Monday, 2 January 2017

Books read in 2016


Below is a list of the books I read in 2016.

Fiction

  1. Dogs of Littlefield (Suzanne Berne)
  2. Worst. Person. Ever. (Douglas Coupland)
  3. Skylight (Jose Saramago)
  4. Money (re-read) (Martin Amis)
  5. Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)
  6. Leave Me Alone (Murong)
  7. The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Re-read) (John le Carre)
  8. The Graveyard (Marek Hlasko)                              
  9. Eternal Philistine (Odon Von Horvath)
  10. La Place De L’etoile (Patrick Modiano)   
  11. Zone of Interest (Martin Amis)
  12. The Cellist of Sarajevo (Stephen Galloway)
  13. The Betrayers (David Bezmozgis)
  14. Elizabeth is Missing (Emma Healey)
  15. Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie)
  16. The Vegetarian (Han Kamg)
  17. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
  18. Strange Weather in Tokyo (Hiromi Kawakami)  
  19. The Sympathizer (Viet Thanah Nguyen)
  20. Les Enfants Terribles (Jean Cocteau)
  21. Darkness and Day (Ivy Compton-Burnett)
  22. Go Set the Watchman (Harper Lee)
  23. The Mission Song (John Le Cerre)
  24. Noise of Time (Julian Barnes)
  25. Expo 58 (Jonathan Coe)
  26. Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
  27. The President’s Hat (Antoine Lauren)
  28. The Trial (Franz Kafka)

 Non-Fiction

  1. Moranthology (Kaitlin Moran)
  2. Impossible Exile (George Prochnik)
  3. Stringer (Anjan Sundaram)
  4. Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)
  5. Chernobyl Prayers (Svetlana Alexievich)
  6. A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)
  7. Unchosen (Julie Burchill)
  8. It’s All News to Me (Jeremy Vine)
  9. As I Was Saying (Jeremy Clarkson)

I ended 2016 by finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The novel was chosen by my book-group, and we were going to discuss it in December, over the Christmas meal; however, one of the members sent an e-mail informing that he was getting very depressed by the book, and could we please, please not discuss it over the festive meal? He suggested that instead of The Trial, we should discuss a book we had enjoyed reading. (To this another member replied, what if “we have hugely enjoyed The Trial?”) In the end, taking cognisance of the delicate emotional health of the depressed group- member, it was decided that any book other that The Trial which the group-members might have read and (on the outside chance) enjoyed should be discussed over the Christmas meal.

The Christmas meal of the book-group took place in a vegetarian Indian restaurant, highly recommended by the aforementioned depressed group-member (depression possibly triggered by a century old German novel written by a tubercular writer, who thought the novel was so poor that he left instructions that it should not be published, which begs the question why he did not destroy the manuscript himself). The service was poor, food awful, and the waiter (who may well have been the owner) oleaginous (he enlightened us on the seventeen-thousand ingredients that went into the making of the dish, the complicated and nerve-racking process of preparing the dish, the region in India it originated from etc., as if that would compensate for the poor quality of the food). The resident expert on Indian food in our book-group, by dint of being ethnically Indian, was asked for his views on the food. He said (with distinct lack of enthusiasm) that it was ‘alright’. I thought he was lying. Another member decided that this was exactly the right time to subject us to a detailed feedback on the colonoscopy he had undergone last month, and forthcoming cystoscopy (he talked nonchalantly and made several droll comments, all aimed at conveying that the whole thing was actually very serious and he was coping with great fortitude). It was just as well that The Trial was not discussed.

I started reading The Trial over the Christmas period, and finished it just before midnight on 31 December. Written in 1914, The Trial could be interpreted as a heavy and macabre satire of the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (though I doubt it; it was not a Stasi-style dictatorship), or a commentary on insidious and destructive (yet very bureaucratic) totalitarian regimes. I particularly enjoyed the penultimate chapter—the meeting between Joseph K. and the prison chaplain in the unnamed city’s cathedral, when the chaplain tells Joseph K. a parable to explain his situation (it doesn’t).

