kindred, or quite distinct, depending on whichever way these links are formed.

Two debuts by authors from the Balkans, both redolent of the history of the region, but quite different in tone and style.  Obreht’s novel is magical in the manner of a piece of folklore and features a picaresque cast, touching upon faded Ottoman glory, Nazi depredations and later religious strife. In East of the West, a spectrum of characters from Bulgaria – old, young, communist, Westernised -- reflect on that country’s past and how it’s affected their present. The upheavals that the area has witnessed may have redrawn the map, but, as Obreht and Penkof’s tales illustrate, myth and memory have their own contours.

Excerpt, The Tiger’s Wife: Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of my life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and tyrant of the university. One, which I learnt after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

Excerpt, East of the West (from the story, ‘Makedonija’): I was born just twenty years after we got rid of the Turks. 1898. So yes, this makes me seventy-one. And yes, I’m grumpy. I’m mean. I smell like all old men do. I am a walking pain, hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. I lie awake at night. I call my daughter by my grandson’s name and I remember the day I met my wife much better than yesterday, or today. August 2, I think. 1969. Last night I pissed my bed and who knows what joy tonight will bring?

Recently raved about in terms that made me immediately want to procure a copy – and I’m glad I did. A delight to read, this is a series of witty, insightful episodes from the life of an acutely self-aware narrator, a pot-smoking American poet, while in Madrid on a fellowship. The question that hovers above his account of tangled relationships, attempts to write poetry and to speak in Spanish is: how does one ever fully express oneself, and is it even possible to do so?

Excerpt: As we entered the party I reminded myself to breathe....I was acutely aware of not being attractive enough for my surroundings; luckily, I had a strategy for such situations, one I had developed over many visits to New York with the dim kids of the stars: I opened my eyes a little more widely than normal, opening them to a very specific point, raising my eyebrows and also allowing my mouth to curl up into the implication of a smile. I held this look steady once it had obtained, a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity, a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings...


The story of the man famous for being brought back from the dead – told in a manner that weaves together Biblical scholarship, fictional episodes and literary references. Sounds like an unlikely amalgam, but it works wonderfully. Wholly inventive, completely new and very satisfying: you could say that Beard takes the form of the novel and, well, resurrects it.

Excerpt:  For Lazarus, in the last hour before his death, there is no miracle, no secret sign. The story as told by John abandons him, and a sequence he doesn’t understand is left, for him, unfinished: this is how death feels, and not just for Lazarus. Too soon; incomplete.

SUICIDE Edouard Leve (Trans. Jan Steyn)

An epigrammatic and haunting novella, in which the narrator reflects on the suicide of a friend. Haunting and disturbing, more so because Leve himself took his own life days after submitting the manuscript.

Excerpt: A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent series of actions but a constellation of things perceived. It is looked at, unrelated things congregate, and geographic proximity gives them meaning. If events follow each other, they are believed to be a story. But in a dictionary, time doesn’t exist: ABC is neither more nor less chronological than BCA. To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.

THE TUNNEL Ernesto Sabato (Trans. Maragaret Sayers Penden)

First published in 1948, Sabato’s hypnotic novella takes us into the dark, deranged mind of a Buenos Aires artist, and comprises his prison-cell justification for murdering his mistress. The author died earlier this year, and thus, the 2011 Penguin Classics re-issue of Margaret Sayers Penden’s 1988 translation is an unintended homage. In any description of this work, there’s no choice but to use the word “existential”. (Colm Toibin’s preface to the new edition is to be found here.)

Excerpt: More than any other, however, I detest groups of painters. Partly, of course, because painting is what I know best, and we all know that we have a greater reason to detest the things we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. If I were a great surgeon, and some fellow who had never held a scalpel in his hand, who was not a doctor, and who had never so much as put a splint on a cat's paw, tried to point out where I had gone wrong with my operation, what would people think? It is the same with painting. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flabby Fantasy

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

1Q84 Haruki Murakami

A female assassin wielding an ice-pick. Shadowy members of an underground, quasi-religious sect. A group of so-called Little People from a parallel dimension. Eerie doppelgangers emerging from an “air chrysalis”.  A tale of a town of cats. And a sky with two moons. Wrapped together in cool, affectless prose with references to jazz, classical music, Hollywood and George Orwell. Who else but Haruki Murakami could have the chutzpah to combine all of these into a three-part saga totalling almost a thousand pages?  Halfway through 1Q84, however, another question arises: has his reach exceeded his grasp?

This brick of a book tells the intertwined stories of Tengo, putative writer and teacher of mathematics, another one of Murakami’s confused loners, and Aomame, massage therapist and avenging angel. The two met briefly in school and now, years later in 1984, events are set in motion that have them circling around each other in Tokyo and its environs, wondering if they will re-unite.

Aomame, stuck in traffic in the back seat of a taxi on Tokyo’s Metropolitan Expressway, decides to take a short cut by walking through an abandoned turn-off. The taxi driver prophetically cautions her: “Things are not what they seem... But don't let appearances fool you. There is always only one reality”. From here on, she’s plunged into an alternative existence, one that she calls 1Q84 -- with the “q”, in English translation, standing for a question mark: “a world that bears a question”.

