Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Saint Teresa



The news that Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has declared Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, popularly known as Mother Teresa, a saint will come as no surprise to those who have interest in these matters, and, therefore, make it their business to follow what is going on in the world of Roman Catholic Churches. Anjeze (English equivalent is Agnes) was born in the former Yugoslavia, in 1910, although it wasn’t called that at the time of her birth. Skopje, where Agnes was born, to devoutly Catholic ethnic Albanian parents, was, at the time of her birth, a part of the Ottoman Empire. Later it became part of Serbia, then Yugoslavia, and currently (after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in the 1990s) it is in the Republic of Macedonia.

Agnes arrived in India in 1929 (she was not Teresa yet; that would happen two years later, in 1931, when she took her religious vows and chose to be named after Therese de Lisioux, the patron saint of missionaries). Why India? I hear you asking. Why not India? I ask back. If you are naturally drawn towards poverty then you have rich pickings in countries like India, where, even now, despite the country being in the top ten economies in the world, people die in the streets of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), according to an article I read in the Guardian. And one can imagine things being a lot worse during the British Raj if one takes the position that the British Empire had no interest in improving social conditions of its subjects in the colonies. Kolkata (Calcutta) was where Agnes lived and worked all her life, “defending the unborn, sick and abandoned”, and “shaming the world leaders for the crimes of poverty they themselves created”, according to Pope Francis who confirmed earlier this month that Agnes was now a certified saint.  Indian Government has expressed delight at the news (which is very generous of it, seeing as there would have been no need for Agnes and her types had the successive Indian governments looked after the citizens better).

That Teresa (Agnes chose the Spanish name, Teresa, when she took her religious vows because another nun from the convent had beaten her to the name Therese) would be declared a saint was on the cards. In December 2015 Pope Francis attributed a second miracle to the Catholic Missionary, who shuffled off her mortal coils in 1997, following years of ill-health. (That Teresa lived till the advanced age of 87 despite mounting health problems that did not spare any organ in her body could be said to be a miracle, but of modern medicine; and I am not sure that the Catholic Church is interested in such miracles). I do not know what the second miracle was. The first miracle posthumously attributed to Teresa, in 2003 (in order to be declared a saint you must perform miracles from beyond the grave), was as follows: An Indian woman by the name of Monica Besra claimed that a beam of light emerged from the photograph of ‘Mother’ Teresa (hung, no doubt reverently, in the livening room of the Besra family) and cured the cancerous tumour in Besra’s stomach. Besra’s physician, one Dr Ranjan Mustafi, cast aspersions on this claim, which was so obviously (in the eyes of the Catholic Church) a miracle. Mustafi (who probably knows nothing about miracles) insisted that Besra did not have a cancerous tumour in the first place. What she had was a tubercular cyst for which she was on medication. Mustafi, in his ignorance, claimed that it wasn’t any miraculous beam from Mother Teresa’s photograph but modern medicine that cured Besra. I am sure the second miracle was in similar vein which the non-believers would describe as improbable (that’s the point of miracles; like the thought processes of schizophrenics, the ordinary human mind can’t even begin to understand them).

The British atheist Christopher Hitchens was generous in his florid criticism of Teresa, and insulted her (both in her life and after she was dead) with venom and fluency which were only to be expected of him. Hitchens famously described Teresa as a “fanatic, fundamentalist and a fraud”. Uncertain whether that conveyed appropriately the depth of his feelings towards Teresa, Hitchens also described her as a “lying, thieving Albania dwarf”. In 1994, that is three years before Teresa’s death, Hitchens produced a documentary Hell’s Angel, based on the work of (no doubt a disgruntled) Indian doctor by the name of Aroop Chatterjee (these doctors are trouble). Chatterjee had worked briefly in one of Teresa’s Homes in Kolkata (Calcutta), and, instead of bathing the dying and shoving down food (and Catholicism) down the throats of the dying destitute of the city (very important that they were baptised before they died), had gone around snooping into financial dealings of Teresa’s Order. (Teresa formed the Order in the 1940s, after much lobbying with Vatican.  Apparently getting Vatican to agree for you to form an Order is more difficult than bringing a rogue African leader to justice in Hague. Teresa taught in a convent school for almost twenty years when, on a train journey, she experienced an epiphany, or what she herself chose to describe as a “call within the call”, or what sceptical doctors such as Ranjan Mustafi would choose to describe as sub-clinical psychosis. She was going to devote her life servicing the poor, and she was going to form her congregation. Teresa was eventually (in 1950) granted permission by the Vatican to start the congregation, which would come to be known as Missionaries of Charity.)  Hitchens's documentary (which I have not seen) aimed to debunk the myth of Teresa as some sort of Guardian Angel in a white saree of the poor. Hitchens followed this documentary with an extended essay entitled Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in theory and practice (which I have not read, but I plan to, one of these days, having bought it for 99 p from Amazon Kindle a few months back; I suspect it is not complimentary towards the Catholic Missionary).

I should like to think that I have an open mind about this. There are those who are critical of Teresa, and have questioned her motivation behind helping the poor. There are many in India who believe that Teresa’s main motivation was spreading of Christianity and proselytization. Excuse me, but she was a Christian Missionary; and that’s what the missionaries do, the last time I checked. They go round spreading the word of Jesus; and whatever good work they do (and they do a lot of good work) they do it in the name of Jesus. India is also a country where, despite its recent economic success, rather a lot of desperately poor people live. Educational opportunities, health care etc., are, presumably, not great (or evenly distributed, shall we say?) in that country; and, one would imagine, they were even direr a few decades back. These are generally the situations to the likings of Christian Missionaries: they can distribute free medicines and clothes (something which the elected governments ought to do, anyway) in return for the “natives” calling themselves “John” and “Mary” and going to churches. (Whether the natives choose to become Christians because they discover the superiority of Christianity over their earlier Faiths or whether they choose to become Christian because that is the condition on which they are allowed access to the basic amenities is debatable. One might say that bartering of this kind (which, according to many critics of the Christian Missionaries, is rampant in developing and underdeveloped countries) is not something Jesus would be pleased with; however, it might also be argued that those who choose to become Christians do this knowingly, whatever their motivation, and who are we to question them?) Some may find the proselytization, using these allegedly questionable methods, distasteful, but there is no law against it. India declares itself to be a free, democratic country, where proselytization is allowed. (I have read that in India a number of Hindu organizations are going round bringing back these “Christians” back to the fold of Hinduism; and I do not somehow think that they are doing it by reciting the Bhagwad Geeta to them. They are probably using the same tactics the missionaries have been using for decades. This, I think, is good news for the natives. They are in a powerful position. They are the customers, and they will choose only that religion which brings them the best dividend.) Teresa never claimed that she was secular; she had always declared herself to be devoutly Christian in her beliefs. She once famously said that she was Albanian by blood, Indian by nationality, and her heart belonged entirely to Jesus. Different motivations draw people to helping the poor, and is it right to question them, so long as they are doing good work (and doing no real harm)? So Teresa’s motivation for helping the poor was not secular. She helped and looked after the poor with the aim of bringing them nearer to Jesus. That’s what she always said; the woman can’t be accused of being a hypocrite. In this she was no different from scores others who go around peddling whichever doctrine (religious, political etc.) they happen to believe in and therefore want to peddle. (A few years ago a Jehovah’s Witness arrived at my doorstep, and looked astonished when I invited him in, offered tea and declared my availability to discuss theological matters with him. He told me that this was not the reception he was accustomed to. This first meeting was the beginning of what for me was an entertaining series of meetings (one per month) which went on for roughly four months. The man didn’t work and was on benefits; he said that he was a full-time carer to his wife (also a Jehovah’s Witness) who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The man gave me videos to watch, and numerous booklets to read. He talked about prophesies in the Bible and endeavoured to prove that everything that had happened in the twentieth century  (including Communism and the subsequent collapse of Soviet Union, the Second World War etc.) was predicted in the Bible. He gave comprehensive explanation (at my behest) of the refusal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusion (it had, if I remember correctly, something to do with the literal interpretation of what Jesus is supposed to have said or done; and nothing to do with the perception that they are a bunch of nutters, which, he assured me, was a popular, though regrettable, stereotype of the Jehovah’s Witnesses). The man was very concerned about me, in particular what was to become of me when I died and when the world ended (whichever was earlier). You see, only the Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed in heaven; the rest will, I don’t know, hang around in the purgatory, or, worse, languish for eternity in Hell in the company of George W Bush and Donald Trump. This meant that if I were to save myself from this outcome, which was worse than Arsenal not winning the Premier League Title (yet again), I needed to take urgent reparative measures to save my soul, and start attending Kingdom Hall meetings without undue delay. The man was (most probably) very knowledgeable about what was given in the Bible, and was very sure of his interpretation, which he expressed semiarticulately. At the same time, and unsurprisingly, he was utterly incurious about other philosophies and faiths. That, I guess, was only to be expected: once you are convinced about the righteousness and loftiness of your belief and cause you wouldn’t want to waste time knowing other theories, which are clearly inferior to yours. The man stopped coming after he concluded that the chances of me attending the Kingdom Hall were less than the second coming of Christ. It may have something to do with me introducing Buddhist and Hindu philosophies in what passed for discussions between us (not that I know anything about these philosophies; but I was sure he wouldn’t, either; and I chose them as something that was so very different from his beliefs that I hoped (correctly as it turned out) he would lose interest in bringing me to the flock. From my point of view, I too wanted these meetings to end; the man's trick of breaking into insane-sounding laughter as a way of getting himself out of the conversational minefields he regularly walked into was beginning to lose its entertainment value for me). This man had many endearing qualities, but a sense of humour was not one of them. Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that in order to qualify as a religious preacher of any kind, you need to have the organ of humour surgically removed. Nathan Price (I know, I know—he is a fictitious character from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible—but he is so believable), in addition to being batshit mental, was utterly lacking in humour. Maybe Teresa, like the Jehovah’s man and Nathan Price, lacked humour; but, surely, that is not a crime.) 