I didn’t read many books in 2016—thirty-seven in total, which must be the lowest number in many years. The year started well, and, by the end of summer, I had read more than twenty-five books. It almost ground to a halt in the second half of 2016, and I managed to read no more than half a dozen books in the last six months of 2016. I did not quite get round to finishing a few of the books in the list. A Moveable Feast, Les Enfants Terrible, and Darkness and Day were three such books. I shall finish reading them in 2017; however, I have listed them here because I have read more than two-third of each of the books. I should like to say that this was because I was distracted by weightier matters such as Brexit and the election of the Donald to the presidency of the USA, but if I did that I’d be lying. For what it is worth, I found all of the three books heavy-going. I remember reading somewhere that the queen likes reading the novels of Ivy Compton Burnett. I should very much doubt whether Darkness and Day, first published in 1951, is one of them. Written almost entirely in dialogues, this should have been an easy and quick read for me; but it wasn’t, not least because of the labyrinthine sentence-structure. Almost everyone in the novel (including the domestics) speaks archly and obliquely, which made it difficult at times to figure out what was really hinted at. The dialogues were sometimes funny, occasionally confusing, and mostly tedious. Les Enfants Terribles is a surreal novel. I was expecting that, having watched the film The Dreamers a few years ago, which apparently was inspired by the novel (I haven’t seen the film Cocteau himself made, based on his novel). I was also expecting sexual tension, eroticism and emotional sado-masochism (again, having watched The Dreamers). What I was not expecting was how difficult and tedious I would find the novel to be. This, I concluded, was mostly because of the prose, reading which was like wading through treacle. I found this surprising because the novel is translated by none other than Rosamond Lehmann. I guess Les Enfants Terribles must be a very difficult novel to translate. On the whole I found Les Enfants Terribles distinctly underwhelming. I shall finish reading it this year, but I don’t think I shall change my views.

Below are some of the books I enjoyed reading in 2016.

The Noise of Time is Julian Barnes’s first novel after his Booker Prized winning A Sense of an Ending. It belongs to an increasingly popular genre: fictional biography. David Lodge has exploited this genre effectively in recent years. I don’t mind it, especially when the novel is written by my favourite author. I would rather read a fictional biography than a biography (which I find often dry). The Noise of Time tells the story of the genius Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who survived Stalin’s terror, and successive Soviet dictators. The Noise of Time, stylistically, is not dissimilar to Barnes’s earlier masterpiece The Flaubert’s Parrot. There are several vignettes and anecdotes which are narrated and re-narrated in Barnes’s deceptively laconic style. The end result is a gripping tale of how one of the musical geniuses of the twentieth century battled with his conscience to survive dictatorships.

I read two books of Martin Amis, who, like Julian Barnes, is a favourite author. One was Money, Amis’s old classic. I reread it because it was selected by the book-group, and found it as impressive as I did when I read it first. It of course captures the zeitgeist of the 1980s perfectly, but its themes transcend time. And I can never tire of Amis’s prose style.  The second Martin Amis novel I read is his most recent, The Zone of Interest. Zone of Interest is a Holocaust novel, Amis's second, after The Time’s Arrow (which was nominated for the Booker decades ago). Amis is in splendid form here. Written in three sections, The Zone of Interest, at its heart, is a grim satire, and throws into sharp relief the utter banality at the heart of evil. A superb novel.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was one of the best novels I read in 2016. I had been meaning to read this novel for a long time. I’d read a couple of novels of Kingsolver, earlier, and had liked them. I finally got round to read The Poisonwood Bible in the summer of 2016. It tells the story of the family of a Christian fanatical preacher, Nathan Price, who goes to what is now The Democratic Republic (DR) of Congo. The novel has multiple narrators: Nathan Price’s wife and four daughters. Kingsolver has a great writing style, and she uses it to great effect to deliver a devastating commentary on the tragic consequences of the rigid and obsessive adherence to any doctrine.

The Sympathizer, the debut novel of the Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanah Nguyen, was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The novel can be considered to be in the tradition of John Lecarre novels: a literary thriller, a spy novel. It is also a confession—a confession by the unnamed narrator, for the benefit of a commissar. It is only towards the end that the context and location of the narration become clear to the reader. The Sympathizer may not be in the same lane as the best of John Lecarre novels; however, packed with different stories, it is an engaging read.

Another Pulitzer winning novel I read in 2016 was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Olive Kitteridge, promoted as a novel, is really a collection of several stories in small-town America, at the centre of some of which is the cantankerous eponymous heroin of the novel. Almost all of the stories are interesting, some riveting, even, although Olive Kitteridge is only a peripheral character in many of them. I liked Olive Kitteridge, all said than done, although I also do not think it is a novel; it is a collection of very well written short stories. 

