Sunday, 2 August 2015

Book of the Month: Inheritance (Nicholas Shakespeare)




Inheritance is the second novel of British writer Nicholas Shakespeare that I have read. Many years ago I read High Flyer, one of his early novels. I don’t remember much about it other than that it was a comedy of manners. It did not work for me and over the next few years I steered clear of his novels. I bought a couple (Dancer Upstairs and Snowleg) which attracted good reviews; the subject matter of Snowleg, set in Cold War Berlin, also interested me. Both these novels have been in my collection for many years but I have not yet got round to read them.

Inheritance is two novels in one. The first one, one with which the novel opens, is a modern day comedy of manners. Andy Larkham is a well meaning if slightly feckless assistant editor in a small-time publishing company called Carpe Diem that sells Self-Help books at bargain-basement prices. Bullied into accepting a low salary by his overbearing South-African boss Rian Goodman, Larkham leads an impecunious existence, depending on the weekly largesse from the only other employee in Carpe Diem, Angela, who is Goodman’s PA, to keep the creditors at bay. It is his lack of solvency that, Andy suspects, is the reason why his fiancée, Sophie (who is a model and earns a lot more than him), has dumped him (in a painfully funny scene where Sophie informs Andy of her decision to leave him over a dinner in his favourite Portuguese restaurant, for which she ends up paying, as Andy’s credit card is rejected; and he is further mortified to discover that the new man in her life was sitting at the next table all through their dinner, having been summoned by Sophie in case Andy created trouble). Then Andy receives a manuscript from his old school-teacher Stuart Furnivall. Furnivall has been an inspirational teacher for Andy. He is now retired and over the years Andy has kept in touch with him, although not as frequently as either would have wished. Furnivall, in his retirement, has produced a volume of work on the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, which he sends to Andy for his opinion. Andy, mired in editing self-help books (ranging in titles from good sex to efficient guide dogs) simply does not have the time to go through the voluminous manuscript, and he is not impressed by the first few pages he manages to read. Then Andy receives a call from another teacher informing him that Furnivall has died. Wrecked by guilt at not having kept in touch with his old teacher Andy decides to attend the funeral. Except that, upon reaching the crematorium late, he dashes into the wrong funeral, which he is too embarrassed to leave half-way through. He even ends up signing the condolence book. He is therefore flabbergasted to learn a few weeks later, from the executor of the will of the dead man, that by dint of accidentally attending the funeral of a man he had not known or met or heard of until then, he has become rich beyond imagination. The dead man decreed in his will that his vast estate be equally divided amongst whoever attends his funeral service. Since Andy was one of the only two—the other being a sour-faced old woman with Eastern European looks—he is the beneficiary of 17 million pounds.

How does one cope with sudden, unexpected riches which one realises at one level one does not deserve? Pangs to Andy’s conscience are not eased when he learns that the dead man, one Christopher Madigan, has a daughter who is not going to get a penny of her father’s fortune because she reached the funeral service just after it was finished and the pedantic executor refused to allow her to sign the condolence book. The daughter, Jeannine, has been estranged from Madigan for years; she visits Andy on a couple of occasions at his tacky London flat demanding to know how he had come to know her father who, for the last however many years of his life, led, as far as she was aware, an isolated, curmudgeonly existence. Thinking that the daughter intends to contest the will (and panicking) Andy embarks upon the most outrageous lie by weaving the story of his dead teacher and his interest in Montaigne into Madigan’s last years, and only just gets away with it thanks to Jeannine’s having had no contact with her father for several years (plus her total incuriosity about wanting to check—which she could have easily done had she chosen to by speaking to the other attendee of Madigan’s funeral, the old woman who is indeed Madigan’s housekeeper for several years—whether the kind of things Andy tells her about her father’s last years are in fact true). To Andy’s relief, Jeannine decides not to contest the will. He duly receives his manna, and, as the cliché goes, his life changes—for the better for all outward appearances. Andy has revenge sex with Sophie who tries to sidle back into his life; quaffs vintage red wines (a 1982 Petrus, a 1997 Sammarco); buys flash cars; donates his Le Corbusier chair and Warhols to charities; presents his friends with expensive gifts (a friend looks out of the window of his house one day to find a brand new Toyota parked in front of it), and laments that the friends do not appear sufficiently grateful—indeed the more gifts he showers on them the more sullen they become. Money, Andy discovers, can’t buy friendships, in fact it seems to repel his old friends from him.

