Monday, 27 February 2017

Book of the Month: Lights Out in Wonderland (DBC Pierre)




DBC (Dirty But Clean) Pierre (real name Peter Finley) won several literary awards with his debut novel, Vernon God Little, The Booker Prize being one of them. He also won the Whitbread (as it was called then) First Novel award. The novel had attracted mixed reviews, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember much of the novel, which read once it became available in paperback other than that it took me a while to get into it, but, once I did, I enjoyed it thoroughly; I thought the novel was very funny.

What I also recall about Vernon God Little is was an easy enough novel to read. Which, Pierre’s third novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, isn’t.

The protagonist of Lights Out in Wonderland is twenty-five-year old Gabriel Brockwell, the only child of middle-class, divorced, British parents. His father, before he took to Capitalism ‘like a paedophile’,  had travelled to Germany after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and, in the company of an East German, had run a club called Pego in the former East Berlin. When the novel opens we meet Gabriel in a private rehab, where he is admitted with his father’s money, determined to take his discharge so that he can commit suicide. Why does Gabriel want to kill himself? Gabriel wants to kill himself because he is disillusioned. Gabriel is anti-Capitalist, and is heavily involved in anti-Capitalist activism in the company of others who purport to loathe Capitalism with the same fervour as he. Except that they don’t, really, and are treating this enterprise as a way to earn money; which, to Gabriel’s horror, it does. So Gabriel is going to kill himself; but not just yet. He wants to have one last hurrah, the mother of all bacchanals (a word that gets repeated in the novel several times), before he removes himself from the human pool. He then flies to Japan, having siphoned off money from the account of his anti-capitalist organization—much to the disgust of his colleagues, all of whom, as we have seen, Gabriel regards as fraud, for they have accumulated money for the anti-Capitalist organization, using capitalist methods. Why Japan? Because Japan is where Gabriel’s childhood friend, a South African called Nelson Smuts, who has become a genius chef, a hybrid of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, works as a chef in the kind of restaurant where the likes of me would have to take out a second mortgage for an evening’s meal. Smuts, if it is possible, is even wackier than Gabriel. The hoity-toity Japanese restaurant Smuts works in specialises in barely legal (probably illegal) haute cuisine such as poisonous offal and ovaries of blowfish which, if you miscalculate the proportions (as Smuts does), and serve the wrong organ, can kill the diners instead of imparting delicious tingling to their lips. When the two rabble-rousers meet they waste little time in getting wasted on industrial quantities of cocaine and alcohol. The inevitable happens. Smuts serves the wrong fish or the wrong organ of the fish to one of the customers—a gangster, no less—who dies. This lands Smuts in prison facing charges of first degree murder, and Gabriel on his way to Berlin where he once lived as a child, in search of his father’s former business partner when the two of them ran Pego. Gabriel has been led to believe by his father that he did not cash in his part of the business when he returned to England from Berlin, and, technically, the German partner, Gerd, owes him money. Gabriel believes that through his contact with the partner, he would be able to host another bacchanal for the mysterious Frenchman Didier Le Basque, who specialises in arranging decadent parties for the uber-rich (read bankers and financiers) of such uber-decadence the likes of which are beyond the imaginations of you and me who think eating in Michele Rouex Junior is the height of sophistication. (How would arranging a decadent party at his father’s former club save Smuts? Don’t ask me. We are invited to consider that Le Basque is the provider of the illegal fish to the Japanese restaurant and, since the man has acquired outlandish wealth by arranging outlandish bacchanals with outlandish gastronomic themes for outlandishly rich clients at outlandish venues, he would be loath to part with the services of the outlandishly talented Nelson Smuts.)  

