Sunday, 7 June 2015

Book of the Month: Tortilla Curtain (T.C. Boyle)

T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain, starts on a dramatic note. Delany Mossbacher, ‘a liberal humanist’, while driving his ‘freshly waxed Japanese car with a personalised number plate’, hits a man. The man he hits is a dark little Mexican called Candido Rincon, who has illegally entered America with his 17-year old pregnant wife, (also called) America. 
The vividly (and floridly) described opening is one of the several bravura set-pieces in Boyle’s novel, which, while it’s not without flaws, makes a compelling reading.

In alternate chapters the reader learns about the lives of Delany and Candido as their lives—to the horror of both of them—collide repeatedly.
Delany’s is a privileged existence. He lives in a hilltop ubermensch community north of California. He writes newspaper columns in the local rag on nature and environment, which brings in some money, but which is inadequate to support his lifestyle that includes driving posh cars and eating in posh restaurants. The bread-winner of the family is Delany’s estate agent wife, Kyra, who earns eye-watering commissions by selling houses straight out of big budget Hollywood films.  Originally from New York, Delany believes himself to be a liberal. He is none too happy when other householders in the community, fearful that the stateless hordes crossing the borders from Mexico would wander into their rarefied world, want to erect first a gate and then a wall around the estate. He is forced to change his opinion when a coyote snatches their two pet dogs. Kyra is getting concerned, in the meanwhile, that the properties on her portfolio might lose their values because of the slow but relentless encroachment of the foreigners (that is Mexicans) who have taken to hanging around on the streets in the hope of obtaining manual work. Kyra and Delany are both liberal; they understand the plight of the immigrants—so they tell each other—but (they both agree) there comes a point when you have to draw a line in the sand. They do not want homeless Mexicans who have no discernible assets other than perhaps strong backs to carry heavy loads—which, as the president of the community points out, is superfluous in America as machines can do all the work more efficiently and quickly—cluttering the idyllic existence they have carved out for themselves, away from the city.

So that’s the life of one couple, Delany and Kyra Mossbacher: white, upper-middle-class, and privileged, enjoying a lifestyle that involves attending evening do’s with similarly privileged white families, worrying about the environment and obsessing about the effect of unchecked immigration on the country to which their ancestors migrated from Europe a century ago but which they have come to view rightfully as their own. This is a family that starts hyperventilating if their usual morning cereal with exactly the right amount of fibre is out of stock at the supermarket. Giving credit card donations to worthy causes is the extent of their social responsibility, an acceptable penance for their consumerist lifestyle.
In stark contrast to the Mossbachers’ are the lives of the other protagonists of the novel: Candido and America Rincon (no surprises, there). Candido must be the most unfortunate Mexican to have washed up in America. Nothing—absolutely nothing—goes right for the poor sap from page one, when he is hit by Delaney’s car, and the ‘liberal humanist’ (instead of doing the decent thing and taking him to the nearest casualty, and perhaps calling the police) gives him twenty dollars to go away. Which Candido duly does. Candido and his pregnant wife America are holing out in the bush in the canyon adjacent to Mossbacher’s community. The list of disasters engulfing Candido is longer than Marathon: since he can’t work after the collision with Mossbacher’s car, America goes out to find a job. She finds a job but also discovers that the gabacho who gives her the job also wants to explore the inside of her thighs. When Candido finally gets the job she is raped by a lowlife vagrant (a Mexican). Their hideout is vandalized from time to time by white youths. The jobs are not easy to get by—a case of too many illegal immigrants competing for too few jobs and getting exploited in the process—which means the couple is frequently facing starvation. When Candido does earn some money he is mugged and beaten. While cooking on a makeshift fire in the bush he sets the whole canyon on fire. America gives birth to a daughter who is most probably blind but he can’t risk taking her to see a doctor lest he gets deported back to Mexico where there are even fewer jobs. When Candido miraculously survives the fire and the flood that follows he is confronted by a pistol-wielding Delany Mossbacher, who is losing his grip on his perspective (and marbles) in his (Candido’s)hideout. (I could go on, but I think you have got the drift.) The reader can’t say that Boyle didn’t warn him early on of the calamities that would befall luckless Candido: ‘his whole life was a headache, his whole stinking and worthless pinche vida—but never like this.’ And sure enough, he is (to paraphrase another TC Boyle character from another novel) hooked, landed, scaled, gutted, stuffed, roasted, chewed, digested, and shat out by the deeply unsympathetic, racist system.

If you have formed the impression that the plot and the structure of the novel are formulaic and predictable, you wouldn’t be far from truth. There is no subtlety to the novel. I think that is deliberate on part of Boyle; he wants to shock the reader; the differences in the lives of the haves and the have-nots are presented starkly with all the force of a sledgehammer. Boyle obviously has decided that the subject matter of the novel is such that hyperbolic, high octane drama is needed to make the impact he hopes to make with his novel about an issue that encourages highly polarised debates.

The narrative assumes a heavily ironic tone while describing situations involving the rich and precious Mossbachers with left wing pretentions. Delany Mossbacher has infinite love for the nature. He laments, for example, the relentless encroachment by humans on the natural habitats of wild animals like the coyotes that, he feels, are forced to leave the canyon in search of food, and kill the domestic pets. He is distressed when other residents of the community propose to build a wall around the estate because he is concerned that his easy access to the canyon would be cut off. Delany’s love for the flora and fauna of the region does not extend to the fellow humans if they have entered his country illegally in search of better life. They are a blot on the landscape; and, towards the end of the novel, in a grotesque twist, this ‘liberal humanist’ mutates into a frenzied hater of immigrants (in this case Mexicans) and embarks on a semi-deranged stalking of the hapless Mexican couple with a gun. His wife, Kyra, who is proud of her liberal credentials, has no qualms in calling the authorities to get rid of the Mexican labourers who gather in the hope that they would be picked up for manual labour by the local farmers because she does not want the daily gaggle of the riffraff to bring down the prices of the properties she happens to be selling in the area.

Boyle does not have much love for the Mossbachers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he holds them in contempt; for he spends a lot of time developing their characters and inhabiting their psyches. His skill lies in the fact that while the reader may not have much sympathy for their actions he understands where they are coming from, and, as their stance towards the immigrants hardens into barely concealed xenophobia, what the reader experiences (at least I did) is not disgust, but sadness. Boyle does not glorify the noble poverty of the Mexican couple, the Rincons, and their similarly displaced brethrens. They too are capable of casual cruelty towards each other.
Boyle seems to have certain ambivalence towards Candido’s apparently unending (and, you can’t help feeling, losing) battle for survival. As he totters from one calamity to another, his strife is narrated in a manner that instigates detachment rather than pathos.

Boyle’s prose is scintillating. His ear for cadence and eye for detail are astonishingly acute. The novel starts with a bang and fairly buzzes throughout its three-hundred-plus pages with spectacular –at times apocalyptic—images. You can’t but be in awe for the sheer force and vigour of Boyle’s writing.
The Tortilla Curtain is the second T.C. Boyle novel I have read. The first was The Road to Wellville. Brimming with odd-ball characters, The Road to Wellville was a devilishly comic novel that oozed Boyle’s slightly peculiar humour on every page. Tortilla Curtain, too, is a satire: a heavy satire that lacks the levity of The Road to Wellville, but not less readable for that.