If you are of an atheistic or agnostic disposition, you may say that you can’t identify with the motivation of the likes of Teresa, but, surely, you have got to accept that the act itself (of helping the poor) is a good act. Also, so far as I know, Teresa did not stop others of secular leanings from helping out the poor. No doubt, atheism or agnosticism was as incomprehensible to Teresa as her Catholic religious beliefs were incomprehensible to the atheists like Cristopher Hitchens.

Hitchens also described Teresa as a fanatic and fundamentalist. You might say that she was both, in the true senses of these words, and not the pejorative and negative connotations these words have acquired in recent times, which, no doubt, Hitchens had in his mind when he used them to describe Teresa. She was very passionate—fanatic—in her beliefs (which happened to be Catholic); and she was fundamentalist in the sense that she believed (fanatically, lest I forget) in the fundamentals of the Catholic brand of Christianity. Nothing wrong in that as far as I can see. You may have your criticism of the beliefs, but that should not make you a fraud. I do not know why Hitchens thought Teresa was a fraud (maybe there were financial irregularities in Teresa’s charity, but, even if there were, was she involved in them; was she complicit?) I shall have to read his railings against her. It has been alleged that some of the charities Teresa founded do not do any charitable work whatsoever, devoting themselves, instead, to the conversion of the natives in underdeveloped countries. If that is the case, the recognitions of these charities should be taken away by the respective governments. Also, can Teresa, who died nineteen years ago, be held responsible for the alleged mismanagement of the charities, now?

I read in WikiPedia that Teresa accepted an honour from the Haitian President, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who, it was revealed after his death, had embezzled millions of dollars out of his impoverished country. I fail to understand how this reflects poorly on Teresa. Did she know at the time of accepting the honour that the Haitian dude was a sleaze-bag? Even if she did, by refusing to accept the honour from him she would have been passing judgment on him; and maybe that’s not what the Catholic Christian Missionaries are instructed to do—everyone being the same in the eyes of Jesus and all that. Thus by accepting the honour from the Haitian dictator, I’d argue, Teresa brought some joy to the life of the benighted man: he was given the satisfaction of acknowledging a truly good work. It also proves that while Duvaler might have been a scum-bag, he was also capable of recognising and honouring noble work. Teresa also apparently endorsed the regime of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania, and placed a wreath on his grave—which had Christopher Hitchens foaming at the mouth. I can’t understand what is there to get so upset about? Does it not show the broad-mindedness of the Albanian nun? She might have been a dwarf as Hitchens commented (and her face might have resembled a dried prune), but she was broadminded enough to embrace even an anti-God Communist dictator (Jesus loves everyone). Teresa accepted money from Robert Maxwell, the late British tycoon, who, after his death, was revealed to have embezzled millions of pounds from his employee’s pension funds. Again, how does that become Teresa’s fault? No one knew what Robert Maxwell was up to (no good as it turned out) until after he died.  Even if someone can prove that Teresa was somehow aware of Maxwell’s shenanigans at the time she accepted the donation, you can argue that by accepting the money she saved Maxwell’s soul, as, at least a proportion of his ill-gotten wealth was used for a good cause.

There is this theory, I remember reading somewhere, that for all of us there is a place on this earth where we belong. It’s just that very few of us find it because God (if you believe in Him, or Her) is so capricious. You may live all your life in California (and be convinced you are having a swell time sucking on oranges), and will never know that the place you really belong is a village in Northern Italy. Teresa was lucky in that sense. She was born in the Balkans but realised early on that her place was somewhere else (India). She was one of the few who knew what their calling is and lived, for all outward appearances, a good life. Of how many people can we say this?

Catholic Church has decided to canonise Teresa as a saint on the basis of the aforementioned miracle. Even if one is not imaginative enough to believe in miracles ( am not), with the possible exception of Dr Ranjan Mustafi (who might feel aggrieved that the dead nun has grabbed the credit which belongs to him—but even he would have to concede that it is hardly the fault of Teresa who died in 1997), no one could begrudge the miracle posthumously attributed to Teresa. 

Teresa might not have been a saint in the true or figurative sense, and she might have been a self-publicist in her later life. It must be immensely satisfying when real life lives up to your dearly held prejudices; however, I find it impossible to convince myself that Teresa was a bad person. She did do some good things; and that is good enough for me.






Sunday, 28 August 2016

Book of the Month: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barberry)




The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the second novel of the French writer Muriel Barberry, became a sensation upon its publication. The novel sold more than a million copies in France alone. It has since been translated into more than thirty languages, and has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide.

The novel consists entirely of the divulgence of the inner worlds of its two protagonists: Renee, who is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building on the left bank, and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her parents and older sister on the fifth floor apartment of the building.

Both Renee and Paloma have three things in common: both have very high opinions of their self-worth; both nurture a healthy contempt for the world they inhabit; and both go to great lengths not to let anyone know how really clever they are.

As far as the self-centred, self-absorbed, and self-interested inhabitants of the building are concerned, Renee Michel is just a solidly constructed  unanimated, curmudgeonly middle-aged woman with the sex appeal of an aardvark and conversational abilities of a washing machine, who wouldn’t recognise culture if it hit her in the face. They do not know the real Renee because Renee takes great care— worthy of a Russian double agent—not to give them the impression that she is anything other than intellectually unprepossessing. Her chief means of hiding her light under a bushel is to perpetually present herself to the outside world in a state of dull inertia, with the emotion that ranges from placid indifference to miffed petulance. They have, therefore, no way of knowing that Renee loves to watch ultra-sophisticated Japanese films of cult directors that are based on novels written in dense prose. They do not know that she is fully conversant with the works of obscure medieval philosophers and that she frequently goes to exceedingly lofty libraries in Paris, including (but not limited to) the Saulchoir, which is a religious library run by the Dominican monks. The reader, however, is better informed, and is not surprised to learn that the autodidact Renee, possessing very high intelligence and acutely observant of the absurdities of life (of which the priggish residents of the posh apartment building where she works as a concierge provide her with frequent and breathtaking examples), has developed sharp and acerbic ideas of her own on issues as wide ranging as the hypocrisies of the class system (so severe is she on the corrupt Capitalist system, of which her employers are the progeny so to speak, that you expect her to immigrate to North Korea any time), the pettiness of the middle-classes, the purpose of Art (it apparently gives shape to our emotions and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them), and the faults in the phenomenological hypotheses of the late nineteenth century German philosopher Hassler. When Renee’s mind is not otherwise occupied with the dilatory pontifications on abstruse matters she devotes her abundant mental prowess to enlist the myriad character defects of the ultra-rich residents of 7 rue de Grenelle. Quite why Renee wants to keep her talents hidden from her employers— the woman gets a major panic attack every time she suspects that the residents might suspect that she is clever because of some or the other inadvertent profound comment she has made— is not immediately clear. It is not as if they will be outraged if they came to know that their concierge, who has the face of a pretty pig, is catapulted by the sight of falling snowflakes into a state of fervent philosophizing, or that upon seeing the lavaliere worn by a pretentious resident of the building she immediately thinks of Lagrandin from In Search of Lost Time, or that the name of her dog is inspired by a character from War and Peace. (And even if they do, good breeding and a lifetime of repressing true feelings should save her day and job).