Andy is curious to find out more about his benefactor. Not being able to find out much in the way of useful information other than that Madigan made his fortune in mines and probably had Armenian ancestry, Andy decides that the only way to find out more about the dead millionaire who seems to have existed below the radar (remarkable given his vast fortune which ought to have earned him a regular place in the Times’s yearly list of 500 richest people in England), is to speak to the man’s housekeeper, Maral, who, like him, has become excessively rich.

The narrative changes its tone and gear at this point. It becomes more sombre as Maral tells Andy the story of Christopher Madigan in a guesthouse in Cornwall, and how this rich man came to be estranged from his only child. Andy discovers that Madigan indeed was of Armenian descent and was born Krikor Makertich in the Syrian city of Appello, to which his grandmother had escaped in the wake of the 1915 Armenian Massacre in Turkey. Indeed Krikor is one quarter Turkish, as his father was born after his (father’s) mother was raped by a Turkish soldier. After his grandmother’s death the family moves to the Australian outback, carving out a hand-to-mouth existence. Young Krikor loses his heart to a young woman named Cheryl, the daughter of his Australian employer, only to be spurned by her family on the grounds that Krikor is not good enough for their daughter. Krikor, over the next few years, fortuitously makes his fortune in the iron ore, relocates to England, changes his name to Christopher Madigan, gets rid of his Australian accent, and leads a quiet life of a rich Englishman. Then he meets Cheryl, fortuitously (there are rather a lot of coincidences in the novel), in a pub where she is now working as a waitress, things having gone spectacularly wrong for her family financially. Her father ill-advisedly invested money in a scheme (that probably gave Bernard Madehoff the idea to start his ponzi scheme) and the fraudster who duped the family and to whom Cheryl was engaged disappeared. Makertich/Madigan marries Cheryl and in due course they have a daughter, Jeannine. Just when life seems to Makertich/Madigan the proverbial bed of roses, the fraudster makes a re-entry and Cheryl loses her heart to him for the second time. When Makertich/Madigan discovers his wife’s infidelity he blows off like an Iraq refinery bombed from above. Cheryl is given the marching orders; she is compensated financially on the condition that she is not to have any further contacts with their daughter. Of course it does not go to the plan. Cheryl manages to smuggle Jeannine away (due to a basic error of judgment from Maral, the housekeeper, which ensures that she will have a lifetime of guilt and regrets), and poisons her daughter’s mind against her father.

The narrative once again lurches into the present. Andy, having heard Madigan’s life story, decides that it is his duty to (a) come clean about the lies he told Jeannine about his non-existent friendship with her father and (b) redeem the dead man in the eyes of his daughter. That duly happens and it all ends well.

In Inheritance Shakespeare does not seem able to make up his mind whether he wants to tell a light-hearted, modern-day morality tale or a reflect on weightier themes such as what it means to individuals to feel that they belong, how people come to terms with loss, the consequences of decisions people make which come to haunt their lives, and the unseen hand of the unpredictable fate that shapes lives.

The novel starts off jauntily enough, and, as one reads the tribulations of the likeable, if hapless, Andy, one settles into the rhythm of the narrative, which is fast paced, and its tone, which is light-hearted. The tone and the pace shift so noticeably when the story of Madigan begins to unfold that you almost feel the jolt. While there is nothing wrong in giving the reader a jolt once in a while, the lengthy sections devoted to Madigan’s story give the novel a sense of disjointedness.

Christopher Madigan’s story is not lacking in drama; if anything it is too melodramatic at times. The circumstances in which Madigan loses the custody of his daughter to his faithless wife and the subsequent breakdown of his relationship with his daughter are, on the one hand very theatrical, on the other unconvincing. It stretches the limit of credulity to assume that a powerful multimillionaire simply goes along with the lie his ex-wife decides to tell their daughter—that he has left the family in England and gone to Australia when in fact he is living practically next door—and the daughter, even when she grows up, does not see through it. The conveniently recurrent appearances of the villain Flexmore (although it is not the only name by which he goes) at convenient junctures in Madigan’s life are almost too convenient. The only purpose, it seems, Flexomore has is to destroy Madigan’s happiness. The ruse Flexmore uses to lure gullible, unsuspecting individuals to part with their money is so crude (and a bit silly) that it is difficult to believe the novel’s projection of him as some sort of master criminal who has evaded the Interpol for decades.

