Sunday, 7 December 2014

Boy Done Good

I heard the 2014 Booker Prize winner, the Australian novelist, Richard Flanagan, in a literary programme a few years ago. I had heard his name and had even a novel of his in my collection, Gould’s Book of Fish (but only because I had got it for a couple of quid in a second-hand bookshop, and the title and premise had seemed interesting) which I had not got round to read. Indeed the only reason I attended the Richard Flanagan's talk was because I had bought the ticket for the whole programme for a discount.

Flanagan informed the audience with pride he made no attempt to conceal that his people were convict people. They had all been sent out during the famine to the gulag of the British Empire that was Tasmania. The land was originally called Van Demon’s Land, and the name remained until, I guess, it ceased to be a gulag. Flanagan was born in Longford, a village with a population slightly less than that of the backstreets of East End of London. Longford was the place where Flanagan’s great great grandfather was sent for stealing corn worth eight pounds (given what eight pounds at the height of famine would be worth nowadays, it was probably a robbery). Flanagan’s father was a primary school teacher and, when Flanagan was three, was posted to Rosebury, an isolated mining town with a population even less than that of Longford (so not really a town), five miles away from civilization in every direction (imagine Norfolk).

Flanagan went on to inform the audience that, disgracefully, he always wanted to become a writer, which, he acknowledged, made no sense. He even wrote a letter to his sister when he was six, informing her that he wanted to be a writer. The conclusion is ineluctable: Flanagan was a child prodigy. He didn’t inform his parents, however, until he was well into his twenties, about the career he had chosen (probably because he was worried what his mother’s reaction would be, as she had set her heart upon Flanagan becoming a plumber). Be that as it may, once Flanagan decided to become a writer he had to leave Tasmania. “Why?” I hear you asking. I have no idea. If it helps Flanagan couldn’t provide a satisfactory explanation either in the programme, although that was not, going by his facial grimaces when he discussed it, because of want of trying. You just could not do literature in Tasmania, and that is that. You could be a labourer or a goatherd (or a primary school teacher) in Tasmania, but if you wished to become a writer, you had to go to Europe and America. Trying to become a writer in Tasmania was like having your teeth checked by Shane MacGowan. No sane person would do it. So that’s what Flanagan did, or didn’t do. He came to England, Oxford to be exact, on a Rhodes scholarship. It was in Oxford that Flanagan started writing and getting published. He wrote history books, even though what he really wanted to do was to write a novel (which would with the Booker Prize one day), because it was apparently easy (or easier) to publish history books.

After the stint in the grimy, grey and flat England, Flanagan returned to Tasmania and (since the money he earned from the history books would not have bought a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe) he started labouring. Literally. He worked as a labourer through the winter and a river guide through summer. He hadn’t given up on his ambition to become a writer, though, and, through a friend, managed to get paid $ 10,000 to write the story of a Bavarian criminal. The German had defrauded the banks in Europe of hundreds of millions of dollars, and, after escaping to Australia and being subjected to the biggest manhunt in Australian history, was eventually caught and sent to prison, where, entirely expectedly, he was offered a huge contract to write his story, which he had accepted. The slight trouble was the man could not write. That is where Flanagan stepped in and started inventing the criminal’s life story in a Hobart Cafe. Could he not have, like, interviewed the German? Well, no; because the criminals blew his brains out before he was to appear in court, which was within a few weeks of Flanagan trousering his ten thousand dollars.

Flanagan’s first published novel was The Death of a River Guide, which, Flanagan disarmingly informed the audience, did not attract rave reviews from the critics. But, what do the critics know? The readers loved the novel, kept on buying it, which meant that the publishers had no choice but to publish reprints of the novel. Tough, but such is life.

Flanagan’s second published novel was The Sound of One Hand Clapping. (If you want to know how that can be possible, you would need to read the novel.) Flanagan focused on the Eastern European migrant community (Slovanian, in this case) in the novel. Flanagan nearly won a prize for this novel, but was pipped to the post by a novel which was about a Ukranian mass murderer. The novel was written by one Ukrainian writer named Helen Demidenko, except that she was not Ukrainian and was not Helen Demidenko. Her real name was Helen Darville and she was the daughter of an English nurseryman. That Demidenko/Darville cheated him out of a prize obviously rankled with Flanagan after all these years. He described the Demidenko/Darville’s novel as an anti-Semitic work that read like a pornographic comic book, and added, incredulity written all over his face, that the literary establishment loved it. (Maybe the novel indeed was as poor as Flanagan thought it was. Let’s hope that he will be in a more forgiving mood towards Demidenko/Darville’s novel after The Narrow Road to the Deep North was lapped up by the critics.)

Flanagan’s next novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, is the one he was most famous for (until The Narrow Road to the Deep North came along). Flanagan had never heard of either Gould, a convict called William Gould, or his book comprising 28 water colour paintings of fish. The archivist who made Flanagan aware of the existence of the book had hidden the book (also named as Gould’s Book of Fish) in a cupboard. Apparently no pictures of convicts incarcerated on Sarah Island (where William Gould served his sentence) are available and, as Flanagan looked at the paintings of fish, it seemed to him that the convict Gould was trying to smuggle some sort of experience out of the island through the eyes of these fish. The idea of the book came to him instantly. He knew that each chapter of the novel would begin with one of the pictures of the fish. This book took off and—Flanagan had no hesitation in declaring this—became a monster across the globe. This was a fun book for Flanagan, but he did not want to be imprisoned in it. So his next book was the incredibly bleak (by his own admission) novel describing the unsafe paranoid world we have come to inhabit after 9/11 (The Unknown Terrorist). (It always amazes me how many of us in the Western world made the discovery for the first time that the world is paranoid and unsafe after 9/11. If I make so bold as to point out, the world was always paranoid and unsafe; a modicum of research would reveal that people in different parts of the world were always getting massacred and meeting horrific deaths, before 9/11.) This book, too, was a big hit and a best seller in Australia, though it received mixed reception from the critics.