In the Berlin section, the novel becomes less surreal than—though as absurd as—the Tokyo section. Gabriel manages to locate Gerd in the about-to-be-closed Tempelhof airport. It turns out that Gerd owes Gabriel’s father nothing; it was, in fact, Gabriel’s father who fleeced Gerd off money and then legged it to England. Gabriel, despite hiccoughs (such as the disastrous night out with a German aristocrat—Le Basque’s middle man in German—, a couple of whores, and a basinful of illicit drugs), is, nevertheless, able to arrange the greatest bacchanal ‘since the fall of Rome’ with Le Basque’s money and contacts, which includes delicacies (the novel gives recipes, so the interested readers, if they have the means, could try them out) such as ‘caramelised milk-fed tiger cub’, ‘confit of Koala leg with lemon saffron chutney’, or ‘golden lion tamarin brain with blue cheese ravioli’; and the piece de resisatnce, ‘olive ridley turtle necks in parmesan and brioche crumbs’, the turtles, whose necks go into the delicious, mouth-watering recipe, being more than hundred year old protected species from Madagascar, from where Le Basque has smuggled them.

Lights Out in Wonderland, if it is a proof of anything, is the proof of how outrageously imaginative DBC Pierre is. The blurb on the hardback edition I read described the novel as ‘a sly commentary on these End Times and the entropic march towards insensate banality’. That’s about right, I think, even though I do not fully understand what it means. As you read the novel you can’t make up your mind whether the prose reflects the entropic banality (the words ‘nimbus’, ‘limbo’ and bacchanal’ appear on every other page) or is brilliant. I voted, in the end in favour of brilliance. The sentence structures are unusual, the choice of words interesting—all of which go on to give a kind of surreal feel to the narrative, which, I think, was the author’s intention. At times Pierre overdoes it (there is a section of the novel where the word nimbus appears in every second line), but, on the whole, it works. Just about.


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Donald




The Donald has had hectic few weeks since he entered the White House. (His Slovenian wife will join him in the White House in summer). The Donald has been busy and he has kept everyone busy.

Let me see. The Donald has quit the Trans-Pacific partnership (Ok, in reality it was mostly a symbolic gesture, as the Republicans were blocking it even before The Donald launched his assault on the White House). He is demanding a radical renegotiation of the North Atlantic Fair Trade Treaty (NAFTA), and, if his demands and authority are not respected, will pull out of that treaty, too, faster than a sailor out of prostitute. He is trying to impose a travel-ban on seven countries (not exactly beacons of democracy, it has to be said), the citizens of which, he is insisting, are waiting to enter America, explosives tied to their genitals, with the sole aim of wreaking havoc. The Donald was not pleased when a ‘so called judge’ had the temerity to put a halt to The Donald’s attempts to make America safe.

What else? Oh the wall. Let’s not forget The Wall. The Donald was not speaking metaphorically when he promised to build the wall between America and Mexico during his election campaign. He was as concrete as the wall he is going to build. Rather the Mexicans are going to build. The Mexicans are certainly going to pay for it. They think they won’t, but The Donald knows better. He will make the Mexicans pay for the wall. (He will probably also need Mexican labourers to build it.)

The Donald may or may not start trade-wars against an indeterminate number of countries (which may or may not include China). He has successfully bullied a handful of organisations from taking jobs out of America. Jolly good.

The Donald slammed the phone down (allegedly) on the Australian Prime-minister (not before shouting at the Aussie, allegedly) during a courtesy call, when the Australian Prime-minister had the temerity to suggest that The Donald honour an agreement about taking into America Muslim refugees (whom no one wants, least of all their home countries, it would appear) agreed by The Donald’s predecessor, Obama Barak. I should hazard a guess that interpersonal sensitivity is not a signature trait of The Donald.

I have a feeling that I am forgetting something. I know: global warming and climate change. The Donald, I can inform you, does not believe in man-made global warming; nor is he worried about climate change. That is not quite correct. The Donald is concerned about climate change only to the extent that it might make the American businesses uncompetitive. What has climate change got to do with the competitiveness of American business? The Donald can explain. Climate change, The Donald twitted back in 2012, is a conspiracy created by and for the Chinese to make American businesses weak and uncompetitive.

As regards global warming, The Donald says, “Relax!” There is no global warming. It is going to start cooling down any time now. In the 1920s (The Donald educated in an interview in 2015) people were talking about global cooling; they were worried that earth was going to cool down. Now some ninnies are beating their breasts about global warming. You can’t take any of this seriously. Life is too short to worry about this. We are all going to perish anyway, when the sun dies. What is a few millennia here and there?