The other protagonist of the novel is Paloma, who, with her thick glasses, is the kind of ugly duckling that will never metamorphose into a swan. Paloma’s father is a politician who has taken (you can’t help thinking a very pragmatic) decision that all his principles are subservient to his ambition. Her mother is a champagne socialist who thinks very passionately about the common people so long as she does not have to mix with them. Like all self-respecting upper class housewives, she has been in therapy. She thinks that Paloma is a few crayons short of a full box. Paloma’s elder sister, Colombe, is a bright student who spends the evenings drinking and smoking with her friends. She thinks that Paloma is a hamper short of picnic. Paloma, on her part, is convinced that she is exceptionally intelligent. Like the concierge on the ground floor, he head, too, is overcrowded with profound thoughts, and she formulates these thoughts either like a haiku (three lines) or a tanka (five lines). Even though only twelve years old, Paloma possesses such cynical wisdom that you see her carving out for herself a successful career as a restaurant critic (and, in the fullness of time, become a batty old woman who will throw pebbles at passer-bys from her balcony and shout ‘Get a life!’). Except that she is not going to live. She is going to kill herself at the end of her school year on the day she will turn thirteen. Why? Because life, according to young Paloma, is a farce. She has figured out that her bourgeois upbringing has been programmed to make her believe in something that she knows does not exist. Excessively intelligent and inordinately gifted as she is, Paloma is not sure for how long she can hold out against this sinister materialistic conspiracy. Her worst nightmare is that she would end up joining the adult rat-race. She has no choice, really, other than to kill herself. Paloma also thinks it is obscene that she lives, together with three other members of her family, in a four thousand square feet apartment when South Africans are dying because a fire started in their run down tenement where twenty people are crammed in two hundred square feet. So she is going to set fire to her apartment. However, she does not plan to barbecue herself in the fire (even though that would achieve both her goals) because that would be very painful. She will set fire to her parents’ apartment, then she will go to her grandmother’s place where she will take an overdose of her mother’s sleeping pills. In the meanwhile she keeps a secret diary in which she puts down her profound thoughts (e.g. cats serve no purpose as it is not possible to have interesting interactions with them) and her unflattering observations about others in her building.

Just as the reader is resigned to thinking that Renee will continue with her intensely cerebral, if ultimately unfulfilled, existence and the only time the world will take notice of the precocious Paloma is when unleashes her arsonist act, the story takes a twist of a sort. A resident in the building dies, and his apartment is bought by a mysterious Japanese millionaire who wastes no time in divining that there is more to the cantankerous concierge than what meets the eye; and that she is just the right person to discuss the significance of the camellias on the moss of the temple in The Munekata Sisters. Around the same time Paloma begins to spend more time in Renee’s lodge after deciding that she is the only person in the vicinity who is her intellectual equal. Renee discovers that she is not impervious to the charms of the opposite sex, and, after token resistance, is looking forward to thrash out the finer points of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the Japanese millionaire over a bite of gloutof. How will it end, you wonder. Will Renee find reasons to change her views of the upper classes? Will Paloma carry out her intention to bring an end to her life? And then there is a final twist to the story.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very French novel (for the want of better phrase). There is rather a lot of philosophy; indeed the majority of the half of the novel, narrated by Renee, consists of philosophical musings, which have no direct connection, and contribute little, to the plot. The ostensible aim of these chapters is to demonstrate to the readers how supremely refined the lowly placed concierge is, although at times you wonder whether the hidden aim is to show how erudite the author is. The novel, you get a feeling, has definite philosophical aspirations, like the great French novels of Camus and Proust. (The author, Muriel Barbery, taught philosophy in her previous life). The other half of the novel, the secret diary of Paloma, is more enjoyable (and perhaps believable), as the reader is invited not to take her points of view very seriously. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is very formulaic, and not a great deal of effort has been taken to develop characters. Renee, one of the protagonists, for all her philosophical encyclopaedism, remains a two-dimensional, and ultimately unconvincing, character. Her background and the traumas she is supposed to have experienced in her early life are so crudely described—impoverished parents, beautiful elder sister who is taken advantage of by an upper class Lothario and who dies oh so tragically while giving birth to her daughter who also—sob! sob!—dies within two days—they are almost caricaturesque. Her final musings on life and people after the final twist of the story—which I won’t reveal here, but believe me, it is about as surprising as finding deep fried chicken wings on your plate when you go to KFC—is completely out of character, and doesn’t tally at all with what the reader has until then learnt about her. That said the novel is an amusing and easy read; the ersatz philosophizing is accessible, and may even create the illusion for some that they have become wiser by reading this novel.

Paloma, the other philosophizing protagonist of the novel comments at one stage that life, like the Japanese game of go (although it originated in China, according to little miss smarty pants), life and death are only the consequences of how well or poorly you have made your construction. You wonder what she would make of her creator’s work in which she has the star role. No amount of witty philosophy can make up for poorly constructed structure.  


Monday, 4 July 2016

Book of the Month: Esther's Inheritance (Sandor Marai)




When Sandor Marai put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, he had every reason to believe that his life was over. He was 89, and, after the death of his wife of more than five decades, lonely. In a journal he kept at the time Marai wrote:

 ‘I totter along the street like Blondel . . . Not even on sand any longer, but on a rope, hands stretched around in front, feeling the empty air . . .’

For more than 40 years Marai had lived a life of obscurity in San Diego, after he was driven out of Hungary in 1948 for his anti-Communist views. The forces that drove him into exile were still in power in Hungary at the time of Marai’s death. The Berlin Wall was still standing, and the memories of his glory days, as an author of repute, must have become mist-filled, even in his own mind.

Born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sandor Marai (real name: Sandor Karoly Henrik Grosschmied de Mara) rose to great fame in Hungary in the 1930s. He was a prolific author of 46 novels. Vehemently anti-Fascist (his wife was Jewish) and ant-Communist, Marai’s literary output reached its peak in the 1940s, as though he had a premonition that his life as a writer was about to be cut short. By the time he died, in 1989, all of his novels were not only out of print their manuscripts were also thought to have been lost. There was no trace left that there lived once an author who wrote novels of great poignancy and subtlety.

Zoom forward ten years: Roberto Callasso, the legendary Italian publisher, on a trip to Paris, browsed through a publisher’s catalogue which gave a list of ‘neglected classics’. Callasso came across the name Sandor Marai, of whom he had never heard. Curious to find out more, Callasso asked for the novelist’s works. He began reading the French translation and realized that what he had in front of him was a lost masterpiece. The novel was Embers, which was later translated and published to great acclaim across the globe. Since the discovery of Embers, three more Marai novels appeared in English of which Esther’s Inheritance is one.

The eponymous heroine of Esther’s Inheritance is a spinster in her mid-forties, who has been leading a quiet, if somewhat impecunious, existence after the family fortunes took nose-dive more than twenty years earlier. The man partly responsible for the debacle was also the man she had hopelessly fallen in love with. That man, Lajos, a friend of her brother, Laci, broke her heart by leaving her for her elder sister, Wilma. Lajos disappeared after Wilma’s death, taking with him their two children, Eva and Gustav. And now, twenty years later, Esther receives a telegram from Lajos that he would be visiting her. The telegraph triggers a maelstrom of emotions in Esther’s mind, and she is compelled to revisit those portentous times when Lajos promised so much only to betray her. Esther’s friends, and her faithful housekeeper, Nunu, who have stood by her in her difficult days, are concerned that Lajos is visiting only because he has a hidden agenda.  Then Lajos arrives with his children, Esther’s niece and nephew, whom she has not seen for over two decades. Lajos does have a motive behind the visit, and the lives of the two ex-lovers are about to collide once more, fatefully, and Esther would once again allow herself to be robbed of her inheritance by her feckless ex-lover.

Esther’s Inheritance, narrated in the first person by Esther, builds up slowly and inexorably towards the climactic encounter between her and Lajos. Lajos is a man who is not malicious by nature, but he is a fantasist, a larger than life character. He is a man given to grandiloquent ideas, which change more often than the seasons in the year, and which—every one of it—leave him in dire financial straits. Esther knows this. At the very beginning of her story, she describes him thus:

‘He never wrote about his feeling . . . On top of this he would lay out the great idea that was currently demanding his attention, and all in such meticulously authentic terms that everything seemed larger than life. It was just that—and even this tin-eared reader [Esther] could sense it—none of it was true, or rather it was true, but not as Lajos wrote it.’

Lajos does not set out deliberately to hurt people; he does not scheme to cheat them in the manner of a swindler. He appears to be even genuinely remorseful at the wreckage he has left behind. That does not, however, stop him from hatching up his next big idea. He is a man who lives in the present and will do whatever he can to extricate himself from the latest mess he has landed in. And if that requires of him to tell lies and emotionally blackmail middle age spinsters whom he has betrayed in the past, it is all grist for the mill. He has some insight into his character. When he meets Esther after twenty years and presents her with his preposterous demand, he says:

‘I have always been a weak man. I would like to have achieved something in the world, and I believe I was not altogether without talent. But talent and ambition are not enough . . . To be properly creative one needs something else . . . some special strength or discipline or the mixture of the two; the stuff I think they call character . . . And that quality, that talent is something that is lacking in me.’

