Sunday, December 30, 2012

Found In Translation: My Favourite Fiction of The Year

My Sunday Guardian column.

Most of the fiction I found noteworthy in 2012 was in translation. Here, there was all the inventiveness, ideas and engagement one looked for – often unsuccessfully – in fiction from the English-speaking world. In no particular order, here’s a selection of this year’s titles: a choice that’s both personal and random, given the ones I haven’t yet read (Laszlo Karsznahorkai, Robert Walser) and the ones I haven’t yet been able to get hold of (Bernardo Atxaga, Daniel Sada).

To begin with, Laurent Binet’s HHhH, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, about the British secret service plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich in 1941. (If you’ve seen Operation Daybreak, you already know the story.) HHhH is historical fiction that plays with the conventions of fiction by putting the author’s own misgivings about realism and recreation at its heart. Criticized for the occasionally clunky prose and being too clever by half – with some justification – it’s nevertheless wholly absorbing and engaging.

Also from France is Philippe Claudel’s The Investigation, translated by John Cullen, which tries to out-Kafka Kafka with the story of an unnamed investigator’s efforts to plumb the workings of an entity known as the Firm. As the Investigator spirals towards his nemesis, events become even more nightmarish; an effect balanced by the questions Claudel raises about facelessness and capitalism, among others.

Then, there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, which has surface similarities with Polanski’s Carnage, but is wickeder and more startling than the movie. Skillfully paced, it depicts the manipulations beneath the surface when two couples meet to discuss their sons’ involvement in an unexpected act of violence, with a denouement that’s as unexpected.

The novel that lays claim to be the most ambitious and luminous of the lot goes to Andres Neuman’s Traveller of the Century, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, which begins with a stranger arriving at a fictional German town in the nineteenth century. It’s been called an example of a “total novel”, encompassing a love story, a murder mystery and debates on art, literature, politics and feminism. Sprawling and bulky but never dull: one of those long novels where the length doesn’t matter.

Also in Spanish, and translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, is Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque. This consciously literary novel deals with a trip taken by a Barcelona publisher to Dublin to commemorate his own vision of Bloomsday, and is haunted by the spirit of Joyce – but also by others such as Beckett and Larkin. I hesitate to use the word “inimitable”, but that’s what Vila-Matas’s novels always turn out to be.

It’s long and digressive and stuffed with minor characters, but Grigor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol, first published in 1958 and now translated from the German by Philip Boehm, is endlessly fascinating, with prose that alternates between the ironic and the nostalgic. Set in a small town of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire between the world wars – a place and era lost to time -- it deals with the tragicomic fate of a Quixote-like hussar, a humourless man in a place that values humour.

The Switzerland-based Peter Stamm’s Seven Years was one of my favourites of last year and he follows it up with a short story collection, We’re Flying, translated by Michael Hoffman. In a quiet, sparse, but by no means unaffecting manner, Stamm records the lives of ordinary folk who oscillate between memories of happiness and dealing with its loss, leaving them – as the man with the horn said – kind of blue.

Finally, from the other side of the globe is Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates. This tells of a Tokyo pickpocket who takes palpable pleasure in his solitary craft before being caught up in a web of events he’s unable to control. These cleverly delineated sequences of action and reaction create an atmosphere of brooding noir and raise questions that are more existential than criminal.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

On The Stories Of Mercè Rodoreda

My Sunday Guardian column

Blurbs are often overblown; yet, when they’re by the right person and say the right things, they can be remarkably persuasive. Thus it was that on the last evening of a recent trip, I found myself handing over scarce foreign exchange for a translation of selected stories by Catalan author Mercè Rodoreda -- of whom, as the cover proclaimed, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that she’s a writer “who still  knows how to name things”.

As I was subsequently to learn, it’s Rodoreda’s novels that are the full-blown expression of her craft and art. The stories, however, are the perfect introduction, containing all the expressive experiments with tone that mark her longer work.

Despite being championed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Rodoreda’s work never became as well-known as theirs in the English-speaking world. In her homeland, however, she’s feted as one of their most important writers, a Member of Honour of the Association of Catalan Language Writers, with a library and a respected annual literary prize named after her.