Like Olive Kitteridge, Jose Saramago’s Skylight , also published as a novel, is a collection of short stories, though they cohere together better than Olive Kitteridge. Skylight was the first novel Saramago wrote when he was a young man, in the 1950s. He sent it to a publishing company, but heard nothing from the company—did not even receive the rejected manuscript. Saramago did not write another novel for several years. Fast forward several years, to the late 1980s. Saramago, who, by this time, had become a celebrated author in Portugal (though still some years away from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature) received a phone-call from the publishing company which had rejected the novels decades ago. During the shifting of the company's offices to another premise in Lisbon, the old (and only) manuscript of the novel was discovered. The publishing company, having made the belated discovery that the novel was in fact a masterpiece (that Saramago, by this time, had become a renowned and critically acclaimed author, I am sure, had nothing to do with it), sought Saramago's permission to publish the novel. Saramago denied the permission on in-my-view-rather-dubious-grounds that the novel was not worth publishing, as it was rejected the first time. After Saramago’s death, his widow and estate allowed the publication novel. Skylight, thus, saw the light of the day more than sixty years after it was first written. I am very glad that they did. I loved Skylight, which is very different in prose style (much less dense) (I am making this judgement based only on the translated novels of the great author) and subject matter, from the novels which Saramago went on to write later (which established his reputation; this was perhaps the reason why Sarmago was not keen for Skylight to be published).

I read more translated novels in 2016 than I generally do. I have reviewed a few of them on this blog in 2016.
I did not read many non-fiction books in 2016, which was par for the course. Three books stood out for me.  By far the best was Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer, which is about the current day DR Congo. Sundaram explores DR Congo without trying to teach a lesson. He has no agenda; he lays out the canvas and lets the reader reach his own conclusions. Stringer is a superb book. Based on this evidence, Sundaram seems to be a worthy successor of the great V.S. Naipaul.

Unlike Sundaram, Bryan Stevenson, in Just Mercy, has a very clear agenda—to lay bare the institutional racism in the American justice system. Just Mercy is one of the most moving books I have read in a long time.

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Novel prize for Literature in 2015. Chernobyl Prayers tells the devastating consequences for the ordinary people of the worst nuclear disaster in the twentieth century, compounded by the conspiracy of silence of the Soviet dictatorship.

I decided to buy It is all News to Me after hearing its author Jeremy Vine, who is a BBC Radio 2 presenter, in a literary programme, where he read excerpts from the book. They were hilarious. Vine himself came across in the programme as a man with a great sense of humour (and stage-presence). The memoir is not bad, but I realised that the passages Vine read out in the programme were the only funny bits in it.

I enjoy reading Jeremy Clarkson the same way I used to enjoy listening to a cantankerous uncle of mine, who would rant about anything and everything. Just like my uncle’s ranting (which grew fiercer as Alzheimer set in) I find it impossible to take anything Clarkson writes seriously (I suspect he does, too), but he does bring a smile to your face. Ideal book to read in the loo or on a long flight.

The top ten novels in 2016 were as follows:



1.       The Zone of Interest (Martin Amis)


2.       The Spy who Came in from the Cold (John Lecarre)


3.       The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)


4.       The Noise of Time (Julian Barnes)


5.       Skylight (Jose Saramago)


6.       Money (Martin Amis)


7.       The President’s Hat (Antoine Lauren)


8.       The Sympathizer (Viet Thanah Nguyen)


9.       Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)


10.   Worst. Person. Ever (Douglas Coupland)

I must get my reading back on track this year.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Book of the Month: The Vegetarian (Han Kang)




I read South Korean writer Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, for two reasons. Firstly, Kang won the International Man Booker Prize (for foreign literature) ahead of worthies such as Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburo Oe. Secondly, I have not read a Korean novel, and, although I confess to not having a burning desire to evaluate Korean literature, I thought that if I wanted to do it The Vegetarian was as good a novel as any to start with (especially as it was available on discount on Kindle). I mean you’ve got to have a smidgen of talent to win ahead of Nobel Laureates.