As for the Europeans, if they thought that they could fool The Donald into supporting their free-loading life-style by namby-pamby notions of defending democracy, free world etcetera, just forget it. Europeans must learn to look after themselves. The Donald is going to make them cough up more money for NATO, if they want Americans’ cooperation. They can no longer expect America to bank-roll their security, that’s not gonna happen. There is an internal logic in The Donald’s thinking (he does that sometimes, the thinking). He thinks NATO is obsolete. He does not think that Russia poses great threat either to America or to the world peace. Putin, The Donald has declared, is a smart guy. So why pour money into NATO? You might as well flush it down the toilet. The shitty Baltic countries can look after themselves. If they can’t, well, that is just too bad. There are bigger enemies The Donald wants to dispose off first. Such as the Jihadists. The Donald is convinced that the Islamists pose the greatest threat to America. And he might need help of the Ex-KGB psychopath in getting rid of them. Together The Donald and Putin are going to smash the Allah brigade. The Europeans had better wake up to this reality, and adjust. If they want to carry on with their silly feuds with Putin, well, don’t expect The Donald to side with them just because all the previous American presidents did. Have they not yet got into their brains? The Donald is anti-establishment. Before he smashes up the camel-jockeys he is going to smash the American establishment and its liberal mentality, which brought nothing but strife to the rednecks. (On the plus side it also brought The Donald to the White House).

It has to be accepted that The Donald has brought with him (at least for the time being) a degree of optimism; and not only amongst the hill-billies, but amongst the American businesses as well. This confidence is reflected in the impressive 6% rise in the S & P 500 index since The Donald stormed into the White House. No doubt the hope is that there would be tax reforms (read: cutting of corporate taxes). The companies would bring home profits stolen in the past few years by the Asian economies because Obama et al did not have the balls to tell these thieves where to get off. Once that happens what is to stop a domestic spending boom? The Donald has already promised investment in the infrastructure. The wages which have been stagnant for years will at last increase.

That is the hope. Let’s see how The Donald executes this. The world will know about it on the twitter before probably the Federal Reserve does.

Where does all this leave Great Britain, heading inexorably towards what Theresa is now calling a ‘clean’ Brexit? The British have decided to leave the Single European Market; and they will have to leave the customs union so that they can negotiate individual treaties with individual nations. (With Dr Liam Fox, the trade secretary, in charge what could possibly go wrong?) We shall see. The Brexiters doled out copious (and inherently contradictory) promises (as opposed to the abundant threats issued by the Remain camp), and now it is May’s job to execute the will of the British public. Call it a wide guess, but I don’t think that the majority of those who voted for Brexit for myriad reasons (including but not limited to their hatred for the foreigners) would accept becoming poorer as a result of their stupid decision. And if they do, May will pay for it. (Except she won’t, as we have a useless crumpled suit as the opposition leader, who has made the Labour unelectable till 2030. He told Jon Snow of Channel 4 in an interview that, of course, he wants to be the prime minister, with all the enthusiasm of a man ordered to approach a poisonous rattle-snake.) On the evidence so far, May will find cards overwhelmingly stacked against her when the negotiations begin. Many in Britain, both who voted for Remain and Brexit, alike, appear to labour under the belief that the UK will be in the driving seat while negotiating Brexit, which, I think, is a bit like hoping that goat sent into the Lion’s cage will have negotiating powers. And I am not sure that issuing crude threats to the EU leaders, as she did in her speech in January 2017, when she at last made her vision for Brexit clear (immigration control and controlling the border were more important than staying in the single market), is likely to yield the desired results.

However, May and her colleagues can take heart from the knowledge that The Donald approves wholeheartedly of Brexit. He predicted it, remember? He can’t wait to sign off a trade-deal with Great Britain, which, the great protectionist The Donald is, would be entirely fair, rest assured. There would be no winners, and the trade agreements would be mutually beneficial to both the countries. I listened to BBC Radio 4, the other day, to the nasal twang of an American dude from the farming industry, a big-shot, apparently, somewhere in the South, assuring Sarah Montague (who refused to be assured) that there was absolutely no problem in eating chickens that had basinful of hormones injected into their asses—he grew up eating the hypertrophied thighs and breasts of these animals, and he turned out all right, didn’t he?—or chomping on pig’s scrotum (or some such body part) bathed in chlorinated water. The American was followed by a British farmer, who, true to form, displayed an impressive talent for moaning. He fretted that the Americans would have undue advantage over the British farmer if the British farmers were not also allowed use hormones in doses high enough to give the chickens tumours. Did he have any evidence to support this? Of course not; he was just concerned. In anticipation. As I listened to the moan-fest, I wondered about the possible difficulties the British farmers were going to face if they were expected to compete with the American farmers for the domestic market, being forced to use the same methods as those of the American farmers (not that the British bloke had any qualms about it) and having to export meat to the EU, with its regulations longer than the treaty of Versailles. (This, of course, assuming the Americans are allowed to export the tortured carcasses of farmyard animals to the UK.)