‘Blood’; ‘Happiness’; ‘Summer’; ‘Departure’; ‘Love’: the titles of her stories are simple, but the exposition – in the English translation by Martha Tennent – is rich and rewarding. Most of the central characters are women, depicted as see-sawing between traditional and modern roles. One of them, for example, is described as “a girl without troubles, without agitation, a girl unaware that she was tyrannically imprisoned within four walls and a ceiling of tenderness.” Elsewhere, a young wife suspects her husband of infidelity, a suspicion that grows to consume their relationship; a seamstress, alarmed by the depth of her feeling, waits for her rich relative to die so she can set up shop on her own; a young couple bumps into each other during the festa and forms a strange attachment. Often, these are people afflicted by a quiet grief, with desires unfulfilled, looking into mirrors to notice the wrinkles that have robbed them of youth.

Some of the early stories are no more than fragments, with people walking through Barcelona’s streets and inhabiting its cafes, workplaces and cinema halls -- yet they possess a quality of melancholy and impressionism that characterize her later work. They’re also grounded by precise observation, such as the description in one of the stories of the slaughter of hens in a poultry market.

These are tales of sudden infatuations and estrangements – vivid and short-lived, like the ephemeral flowers she mentions time and again -- where the need to make a living is at odds with the desire to live a life. At times, their emotional depth puts one in mind of work such as Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights or Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

It’s the later stories that are more fleshed out, with an almost nightmarish stream-of-consciousness that her novels are known for. Rodoreda’s own years in Paris and Geneva as a Spanish Civil War exile, and living through the world war, find expression here. The effect of looking upon the ugly face of conflict is evident in ‘Orleans, Three Kilometers’ and ‘On A Dark Night’, for example. In ‘The Fate of Lisa Sperling’, she also tries out techniques such as a deft switching from third person to first person within the same paragraph. Many times, the mood is undercut by a weary cynicism, such as when she writes: “If all of us here could return to the womb, half would be trampled to death by those who fight to get in first”.

Of The Time of Doves, one of Rodoreda’s most famous novels, Natasha Wimmer -- best-known for her translations of Roberto Bolaño's work -- has written that she “plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability”. A new translation of the novel by Peter Bush, this time titled In Diamond Square, is forthcoming in March next year: another opportunity for Rododera to gain the international readership she deserves.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Grief History Of Time

This appeared in the latest edition of Mint Lounge


The intimacy and focus that a short story can offer is often at odds with the all-encompassing sweep of a novel, which is why there aren’t many writers who are accomplished in both forms.  Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet was a notable collection of short stories featuring migrants, domestic workers and other lost souls seeking consolation as and where they could find it. Here, a raw sensibility meshed with craft to create a variety of tones, making for a striking début. In her first novel, she plays to these very strengths; the question, however, is whether it all adds up to a unitary work of satisfying heft.

Not Only the Things that Have Happened contains many lives and worlds. It starts with an aged Annakutty on her deathbed in a village in Kerala, still consumed by memories and dreams of her out-of-wedlock son who was adopted forty years ago. (“I gave you up,” she says, “but I never gave up loving you”.)  The novel spirals outward to encompass others in Anakutty’s ambit, from her stepsister working as a nurse in Dubai to her teenage niece to her stepmother, to mention only a few. The immersion in the lives of the people of this region is almost Faulknerian in its intensity, along with the milieu against which they have come of age: the influence of Catholicism, the grip of caste, trade union and Left movements and the distance between the impoverished village and the bustling city.

The novel’s second section is set a world away, in a small town in the American Midwest, and contains the same emotional weight but not as much fine-grained social observation. Here, we learn of the life of the lost boy and of those in his ken, including a wife from whom he has separated and a six-year-old daughter. This conflicted individual obsesses over what he can recall of his tangled childhood history; he returns time and again to “the meaning of me”, and his rootlessness causes him to indulge in chameleon-like role-playing: "I don't know who I am. I try on stories, to see if I can fool people into believing I am somebody. But maybe also to fool me."

Koshy’s primary interest is in the impact of past bereavement on present-day lives and she follows her characters’ befuddled journeys and their real and imagined histories with an empathetic eye. These are her novel’s primary colours, which are underlaid by the chronology of how they came to their current states. The passage of time in this novel, in fact, is handled with some skill: all the surface action takes place during 36 hours, but inserted into this are slices of personal history that create a lattice-like whole.

Two distinct sections and geographies, with the narrative delving deep into non-sequential, individual stories: clearly, Koshy can’t be faulted on grounds of ambition. The disconnected nature of each chapter, however, can militate against the novel’s unity as well as emotional impact; there are times when the branches obscure the central trunk. It’s in this sense that one can see a short story writer trying to break free from the past and yet retain the elements that made the earlier work so strong.