Esther is an intriguing character. She is a woman of high moral fibre and has in abundance that which Lajos admits to be lacking in him: character. By the time Lajos comes to see Esther scales have fallen of Esther’s eyes. Twenty years of leisurely spinsterhood has allowed her to go over again and again in her mind her relationship not only with Lajos, but also her complex relationship with her dead sister Wilma, the woman for whom Lajos left her. Yet she is also credulous in the way only the virtuous can be; and, when Lajos presents her with letters he had allegedly written days before he married her sister all those years ago and which she has not read until then, she walks into the trap Lajos has set for her.

Esther’s Inheritance is a meticulously crafted novel. Beautifully translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, it is intense, atmospheric, and harrowing. As Marai takes the reader, sentence by perfectly crafted sentence, towards the encounter between Lajos and Esther—the pivotal point of the novel—your teeth are set on edge. There is a sense of inevitability, a sense of predetermination, to the outcome of the encounter, of which you become gradually aware, and, with a sense of fatality, you predict it even before Lajos enters Esther’s room for the final, dramatic, tension-filled showdown. Yet it does not leave you feeling disappointed—because you have correctly guessed the end—; neither does it fill you with pity or irritation towards Esther—there is a solid moral grounding to her decision which you cannot but admire; she may be credulous, but she is not weak-willed, and does not require anyone’s pity. Lajos does not deserve disapprobation either—because he is not a bad person; he is a morally weak man who cannot help doing bad things.
First published in 1939, four years before Embers, Esther’s Inheritance is a multilayered novel that can be enjoyed at several levels. It vividly evocates a bygone era and the ethos that disappeared with it; however, it is not just a trip down the memory lane; with subtlety and skill of a born novelist, Marai gets his point across: the ephemeral boundaries between the good and the bad, and the holding power of unrequited love. Esther’s Inheritance is an irresistible work that clutches to your heart.



Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brexit




The Great British Public has delivered its verdict. 51.9% of those who voted on the EU referendum, voted for the UK to get out of the EU. This was described by Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), as a “victory for decent, ordinary people”. This suggests that Farage considers those like me, who voted to remain in Europe, as neither decent nor ordinary. I have to say that Farage is an entertaining character, a kind of buffoon who manages to say the most vile and dyspeptic things in a manner and style that makes you chuckle, even as the rant repels your sense of decency; intelligence, even. Try as one might it is difficult to take this buffoon seriously. The reality is, though, that in this instance the people (albeit with a tiny majority) agreed with the buffoon.  Now that Britain is definitely out of the EU one can hope Farage and his pestilential party will sink into well-earned obscurity.
David (“Call me Dave”) Cameron’s luck finally ran out. The referendum was held with the short-term expediency in mind: to stave off the threat of UKIP and also to end the Tory Party’s internecine decades-long war over Europe. It backfired, and “Dave” had to go. He did the decent thing; and within hours of the defeat of the Remain campaign for which, it has to be said, he had argued extensively, repeatedly and passionately, he announced his resignation. When you go to the people on quasi-constitutional matters and are unsuccessful in putting forth your case you don’t really have a choice. Cameron made a reckless decision and paid the price. I have no sympathy for him.

One of the many problems with such referenda is that complex questions, which, frankly speaking, are beyond comprehension of most people—ordinary or otherwise—get dumbed down to simple “Yes” or “No” type of answers. At the place where I work is a fifty-something, recently divorced woman (her face more powdered than an American donut) who, in line with the demographics of how people voted in the referendum, since published—majority of the middle-aged and geriatrics voted for exit (which surprises me; I would have thought that by the time one reaches middle age, one would have arrived at the considered position that all change of itself is unwelcome and ought not to be aspired for unless there are very clear and obvious advantages)—, wanted Britain out of the EU. In the coffee breaks she would bore everyone with sentences such as "there is a big issue that everyone is overlooking: 'we' are not leaving Europe; 'we' have not turned our back on the people of Europe; 'we' simply wanted to leave a poorly managed, corrupt institution, namely the European Union, which is in dire straits." She would then give examples such as how it was not a good business sense to link your flourishing business with fifteen other failing businesses, as the failing businesses were more likely to bring you down than you keep them afloat. This, I guessed, was the economic argument of the woman for getting out of Europe. You meet people like her (not excessively endowed in the brain department)—they have total conviction about their rightness; what they are right about is a secondary matter. The day after the referendum I tried my best to avoid her, but she ambushed me in the corridor and asked, with a broad grin—revealing a layer of slime on her buck teeth—whether I was planning to go out drinking in the evening. I told her that I might, or I might not. “Would that be to celebrate or drown your sorrows?” she asked,smirking. Another man—a rather pitiful character, who sports a more or less permanent shaving rash, which, I suspect, dents his confidence when he speaks to women—in his twenties, also voted for ‘exit’. He told me that he wasn’t really sure why he voted for ‘exit’. “I could have easily voted for ‘remain’,” he informed me. “Why didn’t you?” I asked him. He looked puzzled, intrigued, puzzled, intrigued and abashed. “Dunno,” he replied, finally, with the air of a man who had realised that the EU referendum was one of the myriad mysteries of the universe that was simply beyond his understanding and he was not even going to try. “I had to vote for something. Too many foreigners are coming here. Something needs to be done about it. I mean, we all feel sorry for what is going on in the Middle East, but it doesn’t mean they all have to queue up to come here. What about the local people?” I opened my mouth to tell him that civil wars in the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan etc., to which Britain, by the way, has contributed in no small measures, had nothing to do with the referendum, but then closed my mouth. What’s the point? He had voted for ‘exit’ and we are ‘out’. As Lord Hill, the UK’s European commissioner, said before he resigned, what’s done is done; it can’t be undone. And, as the man candidly admitted, he could have easily voted to stay in the EU except that the two stray neurones in his brain (perhaps the only functioning ones) decided to fire at the precise time he was in the polling booth, and he decided to vote in favour of ‘exit’.

The tone of the debate was not balanced. Cameron was accused by the 'leave' campaigners of orchestrating ‘Project Fear’—depicting an Armageddon-type scenario if we were to leave EU. Economy would go into a meltdown; we would all be in the breadline, and would have to sell our children and push our wives into prostitution so that we could get a bowl of soup etc.. Cameron and his trusted friend, the Chancellor George Osborne, did not leave anyone in doubt as to what was likely to happen—reeling off names of a number of financial institutions, none of which, I guess, had predicted the 2008 global recession, to support their arguments—if Britain voted out. I think ‘Project Fear’ worked with a proportion of people—it certainly worked for me. (It may well become 'Project Reality' in the coming years.) The ‘leave' camp said that theirs was an optimistic project, by contrast. They all acted as if they were possessed by a rush of hope, with varying degrees of success, or, in cases of Gove and Iain Duncan Smith—both of whom have the air of bringers of bad news, and, to paraphrase a character from a Howard Jacobson novel, the further air of never having been bringers of anything else—no success): we were taking back control of our own affairs. The 'leave' camp had its own bogyman—the immigrants. The mendacious arguments put forth by the 'leave' camp were jaw-dropping. They would introduce a point system (already in place for non-EU citizens) which would stem the flow of immigrants from Europe (in particular former Soviet Bloc, Eastern European countries); more money would be available for public services, in particular NHS, as we would not be paying £ 350 million a week (or was it a day?) to the EU; and of course we would not have to worry about the seventy million Turks whom the Germans were all ready to welcome into the EU, and were lying in wait, explosives tied to their genitals, to blow themselves up on the London Underground.  Everything was a lie. Turks are not about to join the EU anytime soon (and even they did, so what?). There will be no appreciable reduction in the number of EU nationals coming to Britain; the free movement will continue for the foreseeable future; and, not only will there be no extra funding for the beleaguered NHS, more savage cuts in public services will follow. Farage announced cheerfully, within twenty-four hours of the exit that he fully expected Britain to go into a “mild recession”. (On the other hand, on the BBC's Andrew Marr show on 25 June, there was the pathetic spectacle of the Tory Business secretary Sajid Javed, who, incidentally, was with the Remain campaign, but has since discovered that his heart was actually with the Exit camp, and who just a few weeks back was issuing all sorts of doomsday warnings in case Britain left the EU, squirming and backtracking on those prophesies. He was followed by Iain Duncan Smith, who, without batting an eyelid, reneged on the Brexiters' pledge of reinvesting the £ 350 millions they will not be sending to sent to Brussels (a lie in itself) in the NHS, even when the poster of the 'leave' campaign was shown to him. (What does this show? It shows that in the admittedly high standard for shamelessness amongst the Tories, Duncan Smith has a thicker skin than Javed, who had at least the decency to squirm.)) I wonder how long it will be before the Great Unwashed realise that they have been swindled. The days are long, so little happens, and there, really, is nothing to do than park your bum on the sofa and numb your mind with day-time soaps (and chill out twice a month, when you get paid(!) the benefit money, in the company of your mates, with a joint or two of cannabis); but it is inevitable that there will be further cuts in the benefits, because we are going to be poorer, and how is one to cope? (And don't expect Boris Johnson to part with even a penny of the obnoxious sums of money he gets paid to shovel out his weekly tripe in the Telegraph).