Sunday, 3 May 2015

Book of the Month: A Man of Parts (David Lodge)

Herbert George— H.G.— Wells, best known these days for his science fiction classics, was an astoundingly prolific British novelist, who published more than hundred books in a career spanning five decades. Wells began his writing career in the Victorian era. When his last book (a work of non-fiction, the relentlessly bleak A Mind at the End of its Tether) was published in 1945, a few months before his death, Victoria’s great grandson George VI was the monarch.
Wells made his early reputation with science fiction novels such as The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man, all of which, more than hundred years after they were first published, are still widely read. In the Edwardian era Wells turned his attention to social themes and wrote novels such as The History of Mr Polly (one of his most successful novels) and Tono-Bungay (which he considered to be his best novel, although it failed to sell well). Another novel from this period is KIpps, remarkable for its Dickensian humour.

In 1899 Wells published When the Sleeper Awakes (re-written and republished in 1910 under the title Sleeper Awakes) which (I think) is the first English language novel that imagined a dystopian future.
Wells was once described as a man who ‘invented tomorrow’. An apposite description:  this was a man who, as early as 1914 (in a novel entitled A World Set Free), predicted that areal warfare would come to dominate wars, and imagined atomic bombs being dropped on great cities from aeroplanes killing thousands of civilians. He also imagined, in a novel in 1908, a World War which would pitch Britain against Germany (War in the Air).

The apogee of Well’s writing career is thought to have reached in 1920 with the publication of Outline of History. After this, although he continued to publish prolifically (between 1920 and 1944, Wells published 22 novels most of which have not stood the test of time), his influence waned, and he came to be regarded increasingly as an irascible old fogey, a relic of Edwardian Britain that was overshadowed by modernist novelists such as Virginia Woolf; however even in this phase Wells published a novel in 1933 (The Shape of Things to Come) in which he predicted another world war, which he said would start when Germany invaded Poland. He thought the war would begin in early 1940.
Wells was not just a novelist. He was an outspoken Socialist and a feminist. He was a member of the Fabian Society, many of whose members went on to form the Labour Party. (Wells resigned from the Fabian Society as it was not radical enough for his taste, and his attempts to modernize the society were thwarted by the old Fabians, George Bernard Shaw amongst them).

Wells, a tubby little man (at 5’ 5” he was shorter than average Englishman of his generation; in later life he blamed his impoverished childhood and poor nutrition for his lack of height) with a ‘squeaky voice’,  was also a highly sexed man, who slept with more than 100 women in his life. He had had affairs with female novelists (Violet Hunt, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Armin, and of course Rebecca West with whom he had a son, the novelist Anthony West), daughters of novelists (Rosamund Bland, the daughter of Edith Nesbit, who wrote Railway Children, the perennial children’s classic), and daughters of his friends and fellow-members of Fabian Society (Amber Reeves). He also had a long standing affair with Nick Clegg’s great-great aunt Moura who may or may not have been a Bolshevik spy.
It is little wonder that H.G. Wells has been the subject of several biographies over the years. (He himself left behind two volumes An Experiment in Autobiography, to which he added a postscript, leaving instructions that it be published only after all the women with whom he had had sexual liaisons were dead. The postscript was finally published in 1984, a year after Rebecca West died—Amber Reeves had died 3 years earlier—edited by Wells’s son George—‘Gyp’— Wells, under the title H.G. Wells in Love ).

What has been lacking so far was a novel on the life of one of the most remarkable novelists in the twentieth century.
That gap is filled by A Man of Parts a biographical novel by David Lodge, a formidable novelist of his generation.

The year is 1944. The Second World War is nearing its bloody end, although the sporadic German bombing of London continues. An ailing H.G. Wells is marooned his London flat in which he has stayed put through the war. Wells is dying—he has been diagnosed with liver cancer— and he knows it. He is looking back upon his long life which, it would be fair to say, was not short of excitement.

A Man of Parts focuses on that period of Well’s life which is generally considered to be Wells’s peak—between 1895 (when he published his first novel) and 1920 (when he published Outline of History).

The novel—mostly a third person narrative—gives a panoramic view of Well’s life and how the tubercular son in a lower middle class household, the third son of a cricketer (the novel informs that Well’s father, Joe Wells, while he was never selected to play for England holds the first class cricket record of clean bowling batsmen with four consecutive deliveries) and a housemaid (whose ambition for her son was he work in the drapery business) broke free of his impoverished background and became one of the most influential thinkers of his generation.

The reader learns of the novels Wells wrote during this period, the reckless affairs he conducted with women, some of them half his age (which almost cost his public standing and reputation), the intellectual rigour of his arguments with other members of Fabian society, and his feud with Henry James—whose approach to novel couldn’t have been more different from that of Wells—which the American novelist took to his grave.
Interspersed with the third person narrative is the inner voice of the old H.G. Wells—his conscience if you will—that poses him questions more aggressive than those of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, which the aging Wells answers with patience, good will and equanimity.

The tone of the novel is biographical (Lodge warns the reader at the outset: ‘Nearly everything that happens in this novel is based on factual sources’). There are long passages in the novel where it reads more like a biography and less like a novel. Lodge quotes liberally from Well’s novels, his personal letters, and published reviews of his works.  Not a page goes by without some or the other ‘borrowed material’. At times it works, for example Wells’s battle with other members of Fabian society in his (ultimately doomed) effort to modernise it, as much of the information, one assumes, is in the public domain.  The novel thus inundates with historical and biographical information. The flip side of the coin is the inner life of H.G. Wells does not light up. The ambiguities, the contradictions, the nuances of emotional life of Wells are not dramatized, as Lodge rarely ventures beyond the archival material (to which he helps himself liberally). Almost all of Well’s famous sexual liaisons are described in a quasi-reportage format: the young admirers (Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves, and young Rebecca West) or novelists (Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Arnim) want to sleep with Wells (who, in real life was a proponent of free love so long as he practised it; he would have been mightily uncomfortable if his long-suffering wife had also begun practising it) and Wells goes on to have clandestine sexual liaisons with them, the arrangements of which are described at length. (Almost all of Well’s affairs in A Man of Parts are initiated by women who greatly admire him. Wells sleeps with them because he wants to initiate them—at their own requests—to the pleasures of sex (very helpful) or does not want to disappoint them (how gallant) or, as in the case of Amber Reeves— because he has fallen in love with them (why?)). It is a bit like attempting a watercolour with fabric roller. Catherine or ‘Jane’, Well’s second wife (with whom Wells had two sons and) to whom he remained married for more than 30 years, until her death from cancer in 1927, remains an enigmatic figure. Jane of A Man in Parts is (as no doubt the real life Jane was) totally forgiving of and untroubled by Well’s sexual shenanigans. The novel makes no attempt to elucidate Jane’s inner life, the atmosphere in the Wells household as the great man is absent from home for weeks, canoodling with his latest paramour. When Wells runs away to France with Amber Reeves, the only action (the dutiful) Jane takes is to forward all his correspondence to France. It is a curious failure of imagination from a writer of the calibre of David Lodge.

A Man of Parts is an exquisitely written 500-page long WikiPedia entry on the life of H.G. Wells.  It is an absorbing read (you expect nothing less from David Lodge).  For someone like me who has an interest in H.G. wells but lacks the patience (and intellectual rigour) to trawl through weighty biographies, it works.  (It also helps that David Lodge is my favourite author). Does it work as a novel? Just about.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

British General Elections 2015

The 2015 British General Elections will be held next month. Without carrying out (or having read) any opinion polls I can confidently predict that (a) it will be (once again) a hung parliament and (b) either the Tories or the Labour would form a coalition government.