That apart, the tone of grim realism makes Not Only the Things that Have Happened rather heavy going -- unrelieved by the glimmer of redemption at the very end. Every character struggles with an unsatisfactory present, and some have to undergo unpleasant material deprivation, too. “The past is grief buried deep in the earth,” Koshy writes; it’s buried deep in this novel, too.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lotus, Danai: Memories Of Mumbai's Bookshops

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

I miss a time when I didn't have to be informed that rents were too high for bookshops to survive.

I miss having an oasis to break journey in on the trek back home from work.

I miss the serendipity of discovering just the book I always wanted to read on the shelf without knowing that it ever existed.

I miss reading a glowing review of a new novel in the morning and finding it on the shelves that very evening.

I miss the manager running up to me and saying breathlessly: "You should check out these short stories by this writer called David Foster Wallace, he's really very good".

I miss scanning the new arrivals section to discover that the title I couldn't afford in hardback was now available in paperback.

I miss feeling deliciously guilty -- and broke -- when I went ahead and bought the unaffordable hardback.

I miss receiving a call to inform me that the book I'd enquired about is now in stock. And that the book felt all the more precious because of the long wait for the call.

I miss bumping into a friend and scanning the books he held in his hand while he examined the ones in mine.

I miss settling into the tattered sofa chair in the corner with a selected pile of books on my lap and wondering which ones to buy.

I miss deciding to buy all of them.

I miss the sales. (Not, however, the ones that announced: ‘Closing Down’.)

I miss the aroma.

I miss the bookmarks.

I miss the silence. (I miss glaring at those who persisted in conducting loud conversations on their cellphones or with each other.)

I miss the time there was an unexpected power cut that plunged the bookshop into darkness, upon which the person next to me pulled out a torch and coolly continued to examine the shelves.

I miss looking at the unopened pile of cartons containing new books in the corner and wondering whether I ought to ask the attendant to open them just so I could see what was in store.

I miss gingerly turning to the back jacket to see whether the price would give me a jolt. I miss not getting a jolt because of a sticker that said: 'Special Indian Price’.

I miss cradling the parcel of newly-purchased titles all the way home.

I miss adding the contents of the parcel to the tottering pile of unread books.

I miss rushing into the store five minutes before closing time and cursing the traffic.

I miss looking up to find I was the only person in the store apart from a long-suffering attendant who patiently informed me that it was past closing time but if I needed some minutes more, that was fine.

I miss returning to the bookshop after a year away to find the manager holding out a book to me and saying that I'd inadvertently left it behind on my last visit.

I miss the times I walked in without the need to or intention of buying anything, but just to spend some time in the company of books.

I miss being unable to make up my mind about buying a book and returning again and again to see it in the same place on the shelf and then kicking myself one day to find it gone.

I miss being so familiar with the arrangement of titles on a shelf that, with a quick scan, I could immediately tell if something had been added or re-arranged.

I miss living in a city that had space for books.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Glacial Love Story

This appeared in the latest edition of TimeOut Mumbai.


In a time of unmanned drones, sudden explosions and military convoys, a couple travels to Pakistan’s far north to study, among other things, the habits of glaciers. A tragic incident involving a nomad’s child strains their relationship as well as illuminates the changing lives of those who inhabit a region suffused by reflections of jagged mountains on crystalline lakes.

That’s the scenario of Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, Thinner than Skin, marked by a quivering sensitivity of tone in the manner of fellow novelist Nadeem Aslam. The protagonist, for example, is given to musings such as: “I'd held the bitter taste of the glacier melt in my mouth as the silver disc eased deep into the river's skin”.

The novel’s main strand is the first person account by Nadir, a budding photographer, telling of his relationship with Farhana, of German-Pakistani ancestry, whom he meets in San Francisco. As their alliance deepens, they decide to visit their homeland and travel to the frontier along with two other friends. From the start, however, it’s a relationship marked by contrasts: “We loved each other for precisely opposite reasons. If I loved her because she did not remind me of my past, Farhana loved me because she believed I was her past”.

Nadir and Farhana’s odyssey is undercut by the story of a family of nomads, and of their lives’ ups-and-downs. The future of their children apart, they have to deal with the dismissive attitudes of forest officials, spies, soldiers and militants, among others. There’s a wealth of information in these sections, especially to do with the way people live and trade in one of the crossroads of the world.

The carefully-woven prose has many languorous descriptions of inner and outer states as well as a subterranean unfurling of plot. However, there’s a one-sidedness to the manner in which the love story is depicted, filtered as it is through Nadir’s solipsistic musings. As characters’ thoughts circle obsessively around their actions, the pace of the novel can sometimes become as sluggish as of one of the region’s glaciers that it describes.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Not My Books Of The Year

My column for the Sunday Guardian.