Madigan’s Armenian ancestry and the historical background of the 1915 Armenian massacre provide no new dimension to the story. For all you care Madigan could have been Zlatan Bogdanovic from Serbia and it would have made no difference to the story. The baggage of history Madigan allegedly carries with him has no influence on his conduct or the trajectory his life takes (beyond him sending a chartered flight of aid when an earthquake strikes Armenia in the Soviet times).

Shakespeare, you get the feeling, is at his ease when describing the contemporary world of Andy Larkham; that is his forte. The prose flows smoothly in this section of the novel. It becomes heavy and belaboured when Shakespeare tells Madigan’s story through his mouthpiece—Maral. Maral speaks more like a character out of a Victorian drama than a twentieth century housekeeper. The prose, while free of stylistic and syntactic oddities which abound in the section starring Andy, has a contrived feel to it, but then the whole section has a contrived feel to it with coincidences coming thick and fast.

Inheritance is an easy enough and moderately riveting, if lightweight, read. The story is engaging enough despite being clichéd. Is it a morality tale? The wealth does not bring happiness and fulfilment to Madigan who dies a lonely man, but to Andy, in many ways an undeserving recipient of Madigan’s wealth, it brings happiness and fulfilment. If Inheritance is a parable the message is slightly warped. Six out of ten.
 
 
 

 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Greek Bailout: It's Going to Fail




Germany has approved of the latest Greek bailout terms, which would mean that Greece would be handed over £ 60 billion (86 billion euros). This means that Greece would be able to pay two of the creditors: the IMF and the ECB.
Should we celebrate? Certainly not. Should we heave a sigh of relief? I don’t think so.

The firebrand Greek Prime-minister, the forty year old Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s Left Wing party, Syriza, after holding a defiant referendum a couple of weeks ago, in which the Greek public overwhelmingly and decisively rejected the original terms and conditions of the bail out, described to them as humiliating (by Tsipras himself), essentially, capitulated and, after his victory in the referendum—if it can be called that—accepted terms and conditions that were, in many ways, more stringent and humiliating than the original ones. Tsipras came to power in Greece earlier in the year on the wave of anti-austerity feelings in Greece, which has seen her economy shrunk by 25% since the financial crisis. He tried to justify his capitulation by declaring, during the debate in the Greek parliament—which he won comfortably enough despite a significant rebellion by MPs of his own party, including the speaker, one  Zoe Constantopolou, who looked every bit as fearsome as the fearsome speech she delivered, in which she declared the day as the black day for democracy in Europe—by mouthing sentiments such as “It is better to fight an unfair battle than handing in weapons”, and that he had to make a choice between economic hardship and chaotic default.

Quite what weapons Greece currently has which Tsipras is loath to hand over to the enemy (Germany) is difficult to see. Also, he must have known the stark choices he faced even before the referendum. What purpose did the referendum serve, then? As has become clear, it did not serve any purpose. Tsipras was probably hoping (against hope) that a strong No vote by the Greek public would give him negotiating muscles in the bailout talks. That did not happen. The Germans are renowned for many things, but intellectual flexibility is probably not one of them. When Tsipras returned to Brussels, he was told—as he must have feared he would be, notwithstanding his public posturing—that there would be no let up. If he did not want to accept the conditions laid down by the Germans he should close the door on his way out.

So what exactly is the deal? This is the third international bailout Greece has received since the travails of that country began five years ago. This time round Greece will receive a total of 86 billion euros. What are the conditions? The conditions are very harsh, some might say punitive, notwithstanding the extension offered to the maturity of the debt by the debt by the EU. VAT discount will be abolished on the islands (which depend on the tourism for subsistence). There will be more VAT changes. Corporation tax will be increased, as would be the tax on ‘luxury items’. The pensions for the elderly (who have already seen a drop of more than 30%) will dwindle further. (And—shock! Horror!—the public sector workers cannot retire early and will have to work till 67, like they do in Germany.)