With whom would they form a coalition government? The discredited Liberal democrats, I am sorry to say, might once again be the bedfellows with either the Tories or Labour, although in order to form an alliance with the Labour they would have to get rid of the discredited Nick Clegg—who, during the recently broadcast televised debate of the party leaders, showed that he is utterly without any introspection or shame—and pick up someone who is left of the centre. Since the Liberal democrats have never, in my living memory, been able to make up their minds as to whether they want to be more like the Tories or the Labour, they have always had a chancers in their party, who, while sharing the theme of being totally useless binding them together, hold political views that are very different. So it should not be beyond their powers to get rid of the rat Clegg if they get so much as a whiff that there is a chance that they can cling to power closer than a porus plaster, this time round with Labour. Perhaps the good people of Sheffield, the constituency from which Clegg won comfortably last time, would do the job for the Liberal Democrats. According to some opinion polls Clegg is trailing his nearest Labour rival by two points (OK, I’ve read some opinion polls). That does not sound like much, and the Tories have apparently made it a bit easier for Clegg by not campaigning too much in the constituency, although the Tory candidate in Sheffield is going around declaring to whoever prepared to give him an ear (not many, one hopes) that he intends to make Sheffield a Clegg-free zone.

I watched the live debate of the seven party leaders, not because I was interested in what they were going to say about the policies: they were not going to say anything that I didn’t expect them to say (Cameron was going to dis Miliband; Miliband was going to dis Cameron; Clegg was going to be revoltingly smug; Nicola Sturgeon was (also) going to look smug (and, unlike Clegg, with good reasons—her nationalist party is going to decimate Labour in Scotland, thereby vaporising any ambitions Miliband might have to form a majority Labour government); Farage was going to dis all of them; Natalie Bennett—from Green party—was going to say bat-shit mental things the loonies from the Green party are renowned for; and Leanne Wood from the Welsh regional party was going to moan about everything); but because of the same reason I listen to weather reports on the BBC (I am not really interested in the weather—it is the bloody same most of the year): it is a habit.

I was a bit surprised that the Greens and Plaid Cymru were even invited for the debate. It is not as if they are going to win any appreciable number of seats in the elections to make any difference; the Greens, in particular, would be lucky to hold on to the solitary seat—the first ever in their history—they won in the 2010 general elections. Both Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood did not have anything inspiring to say (although, in their defence, they were not as stupid as the clownish Farage; but then again, it would require a superhuman effort to be as asinine as Farage, or as obnoxious).

Cameron was pretty uninspiring, too. He spoke in his customary manner, attempting to say unpalatable things in a way that was assuring. He gave a good performance of appearing slightly flummoxed when others were criticising the policies of the coalition government he has led for the past five years, as if he could not quite understand why he was being criticised. (Cameron’s message? Stick with the Tories. We know what we are doing. The economy is on the mend; and that is because of some tough (but fair) decisions we took. Don’t trust the Labour. Miliband and Co. represent a clear and present danger to country’s economy and stability. You’ve got to be out of your mind to be voting for these nincompoops who destroyed the country’s economy and are entirely to be blamed for the global financial crisis (unless you were so far gone that you had decided to vote for Farage’s UKIP, which would be even worse, as voting for Farage means bringing Miliband into Number ten by the backdoor; so, yes, under no circumstances vote for Farage; sorry, Miliband; urm  . . . both actually . . . Yes that’s right: stick with me and my mate Osbourne.) Amazingly, Cameron had the cheek to say (again and again) that his government had invested in the NHS, a claim which even the super-mendacious Clegg, Cameron’s deputy for the past five years, impossible to support. Time and again Cameron fell back on the time-tested tactic (perfected by BLiar) of not answering difficult questions (OK, accusations) thrown at him by his debating opponents, and repeated the scripted speech, obviously a believer in the dictum that bullshit, when repeated ad nauseum, will baffle brain.

Farage. What can one say about him? It’s just as well that he and his odious party are not going to form a government; you might as well make Toot the Clown Britain’s prime-minister. However, underneath Farage’s (like Boris Johnson’s) jolly, buffoonish exterior—the man is a hectic, non-stop monologuist, and, in a different setting, nay, different reality, it would almost be a privilege to be loused by him—lurk views, which, if they were not so vile (and Farage’s party did not have the support of 16% of population according to various opinion polls), you would dismiss out of hand. All of his utterances had one thing in common: pure, unadulterated antipathy towards foreigners; they are not welcome in Britain. The guy is about as subtle as a dog turd in a cream-bowl.

Natalie Bennett spoke like a (stern) dinner lady calling errant children at dinner time, her facial expressions suggesting that she had drunk something she thought was coffee but was in fact someone’s vomit. Relentlessly grim and dour—supply of human milk short by several litres. Bennett launched (like the other two women in the debate) a scathing attack on the austerity measures, and shouted till she was hoarse that austerity had made things worse (yes, for benefit fraudsters), and that was not the answer; however, (like Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru) she successfully avoided the temptation of suggesting an alternative. (Farage, on the other hand, declared that Cameron had wasted money, and if he, Farage, were the prime-minister, he would sort out the country’s deficit in a jiffy. How? Simple: he would slash the overseas aid budget; he would deprive the HIV-sufferers from treatment if they did not have British passport (even if they worked and paid taxes), and, continuing merrily in this spirit of xenophobia, he would also make NHS unavailable for the EU citizens unless they had health insurances. And one more thing—he would get Britain out of EU by the midnight of his election victory. That ought to save Britain hundreds of millions of pounds we pay every year to the EU, and would also bring to fruition Farage’s long-standing dream of preventing free movement of EU citizens, focusing specifically on the former Eastern Bloc, Soviet-controlled, countries. What about the negative impact on the job and businesses in Britain if we walked out of the EU? Just tosh! Scaremongering by the Labour and Lib Dems. Trust uncle Farage. Nothing of the sort would happen. Look at his ill-fitting pin-striped suit. If that doesn’t inspire confidence in you then there really is nothing more to say. Vote the f**king Labour then. You’ll then deserve everything that came your way. The problem with this f**king country is there are too many people with ethics and scruples.) On the positive side Bennett did not go on about some of her party’s entertaining ideas about what can be done for the climate change

Leanne Wood spoke in a high, shrill, strained and querulous voice that made my back teeth tingle. She started hyperventilating when Farage and Cameron talked about EU referendum and wanted assurance, there and then, that Britain would not walk out of the EU unless all four ‘nations’ agreed to and voted for it. You almost wanted to tell her, “Calm down dear; have a cuppa.”

Clegg’s performance reminded me of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He lacks the necessary moral refinement to fully appreciate the true sense of tragedy, and, for that reason, does not understand the concept of shame. His act of trying to put to people in staggeringly simplistic manner (with a smug smirk draped across his face as a gaudy curtain) that Tories and Labour were extremes in their policies and his despicable party offered the reasonable middle way worked five years ago when nobody really knew much about him and he was—prior to elections—an outsider, for all practical purposes. If there is one thing the British public have cottoned onto during the five years of the coalition rule, it is what a shyster Clegg is. His charade of appearing reasonable was never going to work the second time round; and it did not work. That didn’t stop him from preachifying. (To avert the danger of having a cardiac arrest from indignation and incredulity, as the man spoke with the smoothness of a con-artist, I had to walk out of the room from time to time.) Clegg bleated about giving parity to mental health, on par with physical health. For five years the Lib Dems sat in the same government as Cameron’s as Cameron carried out a demolition job on the NHS, leave alone mental health, and did sod-all; and now he is inviting people to put their faith in him because he is going to treat mental health on par with physical health. Clegg is also going to discover 8 billion pounds that NHS apparently needs in the next three years unless we are prepared to go to India on health tourism (what would Farage think of it?). As they say, you can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The man, to paraphrase Nabokov, is an elephantine tic, a king-size botfly, a macro-worm.