Any part of any trilogy in any shade.

Books on India that claim to sum up the country’s present state and future prospects by padding out accounts of limited interactions with its people.

Ungrammatical novels of finding first love in management institutes. Or in TV studios. Or in small-town India. Or in any-town India.

Diet and fitness secrets of Bollywood by the trainers to the stars, with heavily retouched cover photographs.

Ghostwritten celebrity memoirs in prose that's anything but haunting.

Novels without magic for grown-ups, by writers known for writing novels with magic for children.

Memoirs that claim to offer ringside views of political coteries and ruling dynasties, but which read instead like a gossipy settling of old scores.

Novels of wily old politicians with skeletons in closets spending socialite evenings and starry nights plotting to retain power.

Retellings of the Iliad from the point of view of one who was in love with Achilles and contain one too many passages gushing over his chiseled body.

Zombie mash-ups featuring Austen characters. Any other novels featuring Austen characters. Unless they’re actually written by Austen.

Anything entitled How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You. (It exists. Look it up.)

Inspiring sagas of white men setting up schools in Afghanistan.

Follow-ups by authors hoping that a film version by Ang Lee is sufficient to revive their careers.

Dramas of domestic discord delving into the deepest depths of daughters-in-law.

Books by those who promise to keep you abreast of the stock market, ahead of the curve and pushing the envelope while outside the box. Sometimes all at the same time.

Short story collections billed as ‘sensitive’ and ‘ethereal’ which start with the protagonist moodily staring out of a window and end with him making a weak cup of tea.

Thrillers featuring James Bond not written by Ian Fleming.

Mafia novels featuring the Corleone family not written by Mario Puzo.

The novel tipped as ‘the next big thing’ and ‘charting a bold new direction’, which turns out to be written in a high Modernist style that’s all but incomprehensible.

Long-delayed second novels by those with promising debuts, making you wonder whether writers’ block isn’t a good thing, after all.

Novels of dreary realism in the best tradition of creative writing programmes, wherein all boxes are ticked except that of keeping the reader engaged.

The Secret Letters of the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. (“A moving and fascinating journey from the Bosphorus in Turkey to a remote fishing community in India to the catacombs of Paris”.)

The one described as using “the easy conversational tones of contemporary youth, in their teens and twenties.” Or the one that follows “a very simple style of writing, one that’s easy-to-understand without compromising the story’s tone”.

Detailed analyses of Steve Jobs’s leadership style, presentation style, innovation style or interior decoration style.

Leadership secrets gleaned from the lives and work of those such as General Patton, Achilles or Attila the Hun.

Books that treat China as a gigantic money-making machine for the rest of the world’s companies.

Anything with an exclamation mark in the title…or an ellipsis.

The discovered-in-a-drawer and posthumously-published scribblings of beatniks.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The View From Julian Barnes's Window

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the satisfactions of reading writers on other writers is their ability to generate insights based on shared familiarity with the art. This is what holds together Julian Barnes's new collection of essays, Through the Window -- otherwise a ragbag of reviews and pieces that have appeared in the Guardian and the NYRB, among others.

The volume is also a handy guide to some of Barnes’s pre-occupations: the French in general and Flaubert in particular; inventive modes of narration; and the ways in which we deal with the imminence of death. Much of this is rendered in an aphoristic style that Barnes -- unusually for a writer from England -- has strived to perfect. (As he says: "the idea of taking a social or moral observation, polishing it into literary form, and laying it out by itself on a white page as a jeweller lays a sparkler on black velvet -– this seems a bit suspicious to us.")

Not all of the pieces are laudatory, however: there's a takedown of George Orwell in which he raises questions about the veracity of the celebrated essays 'A Hanging’ and 'Shooting an Elephant’. In a dig at the reasons for Orwell's fame, Barnes writes: "He denounced the Empire, which pleases the left; he denounced communism, which pleases the right. He warned us against the corrupting effect on politics and public life of the misuse of language, which pleases almost everyone". That won’t please everyone.

As against this, there’s a generous, informed tribute to John Updike, written shortly after his death -- even though one disagrees with Barnes's judgment that Terrorist is one of Updike's novel’s that will stay the course. Nevertheless, it’s "impossible equally not to honour and thank him with a reader’s raised glass, full to the brim – though preferably not with water".

The essays on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Parade’s End are probing analyses of their worth as well as the reasons for Ford's neglect. It’s also clear that Barnes’s unreliable, deluded narrator from his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending learnt a trick or two from Ford's John Dowell.