There should, however, be no doubt as to who is going to suffer the most by the latest wave of austerity measures launched by Germany: the poor. Public services will be severely affected.

Five years into the crisis there seems no end to the miseries of the ordinary Greeks.

As the IMF has (finally) said, the sheer enormity of Greek debt is such that it has now reached unsustainable levels. The IMF also said that the forecasts for the growth rate of Greece were unrealistic.

I read a few articles in newspapers that described how Greece, for all practical purposes, will become a protectorate of Germany, with little to no economic freedom, little control over its fiscal policies, and having to sell its public assets to pay her creditors. That is obviously a hyperbole, but at the core of every hyperbole is a kernel of truth.

It also raises the wholly legitimate question whether the latest austerity measures are going to do any good. They most probably won’t; they would make things considerably worse. There is every possibility that the continued austerity will only bring further depression, and the inevitable rise of the right-wing xenophobic element.

The Germans would do well to look into the past of their country, in particular what happened between the two World Wars, and the consequences of the victors imposing draconian measures on Germany after that country’s defeat in the First World War. In contrast, the treatment of Germany (OK, West Germany, as it was then), initiated by the Americans under the Marshall Plan, was very different, and yielded a very different outcome.

The terrible (and unnecessary) pain imposed on the Greek people is very difficult to understand (or even justify) in purely economic terms. They will not help the ordinary Greeks or the Greek economy, and, if the Germans think that they are going to get the money back any time soon—if at all—they are deluding themselves. It is highly likely that the Greek economy is not going to be robust enough for decades, at least, to pay the interests on the debts/loan, leave alone the loan. Greece has become an economic basket case. The Germans might as well flush the money down the toilet. (I suspect the austerity measures imposed on the Greeks serve no purpose other than quelling the Revanchist fury in ordinary Germans who are furious at the Greeks for what they (the Germans) no doubt see as their refusal to fess up. The Greeks are stereotyped as lazy, corrupt, dishonest people who don’t pay taxes, don’t want to work hard, don’t want to make any changes to their bloated and unsustainable public sector (as no doubt the Germans view it), and want to live in a Socialist utopia which is bankrolled by someone else (Germany). Does anyone notice similarities, here, with Scotland?)). Even if you subscribe to this stereotype, it beggars belief to assume that the Germans (that is the German politicians) were unaware of this when they allowed Greece to join the single currency in 2001, or whenever it was. The truth is Germany allowed Greece to join single currency, as if they were buying a cheap company (who would buy German goods). Or maybe, the German politicians fear that if they gave Greece an easy ride, other countries like Spain and Italy would demand similar treatment.

It is difficult to see how the unhappy union can last. It cannot last. And when it will eventually melt down—it’s only a matter of time—most people would think that it was a flawed concept to begin with. It was ludicrous to expect that different countries with very distinct national identities and vastly different economies would be able to work together under a single currency.




 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book of the Month: An Object of Beauty (Steve Martin)




Steve Martin is a seriously good comic actor, one of my favourites. Like Michael Cain, he has regrettably not been very choosy in the movies he selects, and has some ghastly films to his credit; however, when he is on fire, as in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which also stars Michael Caine) or Planes, trains and Automobiles (with the late John Candy), he is superb. When he is on song, there is a kind of manic energy in Martin’s performance which the audience gets sucked into.
In the last decade, Martin, described as ‘indecently multi-talented’ by The Sunday Times, has diverted some of that energy into writing novels, one of which (Shopgirl) was made into a film, I think.

With An Object of Beauty, his third novel, Martin turns his attention to the art world of painting.

An Object of Beauty creates for the reader the world of New York art scene where creativity and talent collide with cold commercial calculations; giant-sized egos of the artists are dwarfed by the elephantine egos of the art collectors; and where, once you have crossed a certain threshold, if you do not find a knife hanging between your shoulder blades, it is only because the price of selling you down the river was not high enough.