We should expect no special treatment from the EU when we leave. As the much reviled Jean Claude Junker (whose presidency of European Commission was opposed by Cameron using every dirty trick in the book) cryptically commented, it is going to be a painful divorce, but it wasn't a tight love affair in the first place. If the leavers are hoping that Britain wold get a Norway-style deal, it's not going to happen. There are more chances of hair growing on Iain Duncan Smith's bald head than Britain being offered that kind of deal. Also, seeing as the 'leave' campaigners are pathologically averse to free movement of people across European nations, they would be wasting everyone's time if they attempted Norway-style deal when Britain leave the EU. It is also interesting that after telling tall stories and giving false promises to people, the 'leave' campaigners are suddenly in no rush to invoke article 50, which will start the process of Britain's exit from the EU. Why is that? If they really thought that the EU was really so demonic, get out of it quick. My guess is that there will be political pressure on the leavers to invoke article 50 by Christmas.

Lord Heseltine has suggested that the triumvirate of the Boris Johnson (an untrustworthy sleekit, a proven lier and a philanderer), Iain Duncan Smith (an uninteresting, thoroughly boring man; someone should slip prussic acid into his tea) and Michael Gove (a born mediocrity; also, he looks like he has taken a fatal overdose of rancour) must be put in charge of negotiating Britain's exit from the EU. For this reason alone I would like to see the fat clown Boris Johnson to be Britain's next prime-minister. These three have inflicted this gigantic con on the UK, telling the nation a truckload of lies, and they should be put in charge of the negotiations with the EU. They ought to be held fully accountable for all the consequences. (If they need help Farage could help). Boris Johnson will then find out that if you are trying to fuck a tiger, you'd better make sure that you duct-tape the back legs of the tiger (which he can't do; it is difficult to see what leverage Britain will have in these negotiations other than the vailed threat that a messy Brexit will adversely affect the EU countries); and you are a tiger (which Johnson isn't; he is a fat clown; he is worse than a bad egg; he is, like, bad chicken)).  

The whole ‘remain’ versus ‘exit’ debate was a vicious internal fight within the Tory Party. The main opposition party, the Labour, officially backing the 'remain' campaign, was virtually absent. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has the charisma of a dishwasher, ran a thoroughly spineless and dispirited campaign. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the man is not capable. He does not inspire confidence. Only the deluded or gullible (and there aren’t many of those outside of the Labour Parry members) would trust him with running the country. You might as well put that chap Boycie from Only Fools and Horses in charge of the country. As long as this nincompoop is at the helm of the Labour Party, the Tories have nothing to fear. Jeremy is a loser with a capital L.
Coming back to the EU referendum, Britain has probably conformed to its world-stereotype, I am afraid: we are unique in our sense of (misplaced) self-importance and poisonous exclusiveness.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Book of the Month: The Eternal Philistine (Odon Von Horvath)



The Eternal Philistine, the 1930 debut novel of the long since forgotten Hungarian author Odon Von Horvath, is in three sections. The first section is about a car salesman on the make called Kobler; the second section is about an unemployed seamstress called Anna (who makes brief appearance in the first section), who, in the depressing years of the Weimer Republic Germany, turns to prostitution; and the third and final section is about one Herr Reithofer, an impoverished Austrian living in Germany who passes on a good job lead to Anna.

In the first section is the longest (and also the funniest) we meet Alfons Kobler. A failed car salesman, Kobler wants to be rich, and his mind is singularly devoted to relieving people of their money by various machinations. As the novel opens Kobler had sold off his dud of a car to the fat, enthusiastic (and very gullible) Portschinger, for six hundred marks. Kobler has never earned so much money at once. Egged on by his bitter and xenophobic landlady, Kobler embarks on a picaresque journey from Munich, his home town, to Barcelona, where a world fair is going to be hosted. Kobler is hoping to meet a rich Egyptian ‘lady’, who, he is further hopeful, will keep him in luxury after he has debauched During his train journey from Munich to Barcelona that requires frequent changing of trains and going through different countries, including Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Kobler meets a series of characters, who, amongst them share the unappealing characteristics of dyspepsia, xenophobia, unscrupulousness, and holding sweeping, inaccurate and one-sided opinions. These men—they are all men—like Kobler, are philistines. And they are madder than a stadium full of boxes of frogs. Like the man who immediately identified Kobler (correctly) as a German (Horvath’s humour is at its satirical best, here) by the thickness of his skull. ‘You see,’ the man informs Kobler, ‘Germans all have thick skulls, but only in the true sense of the word.’ The train conductor of the carriage speaks to Kobler about a very nice accommodating German family he has met, adding that the family was of course not ‘pure German’ but ‘Russian German’. Another companion, a pompous alcoholic named Schmitz who has a special talent for eloquently quoting Goethe and who obviously fancies himself as a ‘Renaissance Man’ with a keen eye for architecture, advises Kobler to watch the splendidly traditional Spanish bull-fight. The omnipresent narrator’s description of the bull-fight depicts it as a grotesque murder-lust.

In the brief second section we meet Anna Pollinger. Anna is a young woman who has no parents (she is not shading any tears for them, as her father left the family when she was very young and she never got along with her mother who ‘had become very embittered about the lousy world’). Anna lives with her aunt, and, in the post-First World War Germany, having lost lost several jobs through no fault of her own, she loses yet another job. While Anna is not unduly perturbed by this, her aunt reacts to the news as though the Armageddon has arrived and seizes the opportunity to rant about the post-war period in Germany. Then a paying guest by the name of Herr Kastenr, who boasts of having connections in the film industry on the basis that he once played an extra in a film that was never released (and from the cast of which he was thrown out after he was caught taking naked photographs of an underage extra) offers Anna the role of a model with an artist friend of his named Achner. Achner, who is an etcher, of course, etches nude models, and is enthused to learn from Kastenr (who has rushed to him as soon as he heard that Anna had lost her job) that Kastenr could provide him with a dirty blonde model of medium built’ who could also take a joke.’ As Anna is undressing behind the screen, an acquaintance of Achner, called Harry Priegler, turns up in Achner’s atelier. Harry, a rich pig’s farmer, has no appreciation of arts, but abundant appreciation of young blondes. The etching is interrupted, and the next day Anna is in Harry Priegler’s car. When Harry pulls the car into a bypass in a park Anna knows what is coming, and she is ready for it. When Harry makes his intentions of making free with her loins makes clear, Anna informs him coolly that it does not work like that. Negotiations ensue and Anna receives her payment. In the post-war Germany, where unemployment has reached record high Anna Pollinger has turned practical, and has embarked on a new career .

In the third and the briefest section of the novel we meet Anna again; she has been kicked out by her aunt once the aunt came to know Anna’s new occupation. Anna meets an unemployed Austrian named Herr Reithofer. The impoverished Reithofer is also very naïve and mistakes Anna for the romantic love of his life. Anna, by now hardened in her attitude, makes him spend money he can’t afford taking her to a movie, and, when she realises that Reithofer really does not have any money sends him marching off. Later, Reithfoer meets an elderly man in a café who tells him about a possible job in Ulm on the Danube in the tailor shop of a rich pre-war Councillor of Commerce, except that the job is for a young woman. Reithfoer traces Anna and passes on the information about this employment opportunity which would be a ‘life-aver for her.’ As this short novel ends Anna is learning that the world is not full of evil and there are instances, admittedly small, which indicate ‘the possibility of human culture and civilisation.’