May was the first world leader to visit after The Donald was ensconced in the White House. She crossed the Atlantic, more needy than a smack-head desperate for a fix, for rendezvous with The Donald.  She tried not to retch as The Donald grabbed her hand (he was going to grab something; we are releived that it was only the hand). The UK was never more in need to be reassured of the special relationship than now. The Donald was as reassuring as his nature would permit. Trade deals? No problem. We will wrap it up in no time. Just as he had promised a hotelier in Scotland that he would lift the ban on Haggis (“Consider it done!”) It is not clear how far up The Donald’s list of priorities Britain is, though, considering less than one sixth of America’s import come from Britain. Britain exports far more to the EU than to America at present. So, when we crash out of the EU we had better hope that The Donald’s attention span will be long enough to remind him that the tiny island has a special relationship with America.

Deciphering The Donald is not easy. Like that intellectual giant, the last Republican president, George W Bush, The Donald deals in absolutes. There are good guys and bad guys. And The Donald is with the angels on every issue. And he is here to stay. At least for the next four years, unless he loses interest and jacks it in (no, he will not be impeached; don’t raise your hopes). As Cassius Clay once said, he ain’t half as dumb as he looks.



Monday, 30 January 2017

Book of the Month: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie




Ifemelu, the feisty protagonist of Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, has views on most things, and, not having been blessed with much in the way of frontal control, Ifemelu does not shy away from airing her views, which, more often than not, amount to acerbic animadversion: be they her dismissal of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which, apparently, is all about the battered self-image of an Indian man, fatally wounded about not being born a European, or the racism—in particular those of the liberals—in America.