Barnes's fussy side emerges in his exegesis of Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. While praising its precision, he says, in typically Barnesian manner: "at its worst, it takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose". A translation that gratifies everyone is probably impossible, given Flaubert’s well-documented struggle to polish every French sentence of his masterpiece.

Other essays include those on neglected writer-aphorist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort; on monument restorer Prosper Mérimée; and on neo-Impressionist art critic and dealer Félix Fénéon. (Yes, you have to be something of a Francophile to summon up the requisite enthusiasm.) There’s also a delightful piece on the unpublished French motoring diaries of Rudyard Kipling, revealing the writer to be a punctilious record-keeper of the state of Rolls-Royces, hotels and graveyards.

The short story, 'Homage to Hemingway’, is an apt companion to the rest, dealing as it does with ways of representation and the dangers of a writer's life overtaking his art. Patterned on Hemingway's short story, ‘Homage to Switzerland’, it features scenes from the classrooms of an author and writing professor, or versions of him. He tells his students that though Hemingway is supposed to be obsessed with male courage and machismo, "They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness".

What stands out is the introduction, in which Barnes writes with feeling of his life in books, from early forays into his parents’s collection to local libraries to his latter bibliophilia. It's also a passionate defence of print: "Books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information". The printed book, he says, is the perfect symbol to show that reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. The view through Barnes’s window is one that shows the intersections of his reading and of his life.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tales Of The Alhambra

This week's column for the Sunday Guardian.

Restoration in progress in an Alhambra courtyard
In an alcove of the former palace of the Nasrids in Granada, you can see artisans hard at work in restoring faded friezes. Under their hands, the Alhambra comes back to life; the results, evident in the courtyards of the complex, are remarkable.

Writers of fiction have, over the years, engaged in Alhambra restoration of their own. These are recreations of the lost glory of Al-andalus, notably, of its civilized intermingling of culture and religion. The contrast with today’s polarized times couldn’t be more stark.

In English, among the first and most influential of such books was Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, better-known for his stories of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. First published in 1882, these folktales and fabrications are often overblown and over-romanticized:  “Surrounded with the insignia of regal sway, and the still vivid, though dilapidated traces of oriental voluptuousness, I was in the strong-hold of Moorish story, and everything spoke and breathed of the glorious days of Granada, when under the dominion of the crescent”.

The room Washington Irving is supposed to have inhabited
Visit the Alhambra today and you’ll come across a plaque outside the room that Irving is supposed to have lived in when he wrote his tales; the actual location, however, is in a section closed to visitors. Repackaging the West's fantasy of the palace, the audio guide quotes Irving liberally, and locally-published editions of his book are available in every souvenir store.

The vanished grandeur of Arab Ghranata is also the subject of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, the first novel of Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. This elegiac story of the fortunes of a Moorish family after the Reconquista shows Ali to be a better polemicist than novelist. Laden with dialogue, it recounts the strategies Granadians adopted to ensure their survival, from conversion to conciliation to conflict. The Alhambra here is a brooding presence from where edicts are issued by its Catholic conquerors, personified by the real-life Ximenes des Cisneros who once famously ordered that Arabic books be burnt in the city’s public square.

More successful as a novel is Amin Maalouf’s Leo Africanus, originally in French, which tells of the 15th and 16th century journeys of al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, the titular hero. The first section is set in Granada, where Leo is born and spends his early life, and has a vibrant Arabian Nights tonality, with picaresque characters and tales from a lost homeland. In “this palace of the Alhambra, glory of glories and marvel of marvels”, the penultimate Sultan presides over extravagant parades and hedonistic parties, willfully ignorant of the storm to come.

A view of the Alhambra from Granada's Paseo del Padre Manjón
In these and other such works, the Alhambra is emblematic of bygone brilliance, a place whose epitaph wasn’t composed in words but in the form of a sigh heaved by Boabdil, the last Sultan, at his last sight of it. In making use of a vanished Moorish past in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie has something more ambitious in mind: a conflation of Granada with Bombay-turned-Mumbai: “Just as the fanatical ‘Catholic Kings’ had besieged Granada and awaited the Alhambra’s fall, so now barbarism was standing at our gates. O Bombay! Prima in Indis! Gateway to India! Star of the East with her face to the West! Like Granada…you were the glory of your time. But a darker time came upon you, and just as Boabdil, the last Nasrid Sultan, was too weak to defend his great treasure, so we, too, were proved wanting.”

