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 Manj├│n
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.