In An Object of Beauty, Martin, who is apparently well-known for his art collection, creates the world of fine art high jinks very vividly and entertainingly for the reader. Several works of arts and painters of greater and lesser reputations play important cameo roles in the narrative. Martin obviously knows what he is talking (rather writing) about. When you possess the technical knowledge of the subject, the temptation to dazzle the reader by showing off must be extreme. To his credit Martin is in total control and at no stage does the reader is made to feel inadequate. Thus, if you (like me) know next to nothing about the relatively lesser known twentieth century American painters like Milton Avery or Maxwell Parish, or the 19th century Russian painter of minor reputation (according to the novel) Ivan Aivazovsky, it does not matter. It does not matter because these works of art are not inserted in the novel as mere add-ons; they are weaved skilfully into the narrative and, in many instances help to propel the plot forward. It is not an easy skill.

Martin is at his satirical best while describing the art-parties and pretentions of the nouveau riches who go around hoovering up paintings so that they can have their personal art galleries, to which they invite gallerists and art-critics and bore them to tears with tiresome anecdotes, which are repeated at every party (and to which the assembled react every time as though they are hearing them for the first time).
If An Object of Beauty was only about endless (albeit witty and entertaining) descriptions of gallery openings, auctions of paintings, and the artistic differences between galleries on the East and West sides of New York, readers, barring those possessing an abiding sense of curiosity about the art world, would have lost interest. The novel would have been nothing but a collage of different elements which would have failed to cohere into a whole. That is not the case here. An Object of Beauty is a plot driven novel. Martin may take the reader on a tour of ‘classical’, ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ paintings, but he also has a story to tell; and he tells it with great pizzazz.

An Object of Beauty is the story of Lacey Yeager, who enters the world of New York art scene in the 1990s as a lowly paid minion at the Sotheby’s. Lacey is intelligent, focused, sufficiently ruthless, sexy, and not above using her oomph to get what she wants and reach where she wants to go. Where Lacey ends up, at the end of the novel, and almost twenty years after she first joined Sotheby’s, is where she started, having lost a fortune (and with it, fair-weather friends and acquaintances) during the stock market crash and global recession. However, in the intervening years, she has a hell of a roller-coaster ride, and the reader is with her at every twist and turn. Lacey’s story is told by a friend, Daniel Frank, an art-critic and a friend of Lacey from her college days, and who makes periodic appearances in Lacey’s story. He also plays an important, if peripheral, role—something that will cost him a relationship several years later—in Lacey’s rise in the art world.
If the above description has led you to believe that Martin has some sort of morality tale to tell, you would be wrong. Just as he stops himself from showing off his knowledge of the art world, Martin refrains from taking a moralistic stand on Lacey’s devilish behaviour. The novel is remarkable for its moral-neutrality. Indeed, despite her schemes and deceits, Lacey does not come across as a villainess. When she loses her business and fortune, just as she is nearing forty, you feel a twinge of sorrow for her and have no hesitation in agreeing with Daniel Frank who cannot think of a ‘personality less suited for being marginalised’. The flip side is Lacey does not really come alive for the reader; she remains, despite her plotting and witty repartees and a cunning ability to use sex as a tool to get what she wants, somewhat two-dimensional, a vehicle for Martin to deliver a satirical novel on the art-world and nothing more. An Object of Beauty is a novel dominated by its milieu in which the main characters are lost.

The prose of An Object of Beauty is a mixed bag. Martin keeps a steady supply of witty one-liners, frequently, to great effect. But the tone of the narrative is not even. At times the narration is sardonic, reminiscent of vintage McInerney (Bright Lights Big City, Story of My Life) and Bret Easton Ellis (Rules of Attraction), with its blistering insights and acerbic asides (when a millionaire French art collector, who is ten years older than Lacey,  becomes interested in her and clearly wants to marry her, Lacey, while she uses his connections to further her career, has no intention of settling down with him; one of the reasons why she wouldn’t settle with him is he is older than her, which means, she tells Daniel, that he would be 45 when she is 35, and would be 55 when she is 33, and, in due course would be 65 while she still was 33); but the tone is not sustained and, at times, becomes a tad pedagogic.
The multi-million dollar industry behind the paintings is a world beyond the reach (or imagination) of many. In An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin, with cheerful élan takes the reader on a lively tour of this world and, in the process, also delivers a well-plotted novel. Well worth a read.


 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

British General Elections 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

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

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