The narrator, Moraoes Zogoiby, claiming descent from Boabdil, visits Spain only in the final section, when he is incarcerated in a bizarre replica called “little Alhambra”. The theme, however, is prevalent from the start, not least in the form of the paintings of his mother, the redoubtable Aurora Zogoiby. One of them is termed “a Bombay remix of the last of the Nasrids”, not a bad description of the novel itself.

Europe’s own red fort, then, still tantalizes. It’s a monument to past possibilities, a testament, in Rushdie’s words again, “to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers”. Now that’s worth restoring.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Fiction Is In Fashion

Today's Sunday Guardian column

With much fanfare, Banana Republic recently launched a clothing line inspired by Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, with coats, capes and jackets in lace, faux fur and sparkle. They’re not suitable for wearing at train stations, one supposes.

While this is clearly tied to the recent movie version of the classic, here are some copyright-free suggestions on how other heroines can inspire fashion, too.  If you’ve read it, flaunt it.

The Lady Chatterley Collection. Get ready to shock with this daring re-interpretation of early 20th century English country house style. Featuring a range of ban-worthy tops and now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t skirts that are as easy to take off as they are to put on. Switch off that episode of Downton Abbey and get ready to hunt game.

Molly Bloom Bloomers. A long-overdue update of a perennial sleepwear classic, perfect for day-dreaming naughtily in bed all summer long. Think of it as an invitation to lounge to your heart’s content in cool shades of Irish green. One look and you’ll go yes I will yes.

Jane Eyre Enchantments. For the woman who’s fire within and ice without, a collection of scarves and gloves that’s been rescued from the attic and re-designed for a new era. Crafted for rides in the country as well as travels in the city, keeping you stylish for years. Reader, you’ll wear them.

Helen of Troy Trainers. Girl, you've got to be ready for anything. Today, you're a queen, tomorrow your heart may be kept hostage. Make sure you face every challenge with these sleek trainers, available in hues of the wine-dark sea. Don’t be like that haughty Achilles and leave heels unprotected. Every pair is guaranteed to keep your feet dry on long ocean voyages. (Guarantee will be rendered null and void if the wearer approaches horses of any description.)

Juliet Jumpsuits. Why let your teenage years fly by without making sure you look your best? These jumpsuits are made from a special Lycra blend, rendering them stretchable and thus ideal for leaping from balconies. Because there are times when we all need to get away from intruding nursemaids. Pair them with our platinum-plated accessories and you can be the belle of the ball. Make sure that from yonder window, the only thing that breaks is light, not your heart.

Emma Bovary Bargains. You may be lurking indoors looking bored, but we know you’re longing to be a bad, bad babe. Presenting a range of Parisian gowns to show you in your true colours. Agricultural fairs or carriage rides, you’ll be sure to raise their blood pressure every time. Buy as many outfits as you want now; you can always borrow from admirers and pay later.

Hester Prynne Pant Suits. They’re looking at you. They’re whispering about you. They’re wondering what you’ve done. Walk past a jealous world with your head held high, clad in one of our perfectly-tailored pant suits and you’ll be A-okay. After all, why conform when you can be in form? Available, naturally, only in scarlet.

Elizabeth Bennet Bridal Wear. Light and playful on the one hand, sharp and saucy on the other. If that’s what you’re like, here’s a wedding ensemble to match. With much pride and very little prejudice, we dare say they won’t be able to take their eyes off you. After all, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman possessed of a small fortune must be in want of a wedding gown.

Scarlett O’Hara Spectacles. When you’ve got your eyes firmly fixed on what you want, make sure they’re protected with this stunning series of sunglasses. In plastic and metal, for cutting-edge elegance that also shields you from the world. Make sure you stand out, whether you’re the maid of the plantation or hanging with the girls at the pub. One glance at you, and they’ll give a damn.

Rants From Underground

My Sunday Guardian column of November 11

“I am a sick man…I am a wicked man”. That’s how Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground starts, with an ellipsis that’s one of the most commented upon in literature. Here was a new voice appearing on the page with the immediacy of speech, self-important, embittered and unreliable.
Echoes of the underground man’s rant can be heard to this day. They’re in the work of Philip Roth, notably in his Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theatre. They’re in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, dripping with contempt, mainly against his country of Austria and its people. They’re in parts of Saul Bellow, especially those cantankerous letters in Herzog. They’re in Howard Jacobson, puncturing pretensions by the sackful. And they’re in the work of Louis-Ferdinand Celine – whose prose style clearly inspired Roth, despite the former’s alarming anti-Semitism.