The Eternal Philistine is a satirical look at the middle classes in the Germany between the two World Wars. In its spirit the novel is not dissimilar to some of the novels of Hans Fallada (A Small Circus, Fallada’s satirical take on the politics in a provincial German town in the 1920s, has been reviewed on this blog earlier) and Stefan Zweig. Kobler, the protagonist of the first section of the novel is, as the title suggests, is a philistine. He has no time for architecture or literature, and he admits with bracing directness that he does not have much time for revolutions because the revolutionary leaders are by and large not good businessmen. When Kobler arrives in Italy on his way to Barcelona, he discovers that Fascism has arrived in Italy before him. Kobler has no trouble identifying with Fascism and, cheerfully and unhesitatingly introduces himself as a German Fascist. Many of his companions, despite their pretensions and airs are also philistines and bigots. While the reader may laugh at the philistinism of Kobler and his fellow-travellers, the reader feels little sympathy for them. By contrast, for Anna Pollinger who makes a practical and unsentimental decision to turn to prostitution (and once she makes the transition, goes about her business in a matter-of-fact, almost ruthless, manner), the reader feels a smidgen of sympathy. Anna has become a philistine by circumstances whereas Kobler is a philistine by choice, by nature if you will. The novel ends on a somewhat optimistic, if tentative, note, with a slimmer of hope being offered to Anna by her unexpected benefactor.

The Eternal Philistine is a sublimely comic novel, jam-packed with quiet energy. Horvath is at his best when he is a droll and wry observer of the human pretensions and inconsistencies, for example, the ‘cultivated gentleman’ Kobler meets on the train, after waxing eloquent about his preferences for eating  (salmon canapes) and holidaying (Southern Italy) shouts an order for ‘steak with tartar’. Horvath brilliantly lampoons Mussolini’s penchant for Italianization of all German names (one of the many unfortunate consequences of the First World War), and that too in a literal sense. However, ‘should a name lack a literally translatable sense, Mussolini would merely stick an ‘o’ at the end of it.’

I loved Eternal Philistine despite its drawbacks (in the main the three sections of the novel don’t gel together as a story, although they are thematically connected; also the unexpected upbeat ending of the novel which, until then is full of dark humour and pessimistic observations, is a tad unconvincing). It is quirky, Rabelaisian, suggestive, and very funny.

Odon (the author preferred the Hungarian version of his first name, Edmund), a son of a Hungarian diplomat, moved to Berlin in the 1920s where he lived for the next decade. He left Germany for Austria with Hitler’s ascent to power. Horvath left Austria for France in 1938 after the Anschluss. Within months of moving to Paris Horvath was dead, following a freak accident. Caught in a thunderstorm on the Champs-Elysees, while returning from a play, Horvath took shelter under a tree, and was killed when the branch broke and fell on him. He was thirty-six.

An equal credit of the enjoyment of The Eternal Philistine must go to the brilliant translation by Benjamin Dorvel. Melville House Publishing deserves kudos for bringing out this entertaining novel for the English language readers.








Monday, 23 May 2016

Book of the Month: The Graveyard (Marek Hlasko)


Franciszek Kowalski, the protagonist of The Graveyard, the 1957 novel Polish author Marek Hlasko (who, apparently, was described as the James Dean of Poland, because of the striking facial resemblance between the two), is an obedient member of the Polish communist party. A life-long communist, Kowalski has fought in the resistance for the underground during the German occupation of during the Second World War. After the end of the war Kowalski, a Communist party member, has obediently swallowed all the received wisdom: the evils of Capitalism; the ideological superiority of Communism over Capitalism, especially as espoused by Lenin and Stalin to which unwavering loyalty was expected from all the Eastern Bloc countries. Then one night, it all unravels spectacularly for Kowalski. Having met an old friend, a partisan fighter like Kowalski against the Germans, Kowalski drinks more vodka than is advisable and becomes merry. As he is walking down the street of Warsaw, singing loudly and, occasionally, shouting at passers-by, Kowalski is accosted by policemen. Kowalski, his judgment no doubt impaired by alcoholic beverage, makes a further error: he answers back to the policemen, and makes clear by his belligerent and insolent tone and manner that he does not much care for what the policemen have to say, based on the dubious reasoning that he has done nothing wrong. High level of inebriation gives Kowalski ideas beyond his station. He believes that as an individual he has the right to have a view, even if that view is to want to have the right to sing a song when he wishes. Kowalski is arrested and spends the night in the police cells in the company of individuals, who, it would appear, were labouring under the notion that in Communist Poland they had the right to not only hold opinions but express them publically. Kowalski is further aggravated in the cell by speculations of the other inmates that the real reason Kowalski was in the cell was that someone close to him must have informed on him. Kowalski takes offence at these conjectures, and unwisely gets into arguments with the speculator. He would pay dearly for this, too. The next morning Kowalski is summoned by the lieutenant in charge of the police station to the corporal’s office. There, Kowalski is informed by the police what he said the previous night in the cell, in front of witnesses. Kowalski, sober by now, can’t remember, try as he might, saying anything the police claim he said. What has Kowalski said? Kowalski, the police inform him, expressed doubt. Kowalski insulted the People’s Poland by expressing a wish to make a dash to the West. The language used by Kowalski was so vile the lieutenant was even ashamed to repeat it. The police have unmasked an enemy of the people: “what a sober man thinks in his heart a drunk says with his tongue.” Kowalski, nevertheless, is allowed to leave after he has signed the papers, knowing that he, from now on, is a marked man; the police have his number. Shaken, Kowalski, who still can’t believe that he actually said the things he was supposed to have said, decides that the only way to redeem himself is to put his case in front of the party members, about what happened the previous night, and seek their vote of confidence in him. Notwithstanding what the police claim Kowalski said when he was drunk, he wants an endorsement from the party members that his fealty towards the Communist principles is unfaltering (which just goes to show that Kowalski’s judgment is as suspect when sober as it is when he is drunk). At the end of the meeting Kowalski’s life and everything he has held dear lie in tatters. He is expelled from the party for his transgression against the party. When he informs what has happened to his son, Mikolaj, Mikolaj—a fervent believer in the party—informs Kowalsi, not without sadness, that Mikolaj going to have no truck with him. His daughter, Elzbieta, finds herself spurned by her fiancé, who wants nothing to do with the daughter of a traitor, even though she is expecting his child. It does not end, here, Elzbieta is chucked out of university, and decides, having considered her situation, that the best thing in the circumstances is to kill herself. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes! Kowalski loses his job. As the novel ends we find Kowalski rip-roaringly drunk again, and meeting the same policeman who arrested him on the fateful night.
The Graveyard is a novel that is remarkable for a number of reasons. First published in 1958 (outside of Poland, in France, it goes without saying), it is a powerful portrait of the Stalinist dictatorship in the Communist countries, with the pervasive presence of police and thought control—an inevitable consequence of paranoia common to all dictatorships. “Do you like it, here, or don’t you,” is the question the police constantly throw at Kowalski and scores of innocent people like him who are arrested for the flimsiest of reasons. Hlasko presents a personal portrait of Kowalski’s journey—along which he meets his former comrades from the occupation era living life in fear or else disillusionment—with its inevitable destination: shattering of a man’s faith in the principles and ideology he has held dear. The story is very cleverly structured, with a cruel twist at the end, which, we now know, is the axiomatic truth at the rotten heart of Communist dictatorships: the regimes became so paranoid that they turned on themselves in the end.

The Graveyard (excellently translated from Polish Norbert Guterman) is a powerful depiction of a society where freedom of expression is suppressed and individuality is treated as poison. Hlasko went into exile before he was twenty-five, after The Graveyard and another novel were rejected by the Communist run Polish press. He died ten years later, before his thirty-fifth birthday, of an overdose—either deliberate or inadvertent—having spent the previous half-a-dozen years in the psychiatric hospitals or prisons of various countries. In his short life Hlasko published ten novels and a memoir. The Graveyard, long since out of print, was reissued in 2013, and is an essential reading, like the novels of Koestler and Orwell.


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Dinner Party




I once read somewhere about the rule of 9 of American journalist Joe Alsop, famous for his influential dinner parties. According to Alsop when you are hosting a dinner party you can cope with one bore. And if you invite 9 people for a dinner party there is bound to be a bore amongst them. Invite more than nine people and you run the risk of being with more than one bore that could ruin the evening.

I thought of this rule recently when I was subjected to a vicious assault by bores in a dinner party; and there were only six of us including me (and I am not a bore): the couple hosting the dinner, a retired couple, and a common friend.