The programme I attended was really about what at that time was Flanagan’s most recent novel, entitled Wanted, but, by the time Flanagan came round to talk about it, my concentration, which, at the best of times, has a shorter span than that of the fish in one of Flanagan’s novel, was wavering (the interviewer’s proclivity to ask very long-winded questions, matched by Flanagan’s proclivity to give longer winded answers might also have something to do with it, as also the captivating spectacle of the man sitting in the front row showering dandruff on his collar every time he moved his head).

I left the literary programme thinking to myself that I should read Gould’s Book of Fish, which seemed like an intriguing novel. And forgot about it (and its author) until this year when it was announced that Flanagan had won the Man Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North last month. I must confess that I wasn’t swept away by it—and neither did I notice (therefore appreciate) the lyrical quality of Flanagan’s prose (about which the interviewer in the literary programme had talked a lot, making faces as if he was trying desperately not to burp)— but I thought that it brought to the fore the ironies and futilities of life in a manner that made you think. You can’t say that about many books. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book of the Month: May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)

May We Be Forgiven, American writer A M Homes’s 2012 novel, starts brilliantly. Harry Silver, a Jewish underachieving academic (there is no cause and effect, here), a Nixon scholar, married to an American-Chinese woman, who is more successful (that is she earns far more money than Harry), is having a Thanksgiving dinner with the family of his younger brother, George. George, of whom Harry is secretly jealous, is a successful executive in a television company and—it is a job requirement, really—is an aggressive psychopath who likes to brag. So that’s what George is doing at the dinner table. Talking about himself while “picking turkey out of his teeth”. Harry is toing and froing between the kitchen and dining room, as Claire, his Chinese-American wife, is sitting at the table listening to George’s self-aggrandizing talk and George’s teenage children are sitting like “lumps” at the table, “as if poured into their chairs”, “truly spineless”, their “eyes focused on the small screens” in front of them. Its Jane, George’s wife, who is helping Harry clean up in the kitchen. Then Jane cosies towards Harry and plants a kiss, “wet, serious and full of desire” on George. Fast forward a few months. George jumps a red traffic signal and rams into another car, killing the couple in the car on the spot though their young son survives. George has what the psychiatrists describe as a breakdown and is wheeled into the local hospital. Harry is dispatched by Claire to help George and Jane. Harry takes his job way to seriously and begins comforting Jane in George and Jane’s marital bed while George is undergoing psychiatric evaluation in the hospital as his lawyer tries to figure out whether the charges against George can be mitigated by a diagnosis of psychiatric illness. One evening, much to Harry’s discomfort, George arrives at the house (it is after all his house), having taken his discharge against medical advice, and finds Jane and Harry in the master bedroom without any clothes on and so close that no light can pass between them. George picks up the heavy bedside lamp and swings in the general direction of the head of his unfaithful wife; then he swings again. The lamp makes contact on both occasions and Jane’s head is a squishy mess of broken chips of bone, hair and grey matter. Now George is in serious trouble, and is wheeled off to the locked loony bin for the criminally insane. Claire discovers Harry’s infidelity and gives him the marching orders. The head of the university where he teaches “Nixon” gives Harry the news that comes as a surprise only to Harry: no one is interested in learning about Nixon, and Harry would not be required from the next semester onwards. Not exactly the circumstances that would put you in the frame of mind to take on the guardianship of your nephews whose mother's speedy dispatch off to the next (not necessarily better) world was substantially assisted by your bedroom callisthenics with her in the moments leading to her death. But that’s what Harry ends up doing. It is a responsibility for which he is ill-prepared, not having any children of his own; and, to be sure, he finds himself in unexpected, not to say tricky, situations, such as advising on telephone his niece who has started menstruating which “hole” to insert the tampon into (she has inserted into the wrong “hole”), and organizing his nephew’s bar mitzvah in a South African village the nephew has “adopted”. Then there is Harry’s mother, stagnating in a nursing home and losing the last of her marbles to the inexorable march of dementia. George, the psychopathic killer, has been shifted from the high secure mental hospital to a scheme that looks more dodgy than the money laundering capers one reads about in the Daily Mail.  In the middle of this hectic itinerary, Harry has to find time to sexually satisfy mentally unstable housewives and random women he meets in local supermarkets, more horny than a rabbit on Viagra. When the novel ends, 365 days (and 500 pages) later, Harry is in charge of a whole gaggle of children (including the hyperactive kid whose parents George killed before he decided to treat his wife’s head as a golf ball), and a village in South Africa that seems to subsist nicely for months on the pocket-money Harry’s nephew sends them by saving on his ice-candies. Does Harry grow up emotionally and is a better person at the end of the year more topsy turvy than the helter skelter in the village fun-fair? You certainly hope so.