Most such novels are monologues, with the central character pouring out his grief and disdain to an imagined audience. They’re essayistic, dealing with harsh truths, the ones that we often brush under the carpet. (If you’re looking for likeable characters and well-developed plots, stay away.) It’s a form that The Matrix’s Agent Smith would have taken a shine to, with his whingeing about the planet: “I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality—whatever you want to call it”.

Even Eeyore and Marvin the Paranoid Android owe a little something to Dostoevsky’s original ranter, whose voice first emerged from under the floorboards in 1864. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that the novel “cried truth from the blood”; later on, the existentialist brigade was quick to claim it as an early prototype of their own thought.

Rant apart, Notes from Underground is also unusual for its structure. The first part, set in the narrator’s present, takes aim at utilitarian theories and Enlightenment notions of progress during the author’s time; the second part, more novelistic, describes incidents that happened earlier -- incidents that contributed to the narrator’s going underground. The first is the ‘what’; the second, the ‘how’.

The initial section, in fact, underlines the view that the more specific you are, the more universal your appeal can be. On many occasions, the narrator mocks people and notions that Dostoevsky wanted to lampoon – in particular the ideas of Nikolay Chernyshevsky – and though knowledge of these might lead to a richer appreciation, it isn’t necessary know all about the Russia of his time to feel the force of the writer’s argument.

The unnamed narrator, a former civil servant in St Petersberg, has several unflattering observations to make about fellow humans. “The best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful,” he asserts. He taunts himself with the “spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something”. (Those of you who have harboured the same suspicion at one time or another, raise your hands.)

In the more novelistic second part, which moves back sixteen years, there are episodes of frantic and comedic run-ins with former schoolmates during which the narrator reveals more of himself than he’d like. He then spends time with Liza, a young prostitute (a precursor to Crime and Punishment’s Sonya), when his impetuousness, petulance and vanity are even more on display. There’s a feverish pace to this section in contrast with what’s come before, mirroring the narrator’s state of mind. Here, too, one finds a critique of bookishness: Quixote-like, Dostoevsky’s narrator is full of fanciful notions, gleaned from the books he’s read, of how the world ought to operate.

All these years later, his words still resonate. What is to be done, he asks, “if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble—that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void”?  Void or not, such babble is a welcome change from all those novels content to simply record reality in the form of domestic dramas – but that’s a rant for another time.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Satire With Chinese Characteristics

This appeared in today's DNA.


In Tom Robbins’s debut novel, the countercultural Another Roadside Attraction, the attraction in question turns out to be the body of Jesus Christ stolen from a secret chamber in the Vatican and now on display at a travelling circus in Washington. In his new novel, Lenin’s Kisses, Yan Lianke uses a similar conceit to cast a beady eye on contemporary China, with the corpse being that of the gentleman mentioned in the title.

Swiftean satire is Yan’s weapon of choice. His earlier To Serve the People was banned in China because of controversial scenes of a soldier smashing busts of Mao to regain his libido; this was followed by Dream of Ding Village -- also banned -- based on an actual incident of an AIDS outbreak after a blood donation drive. Lenin’s Kisses is as bold, obviously using an imaginary scenario but one with many clear and farcical correspondences with China today. As translator Carlos Rojas says in his introduction, "Yan Lianke appears to delight in his ability to dance at the very margins of what is politically permissible".

The novel is set in and around a remote village inhabited by people with various disabilities. They’re resigned to their penurious lives after a crop failure due to a freak storm, but perk up when county chief Liu comes to them with a plan to buy and put on display the embalmed body of the communist leader from Russia, thus earning the region some much-needed revenue.

In order to raise funds to procure the corpse, the blind, the deaf, the crippled and the stunted create a travelling carnival. A typical show comprises, among other acts, a “one-legged flying leap”, “one-eyed needle threading”, leaf embroidery by a paraplegic and a polio-stricken boy’s foot-in-a-bottle routine.
The shows turn out to be a huge success and the performers are suddenly flush with funds -- this, of course, creates further problems stemming from rapacity and extortion. The move from communal life to entrepreneurial riches shows up people at their worst.

This is not to say that Yan takes sides. There’s also a wizened character named Grandma Mao -- an allegorical counterpoint to the ambitious county chief -- who has in the past set up a "mutual aid team” to create a “new harmonious society” in the village. She’s uncomfortable with the new get-rich-quick mentality, and is summarily told: "Granny, if you all hadn’t carried out your Revolution, we wouldn’t be having this famine".