The retired couple: The husband, I was informed, used to work as a manager of a flour-mill while his wife was a telephonist. The husband was a bald, portly man with a weak chin with a dirty spot on it, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a beard. He had gone bald, I noticed, in a weird manner. There was the usual half-moon of the hedge of hair. Then there was a tuft at the apex which for some reason he had let grown long. The tuft came all the way down to the back of his neck. I figured he was a t**t by the excfement-brown jacket and a bow-tie (same colour) he was wearing. (Over the years I have come to hold the default position that men who wear bow-ties are, unless proven otherwise, t**ts.) He had an enormous belly and hollow ass—not a pretty sight. In the Neolithic era he might have been considered a catch; but at some point of time in the human history the parameters of beauty obviously changed and being defined entirely by roundedness had ceased to be considered as the finest specimen of manhood. The wife was, to borrow a phrase from a Tom Wolfe novel, Dorian-Greying: not allowing signs of aging to show, with anything approaching grace. She was very excited, she said, about her twin grandsons and, labouring under the notion that we shared her excitement, treated us through the first part of the meal to various physiological milestones achieved by the infants as well as their activities which she thought were hilarious (and therefore newsworthy) but struck me as banal, until her husband, the flour-mill manager, said, ‘I think people have heard enough of their [the twins’] bowel movements.’ This achieved the desired effect of shutting her up (especially when none of the others present disagreed with the husband and conveyed by the body language that they were not really interested in hearing more stories of regurgitated food). The husband then proceeded to give us his expert views on (a) Barak Obama (a disappointment; he was surprised Obama was elected in the first place; he, Obama, was all talk and no action; he had no solutions to the economic problems; he was ruining the health system; he, the flour-mill manager, would be shocked if he, Obama, left behind a lasting legacy); (b) ‘Brexit’ and whether we should be in or out (Out, of course; he, the flour-mill manager, was incensed that Gordon Brown had now entered the fray and come out in support of Britain staying in the EU, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, rich, seeing as it was all fault of Gordon Brown in the first place—Brown had wrecked the country’s economy; in a different (and no doubt more just) world the man would be facing a firing squad, and, while he, the flour-mill manager, was, all things considered, against that sort of punishment, he wondered at times whether that would not have been just punishment for the one-eyed Scot who, he, the flour-mill manager, was convinced was a crypto-Communist); and (c) their recent trip to Majorca, which they enjoyed so much—you can chill out in English style pubs run by expatriates and can even get Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, albeit a day later—that they were thinking of going there again, the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The man pre-fixed his opinions with the caveat that he was not a well-educated man, as if the point was not already impressed.  

There is a certain type of Englishman that I call the braying type. He (it is usually a ‘he’, I am afraid) is usually deeply unattractive (ugly yellow teeth and body odour). He has an opinion on everything, which he insists on airing at a volume that would send the fans of heavy metal rummaging for ear-muffs. He is impatient; he interrupts others; and he is generally intolerant of views that are different from his. He is pig-ignorant and very proud to be English (the two are usually linked), and thinks that the best way to show his love for his country is to make offensive comments about other cultures and countries and rationalise them by crap like truth must be told. He is impervious to logic and abstraction; subtlety is wasted on him—indeed any form of communication other than a jab in the ribs is a challenge to him. The flour-mill manager was one these men; you take one look at them and you understand why half the world hates the English.

The common friend (although she is more of an acquaintance): She is a woman in her mid-forties and has been single for as long as I have known her. She was going through a divorce when I first came to know her. She divorced her husband a few years ago because he was apparently so boring he was sucking the life-juice out of her. After the divorce came through she went through the predictable phase of obsessional calorie counting, wasting money she couldn’t afford to waste on a gym, changing hair-style and hair-colour—all purported to propel her towards a new start, she announced. I felt, when she told me about this, that what she was really after was finding a new partner. It did not work out, of course it didn’t. Which, from what I know of the woman, did not surprise me: the woman might be mistaken at first, if you are not attentive, to be animated, witty (if somewhat loquacious) and well informed about what is going on in the world; but, upon further acquaintance, is revealed to be a bitter, vitriolic, and opinionated woman who is half-way down the mine-shaft of alcoholism. When this phase did not lead to the desired outcome she (predictably) dived into depression while her ex-husband dived into a busty work-colleague and moved to another city. In the last year or so she seems to have given up on meeting anyone who would be able to put up with her, and has resigned herself to a lonely, alcohol-sozzled middle age.  Alcohol abuse has had the expected effect—jowly cheeks, pouches below eyes, pillowy bosom, ass that would cover Iceland, and temperament which has become more obnoxious. The woman is part owner—along with a man who is always to be seen wearing t-shirts (that might have once been white) with slogans like ‘Save the Syrian refugees NOW’ or ‘Climate Change—Talk About It’—of a vegetarian restaurant. I have eaten a few times in her restaurant. The food is totally unappetizing and over-priced. I am not a voracious meat-eater (the sight of people chomping on practically raw beef oozing blood puts me off food). That however does not mean that I am prepared to part with eight quid for ‘braised white beans with zucchinis’ or ‘raw tofu marinated in sesame oil and ginger’. Both the owners wear smug expressions (that make you want to slap them) suggesting that by serving tasteless goo (that would be spat out by the starving tribals in South Sudan) at exorbitant prices they are somehow serving humanity.

The hosts: The husband is in his fifties; the wife 8-10 years younger than him. The husband is not very tall and is very gaunt. He has a stare that never fails to unnerve me. An ex-girlfriend of mine, after an evening dinner with them complained that she felt as if he was undressing her with his eyes. When I asked her what it was he did that made her think that she said that he was staring at her tits the whole time. I pointed out to her that she had non-trivial tits (hastening to clarify that it was not a complaint and I was very grateful to have been given the opportunity to handle them), which, given the difference between their respective heights plus the fact that she was sitting directly opposite the man during the meal, meant that her tits were at his eye-level or, if she wanted to look at it from another angle, his eyes were at her tit-level. The ex was not convinced; she pointed out that he could have lifted his gaze above her collar-bones and given a shot at looking at her face. This guy used to be a primary school teacher, but retired in his forties on health grounds, having been diagnosed with something called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now I don’t know much about this condition, but I have noted that in his case it is serious enough to prevent him from going back to work, but not serious enough to stop him from kayaking twice a year. When I asked him about this once, he replied, with the indignation of a man wrongfully accused of shoplifting, that kayaking was part of his recovery. If he did not force himself to do some exercise his muscles would waste. His wife is so relentlessly jolly that you almost wish ovarian cancer on her if only to wipe out the grin off her face. There is something psychopathic about that smile, as if she wants to break your will with it, like a Jehovah’s Witness. She too presents a creditable cleavage for inspection (this was another reason I remember proffering to the ex-girlfriend why the husband couldn’t have been ogling at her breasts, seeing as he got an eyeful of them every day). The couple does not have children. I have never asked them why but having been subjected (by the wife) to the dangers  of overpopulation and the planet running out of its resources if ‘we’ are not ‘sensible’ about it, it is possible that it was a deliberate decision on her part not to have children. Or she was unable to conceive because of polycystic ovaries and this is all a giant rationalization.

So there I was, marooned for an entire evening amongst people that included a moron with political view to the right of Genghis Khan; his wife who nattered all the time about her grandchildren in whom no one was interested; a common ‘friend’ whom you wouldn’t want to be with if you were desirous of human connection; and the hosts comprising a husband who would creep the flies off a manure truck, and his giggly wife with her naïve utopian views.

The thing about aggressive bores is that they have cut and dry opinions on everything, and they go around looking for anything that would support their prejudices. And, if they are English with right wing views, then they invariably arrive at the conclusion—which they air at every opportunity—that Britain is being fleeced by the hordes of foreigners. They would have you believe that foreigners from every crevice of the developing world are arriving in their hordes at Heathrow with the express aim of getting a free council flat and claiming fraudulently millions of pounds in benefits. The flour-mill manager was one of these bores. During the main course he somehow launched into a lengthy diatribe against ethnic minorities, the immediate object of his wroth being the Somalis. He had read, he said, a story in the newspaper about a Somali family—neither husband nor wife working and claiming ‘loads of money’ in benefits—with a ‘litter of children’, who were living in Birmingham or Manchester (or some such place where no person in his right mind would willingly choose to live). The flour-mill manager droned on, his mind untutored by anything so trivial as evidence. The Somalis apparently successfully applied for a transfer to London on the grounds that they could not speak English and wished to be in London where there are lots of Somalis (who presumably can’t speak English) and they would be nearer to their culture. The family was now accommodated in a five bedroom house ‘most hard-working English people’ could not afford. The flour-mill manager ended his story with the rhetorical question ‘What do you say to that?’ and looked at me as he asked the question. I therefore felt that some sort of response was expected of me. ‘I say,’ I said, ‘that if you were a dog I’d get you checked for rabies.’  The flour-mill manager choked on his tofu. The half-chewed tofu flew out of his mouth, barely missing the cleavage of the hostess sitting opposite him. After he had calmed himself down with a hefty glug of wine and pats on his back by his wife he said, ‘You are being very rude and offensive. I demand an apology.’

‘I am sorry,’ I said, ‘that you are offended.’

Now the wife weighed in. ‘You called my husband a rabid dog. You are a very rude man.’ She too demanded an apology.

‘I honestly did not mean to cause offence,’ I said. ‘Also, I said that I would have him checked whether he had rabies. That suggested that I had doubts in my mind. And please remember that it was all in the context of a purely hypothetical situation. Your husband is very clearly not a dog.’