May We Be Forgiven is a sprawling, frequently meandering, tale with a large cast of characters. There are several strands to the plot, some of which—for example, Harry’s expertise on Nixon and his involvement with the Nixon’s family who has found a stash of manuscripts of short stories the disgraced former president of America allegedly wrote—sit uneasily in the bigger story, while some others—such as Harry’s dementing mother who is having a nookie with a man of advanced years—much to the disgust of his daughters—probably do not effectively serve their intended purpose, which, I thought, was to depict Harry’s slow maturation as a person and re-establishing dwindling family ties, although they are, undoubtedly, funny.

There are a lot of whacky characters in May We Be Forgiven (rather like Homes’s earlier novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, which was a great commercial success). As a result, the novel has a surreal, almost absurd, feel to it. In an interview Homes commented that she believed that we lived in moment when reality itself was somewhat surreal. What she appears to have tried in May We Be Forgiven, with considerable, if uneven, consistency, is capture the oddity and inexplicability of daily life. The narrative pitch is (deliberately, I think) kept an octave high to arrest the reader’s attention. The novel seems plot-driven at the beginning, but after that the story becomes somewhat picaresque; however, such is Homes’s control over the pace of the narrative that the reader carries on turning the pages, plunging more and more into Harry’s life which seems increasingly adrift.

What also raises May We Be Forgiven above the mundane is Homes’s great feel for dialogue and her black humour.  Some stretches of dialogue are side-splittingly funny; they could easily fit into a comic sketch. Life, Homes once remarked, can be so painful and disturbing that if one has to survive it, one has to find humour in it. The novel is not a satire, but what it manages with appreciable success is to combine the serious with the comic, and in the process tells the story of the redemption of a cold, emotionally distant man.

May We Be Forgiven, despite its flaws, is a gloriously readable, wickedly funny and uplifting read. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Groups

I must admit to several character weaknesses in my personality make-up. Call me squeamish, but I don’t like confrontations. I go out of my way to avoid confrontations. I am also a creature given to contradictory, usually short-lived but very genuine, enthusiasms. I have a near-compulsive need to rationalise; I try with the best of my abilities to put myself in others’ shoes; I try to understand; I attempt to find reasons when there are no reasons to be found; and then I try to convince myself, against my better judgment, that what is clearly unpalatable will be palatable if only I tried harder. The result, more often than not, is I end up making decisions I regret even as I am making them. I agree to do things I know I will hate even as I agree; and I accept things every rational part of my brain is screaming I should be treating with the same suspicion with which Prince Philip approaches the extended hand of an Australian aboriginal.

I have been a member of a book group for more than a year. Don’t ask me why I agreed to join the group (see the paragraph above). Essentially I could not say no when a friend of a friend invited me to join. To be honest I was also flattered—like when an unattractive teenager with spotty face and dandruff on his collar is asked out by the attractive girl in the class with bouncy bust, he is secretly lusting after—when he said he and his book-mates would be very honoured if someone like me who was such a voracious reader joined the group. I got a bit carried away. I thought that in these monthly gatherings to discuss literary fiction I—the voracious reader—would dazzle the other members with my searing comments, mordant wit and incisive insights. 

A year down the line, I am regretting the decision. It was a mistake. It was never going to work. When a group comprises more than half a dozen individuals, it is impossible that they will have the same taste in reading. Now, you might say that that’s a good thing. People, in such groups, will suggest different genres, and you’d read books you’d otherwise not have read.

That is exactly my problem. I have been reading books in the past one year I’d have not read otherwise, and, reading them has confirmed to me that I was right in avoiding them all these years. I do not buy this argument that it is good once in a while to read books that won’t be on your usual reading list. Taste in reading is a bit like taste in wine. If you don’t have the taste for it, no amount of trying is going to make you like the vinegar that is passed for a wine in California.

Then there are the members of the book-groups.

One of the group members relishes in describing himself as a “working class boy from East End of London”. I don’t know what he does for living (he works for some charity, I think), but he gives autumn parties, books tickets for the first day of the Ashes tests, drinks  white chateauneuf du pape, and is a member of a frigging book club. But he refuses to consider himself even an honorary member of the middle classes. The man does not strike me as mentally privileged and his command over English is shaky at best.  Probably for these reasons he claims to hate middle brow fiction. Which basically is any novel that is literary and does not have gruesome murders in it. Sometime ago we discussed The Good Soldier. The man read the first ten pages of the novel and apparently lost the will to live. He could not carry on. It’s a matter of regret that he did not kill himself.  That’s what he does with any novel that challenges his attention span, and announces in the meetings that the novel was full of “middle class nonsense” and he simply could not read such tosh. He gets on my nerves. He is forever suggesting novels of writers like Carl Hiaasen and George Pelecanos. A couple of months ago, probably just to have a break from his moaning, the group agreed to read a George Pelecanos novel called The Cut. Words fail me to describe how awful the novel was. It really had no redeeming features. It was an easy read, but, since I am not a fast reader, I still wasted four days finishing it. When the group met, it turned out that the majority had not liked it. A few members laid into the novel, and I actually found myself arguing that the novel was not as bad as that; that it had some witty dialogues; and that there was a semi-believable depiction of the soft underbelly of Washington D.C., the city in which apparently majority of Pelecanos’s novels are set.