What was I expecting of The Vegetarian? I like the novels I read to beguiling, spellbinding, comic, elegant, adorned with graceful prose, and also delivering incisive and devastating commentary on the human condition. They must not be overlong, but neither should they be novellas (which I don’t think are weighty enough; unless they are written by Stefan Zweig, who, because he died in tragic circumstances—but not only because of it—has a solid claim to greatness).

The Vegetarian fulfilled some of the above criteria. At less than 200 pages it is not overlong, but is longer than a novella. I would hesitate to describe it spellbinding. It is a strange novel, which is not the same as beguiling.

The Vegetarian is a novel written in three sections, at the centre of which is a young Korean woman named Yeong-hye, who, you might have guessed, decides to give up meat and become a vegetarian. The first section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong. The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye. Sandwiched between these two sections is the section narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, the husband of Yeong-hye, whose name, if it was mentioned in the novel, I have forgotten.

Back to Yeong-hye. She is, in every way, an unremarkable woman, according to her husband (who does not strike you as exactly a catch himself). Yeong-hye does not even have big breasts, the husband feels obliged to inform (said accessories, if of the right size, you guess, would have given the otherwise unremarkable Yeong-hye at least a couple of noticeable points). Yeong-hye decides to become a vegetarian after a gory dream which involves a lot of blood. Mr Cheong is concerned. He does not give two shits about what Yeong-hye eats so long he gets to chew on the bone marrow of a wide range of farmyard animals. But Yeong-hye is having none of it. She won't eat meat and she won’t cook meat. What is a (Korean) man to do? He is to inform the wife’s family of this mad obsession of his unremarkable wife, who is giving every indication of being enigmatic about it (either that or she is losing her marbles, the evidence in support of which is that she stops wearing a brassiere; the significance, if any, of this escapes Mr Cheong—who, it has to be said, does not appear to be blessed with imagination). Yeong-hye’s family, in particular her parents, react to the news as though Yeong-hye has decided to defect to North Korea. Yeong-hye’s father is a Vietnam veteran, otherwise known as a partially reformed vandal with a bad conscience, and who generally behaves as if he has been granted a license to go off the deep end at the slightest excuse (or no excuse). The family’s plan to make Yeong-hye give up this new-fangled idea is to arrange a feast where the table is overloaded with various incinerated animals, the idea being Yeong-hye would start watering (at mouth) at the spectacle and immediately come to her senses, diving head-first into the meant-fest. Yeong-hye’s father is incensed beyond endurance when this well-thought-out stratagem fails to yield the desired result, and decides that time has come to ratchet up a gear. Yeong-hye is pinned down by two male relatives while her father attempts to stuff her mouth (literally) with meat.

The second section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, the husband of her older sister. In this section we are not surprised to learn that Yeong-hye’s father’s attempts at forcing Yeong-hye back into the camp meat-eaters did not yield the desired results. Into the bargain Yeong-hye slashed her wrists and spent a night or two in the local hospital. She is still refusing to eat meat, and seems ever more removed from the every-day world. (The old man does not make any further appearances in the novel, which, you could say, is the only positive that comes out of the unfortunate episode.) We also learn that Mr Cheong has had enough of Yeong-hye’s insistence on not eating meat (and presumably not wearing a brassiere). Mr Cheong has left Yeong-hye (he, too, mercifully does not make any further appearance), and she is living alone in a flat. The brother-in-law considers himself an artist, but has not produced any work of art since his marriage to Yeong-hye’s sister, being content for his wife to work herself to death in order to maintain the household. While In-hye is working overtime, her husband decides to give art therapy to his sister-in-law, which necessitates, as dictated by the rules of art, Yeong-hye having to take her clothes off and having sex. Yeong-hye’s response to what most sisters-in-law would consider as very strange requests from their brothers-in-law is of nonchalance. She shades her clothes without demur, and is happy to allow her brother-in-law to paint her naked body. When the brother-in-law cajoles a colleague to have sex with her so that the act could be filmed, Yeong-hye has no issues (it’s the colleague who, despite rising to the occasion, balks at the last minute, and walks out). The brother-in-law, the true artist that he is, has no option but to take over himself. Regrettably, the great art experiment does not reach its fruition, as In-hye, whom he has neglected to keep informed of his art work which involves manipulating her sister’s orifices, walks in the apartment when the art work is reaching its climax.