Tengo, meanwhile, has his own problems to grapple with. He’s tasked by an editor to rewrite Air Chrysalis, the manuscript of a 17-year-old named Fuka Eri with storytelling skills but a raw, unfinished style. Drawn to this enigmatic, other-worldly teenager, Tengo completes the rewrite and the book goes on to become a bestseller. The ghost writer now finds that he’s opened a Pandora’s Box, as Air Chrysalis may not entirely be a work of fiction, after all.

Twin-track plotlines, alternative realities, sundered sweethearts and the loneliness of those who find themselves unable to fit in: Murakami has used all of these devices and themes before, though 1Q84 is probably his most detailed exegesis yet. It’s clear from the start that he intends this to be 'bigger' than his earlier work. The characters' backgrounds, clothes, diet, cultural and sexual appetites are dwelt upon in some detail, and then, there are creaky efforts to incorporate facets of contemporary Japanese history. Tengo's father for example, flees to Tokyo from Manchuria after the Soviet invasion in 1945 and there are references to the student movement to protest against US-Japan security treaty in the Seventies. All of this, combined with repetition and overwriting, means that the book is much larger – though ‘flabbier’ is a more apt word -- than it ought to be. 

Though there’s an engaging flow to most of 1Q84, with a patterned criss-crossing of action and reaction, there are also several examples of clich├ęs and lazy writing. For example, on just a single page chosen at random, one finds Aomame musing that “what she needed...was to be held by someone, anyone”. A little later: “The gun had almost become a part of her body”. More troublingly, did we really need to be plunged into so much detail in the scene of intercourse with a pre-pubescent? (Bad Sex Award alert.)

The resonances with Orwell’s dystopia, too, seem alternately forced and underdeveloped. The virus-like Little People – a counterpoint to Big Brother, a malevolent version of the shoemaker’s elves – sometimes come across as more risible than menacing, especially when emerging from the mouth of a dead goat, uttering clunky dialogue. 

It turns out that at the heart of this bloated fantasy is a tender love story: “Tengo could hardly believe it -- that in this frantic, labyrinth-like world, two people's hearts -- a boy's and a girl's -- could be connected, unchanged, even though they hadn't seen each other for twenty years”. This, come to think of it, is an aspect that should appeal to those yearning for the Murakami of Norwegian Wood.

Perhaps if it had been published in three separate parts -- as was the case with the Japanese original -- the repetitions and recapitulations would not have grated as much. Murakami takes pains to point out on more than one occasion that Air Chrysalis, the manuscript that Tengo rewrites, is a mesmerising, vivid and taut novella. A pity, then, that 1Q84 doesn't quite share the same qualities.

Lady Sings The Blues

This appeared in last Sunday's DNA.


Often, it’s an author’s signature tone of voice that’s the most effective part of his or her work. It’s a pleasure to come across a distinctive voice that animates characters and themes, throwing into sharp relief a particular view of the world.  If one looks at authors from Pakistan, for example, this is amply illustrated by H.M. Naqvi’s suave, jitterbugging style in Home Boy as well as his compatriot Mohammed Hanif’s sardonic, off-kilter take on General Zia’s death in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. In Hanif’s follow up, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, one finds the same sardonic insights, and this is what makes the book gratifying.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti revolves around the travails of its eponymous heroine, a senior nurse at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital. A mixture of the tough-spirited and soft-hearted, Alice is from the country’s Dalit Christian community, and Hanif manages to fit in several swipes against religious belief of all stripes -- as well as against egregious caste segregation -- in the course of the book.

Alice is pursued by an unlikely swain, a former bodybuilder and unofficial police factotum named Teddy Butt. That they’re opposites is clear from the start; Teddy’s wooing of Alice is, as a character puts it, like “a cheetah falling for a squirrel or bats trying to chat up butterflies”. The cheetah and the squirrel quickly get together after a credulity-straining sequence  inside a submarine off the city’s coast. Hanif doesn’t spend much time on explaining the hows and whys: that these two dissimilar individuals enter into an alliance is the motor of the plot, and he makes it happen without too much fuss, and with the occasional veering into tenderness.

Along the way, one is introduced to a gallery of other characters in Alice and Teddy’s ken, from those who work at the hospital to police officers to patients, with their pomposities and perversions being skewered one by one. Tribute to Saadat Hasan Manto is also paid, among other things, in the form of describing the goings-on in the hospital’s “charya ward”, the so-called Centre for Mental and Psychological Diseases where daily doses of lithium appear to be the only medication on offer.

Every once in a while, Hanif throws in a reminder that, satire apart, he’s skilled in evocative observation, too. At one point, for example, we’re told that Alice Bhatti “carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles”.

However, his sparring mockery extends to cover many sections of life in Pakistan, and because of this, the novel tends to comes across as a series of linked set pieces rather than a fully-integrated whole. It does hold together, but only just, helped by an unexpected structural twist at the end, one that’s satisfying without seeming contrived. Overall, though, it’s the healthy doses of irreverence, sometimes almost Rabelaisian, that make Our Lady of Alice Bhatti rewarding to read.