There are lots of characters in Americanah, but at its centre are Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts, both belonging to the educated Nigerian middle-class, Obinze, being the child of a university professor, perhaps a few rungs higher than Ifemelu. Obinze and Ifemelu both want to migrate to America. Why? They are not starving or fleeing war or starvation, as Ifemelu admits at one point. They both are “raised well”. Yet they want to immigrate because they are fleeing “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” in Nigeria. Such examples as are given of the lack of choice available to the young and educated protagonists include recurrent strikes in Nigeria and the obligatory corruption scandals (both of which are, of course, unheard of in Europe or America). So Ifemelu and Obinze wish to escape Nigeria and find a haven of satisfaction and fulfilment in America, except that Ifemelu ends up, as planned, in America, while Obinze travels to England. Neither finds the conditions in the countries to which they have immigrated quite up to their satisfaction. Indeed, as their story unfolds—Ifemelu spends many years doing menial jobs as a nanny and au pair; Obinze is a manual labourer. Both do illegal things to make ends meet, Obinze even attempting a sham marriage after his valid visa expires in order to extend his stay in the United Kingdom—you wonder whether the “lethargy of choicelessness” in Nigeria would have been all that worse than the shadowy, humiliating, soul-destroying lives they lead in America and England. Obinze, who is less irritating of the two main protagonists—probably because he does not hold clichéd views about the country to which he has chosen to spend his life in—is caught at the registry office just when he is about to declare his marriage to a woman of Angolan-Portuguese descent, and is deported back to Nigeria. Obinze accepts his fate without protestation. He does not fight the deportation citing human rights abuse; and, upon his return to Nigeria, does that which he could have done without travelling to the United Kingdom to do back-breaking work in a warehouse: he becomes the middle-man of a local big man—a property developer more dodgy than the donor kebab in your local Turkish Takeaway—and becomes filthy rich. He marries a good Nigerian woman who has child-bearing thighs, who goes to the local Church, and responds to Obinze’s every wish as a dictate from the Holy Trinity. What more can a man want? In Obinze’s case, he wants Ifemelu, who, after she went to America, inexplicably (to Obinze) dropped him. Ifemelu, in America, has done somewhat better than Obinze (she does not get deported, for a start): she lands a job with a liberal white family as an au pair (and repays the awkward kindness shown her by her employer by nursing a smouldering resentment); then hooks up with a stinking rich nephew of the mother of the children she is looking after. When the nephew ditches her (because she is unfaithful) Ifemelu gets together with an African-American academic faster than a stripper in Devil’s Advocate gets out of her outfit. All of this leaves Ifemelu with plenty of time and energy to run a blog about race (“Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks”), which is a perfect outlet to give vent to the negative energy—a radioactive fusion of feud and resentment, fostered by Ifemelu’s talent for ferreting out insults and snubs by the whites, when probably none is intended—which Ifemelu possesses in abundance. In this blog—which becomes more popular than that of the woman who wrote Eat Praay and LoveIfemelu writes on topics such as Barak Obama (yawn), her relationship with her white boyfriend (yawn, yawn), the difference between African-American and American-African (honestly, do the majority of the African-Americans or American-Africans care?), and hair of the Africans (rather a lot on this topic: that the majority of African-American (or American-African, for that matter) women do not allow the hair to grow into a natural afro and endure unspeakable miseries and hardship to make them soft and straight, is down to the racism of white folk—don’t ask me how; I didn’t get it either). In the blog, Ifemelu makes profound observations such as she did not realise that she was black in her native Nigeria, and how she fit the description only after she arrived in America (probably because, unlike America, Nigeria is not a multi-racial, multi-cultural society—surely, this would not have escaped Ifemelu’s notice). Finally, Ifemelu, too, returns to Nigeria, where—guess what?—she decides, eventually, to start another blog (an idea that evidently did not occur to her before she went to America and lived illegally). She reignites her relationship with Obinze, who, unsurprisingly and notwithstanding his wife’s child-bearing thighs (perhaps because of them), is still holding out a candle for Ifemelu. As this sprawling novel comes to an end, the reader is reasonably certain that Ifemelu has wrecked Obinze’s marriage.

Ifemelu exists on the most captivating edge of cynicism when it comes to race, although you get the impression that she can’t be truly sardonic: despite her outward scornful and mocking disposition, Ifemelu does seem to be in touch with her emotions, and her various actions throughout the novel suggest that she is also a hard-nosed realist. In other words, in Ifemelu, Adichie has valiantly tried to create a character that is complicated: witty, mordant, intelligent, outspoken, but also with its vulnerable side, all of which ought to make Ifemelu the kind of girl-friend every red-blooded man with higher than average IQ would wish for, the kind of girl-friend who would fulfil all your dirty desires in bed, and, afterwards, hold an intellectually invigorating discussion with you on the race-relations in America, making provocative statements, if you happen to have an interest in the matter.

Americanaha attempts simultaneously to be a love story as well as a commentary on the race relations in America from the eyes of an immigrant (hence the distinction between African-American and American-African), but manages, regrettably, to do neither convincingly. The key event in the novel that makes Ifemelu sever contact with Obinze is unconvincing, not least in light of the trajectory of Ifemelu’s life after this supposedly seminal event. As for the various observations focusing on the attitudes of whites, their hypocrisies and unconscious prejudices, towards blacks, these are, no doubt, intended to be incisive, pithy, trenchant etcetera. To be fair to Adichie, they are all of these at times; however, for the most part they seem just shallow, banal and petulant. It is impossible to draw generalized conclusions based on these observations, which rarely rise above the cliché. Ifemelu, you get the impression, is, forever, like the first year university student who is trying oh-so-hard to be interesting, cool, and different from the rest. She is mildly amusing in the beginning; afterwards she grates on your nerves.

The strength of the novel is Adichie’s prose, which flows smoothly and, and times, manages to be sharp and observant. That, however, is not good enough, I am afraid, to shift the novel out of the second lane. This is not a novel that is generous in its tone. It lacks poignancy. It also lacks drama. It is not a novel that makes you think, something which Sir Vidiya’s novel did with great success.
































































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.