The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. This section confirms what many astute readers would have suspected from the start. Yeong-hye has gone doolally. She is now a permanent resident of a mental hospital, and, has taken up her resolve of not eating meat to the next level. She is not eating anything, and as a result, is wasting. In-hye has left the artist husband (or maybe he has left her; I forget), and is now the only relative of Yeong-hye who visits her at the loony-bin, and watches helplessly her younger sister’s journey towards death.

The Vegetarian is a bleak and surreal story of a young South Korean woman, who finds it impossible to become a vegetarian, and goes mad. Whether Yeong-hye goes mad first and becomes vegetarian (I am not trying to suggest that madness is a prerequisite to becoming a vegetabalist; I am almost a vegetabalist myself; ‘almost’ because I eat fish), and the response of those around her, at times brutal, is in fact a response to Yeong-hye’s disturbed mental state (not that it’s justifiable, either), which is, until late, not recognised as such, and her increasingly eccentric behaviour is, therefore, regarded as  wilfully bad; or whether this unremarkable woman with tiny breasts is driven to insanity because of the society’s cruel response and refusal to give her the choice of what she eats, is difficult to say. If the latter is the case (and aim of the author), the novel becomes an allegory—allegory of people (perhaps women, if you are so inclined to think) not being given the freedom of an individual choice, with sad consequences for all concerned. I do not think that novel is literally about vegetarianism. I have not visited South Korea, and I regrettably do not know many (in fact, any) South Koreans to make a confident statement about the eating habits and preferences of South Koreans. I have, however, eaten in Korean restaurants (or restaurants, which advertise themselves as Korean; for all I know, they might be run by the Nepalese), and there are vegetarian options on the menu; hence I should hazard a guess that the South Korean society is not vehemently against vegetarianism, and does not, on the whole, think that vegetarianism should be treated as a deviancy.

It is always difficult to comment on the prose of a translated novel. All I can say is that the English translation is very competently done, and flows smoothly. There is some overtly sexual language in the second section (which features the pervert brother-in-law), but you won’t find me complaining about it.

The Vegetarian is an easy enough read, and zips along at a good speed. It is not the most riveting novel I have read this year, and, despite my pontifications about what the novel might be about, if I am honest, I don’t have a clue.




 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book of the Month: The President's Hat (Antoine Laurain)



The president, about whose hat is Antoine Laurain’s novel, is Francoise Mitterrand, France’s first socialist president. I had always thought that Mitterrand had a striking nose, but obviously he had an even more interesting hat. What is interesting about the hat? The hat has magical properties: it gives the wearer the confidence to do and say things they always wanted to do but lacked the courage. Now Mitterrand, in real life, was a charismatic and astute politician renowned, respected (and in some quarters) despised for his political manoeuvres. Whether Mitterrand’s personal qualities are absorbed, as it were, by his hat, which, when it gets on the heads of others, passes them on to its wearers; or whether the hat has magical qualities the first beneficiary of which is Francoise Mitterrand, and, when he loses the hat, others, is something about which one could speculate if one were so inclined (I am not).