Finally, Ed Miliband. Poor Ed. Where does one start? The man has the personality of a dishwasher. He also has a natural aptitude for making people bleed tears of boredom (the man can give you an eye-witness account of the crucifixion and still put you to sleep), matched equally by his predilection for pulling (inadvertently one hopes) funny faces when in public. And the voice! Again, it is not his fault—none of this is; this was the hand he was dealt with—but can’t he, like, get his sinuses checked by an ENT specialist? (Perhaps he has booked an appointment, but, thanks to Cameron's destruction of the NHS, the appointment is not until 2017.) As you watched Ed trying to mouth (like Cameron) his scripted answers (but far less convincingly than the Teflon David) it was a bit like watching a lion tamer put his head into the open jaw of a lion. You admired his courage but were also desirous of witnessing a calamity. Unconvincing does not even come close to describing Ed Miliband. He was not as revolting as Farage (very difficult, as we have seen), or as smug as Clegg, or as mendacious as Cameron, or as whiny as the Plaid Cymru woman (but as boring as Natalie Bennett). Trouble was: he was nothing. Based on his performance in the live debate the man would struggle to get a job as a classroom assistant in a failing primary school, let alone Britain’s prime-minister.  

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Book of the Month: A Very Private Gentleman (Martin Booth)

The narrator of A Very private gentleman, Martin Booth’s 1991 novel, is staying in an unnamed Italian mountain village. He is, as the title suggests, a very private individual. Whether he is a gentleman or not is a matter of opinion. The man is so secretive that despite living in an isolated village, away from civilization in every direction by several miles, for several months, and being a foreigner, he has been successful in not letting the villagers know so much as his real name. The villagers have given him a nickname—signor Farfalla, Mr Butterfly. They call him Farfalla because he has told them he is a miniature artist, a painter of butterflies. To the young woman, Clara, with whom he sleeps regularly and who, he believes, has fallen in love with him, he tells that his name is Edmond. That is not his true name either. Being an artist allows the secretive narrator to have no schedule to his days; he is not fettered by the demands of daily routine which would allow others to guess where he would be and what he would be doing on a given day. Add to this the fact that he is English—at least the villagers thinks he is, because he speaks the language like a native—; which means that he has a license to be, or appear, eccentric. No wonder, then, that the local Italians refrain from prying too much into signor Farfalla’s personal life. However, this being an Italian, and not English, village, signor Farfalla, despite being a foreigner, is not treated with the trademark English mixture of scorn and jealousy.
So there he is, this solitary Englishman—although at one point in the narrative, he claims not to be either English or French (or, for that matter, German, Swiss, American, Canadian or South American), he describes in some detail his life in an English village before he took to the peripatetic life that has brought him to this Italian village (also, he does not like French, which gives the game away)—leading a quiet, bucolic existence in the Italian countryside, going on mountain hikes, ostensibly to observer butterflies. He may be secretive, but he is not reclusive. He does not isolate himself from the village life surrounding him, and, during the course of his stay, makes friends with several locals. He wines and dines regularly with Father Benedetto, the local Catholic priest, whose life-story he listens to over evening dinners; he has a nodding acquaintance with people in the bar at which he is an ‘irregular regular’; he gets along well with the owner of a second-hand bookseller with whom he talks about books (Signor Farfalla is a book-lover); and he is friends with a wealthy entrepreneur of sewers and water-catchment drains. However, he has no truly close friends. Such friends, he reckons, know too much and become too involved in one’s well being. Signor Farfalla does not allow himself to have friends; he has only acquaintances, and, while he allows some of them to ‘look over the outer ramparts of his existence’, the shutters come down if any of them, such as the second-hand book-seller, shows more curiosity than he feels comfortable with.
Signor Farfalla may be a solitary man, but he does not believe in solitary sexual pleasures. He regularly has threesomes with two young women in a local brothel, both students—one called Clara whose buttocks are ‘small but rounded’, although her breasts are ‘nothing to write home about’, and the other called Dindina who has ‘firm breasts, and a tight, smooth belly’ (no information is provided about her buttocks). Dindina is not as pretty as Clara, or as clever. Clara is clearly falling for the charms of the old English rascal, but she does not get so much as to step inside the courtyard of the building in which he lives.
Signor Farfalla may be secretive; he may feel compelled to warn the readers repeatedly that attempts to trace him would be futile; but he is also an unstoppable monologuist and an incessant anecdotalist. He is an acute observer of what is going around him. At one point, he describes himself as ‘merely an observer, one who stands in the world’s wings to behold the action occurring.’ However, as the novel unfolds, the reader begins to suspect that there does not have to be an action—in the sense of an activity—occurring for the narrator to record it in his notebook. Anything will do. The reader is provided, in microscopic details, the arrangement and the interior decoration of the apartment in which he lives; the piazzas in the nearby villages and the shops and bars therein (and their interiors); the panoramic view of the valley and the mountains from the loggia of his apartment; and, later, once he lets the reader know his true vocation, the nature of his job, complete with technical details which, on their own, would form a hefty booklet.
So what exactly is signor Farfella’s true vocation? If he is not a miniature painter, then who is he? Farfella, the reader is informed about hundred pages into the novel, is in fact an expert gunsmith. He has, over the years, been involved intimately with the unsavoury, nefarious and villainous elements, all over the world—from Europe to North and Latin America to East Africa. No assassination, it would appear, can take place without signor Farfella’s gun. Secretive he may be, but signor Farfella does not find it too difficult to talk freely about his achievements; he has a justifiably inflated sense of self worth. At one stage he talks with ostentatious nonchalance about the role he—rather the equipment he made—played in the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. Farfalla has lived by his wits and—give credit where it is due—has not only successfully dodged assassins—he calls them shadow-dwellers—sent by those who are desirous to bring a swift, if violent, end to his career, but on one occasion he has also sent the shadow-dweller on his way to meet his maker. Blessed with a well developed sense of theatrics and command of language to convey the grandiosity of his missions, Farfalla declares himself to be the salesman of death; he is death’s booking clerk, its bellhop.
For most part, Farfalla is an entertaining narrator, not least because he has an opinion on everything, which he is not shy to express. France, for example. Farfalla does not approve of France. France is a ‘country of provincial banality, a land where patriotism flowers only to hide the bloodied earth of revolution, where history was begun at the Bastille by a horde of peasants running amok with pitchforks, decapitating their betters because they were just that.’ Swedish do scarcely better. They are ‘a humourless, sterile race. They regard life as an intensity to be experienced, not a rest from the slog of eternity. . . They are like bulldogs, always up-and-at-‘em, barking and making an efficient job of it.’ Opinionated? Yes. Prejudiced? Of course. Entertaining? Most definitely. Farfalla has similarly quaint views on religion, history, and art. He is not fond of Catholicism, which he views as a perversion of Christianity, and has pretty biting observations to make about its dogmas. History, Farfalla says, is nothing unless you can actively shape it. Christ was lucky because he invented a religion. Karl Marx was lucky because he invented an anti-religion. Everyone who changes history does so by destroying fellow man; to alter history, you have to kill your fellow man. Then, in an inexplicable attack of humility, Farfella admits that he is no Hitler, no Stalin, no Churchill, no Mao Tse-tung, but (lest you dismiss him as a nobody) he is the hidden one who makes changes possible, provides means to an end; he too alters history. A grander job description of a gunsmith would be hard to find.
The gunsmith is in the Italian village on a job. This job, he has resolved, would be his last. He has had enough of living shadowy existence, forever on the move, looking constantly over his shoulders for the ‘shadow-dweller’. He wants to put down roots somewhere, and enjoy his ill-gotten wealth for the remainder of his life. He wants to build a good library of books. He has, despite himself, come to love the Italian village he has been staying in for the past few months; he can see himself in the cosy armchair in Father Beneditto’s study, discussing theosophical issues over wine; he would love to live together with Clara (even though she has insignificant breasts), Dindina having left the village and whoring. However, as they say, man proposes and God disposes. Signor Farfalla becomes aware that he is being followed; a shadow-dweller has traced him to the village. The shadow-dweller makes no attempts to confront Farfalla, but follows him everywhere. A cat and mouse game begins and the peace of Farfalla’s mind is disrupted. He is not sure whether the shadow-dweller has been sent by one of the many disgruntled characters whom he has inconvenienced in the past, or he, Farfalla, is being double-crossed and the shadow-dweller is in the pay of his current employer, who does not want to leave behind any traces. Signor Farfalla, as the dust jacket of the novel confirms, becomes convinced that a treacherous circle is closing on him.
In A Very Private Gentleman (made also into a Hollywood film, I am informed, entitled The American starring George Clooney), Martin Booth, a prolific British novelist and poet (once short-listed for the Booker for his novel Industry of Souls), who died a few years ago of brain tumour, has created an anti-hero, who finds himself isolated in a foreign territory. At its surface the novel is a psychological suspense-thriller. As a thriller it just about works. The twist that comes at the end is, as twists should be, unexpected, but it fails to deliver the killer punch, perhaps because it is not central to the story.  What makes A Very Private Gentleman a worthwhile read is its language. The narrator is verbose, yet very exact in his descriptions, conjecturing vividly the landscape in which the story unfolds. Booth has a beautifully inventive turn of phrase, and one marvels at the acuity of his descriptions: apparently banal activities such as biting into bread at a picnic or drinking wine are described in a way that is almost bewitching. There is a lot of discourse on many subjects, which, while unrelated to the main story, is nonetheless very entertaining and, at times, persuasive. It is almost like trimmings have stolen the show from the main dish in a banquet. And therein lies the weakness of the novel: A Very Private Gentleman is like a room in an Upper West Side apartment that is lavishly decorated and vividly painted to hide the fact that it is so small.
Image result for martin booth novelist images