Yan’s structure is as unusual as his novel’s incidents. The episodic chapters range freely between time periods and come with footnotes that go into greater detail, often encapsulating the lives of those mentioned earlier. (At times, even the footnotes have footnotes.) Then again, the chapters and footnotes have only odd numbers -- Yan has explained that this is because the Chinese consider such numbers inauspicious which, for him, sets the requisite tone, but Rojas points out that it can also be seen as an indication of all that’s missing from the novel because of state censorship.

Satire, however, is a potion best administered in small doses and in this respect the novel is long-winded, with incidents being dwelt upon more than necessary. Yan’s brush is broad and his strokes are occasionally overdone: "Some families are so wealthy that when their kids take a shit, if they don’t happen to have any toilet paper on hand they’ll simply use a ten-yuan bill or two instead".

Many contemporary Chinese writers -- including recent Nobel Laureate Mo Yan -- use the grotesque and the fantastical to portray the state of their nation. Yan is no exception, also employing a sometimes droll, sometimes cutting sarcasm. At one point in the novel, a character tells another, “You can see, and therefore you see the entire world as dirty. I can’t see, and therefore I see the entire world as pristine and pure.” Yan is definitely among those who can see.

The Long And Short Of Stories

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Is there such a thing as a typical American short story? Some will answer that question by pointing to a banality of tone. Compared with their European counterparts, they will say, American short story writers are provincial, producing domestic dramas beholden to Chekhov in all the wrong ways, and following templates established by writing workshops such as the one in Iowa and influential magazines such as the New Yorker.

There is some truth to these assertions, given the number of stories written in a plain style and proceeding in a dreary manner towards inconclusive endings that don't throw much light on the whole. Then again, the work of those such as Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis and George Saunders and many others also demonstrates that there are those who create wholly distinctive fiction. It’s also unfair to tar those from Iowa or in the New Yorker with the same brush, especially as, in recent years, there’s been considerable variance in their stories.

This is driven home once again by a new Paris Review anthology where you’ll find the realistic, the comic, the experimental and the minimal – the Paris Review being, of course, one of the magazines that did so much to popularize the form from its inception in 1953. (Those of you who haven’t browsed the magazine’s online archive of interviews with prominent writers, poets and essayists should stop reading this column now and do so at once.)

Object Lessons, as the anthology is called, is a collection with a difference: here, twenty writers introduce short stories by writers they admire and in doing so, provide short classes on what makes a short story praiseworthy in the first place. All the stories here were originally published in the Paris Review, and as such the collection isn’t meant to be representative of the form. The editors point out that it isn’t a “greatest hits anthology” either; the authors were simply asked to select a personal favourite and then describe why and how they work.

Here, stories by writers who are well-known jostle for space with those lesser-known. There’s Raymond Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance’, Steven Millhauser’s ‘Flying Carpets’ and James Salter’s ‘Bangkok’ – but there’s also Dallas Wiebe’s ‘Night Flight to Stockholm’, Mary Beth-Hughes’s’ Pelican Song’ and Thomas Glynn’s ‘Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now’.

The writers who’ve selected the stories offer insights that are several notches above the show-don’t-tell variety. On the Millhauser story, Daniel Orozco points out how the fantastical is rendered commonplace and “the magic of a boy’s childhood is recalled with the melancholy of the man who can never experience such again”. For David Means, it’s a well-chosen space break in the Carver story that gives it its power. On a Denis Johnson story, Jeffrey Eugenides asserts: “Compared to writing novels, writing short fiction is mainly a question of knowing what to leave out”.

There are few pedantic pronouncements and much close reading, which is why it makes sense to read the chosen story first and then double back to the appreciation. To read Dave Eggers on James Salter and Lydia Davis on Jane Bowles, for instance, is to gain a far richer appreciation of the stories when they’re still fresh in mind.

Here, too, writers known for specific styles pay homage to others with allied styles: Ben Marcus writes on David Barthelme, Ali Smith on Lydia Davis. There are other unsought correspondences: Mona Simpson chooses Norman Rush who chooses Guy Davenport; Ali Smith chooses Lydia Davis who chooses Jane Bowles.

The essay that stands out is by Aleksander Hemon, on Borges’s 'Funes the Memorius’. Hemon asserts that works by such authors “offer crucial evidence that it is impossible to conceptualise humanity without literature,” and goes on to make the case for Funes as the quintessential Borgesian character. Says Hemon, “Borges suggests that forgetting – that is, forgetting ceaselessly – is essential and necessary for thought and language and literature, for simply being a human being”. That’s worth remembering.