There are a number of individuals who come into possession of Mitterrand’s hat, in the novel. The first one, who actually steals the hat, is an accountant called Daniel Mercier. Daniel finds himself next to Mitterrand’s table, when he is dining in a posh brasserie. While enjoying a sea-food platter and a bottle of pouilly Fuisee, which would put the likes of me in mind of a second mortgage (how much do the accountants in France earn?) Daniel hears snippets of conversation arising from the next table (“As I was telling Helmut Kohl last week . . .”), which leaves him quivering like a teenage girl who has been asked backstage after the concert by her favourite pop-star. When Mitterrand’s party leaves the table Daniel notices that the president has left behind his hat. He has to have the hat. Daniel walks towards the exit, non-chalantly, picking the hat (non-chalantly) on his way, and leaves the hotel (non-chalantly). Just like the teenage fan of the pop-star, as she makes her way towards the backstage, Daniel does not know what is in store for him. As it turns out, what is in store for Daniel is something unexpected (like the teenage fan) and pleasant (probably unlike the teenage fan). Next day, in a departmental meeting, Daniel finds the courage to stand up to his boss, dazzling, in the process, the company’s boss (and surprising himself) with his sharp ratiocinating, which, until then, he is unaware he possessed the ability of. Daniel gets the promotion, which means he has to move to another city. He is however distraught when he realises, upon reaching the city that he has forgotten the hat on the train. (Daniel, as the modern-day psychologists might put it, has an external, rather than internal, locus of control: he is unwilling to give himself any credit for his performance in the meeting; it’s all because of the hat). The hat Daniel has left on the train is picked up by a young woman named Fanny Marquant, who fancies herself as a writer. Fanny is also having an affair with a married man for two years, meeting him in seedy hotels in Paris, not having the courage to end the affair even though she knows fully well that the man has no intention of leaving his life and is only interested in her . . . er, fanny; she will always be the woman on the side. You don’t need me to tell you that the hat gives Fanny the courage to tell the philanderer to find sex elsewhere, literally and figuratively. You will have probably guessed what happens next. No, it is not what I think you are thinking. Fanny does not mislay the hat. She deliberately gives it up having made the moral discovery that it is wrong to hold on to something which does not belong to you. So Fanny puts the hat on a bench in a public park in Paris and settles on the opposite bench to see who picks it. As it happens the hat is picked up by an old tosser named Pierre Aslan, who used to be a famous perfumer who has been struggling to unplug a creative block worse than my blocked toilet, and living in the shaky hope that paying hundreds of pounds to a psychoanalyst (so another tosser) would help him to find some purpose to his life. It is not working. The psychoanalyst does not utter a word (except to tell when the session is over) while the perfumer free-associates. All that is about to end, though, I am happy to inform you. Aslan has come into possession of Mitterrand’s hat. Nothing, now, can possibly go wrong. Inspiration strikes Aslan faster than a lorry running into stationary traffic as the driver scrolls music channels on his mobile, and the perfumer is back in business. Would the perfumer manage to hold on to Mitterrand’s hat? Would Sun rise in the West? No, and no. Aslan, too, loses the hat, like its original owner, in a posh restaurant, and it goes into the hands, rather on the head, of a posh tosser named Bernard Lavalliere. Lavalliere’s social milieu consists of similar, dead-beat, wine-guzzling bourgeois tossers and layabouts, who are readers of French version of Daily Mail (so, non-believers in prisoners’ rehabilitation, agitators for the bringing back of the death penalty, and, in general, holders of political views to the right of Genghis Khan). Lavalliere, the old tosser, has been comfortable in the company of these other tossers all these years like a pig rolling in mud. But no longer. Mitterrand’s hat is on his head and the man, much to the disgust of his awful wife, is ready to lead the Labour Party (in case Jeremy Corbyn decides that he is required in Cuba now that Castro is dead). He even invests money in buying the paintings of the then-unknown (and soon to be dead) Haitian artist called Jean-Michel Basquiat. Then Lavalliere loses the hat. The difference this time is that he neither mislays the hat nor does he deliberately give it up; the hat is snatched from his hand. Who is the hat-snatcher? Why Daniel Mercier, of course, the original hat-thief. If you are consumed with the burning desire to find out how Daniel tracks down the rich tosser and what happens after, you will have to read this entertaining novel.

The President’s Hat is the literary equivalent of a relay race, where the hat, like a baton, passes from one character to another, bringing sunshine and good fortunes to the lives of its wearers. The transformation of each wearer into someone they either were not until then, or struggling to be, is almost magical. Whether the president’s hat has magical properties (Daniel Mercier, the first wearer, certainly thinks so) or whether the association with power makes you feel powerful is left to reader’s imagination (if you, like me, are lacking in imagination, you’d tend to follow the straightforward explanation: the hat has magical properties; and would not bother to ferret out an allegory). Similarly, if you are familiar with the French politics of the 1980s and what Mitterrand, Franc’s first socialist president, sought to change it, you might be inclined to see subtle political message.

The President’s Hat is a delightful, quirky novel, which zips along at an agreeable pace. The best thing about it is that it ends just when it has to (with a nice epilogue). You can stretch a conceit only so much.