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Jeremy Clarkson Sacked

The BBC has finally done it. The Director General of the BBC has announced that the contract of Jeremy Clarkson, allegedly the highest paid ‘star’ of the BBC (a middle aged man with a beer-gut and—let’s face it—without much of a face, will not neatly fit into your idea of a ‘star’, if your idea of a ‘star’ is someone with stunning good looks), will not be renewed after it expires at the end of this month. In other words ‘beebs’ has sacked Clarkson.

Clarkson was suspended following a fracas in a hotel in Yorkshire. This involved Clarkson (allegedly) subjecting a man (one Oisin Tymon)—allegedly the producer of a show, allegedly about cars, which Clarkson allegedly fronts along with two other blokes (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to a chipmunk while the other looks like a reluctant receiver of Care in the Community who has missed his appointments with the care-workers for a month, and urgently in need of a bath and a hefty dose of Thorazin)—to physical attack which lasted allegedly for 30 seconds, and which was allegedly brought to an end by the alleged intervention of a nearby man. After the alleged attack the said producer allegedly took himself to an institution which was allegedly a hospital, where he was allegedly treated for a cut and swollen lip. The alleged physical attack was allegedly preceded by sustained verbal abuse by Clarkson, which allegedly lasted much longer, during which Clarkson allegedly called the producer a lazy Irish C**t. Clarkson allegedly also threatened to have the alleged producer sacked. (That’s irony for you.) The reason for Clarkson’s ire? After a day-long shooting Clarkson wanted steak and chips, and got, instead, a cold platter. Naturally, the only reasonable course of action available to Clarkson was to use gutter language, threaten the producer, and sock him in the jaw. Would this have got Clarkson what he desired? He must have thought so. Clarkson is an intelligent man. He is also a reasonable man. (If you don’t believe me, ask Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who declared that his, Boris’s, natural instinct, whenever he heard that Clarkson has been involved in (yet another) fracas, was to side with Clarkson. Why? Because Clarkson, in his political views, is so good at getting under the skin of the lefties—like a maggot boring its way through a long forgotten potato— that he has won life-long admiration and support of the fat Tory.)

The show (Top Gear) allegedly has a massive fan following, and Clarkson, allegedly, is its main attraction (doesn’t say much, does it, for the other two blokes—the chipmunk and the other bloke who, I am sure, has nicotine-stained fingers and a passion for fried sausages). He obviously brings the much desired star quality to the programme about cars which, from what little I have seen of the show (and it’s very little), are beyond the means of the likes of me. The show is viewed by more than 350 million viewers across the world and brings the BBC in excess of £ 50 million revenue every year.

Clarkson is allegedly the highest paid employee of the BBC (let’s do away with the controversial ‘star’). He is also allegedly a racist, a homophobe, a mocker of disabled people, a hater of other European nations, and a baiter of Pierce Morgan. Clarkson once described Gordon Brown, the former British prime-minister, as a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’. (Clarkson was indubitably right on two counts: Brown, regrettably, has only one functioning eye, and even he would be hard pressed to deny that he is not Scottish. Is Brown an idiot? I don’t think so. You don’t get to become the country’s prime-minister if you are, in the current-day parlance, a learning-disabled person. When Clarkson described Brown as an idiot, he was probably giving vent to his strong feelings about the financial policies of the Scot which (and I guess Clarkson was not alone in thinking this) brought the financial ruin of the country.)

Clarkson did seem to rather revel in his bad boy image and antics in the past few years. He has managed to insult quite a few nations including Mexico (he described the Mexicans as lazy and quite a few other things) and the Argentines (I think Clarkson and his crew were chased by irate crowd when they were shooting in Argentina because of some confusion over the number-plate of the car they were using). Last year, in one of the programmes, he deliberately used a derogatory word to describe Asians. He was seen to be using the N word to describe black people in a video clip of another programme, which was edited from the broadcast, but which was leaked. If you read Clarkson’s columns, brimming with spiteful, vinegar-doused (and, I hate to say this, witty) prose, you will be left in no doubts that he is not a fan of the Americans, Russians, French, Germans and Indians. He caused a furore a couple of years ago by declaring that he would have the public sector workers, striking for higher pay, shot, or something to that effect. (If some of my acquaintances working in public sector in Britain are anything to go by, these guys are not exactly breaking their backs by overwork, and they all seem to have yearly incomes above the average per annum income in Britain, and their sense of entitlement is breathtaking. However, when someone who collects a pay-cheque in excess of £ 3 millions from BBC, which is partly funded by tax-payer’s money, dares to question public sector employees, none of whom—thank God!—earns anywhere near him, using language that is (calculatingly) provocative, it is going to send the tree-huggers into frenzy.)

