Sunday, January 1, 2017

What some memorable books of 2016 said about 2016

This appeared in today's The Hindu.

In a year that many would like to forget, at least there was solace to be found in some memorable books that mirrored and often provided a context for what we went through.

While experts and their theories were pooh-poohed, two books served as reminders that hard-won knowhow shouldn’t be cavalierly dismissed. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, a compelling history of genetics that combined the personal with the biological, raised questions about the future role of science in the interplay of nature and nurture. And Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement astutely pointed out that climate change today is so urgent and unexpected that, be it in mainstream literature or public discourse, we still have to come to grips with its scale and effects.

At a time of continuing and alarming instability in the Middle East, a foretaste of one legacy that coming generations will have to contend with came in the form of Hisham Matar’s The Return, an unsentimental, haunting memoir in which Matar returned to Libya after three decades to search for his father who was incarcerated by Qaddafi’s regime.

When Europe seemed to be in danger of coming unstitched, David Szalay’s All That Man Is exhibited the day-to-day existence of individual lives on the continent in a sequence of nine stories about European males, from young to old, each one dealing with the costs of giving in to impulses past and present. Another expression of dark disaffection, this one from the Netherlands, appeared in English 70 years after it was first published: Gerard Reve’s novel, The Evenings, translated by Sam Garrett, a sharp detailing of the pointless life of an office-worker during the course of ten December evenings.

Individual voices were in danger of being drowned out by the roar of the crowd this year, and a necessary corrective was Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, a combination of memoir with portraits of New York City artists such as Warhol and Hopper. It was a book that made loneliness “a populated place: a city in itself”.

Another lonely voice arose in Garth Greenwell’s beautifully written debut novel, What Belongs to You, about an expatriate teacher in Bulgaria and his gay relationship with a grifter. Yet another voice, utterly solitary and distinct, emerged from the womb, that of the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, dealing with the Hamletian dilemma of an unborn child when he realises that his mother and uncle are plotting against his father.

Other voices, quixotic and notable, were heard in novels by Ryan Lobo and Ratika Kapur: the former’s Mr Iyer Goes to War imagined a man of La Mancha in Benaras struggling to reconcile past glory with present decrepitude; and the latter’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma featured a seemingly traditional Delhi housewife navigating a thorny path between public modernity and private desire.

Appropriately enough, “surreal” was Merriam Webster’s word of the year, looked up more frequently in 2016 than in previous years. Han Kang’s powerful, unsettling The Vegetarian, translated by from the Korean by Deborah Smith, captured this “intense irrational reality of a dream”, in the dictionary’s definition, with a tale of a woman whose diet, and other choices, make her set her face against the world and enter a realm of violence, shame and desire.

Another word of the year was “post-truth”, and a chilling outline of a world in which such concepts are embraced and pushed to extremes was in Anjan Sundaram’s Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, a report from Rwanda on the Orwellian lives of some of its brave journalists and their battles for free speech.

In a year of America divided, Colson Whitehead’s unsentimental odyssey of redemption, The Underground Railroad, was a fantastical, richly-peopled saga that took a fresh look at slavery and its consequences. And Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was an invigorating Swiftean rant from a black narrator who launches a political programme with the aim of bringing back segregation.

Economic and other philosophies were overturned this year; those on the right and the left were driven to positions more extreme. Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café was a throwback to how thinkers reacted to earlier circumstances, a revivifying look at the lives, convictions and milieu of those such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Husserl.

Violence in the name of ideology continued to dominate the planet, and Karan Mahajan’s gripping novel, The Association of Small Bombs, made this personal by examining the rippling aftershocks of a car bomb explosion in a New Delhi market, and the changing internal and external lives of families caught in its wake.

When dashed expectations and reversals of fortune were the norm, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air was a transcendent reminder to ask questions about the sort of life worth living. Published posthumously, it dealt with his time before and after a cancer diagnosis, and displayed the forging of a worldview that weaved strands of biology, mortality, life and death.

The year also marked the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare as well as Cervantes, and a fine demonstration of how much other writers owe those two luminaries – as Salman Rushdie underlined in his foreword -- was Lunatics, Lovers and Poets, an anthology of new stories, both Shakespearean and Cervantean, by Kamila Shamsie, Ben Okri, Valeria Luiselli, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and others. Other eclectic influences swam into view with Kanishk Tharoor's striking debut, Swimmer Among the Stars, a story collection that eschewed straightforward realism and reached back to Borges, Calvino and even the Arabian Nights and Kathasaritsagar for inspiration.

In a year that was a precursor to a significant centenary, that of the Russian Revolution, there was a trickle of books in anticipation of the 2017 flood. Notable among them was Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs, an intimate account of three centuries of imperial triumphs and tragedies from Tsar Michael to Tsar Nicholas II; and Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, a fascinating reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the Bolshevik leader’s arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station in 1917. Voices from Russia were also captured in Svetlana Alexeivich’s Secondhand Time, an immersive chronicle of the memories and observations of everyday citizens on the fall of the Soviet empire and after.

The last months of the year were, of course, noted for long lines before banks and ATMs as well as other such “small inconveniences”. One takes what consolation one can from Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel, The Queue, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, a dystopian vision of life after the so-called Arab Spring, when hapless citizens line up before departments of an authoritarian, prying regime for permissions to engage in almost any activity. As for the pernicious effects of wealth, or lack thereof, there was Vivek Shanbhag’s illuminating Ghachar Ghochar, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, on the physical and mental displacement of those from a middle class Bengaluru family.

Perhaps, though, the most telling novel of 2016 was one published in 2010. Gary Shteyngart’s poignant, satirical Super Sad True Love Story was set in a post-literate future with a fractious America, a dominant China, people consumed by shopping and messaging, and governments keeping close digital tabs on citizens. Did someone mention Black Mirror?