This brings me to my second problem. In the past one year I have not managed to dazzle the group with my searing observations and mordant wit. Indeed I have not managed to say much at all in the meetings. There are a few reasons for this. It seems to me that for some group members the ability to listen to others is about as useful, in this day and age, as the ability to make fire with twigs. It is not necessary; they can do without it. As soon as the discussion opens these guys launch into their monologues as if a yearlong curfew on speaking has just been lifted for a few hours. They are fluent, I will grant them that. (Do they rehearse in front of the mirror what they are going to say in the meeting?) Some of them have done creative writing courses and, even though they have not got round to publish even a short story, they use lots of technical words with the relish of a gynaecologist explaining hysterectomy procedure to his patient. It is not that they don’t have a point. Unlike the “working class boy from East End of London” some of these guys have an interest in reading. (The “working class boy”, I suspect, comes mainly to eat, and also because he has probably heard that sophisticated, cultured people join book groups, although he would soon shoot himself between the eyes than accept that he wants to be cultured and sophisticated.) But they talk too much, probably working on the principle that it is a sin to be precise and concise when you can waste five times the required number of words. They are tireless and tiresome. As they drone on I try to keep myself awake, as I poke about my pepperoni pizza, by thinking imaginative questions such as why only fingernails continue to grow while the rest of the body stops, and whether the plump waitress sashaying seductively between tables (although for all that sashaying not great in the tits department) and wearing improbably tight trousers would burst an artery in her pelvis. On the rare occasion when I manage to get a word in edgeways, I, to my disgust, find myself saying mealy mouthed wishy-washy things which are vaguely complimentary. Even when I have not liked the novel (which has been the case 75% of the time so far) I avoid criticising it harshly. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reason I do not make a fuss when the waiters are rude in restaurants, or when a young mother demands to get ahead of me in the queue at the till because her child is cranky, or why I don’t ask the old biddy, who happens to sit next to me on the bus and who attaches great importance to telling you her entire life history, to shut up. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want to be nice.

If I were a man of metal, if I had the personality strength of an iron skillet, if I were not obsessed about offering the world my unwavering amiability and appearing relentlessly reasonable, I would tell the other group members that I was sorry to be the bearer of a bad news but it would be grossly irresponsible to suggest anything different; that the book group meetings were so dire that I would rather have my teeth slowly extracted (without local anaesthesia) by a chatty dentist who has had lots of onions for lunch than spending an evening in a restaurant the white tiles of which put you in the mind of a urinal, in the company of people in comparison with whom parish meetings of Dagenham city council were like a gallon of coffee.

We are going to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry next month.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Book of the Month: Trumpet (Jackie Kay)

Trumpet is the début (and so far the only) novel of the British poet Jackie Kay. First published in 1998, Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The protagonist of Trumpet is a renowned jazz musician called Joss Moody. Moody is a famous trumpet player (the title of the novel is a direct reference to the instrument that brings fame to Moody). Joss Moody around whom the novel revolves never speaks directly to the reader because he is dead. The novel begins with the death of Moody. Moody has died, leaving behind his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. The world of Jazz music has lost one of its greatest exponents. However, this is not the only reason why Moody, in his death, is dominating the headlines in the tabloids. In his death Joss Moody can no longer keep the secret he has lived with all his life. Moody, who lived all his life as a man, was married and adopted  a son, was born a woman, and, anatomically , remained a woman all his/her life.  The “discovery” of Moody’s true gender attracts lots of unwarranted media attention, complete with prurient speculations about the sex lives (and sexual orientations) of Moody and “his widow”.

Trumpet  tells the story of Joss Moody through different voices: the funeral director (who discovers the true sex of the famous trumpeter); the drummer in the band to which Moody belongs; an avaricious journalist who is trying to make a name for herself out of the drama of Moody’s life with the sensitivity of George W Bush on a bad-hair day;  Millie, Moody’s “wife”, who has known all along that her “husband” was a woman ; and last but not the least, his son Coleman, who doesn’t know, until he reads the newspapers, that the man he thought was his father was in fact a woman.

The premise of Trumpet is not as preposterous as it might seem. The novel is based on the  real life American Jazz musician called Billy Tipton. Tipton was born a woman—Dorothy Tipton. A piano player, Tipton started her musical career in the 1930s. She used to appear as a man during public performance, but, by 1940, she had begun living as a man even in private. Tipton went on to have a series of relationships with women, some of which lasted for several years. (Those partners of Tipton who could be contacted after Tipton's death clarified tat they were aware that Tipton was a woman; all of them consaid that they considered themselves to be heterosexuals.) Tipton adopted three sons in the 1960s when “he” was in a relationship with a woman, and, upon separating from her, carried on living with “his” three sons who apparently remained blissfully unaware that their father was in fact a woman even when they reached puberty. Tipton died in poverty in 1989. The sons became aware of their father’s anatomy when Tipton, at the age of 74 became ill (he had resisted for months going to the hospital) and paramedics were called. Tipton never explained or left behind any note explaining why he chose to live the way he did. It has been speculated that the scene of Jazz music was dominated by men in the 1930s when Tipton started out, and s/he might have felt it necessary to take on the persona of a man in order to have a career. Some of Tipton's professional colleagues felt that Dorothy Tipton was a lesbian because during the years when she was appearing as a man only during public performances, she lived with another woman.