I don’t think I have brought myself to watch even a single programme of Top Gear from beginning to the end. This is not because I have a low view of the programme (it is impossible to form a view on a programme you have not watched) or because I have chosen not to watch any programme which has Clarkson in it on matters of principle (because I don’t have any), but because I am just not into cars. And spending an hour in front of the box, watching three blokes exchanging jokey banter (all of which allegedly scripted by Clarkson himself) in a studio, surrounded by a gaggle of people, and talking about various cars with enthusiasm that calls for a gagging order is not my idea of entertainment.

I am more acquainted with Clarkson the writer, having read a few of the collections of his newspaper columns. In these columns Clarkson gives the world the benefits of his wisdom about anything that happens to be annoying him at the time of writing, which, judging by the astonishing array of subjects he fulminates about, is pretty much everything that has a whiff of political correctness about it. Clarkson’s columns have the intellectual level of two drunks ranting about things over pints of lager, in some hole in the wall, in a seedy part of the town, which specialises in grim d├ęcor, damaged looking bar-maids the size of the cab of a long-distance truck, food which inevitably leads to bypass, and clientele that looks like they are on a day-release from the nearby high security asylum. Clarkson, let’s admit, is not what you’d call a deep thinker. But he does know how to turn an interesting phrase, and makes abundant use of hyperbole and sarcasm. And such is the deplorable level of newspaper columns in the country that that is enough to make Clarkson one of the most popular columnists in the country. If you are one of those who passionately hold sanctimonious views about political correctness then Clarkson is definitely not for you. If you want just to have a bit of a laugh then he is your ticket, in small doses. You’d also be well advised to take a break after reading a collection of his newspaper columns. His manic-depressive humour does tend to get a tad repetitive after a while.

Coming back to the sacking business (although, strictly speaking, Clarkson is not sacked; his contract will not be renewed once it finishes) what I find interesting is that the BBC did not sack Clarkson when he was going around being oafish and crude and was saying derogatory, racist things; and were content to issue him with final warnings. However, when he socked the producer of the show—who probably is not good enough of anything other than arranging decent meals; and, evidently, not good even at that—in the jaw, he was deemed to have crossed the line, and the Director General was left with no choice but to sack him.

There are many self-righteous prats who are rubbing their hands in glee, and, in the time-honoured British tradition of kicking a man in the goolies when he is down, pouring vitriol (read Independent & Guardian) on Clarkson (who, lest you forget, deserves no sympathy). The producer of the show has issued a statement reminiscing about the good times he spent with Clarkson and their creative output (where is my barf-bag?), as if he had anything to do with the creativity of the show.

So what next for Clarkson? I don’t know, but I suspect he will be back. They all do. And Clarkson, whatever you might say about him, has one thing that many of us don’t have. Wit. It’s a commodity in short supply these days. Clarkson is imperious, shallow, vain, smug, uncouth (this is a partial list), rude, spiteful, insightless; but not a bore. He will live.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Book of the Month: Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkas)

Barracuda is Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel. His fourth was the brilliant The Slap, which deservingly sold multimillion copies in many countries, and was nominated for several prestigious literary awards (including The Man Booker Prize, if I remember correctly).

Barracuda tells the story of an underdog. Danny Kelly, of Greek-Scottish heritage, comes from a working class family. His father is a long-distance lorry driver (whose antidote to the bitter disillusionment of not having achieved much in his life is to rail against those who have made something of their lives and accuse them of enjoying those privilege by dint of birth than talent; that is when he is not fulminating against the Australian government for supporting the Iraq war), while his mother works in a hair-dressing saloon. Not the sort of family background that is conducive to academic high achievement. Yet Danny Kelly is a prodigy. The word prodigy is not to be used lightly. You can’t be a prodigy in just anything. Have you heard of a prodigy long-distance lorry driver? Or a prodigy hair-dresser? I didn’t think so. In order to be considered a prodigy you are required to display talent in subjects and areas in which not everyone excels. The word prodigy suggests an inherent talent, God’s gift if you happen to believe in an all-powerful omnipotent entity which, in a manner that is difficult to grasp by humans, decides to shower some blessed individuals with its blessings. Anyone can be a long-distance lorry driver or a hair-dresser. How much talent is required to drive a vehicle or cut hair? The fields in which you can prove to be a prodigy are, sadly, restricted. It’s either academics or sport, I am afraid. And not all academic subjects are thought worthy of requiring their practitioners being prodigies, either. You don’t have to be a prodigy to be a social worker.

Danny Kelly, the protagonist of Barracuda, is not a prodigy in any of the academic subjects. He is not expected to and does not aspire to find solutions to questions that win you the Nobel. Danny is a prodigy in sport. No, not chess. Danny is a prodigy swimmer. Such is Danny’s prodigious talent for swimming that he manages to get scholarship to a very posh school in Melbourne, the yearly tuition fees of which exceed the GDP of a Third World country. There is no way Danny’s parents are going to afford the fees of this school; not when there are Danny’s younger siblings to think of. And neither his younger brother (Theo) nor sister (Regan) is a prodigy in anything, which means they are going to have to go to some shitty school in the low-life area of Melbourne. (This causes some angst to Danny’s father, who labours under the logic that since his two younger children are not particularly good in anything and therefore fated to lead a life of mediocrity (long-distance lorry driver, hair-dresser, social worker at tops), the eldest boy, who actually has talent for something, should sacrifice the one opportunity that could give him a smidgen of a chance of breaking out of the working class rut, and spend the remainder of his life in the same prison of disillusionment as his father.) The father thinks of various ruses why Danny could not, should not, ought not, surely durst not, go for his morning swimming practice, certainly not on weekends, early in the morning—and, if he must, he can use the f**king public transport without dragging his mother out of the warm bed—and goes spare when Danny is having none of it. Danny, it has to be said, is a driven boy. He is utterly convinced that he is the best; that he has got what it takes; he can cut the mustard. He is the best swimmer of his generation; he is going to represent Australia at Commonwealth and he is going to win medals for his country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  He will show all the posh c**ts in the posh school (which he labels as Cunts College in his mind) that he is better than them. (The posh c**ts, in their turn despise Danny because he does not belong there (which, if you think of it unemotionally, he doesn't.) And he is better than all of them, when it comes to swimming and winning races. The school’s Hungarian swimming coach, Mr Torma, does what he can to feed into Danny’s belief (which does not require feeding) that he, Danny, is the best. Except that it turns out that he isn’t. When it comes to the crunch Danny can’t cut the mustard. In the under 16 championship in Japan Danny fails to win any medals. He does not even come in the top three. He comes fifth. How can this be? He cannot lose. But that’s what happens. What is worse, a posh Golden Boy from Danny’s school whom Danny heartily despises wins the title in Japan. It is clear that the posh boy would get to represent Australia at the Sydney Olympics, even though even he probably knows that he wouldn’t win anything for the country. The place in the Olympic squad is Danny’s, by right. Except that he is not going to get it because, against all predictions and despite being a certified prodigy, Danny is not good enough to make it to the top.

Barracuda is the story of what happens when you fail to achieve what you were convinced you were destined to achieve. It is a story of what happens when your dreams fail you, or (if you want to look  at it another way), you fail to achieve your dreams and fail everyone including yourself.