Saturday, 1 October 2016

Book of the Month: The Courilof Affair (Irene Nemirovsky)




Irene Nemirovsky was a novelist of Jewish origin, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz, in 1942. A popular and prolific writer, Nemirovsky had published several successful novels in the decade prior to the German occupation of France. Banned from publishing her books because of her Jewish origin, Nemirovsky went into hiding in the small village called Issy-l’Eveque, together with her husband (a banker who was banned from working) and two young daughters. There, she began writing what she planned to be a five-part epic (inspired, according to some experts, by Tolstoy) even though she was banned from publishing. In July 1942 she was arrested and interred as a ‘stateless person of Jewish origin’—despite being a successful author Nemirovsky, whose family hailed from Russia (her father, a successful banker, had fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution), was denied French citizenship—in Pithiviers concentration camp, from where she was immediately deported, along with a thousand other Jews, to Auschwitz, where she died a month later, whether of Typhus or at the hands of the Nazis is not clear. Her husband, who tried frantically for his wife’s release upon her arrest, was himself arrested in front of his daughters, and was transported to Auschwitz where he was gassed to death. The two daughters owed their lives to a French Gendarme who asked them to grab whatever they could and run, when he came to arrest their father. The eldest daughter, who was 13 at the time, took a suitcase of her mother ‘because I knew it was important to her’. The daughters survived the war, and the suitcase remained in possession of the elder daughter for the next sixty years, unopened, as the daughter could not bring herself to go through what she believed was her mother’s personal diary. What the suitcase in fact contained was Irene Nemirovsky’s unfinished novel—she had managed to complete two of the five parts she had in her mind—which was published to great acclaim in France, and soon became international bestseller. It was inevitable that, in the wake of its success, Nemirovsky’s earlier novels would be re-issued, and, in due course, a slew of them arrived, one of which was The Courilof Affair, first published in 1933.

The backdrop of The Courilof Affair is the turbulent times in the Russian Empire that eventually led to the 1905 revolution and the establishment of the State Duma and the Russian constitution. The narrator of The Courilof Affair is Leon M—not his real name, we are told—who has kept a journal. In the journal, written almost thirty years after the event, Leon M tells of his part in the assassination of Valerian Courilof, the dreaded and much hated Minister of Education in the court of the Tsar Nicolas II. Leon M is a revolutionary, as were both his parents. Both his parents die before Leon M is ten—her father in prison, her mother in Geneva, of tuberculosis—and he is raised by the revolutionary party. Leon M does not tell the name of the party, but drops more than enough hints that he belonged to the revolutionary party that believed in the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and aimed to destroy the House of Romonovs. Keeping in with the philosophy of end justifying means the party approved of violence and killing as legitimate weapons against the oppressor. The assassination of Courilof, who is nicknamed ‘Killer Whale’ because of his brutality, is part of the party’s strategy to strike terror in the hearts of Imperialists. Towards this end, his assassination must take place in a public place and a very dramatic manner. Leon M is the person chosen to kill the ‘Killer Whale’.

Using false Swiss passport and identity, Leon M infiltrates Courilof’s inner circle and becomes his junior physician. He spends several months in the house of the Minister of Education, and discovers that the man he must kill when the final go-ahead comes from the party via his contact—a Jewish woman called Fanny—is dying. His liver is failing; the cancer, as Courilof himself describes at one stage, is eating him from inside as a crab. The minister can be irritatingly pompous and hypocritical at times, but he is a troubled soul. The intrigues in the court of the Tsar Nicholas II are at their peak, and the ministers are backstabbing each other to advance their careers and curry favours with the emperor. Courilof’s position has become precarious because of his second marriage to a French woman of low repute (of whom the Tsar disapproves), the love of his life, with whom he has had a long-standing affair before the death of his first wife. The more Leon M is made privy to the private world of Courilof, the more he comes to realise that the man who is depicted in the revolutionary circle as some kind of tendentious chimera is, in real life, an insecure, troubled, even pathetic, man, who, like his other colleagues in the ministry, is in thrall of the Tsar, and who, far from being nonchalant, is deeply upset by the deaths of young students who are agitating for political reforms and establishment of constitution. Leon M is therefore secretly relieved when in a palace coup Courilof is removed from his post by the Tsar, and is no longer the high-profile representative of the establishment whose very public killing would further the revolutionary party’s political goals. However, Leon M’s relief does not last long. In the intrigue-leaden world of the Tsar Nicholas II where there are more coups and countercoups than you or I have hot meals Courilof’s successor is soon removed from the post, and the Killer Whale is reinstated. In one last desperate bid, Leon M tells his party superiors very clearly that he no longer wishes to kill the Minister of Education seeing as he would not be living for more than a few months anyway because of his cancerous liver. Leon M’s request is denied and the novel moves inexorably towards its violent ending.