Trumpet makes no attempt to explain the fictional Joss Moody’s sexuality. Was Moody a lesbian? A transvestite? A transsexual? Kay is not interested in spelling this out for the readers. Just as Dorothy Tipton, the real life inspiration behind Joss Moody, never explained what motivated her to live the most whole life as a man, Trumpet leaves it for the reader to figure out why Moody lived his life the way he did. What Kay is interested in are identity and love, and she explores these themes with great subtlety. On the one hand we have the dead Joss Moody, who, for all outward appearances, had no conflict in his mind about his identity, which, to most, would seem more complicated than Christopher Nolan’s Inception; on the other hand there is Moody’s adopted son, Coleman, whose sexual identity is straightforward enough, but who has struggled all his life to come out of the shadow of his famous father, and, not having any musical (or any other skills) to speak of, is drifting in search of an identity. The revelation of his father’s gender triggers a riot of emotions in Coleman’s mind compared to which the Bolshevik revolution was a tea party, and makes his struggle for identity more convoluted. Coleman’s struggle to accept his father for what he was is a powerful strand of the novel. Millie, Moody’s widow, is also grappling with the issue of identity, though there is no confusion in her mind. Millie, who has always known that Joss was a woman, views herself as straight, and does not accept the media’s depiction of her as a lesbian. To Millie it matters not a jot that Joss Moody was anatomically a woman. She loved Joss for what he was. Although not explicitly stated, it is implied that Joss Moody considered himself a man, and that is good enough for Millie. The sections describing the relationship between Joss and Millie are very moving without ever descending into the maudlin. The ending has a twist but it’s not gimmicky.

Trumpet, at its heart, is a love story; but it is also a psychological thriller and an exposition of identity. Jackie Kay is a renowned poet and has an extraordinary feel for language. She knows how to select, what to focus on, how make her characters sparkle and how to make her scenes vivid. The different voices of the novel are handled with great aplomb and are utterly convincing. All—even the slightly stereotypical and unlikeable journalist—are treated with compassion. Not an easy thing to pull off, one would have thought, but Kay manages it.

Trumpet is a wonderful novel. Humane, poignant, wise and insightful, it’s one of those novels that give you a rich sense of satisfaction when you reach the last page. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature These Days?

The hiatus is over. After two years of awarding the Nobel  Prize for Literature to non-Europeans, the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to an European; a Frenchman. Quelle surprise!

The Nobel Prize went to a cuddly Chinese, Mo Yan, in 2012, who was derided by some as an apologist or a puppet of the dictatorial Chinese regime; therefore, presumably, not worthy of the award, which, in the years bygone, was awarded to such luminaries as the Nazi apologist Knut Hamsun. Herta Muller, the 2009 Nobel Laureate, was moved to publically declare that she felt like crying when she heard that Mo Yan had won the award (not because she had anything to say—at least not in the interview she gave—about the literary merits or lack thereof of Mo Yan’s novels, but because of his political leanings; that Mo Yan was not outraged enough (or not at all)  to publically express his outrage of the outrage of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, which outraged many Western intellectuals—and avoided certain incarceration, was unacceptable). One hoped that the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan helped Muller to sympathize with many in Rumania, the country of Muller’s birth, who no doubt felt like crying when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for what many in that country regarded as her unreadable paranoid rants against the Communist regime which she passed off as fiction (her rants, that is; not the Communist regime, which was very real). In 2013 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Alice Munro, a short story writer of meagre talents who elevated monotony to the level of art. The menu of your local Tandoori will have more variety than Munro’s short stories.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to one Patrick Modiano. Why was Modiano awarded the Swedish award?  According to the press-release by the Swedish academy, Modanio got the Nobel

for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”.

What in the name of Allah does this mean? Art of memory   . . . most ungraspable human destinies . . . life-world of occupation . . . Who writes such lines? Does the Swedish academy employ someone on the verge of thought disorder (or has taken long distance course in writing like a patronizing tw*t) to do the press releases? If you search through the entire awful vocabulary of clichés, you’d struggle to come up with something as nonsensical as this.

When I first read this I interpreted “occupation” as activities people do to earn their daily living, to keep themselves occupied etcetera. I was wrong. “Occupation” , here, refers to the occupation of France by Germany during the Second World War. An understandable mistake, you will agree, I hope, if you have not read anything by Modnio, or, for that matter, never heard of him until the Nobel committee decided to confer upon him the award, using barely decipherable language.

An article in The Guardian (after Modanio won the award) informed that Modanio delights in mystifying his readers. Is it a short-hand for wooly writing? I wouldn’t know. As I said, I have not read any of Modanio’s novels.

What might increase your chances, these days, of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Firstly it will help you enormously if you were European or Scandinavian. A glance at the Nobel Laureates in the past twenty years will show that 13 were European (including British & Irish). Of the remaining seven, one is Turkish (Orhan Pamuk), another is Naturalized British of Indian descent who was born in the Caribbean (V.S. Naipaul), while a third one is naturalized French of Chinese descent (Gao Xingjian). Kenzaburo Oe (1994) who is Japanese; J.M. Coetzee (2003), who is South African; Mo Yan (2012), a Chinese; and Alice Munro (2013), who is Canadian, are the only authors in the last twenty years to have won the Nobel, who can be said to have no European connection.

Have you heard of J.M.G. Le Clezio? I thought not. He won the Nobel in 2008. He is the author of “new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy”. He is the “explorer of the humanity beyond and below [but not above or sideways] the reigning civilization”. I bought, on an impulse, three books of the “author of new departures”, hoping to find the promised sensual ecstasy. I am sorry to say that I couldn’t find it despite using the most powerful microscope, in the only novel of Le Clezio (his debut novel) I have read till date. Would I find it in the other two novels which I bought? Possibly, but I am not going to risk it. I am thinking of flogging the novels on the Amazon. 