Daniel Kelly has to come to terms with the knowledge that he is not going to make it as a champion swimmer. He is a loser. How does Danny deal with it? Not very well, I am afraid. Not good academically he performs poorly at the exit exams and ends up doing a semiskilled job in a supermarket. Then comes another life-changing moment in Danny’s life which his school tutor would have had no hesitation in describing as chequered. On the day of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Danny gate-crashes into the party of one of the posh pupils in the swimming squad of his school with whom he has formed a sort of friendship in school. In the party Danny manages to achieve the levels of intoxication that would have had Micky Rourke shaking his head in disapproval and attacks his erstwhile friend, who (not unsurprisingly) wants Danny out of his house, with a broken bottle. The former prodigy is now required to spend a few months in prison. In prison Danny, thanks to another male prisoner, discovers the joys of sodomy and his sexual orientation. Upon his release from prison Danny meets a Scotsman who is of similar, homoerotic, orientation, and goes with him to Scotland, where he meets his great-aunt. Danny, incidentally, has, since his release from prison, taken a violent dislike of water and concocts all sorts of reason to avoid swimming, which irritates his lover no ends, although that is not the reason why the two split up. Upon his return to Australia, Danny does what he can—you suspect, by now, that he is a natural at this—to irritate and insult his family, in particular his father whom, in a weird twist of logic which is beyond the likes of you and me, Danny blames for his failure as a swimmer. Then Danny’s old coach, Mr Torma, kicks the bucket and it turns out that the coach was blaming himself all these years for Danny’s failure to succeed at the highest level as a swimmer (but not only Danny’s; the coach coached a couple of other losers who didn’t make it either, although one of them had the decency to off himself), and the coach’s way of atonement was to leave Danny a third of his estate. What will Danny do with his wealth? You will not be surprised to know that the novel ends predictably.

Barracuda is a novel that appears to go in various directions. The reader gets the feeling that the central theme of the novel is how one deals with the crushing knowledge that one is not good enough to achieve one’s ambition. However Tsiolkas decides to take the story in different directions, before returning in the closing stages on the novel, to the theme, which is of redemption.

Danny Kelly is a not a protagonist one easily takes to. That in itself is not a problem; Humbert Humbert of Lolita is a repulsive character. But he is interesting. The trouble, here, is that the character of Danny Keely does not have many layers to it. He is just not that interesting. As you read the novel you get used to him. He is like an impacted wisdom tooth (without wisdom). Danny Kelly is an outsider. He is the poor kid in a posh school where he does not belong, and has an ambition to excel at a game children from his background are not supposed to even think of. However, when he fails to achieve the grade Danny does not seem to glean any insight from it. The theme kind of peters off. The same happens with Danny’s same-sex relationship with Scotsman Clyde. This strand of the novel, which occupies the middle of the novel, does not lead anywhere. Danny's visit to her great-aunt seems promising: is Danny going to discover his roots? But it, too, is abandoned half-way through. Danny visits his great aunt, admires her Scottish accent and the tat with which she has cluttered her house, and . . . err, that's it. 

There are some parallels with The Slap, which made Tsiolaks’s international reputation, in that one seminal event—in this case Danny’s failure at a crucial tournament— sets the trajectory of the rest of Danny’s life (and rest of the novel), except that it seems a tad unconvincing. Danny, the driven child who is determined to make it at the highest level, just lies over and dies with one failure at a tournament.

Barracuda is an easy novel to read, and, despite its five hundred plus pages, can be finished in one or two sittings. At times, especially when he is describing Danny’s exploits in swimming, Tsiolaks is inspired. At other times (many other times) the prose is too stylistic and seems contrived. Danny, the protagonist, is supposed to be an admirer of Graham Greene; but the prose style of his creator is nothing like Greene’s. The frequent changes from third person to first person are unnecessary, as are the changes in the tense of the narrative (sometimes in a single paragraph).

Like its protagonist Barracuda is not a complete failure, but neither is it riveting like its predecessor, the supremely entertaining The Slap. It’s a good novel to take on a holiday (if you can stomach the brutal descriptions of homosexual sex; so probably not for tense housewives and do-gooder fusspot nuns), but that’s about it.

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Indian clerk in American writer David Leavitt’s ambitious, dense and expansive novel of the same name is the celebrated mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. The novel traces the last five years of Ramanujan’s life during which he collaborated with the British mathematician G.H. Hardy—a body of work that would ensure that Ramanujan would be remembered by posterity— before he died at the age of thirty-two.

There are not many fields in which it is possible to be a prodigy. Music is one; mathematics is another; maybe chess. You never hear of a prodigy nurse, or a prodigy civil servant. Ramanujan chose his field well. He would have struggled to become a prodigy had he trained as a social worker. But he chose to be a mathematician; rather mathematics chose him. He could no more have stayed away from playing with numbers than he could have lived without breathing.

Born into a poor but cultured Brahmin family to an overbearing and ambitious mother and ineffective father in the present day Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Ramanujan was an autodidact. He probably was also an idiot savant. Having little aptitude for, and less interest in, subjects other than mathematics, Ramanujan struggled through school, and did not achieve qualifications. Languishing in a dead-end clerical job in what was, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Madras, the self-taught maverick worked on mathematical formulae, trying to find answers to unsolved riddles. He then proceeded to send his intriguing theorems, unsupported by proofs—partly because he did not want to give away too much lest the recipients pass off his discoveries as their own, but also because, having received no formal training in the subject, he was indifferent to the need of backing up his postulates –to a number of British mathematicians. Most of them did not take the trouble to reply. Then Ramanujan wrote to the Cambridge-based mathematician G.H. Hardy. Hardy—a forgotten name these days, but, in the years before the First World War, one of the leading mathematicians in England— detected, in the pages crammed with wild theorems and quaintly ornate English, the extraordinary intellect that was at work. After discussing with his Cambridge colleague Littlewood—the two were working diligently on the number theory and felt Ramanujan’s genius would be of valuable assistance—Hardy came to the conclusion that he had to get Ramanujan to Trinity.  

It is G.H. Hardy who is the narrator of The Indian Clerk; he is the protagonist, not Ramanujan. The story of Ramanujan, rather the five years he spent—years that coincided with the First World War—in England, unfolds for the reader through the eyes of Hardy. And it is not the story just of Ramanujan. Leavitt, through his protagonist, provides an arresting description of the prevailing ambiance at the Trinity around the time of the Great War. Hardy is a droll, temperate, unaffected observer and chronicler of what goes around him. In an earlier, non-fiction, account of Ramanujan’s life, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Hardy is depicted as cold and aloof. Leavitt chooses to describe his fictional Hardy as a man possessing—despite his outwardly sceptical and cold manner—of great warmth and loyalty. He is not so much haughty and aloof as shy, reticent and private. Indeed, as the novel progresses, you feel that you know Hardy a lot better than Ramanujan. It is Hardy’s life—the experiences that shaped him, his uneasy relationship with his mother and sister—that is described with great depth and seems flavoursomely imagined. Leavitt makes full use of the poetic license while exploring Hardy’s sexuality. G.H. Hardy of The Indian Clerk is a practising homosexual, albeit closet. Leavitt describes with obvious relish the private shenanigans of luminaries such as John Maynard Keynes and other Cambridge homosexuals, outwardly wedded to the manners and etiquettes of the Edwardian and Georgian England, and gently pokes fun at the two-faced approach of the British society—at least of the privileged class— towards sexual mores. However, the sexual life of Hardy, for whom Leavitt reserves a great deal of affection, is laced with pathos. The fictional Hardy is haunted by the suicide of his lover, Russell Gaye (a real life person, one of the many who appear in the novel, who shot himself in 1909). Gaye is always on Hardy’s mind, and his ghost frequently visits Hardy. It is a testimony to Leavitt’s great narrative skill that the encounters between Hardy and Gaye’s ghost, which would have run the risk of becoming overly theatrical and tawdry, instead, leave the reader with a sense of deep sorrow and loss. The secret meetings of the Cambridge fellows, who, in the great tradition of academic snobbery, belong to a centuries-old secret club entitled the Apostles, are described with great verve. Some of the characters peripheral to the story, such as the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, Hardy’s colleague at Cambridge, are hilarious (and uproariously believable). Since Ramanujan’s years in Cambridge were also the years when the Great War was raging in Europe—Ramanujan arrived in Cambridge a few months before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and returned to India a year after the war ended—it was inconceivable that the war would not have an impact on the intellectual world of Trinity. Russell was a pacifist; so was Hardy. The difference between the two, if you believe Leavitt’s ‘fiction’, was: while Russell was publicly mutinous about it and even contrived to get himself expelled first from Trinity and then be sent to gaol for inflammatory pamphleteering, Hardy kept his view to himself and quietly left Cambridge for Oxford at the end of the war.