The wife turned to the hostess. ‘Are you going to allow this man to insult Walter?’

Did I mention the man’s name was Walter? I know of no Walter who is less than seventy.  The man had a name from another generation, which went some way to explain his views.

‘You are being very naughty,’ the hostess turned to me. ‘Say sorry to this nice man.’

‘But I already did. I’ll say it again: “I am sorry you are offended,”’ I said.

Walter accepted the apology, confirming that he was not bright.

There was a lull for a few minutes that was broken by Mary (the common friend) who started a story about an organic greengrocer’s shop which had recently changed its ownership. The old owner, who was a friend of Mary and an environmentalist, had decided that he was going to devote his creative energies full time to a charity which was doing ‘groundbreaking work’ to raise awareness about howler monkeys which were apparently at risk of getting extinct. I must say that I find it very difficult to donate money to such charities. Come to think of it I find it very difficult to donate money to any charity. I have strong views about charities, but that is a subject of another post. Suffice it to say, here, that I could not see the point of a charity raising awareness of the plight of the howler monkey. I mean over the millennia hundreds of species, if not thousands, have become extinct. That’s the way it goes. Survival of the fittest and all that. The mighty dinosaurs, who roamed the earth far longer than the humans have (so far), became extinct. Sabre toothed tiger, woolly mammoth, dodo, they all became extinct. Did the world come to a halt because these species disappeared? Did it make even an iota of difference to anyone that the world has lost dodo? I don’t think so. The world carried on; and it will soldier on when the howler monkey disappears from the face of the earth. These charities serve no purpose other than to line the pockets of their chief executives and managers who know how to exploit the collective guilt of the developed world citizens for the exploitation carried out by our forefathers that made our continent wealthy. Donate money to the howler monkey charity, and partake with good conscience ‘responsibly farmed’ salmon on a potato rosti and watercress salad in an obnoxiously hoity-toity restaurant at prices that would immediately put many in the mind of a second mortgage.  Or, as in my case, a godawful combination of runner beans and tofu (that would immediately put many in the mind of making a will). However, I kept my mouth shut: firstly, I did not want to risk offending all the guests in quick succession; secondly, Mary would have been a different proposition from Walter the retard. I take on shrill, waspish, shrewish guttersnipes only if I absolutely have to. And I decided I didn’t have to, on this occasion. Which meant I had to sit through the boring story of Matthew (the howler monkey rescuer) who was gyped by the guy who bought the greengrocer’s store from him. Apparently the new owner initially agreed to pay 250,000 pounds but in the end paid only 200,000 pounds for the store which is situated on the ground floor of a building that is so rickety it seems to be in danger of collapsing any time,. The site, I was informed, was a matter of dispute between its owners, ‘some Jewboys’ (a whiff of Xenophobia, here, from Mary) who wanted do demolish the eyesore and sell it to the developers, while the council wanted to develop it as a commercial complex; or it could have been the other way round; it was so bloody boring, I had to pinch myself—not to ensure that I stayed awake, but to check that I hadn’t fallen asleep. Why do people think it is appropriate to deluge guests at a party with totally irrelevant information? In some ways she was worse than Walter, the flour-mill manager: his topic of conversation was at least of general interest on which people might have had views. Why would anyone be interested in what Matthew-the-howler-monkey-saver got up to and whether or not he was duped? I wasn’t. Since the person who duped Matthew was not a Somali or a foreigner I reckoned Walter wasn’t interested either. And I had never known the hosts to have strong opinions on anything; so whom was this directed at? Finally the truth came out. The new owner had started a café in one section of the store, needless to say a healthy, organic café. And while the café did not pose any realistic threat to Mary’s vegetarian torture chamber I suspected its opening had triggered an acute attack of colitis.

At least Mary wasn’t venting her bile on God and religion. Mary, despite (sometimes I feel because of) her name, is a noisy atheist, driven by the desire to loudly express her hostility towards organized religions, with clichés like ‘religions are advertisements for goods that don’t exist’ (which I am sure she is not imaginative enough to have thought of herself and must have lifted from some book). She is particularly vicious towards the Catholics (needless to say she was brought up as one) who are the ‘most evil people on earth’ and the last Pope who was a ‘Nazi w**ker’.

‘So you are angry with the new owner because you think he managed to obtain the greengrocer’s shop at a bargain price and is thinking of expanding it,’ I said to Mary, forgetting my earlier resolution not to start another argument.

‘It’s the greed,’ Mary said with a sigh. ‘People will do anything these days to get a deal that is beneficial to them, no matter how unfair. The world is full of smooth talking psychopaths.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Unless you are holding back some vital information, all that the new owner did was he negotiated a deal that was beneficial to him. He didn’t kidnap your friend’s family and threatened to torture them, did he?’

‘Trust you to distort everything,’ Mary replied with mock-exasperation.

‘I am not distorting anything. What you are telling me is that a monitory transaction took place between these two guys, each wanting to get the best deal. In the end they settled on a price that was presumably acceptable to both of them,’ I said.

‘That’s precisely the point. Matthew was not happy about it,’ Mary replied.

‘Why did he agree to it then?’ I asked.

‘Because he is too nice,’ Mary said.

I took a decision not to pursue this line of inquiry which, from previous experience, I knew would not go anywhere; into the bargain I would be labelled a psychopath (like the new owner of the greengrocer’s store).

Walter, after the unexpected interruption when he was just getting into his flow, was ready to resume again. The Indians were now in his line of attack. As if the interlude of the story of Mary’s friend had not happened he said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what is wrong with this country. The bloody Indian curry houses and takeaways have come up like mushrooms. They are everywhere. You go anywhere in England you will find one of these, stinking the street out. Half of the staff are probably illegal immigrants; and they can’t even speak English. Every day 80 pubs are closing in the country, but is anyone bothered?’

‘You obviously are,’ I said.

Walter looked at me with narrowed eyes. I could see in front of my mind’s eye the rusted brain circuits creaking into action as he tried to decide through the fog of alcohol (he had polished off a bottle and half all by himself by this time) whether he should take offence at what I had said. In the end he let my comment go unchallenged and continued: ‘I can’t understand this fascination with Indian food. It’s disgusting,’ He looked around him challenging anyone to disagree with him. When no one did he carried on, ‘And it is not even healthy. God knows what oil do they fry that stuff in. Eat that stuff if you want a coronary is what I say,’ he concluded, taking a swig from his wine glass and burping. ‘Oh! Excuse me,’ he said.

‘Are you interested in Morris dancing?’ I asked Walter.

He looked at me suspiciously. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘It seems the only way to get you off the subject of offensive foreigners without offending you. I did not want to cause offence,’ I said.

‘That’s very kind of you,’ Walter said. I wondered whether he was being sarcastic.

‘So are you?’ I asked.

‘Am I what?’ Walter asked back.

‘Interested in Morris dancing.’

‘No.’

‘Oh!’

‘Are you?’ Walter asked.

‘Am I what?’ I asked back.

‘Interested in Morris dancing.’

‘Why do you ask?’ I asked.

‘You asked me. So I am asking you back,’ Walter said.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘So neither of us is interested in Morris dancing,’ Walter summarised.

‘That would appear to be the case,’ I agreed.

‘Glad we established that.  Can we now move on to another topic?’ Walter asked. He was being sarcastic when he thanked me.

‘Not if,’ I replied, ‘you are going to talk about Indian takeaways.’

Walter’s wife appealed to the hostess. ‘Susan, he is doing it again.’

‘I don’t care. I shall say what I think. I am not scared of some namby-pamby liberal tosh,’ Walter declared.

‘Good for you, sir; your mother will be so proud of you.’

At this Walter’s wife started snivelling. Walter took a deep breath and gazed at the ceiling with pursed lips, looking as if he was trying to control his emotions or suppress a fart (or both).

‘Walter’s mother passed away last week,’ Susan informed me.

His mother’s death hadn’t stopped Walter from socialising within a week of her death, even though he was now acting as if he had suffered a mortal wound. ‘I am sorry to hear that,’ I said, turning to Walter, ‘Were you talking to her about the Somalis and Indian takeaways when she died?’

‘That’s it,’ both Walter and his wife stood up. ‘I am not prepared to be insulted by this twerp. Manner-less fellow.’

‘Oh, don’t go,’ I pleaded, ‘We were enjoying your company so much.’

Susan got up from her seat and followed Walter and wife into the hall, revealing, from beneath her tight trousers that stretched across her fleshy buttocks, the outline of an alarmingly skimpy underwear. I looked at Mary and Susan’s husband, and shrugged my shoulders. ‘Sorry,’ I said.

I don’t think I’ll be invited back to their house for a while.