Herta Muller, who won the Nobel the year after Le Clezio, is a writer “who with the concentration of poetry and frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”  (What is “concentration of poetry”?) The two novels of Muller which I have read (one of which I have reviewed on this blog) were almost as unreadable as those of Le Cleizo, but less abstruse in their themes. Muller is a writer (both the novels dealt with the plight of ethnic German in Communist Rumania after the Second World War, so Muller does write about the dispossessed) who takes boredom to unheard of levels. This is a writer who will give you an eye-witness account of the Crucifixion and can still put you to sleep. 

Imre Kertezsz, who won the award in 2003 has had a 3-4 of his novels translated into English, of which I have read a couple. Fateless, Kertesz’s autobiographical work of fiction (? A fictional memoir) was outstanding, but the next one I read, Kaddish for an Unborn Child where an unnamed narrator explains why he chose never to have children was a masterclass in abject misery and self-pity. When you finally reach the end of this 80-odd pages novella, the only reason you don’t strangle the moaning whingeing, self-obsessed narrator is because you are too  exhausted by the ponderous style (either of the translator or Kertesz) to do anything other than totter into a dark room and wash down some paracetamol with Jack Daniel's and lie down for the next five hours.

This brings me to the second criterion. In addition to having some connection to Europe, you must make efforts to write on subjects no one is interested in, and in a style that is a cure for treatment resistant insomnia. Your novels cannot, under any circumstances, be accused of having a story or a narrative structure.

The third, and most important, criterion is that you are not allowed to be American. If you are an American novelist hoping to be considered for the Nobel, just forget it. It’s not gonna happen, at least not any time soon. The last American to win the Nobel was Toni Morrison, who won the award in 1993. There were those who thought Updike ought to have been awarded the Nobel. Well he wasn't. The trouble with Updike was that for the best part of his career he wrote novels that were accessible, enjoyable, and which people took the trouble to read. He tried to make up for this shortcoming by writing a series of novels, in the later part of his writing career, which were about nothing in particular and not particularly easy to read. But that was not good enough (too little, too late); he was never going to be on par with the likes of Le Cleizo and Muller. Not surprising, really; you can’t expect a toaster, after a life-time of making crunchy toasts, to become a washing machine; it might try, and you might applaud the effort; but it is not going to be good at it.  Updike died unawarded.

These days I read, from time to time, how Philip Roth is thought by many (mostly Americans) to be a worthy Nobel winner, and how it is a shame that he continues to be ignored. Well Roth is not European; so tough luck. He also suffers from the fatal flaw of having written countless novels which were funny, extremely readable, thought provoking, and, mostly, of high quality. He might consider (like Updike) changing his writing style and attempt writing something that would inspire the hacks at the Nobel committee to describe his writing as something that depicts the universality of myth (richly and inventively, I hasten to add), imbued with poetic intensity, and showing deep awareness of the human condition. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. (Indeed Roth has declared that he is through with writing novels. Nemesis, his 2009 novel is going to be his last novel, Roth has announced.) And, as a Philip Roth fan, I would not have wanted him to do it anyway. Would you ask your favourite chef who specializes in making mouth-watering, succulent, rich (and fattening)) roast beef to make a tofu dish, which, nutritional it might be, will have the taste and texture of office furniture?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book of the Month: Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver)

Climate change is the leitmotif of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour.

When the novel opens we meet Dellarobia Turnbow, its feisty heroine, walking up the pasture behind her house in Southern Appalachia. Dellarobia is a Southerner, born and bred in Appalachians. She is married into a sheep farming family, and has lived with her husband Burley junior—Cub—Turnbow, and their two children—Preston and Cordelia—on the family farm, with her parents-in-law, Hester and Burley senior (appropriately called Bear), living a stone’s throw away. (Dellarobia is in no doubt that her stern, austere and church-going mother-in-law has never warmed up to her.) Life, it would be fair to say, has not exactly been a bed of roses for Dellarobia. Born into a poor family she falls pregnant when she is seventeen. Giving up her ambitions for college education Dellarobia marries Cub (the culprit), and has spent ten years on the farm owned by her parents-in-law. Cub, the only child of his parents, has neither the intellectual wherewithal nor the initiative to strike it out on his own, and is uncomplaining about being treated as a glorified liegeman by his parents. “Bear” is a ship- farmer. He also runs a business of farmyard equipments, while “Cub”, helps his father out, and in his spare time works for a gravel delivery firm as a manual labourer. The Turnbow family, in other words, is a poor Southern family that is not acquainted (or interested in) matters of wider culture or debates; for example, climate change. Stifled, unhappy, disenchanted and adrift, Dellarobia seeks escape from the daily drudgery by seeking out affairs. She has committed mental adultery—falling of the marriage wagon, if only in mind, as she puts it—on a few occasions. And now she has taken the inevitable next step: she has allowed herself to be flattered by the attentions compliments paid to her by a much younger man, a “telephone man” (whose interest in her lies strictly south of he border), and is trudging up the mountain to a secret spot for a secret tryst with the man, knowing fully well that she is risking everything on an impulse; that the affair would be unlikely to remain a secret in the small town, and spell the end of her marriage and ruin her reputation. Is it, then, a stroke of good fortune Dellarobia does not reach her rendezvous? As she is walking up the mountain path Dellarobia notices that brownish clumps, like fungus, are hanging from the branches of the fir trees in the forest; the branches themselves seem alive and writhing. When the path reaches an overlook and Dellarobia looks across the valley to the mountainside in front of her, the landscape suddenly intensifies and brightens, as if the forest is “ablaze with its own internal flames”. The spectacle is strangely moving and fills Dellarobia with an inner joy. She abandons her plans of meeting the telephone man and turns back.