The Courilof Affair is not a thriller, even though it reads like one at times. Indeed, the entry of Leon M into Courilof’s inner circle, the event which helps to move the novel forward, is described unconvincingly, as are the descriptions of Leon M’s secret meetings with other revolutionaries as well as his contact. What Nemirovsky seems to be interested in is the study of human nature and character. When people are driven by ideas, they find it easy to view the world in black and white. The moment you start dealing with the human beings behind the ideas shades of grey begins to seep in. As Leon M wisely remarks (wisdom, no doubt, afforded by hindsight) ‘Each of us has weaknesses . . . One cannot even say with certainty whether a man is good or evil, stupid or intelligent. There does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done good . . .that’s what gives life its diversity, its surprises.’ Thus, while Leon M, sees no reason to give up his ideological opposition to what Courilof and his ilk represent, he comes to see the futility of the assassination.

Valerian Courilof is not an endearing character. He is a pompous and vain man who is addicted to power, although he always couches it in a grandiose talk of serving his country and his emperor. That is the reason why he stays in the country after he is removed from his post, even though he knows that he has only a few months to live and his second wife is begging him to live in France, and successfully machinates to reclaim his position. However, he is also capable of surprising his detractors by having qualities such as loyalty, courage, and even empathy: when faced with the choice of standing by his second wife or incurring Tsar Nicholas’s displeasure, he chooses the former, even though he knows that it would spell doom for his political ambition. When his wife asks him to do what he can for the mother of a sixteen year old Jewish boy who has been denounced by an agent provocateur, and put in prison where he dies, Courilof gives the woman monetary aid, in the full knowledge that his detractors at the court would use the gesture as a handle to beat him with.

The Courilof Affair is a densely atmospheric novel that is translated extremely well. In few, but effective, words Nemirovsky conveys the darkly sinister atmosphere that surrounds Courilof, which adds to the intended oppressive tone of the novel.

Irene Nemirovsky has been criticised by some as a ‘self-hating Jew’. Her stereotypical and unsympathetic portrait of the Jews in her debut novel, as also her decision to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1939 and publish stories in right wing journals with anti-Semite tendencies, are cited as examples supporting this theory. Her most famous novel, Suit Francoise, does not have any Jewish characters. The Courilof Affair has one Jewish character, Fanny, Leon M’s contact. It is Fanny who would eventually kill Courilof. This is how Nemirovsky introduces Fanny: ‘She was a young woman of twenty with a stocky built and black hair pulled over her cheeks like great side-burns; she had a long straight nose, a strong mouth whose lower lip drooped and gave her an obstinate, scornful expression. Her eyes were unique to women in the Party, eyes whose harshness and determination was inhuman . . . she was the daughter of a watchmaker in Odessa and sister of an extremely wealthy banker in St Petersburg who financed her education and wanted nothing more to do with her. Because of this her hatred of the wealthy classes took the concrete form of this little Jewish banker with his fat stomach.’ Fanny hates her brother not because he is Jewish, but because she feels abandoned by him. As for Nemirovsky’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1939, it can be seen as an attempt by an increasingly insecure woman to safeguard the future of her family rather than a sine qua non of her hatred towards the religion of her birth.

The Courilof Affair, according to the translator’s afterword, is based on an historical event: in 1901, a student named Karpovitch assassinated the former Russian minister of Education, Nicolai Bogoliepov. There were some other high profile killings around the time. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote a novel and a play respectively on the same theme, years after The Courilof Affair. By that time Nemirovsky was dead and her novels unavailable. It would remain forever a matter of conjecture whether Sartre, who would have been 28, and Camus, who would have been 20, when The Courilof Affair was published, were aware of the novel, and if so, were influenced by it. Probably not, as neither made a mention of Nemirovsky, and their treatment of the subject was different from that of Nemirovsky.

It is interesting how the same subject matter, in the hands of different artists, is treated differently. Though written more than seventy years ago, The Courilof Affair approaches the matter of terrorism, idealism, and the attendant moral issues, in a manner that will resonate with the modern minds.




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.