What about Ramanujan, the Indian clerk fetched by Hardy from his Indian obscurity to the rarefied corridors of Trinity? Ramanujan remains an enigma for the reader. When you reach the end of the  477th and the last page of the novel, you still do not think that you really know the man. He is like the blurred outline of a face you glimpse outside your window on a rainy day—you can just about make out the features but can’t see how the blurred features go on to make the whole face. Ramanujan’s life in Cambridge is recounted to the reader by Leavitt’s proxy, G.H. Hardy, the narrator. And Hardy, perhaps in keeping with the reserve of the Englishman of his generation, is either not curious about Ramanujan’s background or else thinks it is impolite to inquire too much. Such information as is provided about Ramanujan’s life in India is sketchy and remains encased in the stereotype of Ramanujan’s puritanical Brahmin background. The five years of collaboration throw scarcely brighter light on Ramanujan. Hardy scrupulously avoids getting to know Ramanujan, no doubt following the sound English policy that it is better to have cordial, if distant, relations with the ‘Hindu Calculator’ than trying to get to know him really well and discover that they actually dislike each other. And Ramanujan does not seem to do much in Trinity outside of his meetings with Hardy and Littlewood: other than lamenting the lack of choices for vegetarians, boiling rasam—a kind of spicy, vegetarian soup; he is ecstatic when he receives tamarind, an essential ingredient for the rasam, apparently, brought from India by an Indian student—, and goes to London from time to time in the company of a couple of Indian friends to visit a woman who, appropriately enough, has learnt to cook Indian-style. Hardy, the narrator, seems to remember, every now and then, in the midst of his reminiscences about Trinity, that there was this young Indian genius who lived there for five years, and provides the reader with a snippet of, for all outward appearances, banal incident involving Ramanujan: he (Hardy) might have seen Ramanujan on the streets of Cambridge talking with other Indian students; or he might have noticed Ramanujan coming in the opposite direction and the two might have waved at each other. This is because, you suspect, Hardy, for the most part, remains a slightly bemused onlooker with regard to Ramanujan’s life. He, an ill-at-ease-atheist, is sceptical of Ramanujan’s claim that an Indian goddess visits him in his dreams and reveals mathematical formulae. When Hardy arranges for Ramanujan to come to Trinity, Ramanujan is initially reluctant—or says he is reluctant—to cross the seas because he is not sure whether the Goddess would deign to visit him if he were away from India. The matter is resolved after Ramanujan spends an entire day in the Goddess’s temple and she visits him in his dreams that night to assure that she would not desert him even if he crosses the sea. Hardy’s response to the resolution of Ramanujan’s dilemma and the manner in which it is resolved is: ‘very convenient’. Ramanujan’s ‘arranged marriage’ to a nine-year-old girl (he was 21 at the time, although the girl continued to live with her parents until she was 15) is dismissed as one of those things Hindus do. When Ramanujan is in England, he is, insofar as Hardy can make out, concerned—in the same way you would get concerned if caught short with an unseasonal downpour—that his wife, Janki, does not write to him even though he has been writing to her once a month. (Janki, who was 20 when Ramanujan died in 1920, survived her famous husband by 74 years, leading a life of quiet anonymity.)  It is suggested, later in the novel, that Janki and Ramnujan’s mother did not get on, and the mother intercepted his letters to Janki. All of this is recounted without any comment by the narrator who obviously considers himself ill equipped to fathom a culture and religion that are alien to him and the intrigues of Indian families. The result is: Ramanujan does not really come alive to the reader. He comes up with complex mathematical formulae and theorems; he performs amazing feats of mental arithmetic (earning the sobriquet ‘the Hindu Calculator’); he boils rasam; and speaks in excessively formal and stultified English: he eats, breathes and lives, but where is the life in him?  When Alice Neville, the wife of Cambridge mathematician, Eric Neville, who was tasked with the responsibility of bringing Ramanujan to England and at whose house Ramanujan stayed for the first few weeks after his arrival, develops a crush on Ramanujan (another occasion in the novel, as acknowledged by the author at the end, where a poetic license is taken; while Alice Neville did exist, there is no evidence that she fell in love with Ramanujan), it is described entirely from the point of view of Alice; the reader knows nothing of what Ramanujan feels about it. For the most part Ramanujan is a passive recipient of whatever the fate dishes out to him. And what the fate has in store for Ramanujan is not very nice. He becomes ill with mysterious illness in his third year in Cambridge. Hardy arranges for him to be seen by a number of specialists. No one can really reach to the bottom of what is wrong with Ramanujan, although several diagnoses are bandied about. Tuberculosis seems to find favour with most specialists although they all agree that Ramanujan is showing none of the characteristic signs of the disease. Nevertheless he is wheeled out to different sanatoria which seem to have in common desolate atmosphere and esoteric medical practices. Hardy visits the whippet thin Ramanujan in a particularly vicious sanatorium in Wales. Here, for the only time in the novel, Hardy’s taciturn prose steps up to the task of conveying the pathos of Ramanujan’s life; the only time Ramanujan—miserable and depressed—comes alive.

The Indian Clerk is a slightly misleading title. The novel is more about Hardy than about Ramanujan; and, when you finish reading the novel, it is Hardy, and not Ramanujan, who lingers in your mind. I do not know whether it is intentional. If it is, one wonders why. Maybe Leavitt was more at ease imagining the world of Hardy, the atheist English mathematician (also a competent writer), who, although from a different era, still came from a culture and held beliefs that were Western. Either that, or Leavitt, during his extensive research (catalogued at the end of the novel), realised that apart from his prodigious mathematical gifts, there wasn’t a great deal of interest happening in Ramanujan’s life. (I find this difficult to believe.) That Ramanujan left little by way of personal memoirs probably did not help. However, you feel that Leavitt made Hardy the protagonist of The Indian Clerk, rather than Ramanujan who was the Indian clerk, because Leavitt, an American writer in the 21st century, found the task of putting himself in the mind of a late nineteenth century Indian almost too daunting.

The Indian Clerk is a work of great depth. Leavitt’s prose achieves the seemingly impossible effect of appearing dense and lucid at the same time. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully underplayed novel of great merit, a worthy addition to what D.J. Taylor, in his review in the Guardian, described as an increasingly popular genre of fiction involving real life historical figures.