What Dellarobia has mistaken for a forest fire are in fact millions and millions of Monarch butterflies, of unearthly beauty, with their glowing orange wings, who have come to rural Tennessee, instead of Mexico, their customary home for the winter. And the area of the mountain range where the butterflies are clinging to the trunks and branches of the trees in their millions belongs to the Turnbows. Dellarobia does not mention what she has seen upon her return, being not sure what she has seen. She is nevertheless forced to cajole Cub to make a strand and insist that the family should at least have a look at what is happening in that part of the wood when Cub informs her that his father was thinking off logging off all the trees in the wood to a firm in order to pay the debts on his heavy machinery. Cub is also falling behind the mortgage payment on his house. That is when the family discovers that millions of butterflies are roosting in their part of the wood.

The discovery of the Monarch butterflies unleashes events no one in the Turnbow family could have imagined. For a start it catapults Dellarobia to a celebrity status. She is hailed in the local church, enthusiastically proposed by the credulous Cub and agreed (with different degrees of enthusiasm) by other parishioners, as a visionary. The sudden appearance of the Monarch butterflies in Appalachia attracts the usual suspects from different parts of America and world: the environmentalists, curious tourists, hippies, media, the scientists (and the Brits). Pressure begins to pile up on Bear Turnbow when the news leaks that he is planning to sell of the trees for logging which would mean certain death of the butterflies. The entomologist, the “Monarch specialist”, who turns up at the Turnbows’ doorstep with his assistants is one Ovid Byron (who, needless to say, is handsome, sexy, urbane, and, despite being all of this, is not at all condescending towards the Southern hicks; and on whom, needless to say, Dellarobia develops a crush the size of Texas). Different explanations are propagated to explain the sudden appearance of the Monarch butterflies in Appalachia. Why are they here? The general consensus is that whatever the reason behind the Monarchs giving up their natural winter habitat (in Mexico), it is a spectacle of indescribable beauty. Some are inclined to think that it is an act of god; others see an opportunity to develop the area as a tourist centre which would also help the ailing economy of the region. This is the angle exploited by the media who descend on Dellarobia with their questions and, later, edit her replies to suit their agenda. The scientists beg to differ. Ovid Byron and his boffins are unable to share the sunny view and see sinister portents in the arrival of the Monarchs. The Monarchs have flown into Appalachian woods (and possibly other parts of California), they contend, because their natural winter habitat, in Mexico, is no longer suitable because of rising temperatures. The cause? Climate change and deforestation. Far from being a beautiful act of God the flight behaviour of the monarchs is a harbinger of things to come. Byron employs Dellarobia in his makeshift lab as an assistant. The reader traces Dellarobia’s journey towards self-awareness and awareness of wider ecological issues, and her self-discovery. As the six hundred page novel comes to an end Dellarobia takes the inevitable step towards actualizing her potential.

As in Lacuna, her award winning 2009 novel, Kingsolver combines the quotidian with the wider issues confronting our planet with an ease that takes your breath away. The natural phenomena (which provide the ideological theme of the novel) are blended effortlessly with the experiences of the characters (which provide the backbone to the story). The plight of the monarchs, which, for reasons entirely beyond their control, find themselves where they are not supposed to be, is counterpoised superbly with the predicament of Dellarobia who is not at a place where she wants to be and, as adrift as the Monarchs, is searching for moorings. In Flight Behaviour Kingsolver takes on the still amazingly contentious issue of climate change and global warming (amazing because there should be no contention about it; the climate is changing and planet is heating up), and their devastating consequences for our planet. Kingsolver nails her colours to the mast straightaway. The reader is left in no doubt as to where her sympathies lie. Kingsolver does not pussyfoot; she is not mealy-mouthed; the time for subtleties has long since past; as Ovid Byron informs Dellarobia at one stage, the canary is dead. The message the novel delivers is loud and clear; and very persuasive. The wider issue of climate change is combined with the personal story of Dellarobia, which, clichéd and predictable it might be at times, is equally riveting. The poverty, the difficult life led by people in places like Feathertown (the setting of the novel), the limited life opportunities available to them, the patronizing and condescending way in which “the hicks” are often portrayed and viewed by the cognoscenti—it’s all depicted in a series of set-pieces, which, while they are a tad overlong at times (such as Dellarobia’s visit to a “dollarshop” where she is left open-mouthed at the cheap, second-hand tat on display), manage to be convincing and even funny at times. Slightly disappointingly, the ending appears a bit rushed. While the reader does not question the decision Dellarobia takes—indeed the reader may even will her to take that step—it is not explained how she finally plucks the courage to escape the life on the farm with a well-meaning, caring but dull and uninteresting husband.

Flight Behaviour is like a slowburn. The anger and the frustration of Dellarobia build up gradually, and, when Ovid Byron tells a vapid television presenter some hometruths about climate change, the reader fully shares his sense of anger and outrage. This is powerful writing.

One of the many pleasures of reading Flight Behaviour is its sumptuous prose, adorned with caustic wit and pithy observations. Kingsolver gives the reader an authentic feel of the regional language without resorting to writing in the dialect (like most of Faulkner novels, which would have made the experience excruciating for me). 

Flight Behaviour seems like a novel written primarily to disseminate a message of vital importance to our world. The message comes wrapped in an absorbing story-line which engrosses the reader slowly but completely.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Hilary Mantel's Plot to Assassinate Maggie Thatcher

There is a growing body of opinion, which is gaining momentum in the right wing press, that the double Booker Prize winning novelist, Hilary Mantel, has gone bonkers. There are those who are prepared to concede—never let it be said that the right wingers cannot be reasonable—that Mantel might still have some links with reality, but (imagine them nodding their heads sadly) the connection is faulty. Mental illness can strike anyone, and being a talented artist does not make you immune from succumbing (it’s a strange word, succumbing; it denotes that it is somehow the fault of the succumbee that they have succumbed, say, to cancer or to alcoholism; and only if they had the strength of the character, more will power, they would have seen the threat off) to mental conditions. Indeed some might argue that being a genius might even make you vulnerable to losing your mind. It is always sad when a once talented artist’s once talented mind disintegrates into lunacy, but these things happen. When the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung analysed James Joyce’s daughter when she was beginning to lose her marbles, Jung felt compelled to diagnose schizophrenia in not just her but also in her father. There was that mathematician—I forget his name; you know whom I mean; the one on whose life the Oscar winning film Beautiful Mind was based—who was an absolute genius and also a schizophrenic. Perhaps these things are related. (I should point out that the reverse is not necessarily true: just because you are a schizophrenic, you are not a genius.)

Is Hilary Mantel a genius? I think she is. And I say this not having read either of her Booker winning novels. A friend of mine told me that Wold Hall, Mantel’s 2009 Booker winner, was one of the worst books she had ever read. (My friend, that is, not Mantel. I do not know what Mantel thought of her own novel, but I doubt very much if she thinks it is one of the worst novels she has read, although I have also read that many authors choose not to read their own novels; so I don’t know.) She could not go beyond the first ten pages, apparently, my friend. However, since my friend’s literary appetite is more than adequately assuaged by the free Waitrose kitchen magazine, I am not sure that her withering verdict of Wolf Hall is necessarily a reflection on the quality of Mantel’s novel. Why do I think Mantel is a genius? I have based my verdict on two (non-Booker winning) novels of Mantel I have read, both of which, I thought, were superb.

So we agree that Mantel is a genius. This, we also agree, makes her more vulnerable to developing a mental illness than Mr. Shabuddhin, who owns a corner-shop round the corner from my flat. Mr. Shah (as he is known in the area) has not written any book to the best of my knowledge. He once told me that he had never read a book in his life, as he could not see the point, and considered the activity to be a waste of his time which he would rather spend in his shop. (Although I have not directly asked him, I don’t think Mr. Shah would consider himself a genius. While there are downsides of not being a genius, if it protects you from going mad, it has got to be regarded as a plus.)

In addition to Mantel’s (deserving) claim to being a genius, are there any other vulnerability factors that make Mantel more prone—than Mr.Shahabuddhin—to succumbing to mental illness? I have heard that those who go doolally are frequently remembered by their friends as always being a bit weird. Is Mantel weird? She might be. I have read a non-fiction book of Mantel entitled Giving Up the Ghost , which I thought was very readable; but I also remember thinking, when I finished it, that, no offence, but the woman was a bit weird. (Mantel describes in the book a childhood experience—which has stayed with her all her life—when she encountered evil in the back-garden of her house; and she is not talking metaphorically).
Who has diagnosed mental illness in Hilary Mantel? A chap called Timothy Bell—who is a Lord—is convinced that Mantel is a dangerous lunatic. Lord Bell—a friend and a former PR advisor to Margaret Thatcher, according to Independent (and to a number of disgraced celebrities, dodgy companies and third world dictators, according to another article in the Guardian) thinks that Mantel should (a) be investigated by the police and (b) see a therapist. Why is Lord Bell moved to suggest such drastic measures? Lord Bell’s (unsolicited) advice to the police (that they should investigate Mantel) and to Mantel (that she should see a therapist) is in response to a short story Mantel published on line in the Guardian this month, entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which is one of the short-stories which will be published in a compilation at the end of the month (also titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher). The short story depicts a scene in which a Scouser (a bit of a regional stereotype here; why couldn’t the would-be assassin be from Berkshire?) enters the house of an ordinary woman whose kitchen window looks on to the back-garden of the hospital where Thatcher has come for a minor procedure on her eye. In an interview given to the Guardian Mantel admitted that she had a “boiling distaste” for Thatcher. The kernel of the story, she also revealed, occurred to her more than thirty years ago when she spotted an unguarded Margaret Thatcher from a window in Windsor and apparently thought that if she (Mantel) were someone else she (Thatcher) would be dead. (In other words Mantel lacked the guts to kill Thatcher or, like Gandhi, decided that violence does not solve anything.) So Thatcher survived (only to succumb to Alzheimer’s decades later, but not before she had brought ruination on working class communities); but it did not stop Mantel from fantasizing about murdering Thatcher, and she decided to sublimate her murderous instinct through the creative avenue open to her. She wrote a story. Mantel said that it took her more than thirty years to complete the story, a case of a very long writer’s block, although we can’t really say that, seeing as the woman published several novels (two of which went on to win the Booker) and non-fiction work in the intervening decades while she was wrestling with the technicalities of the story.

The right wing, Tory-loving, press has gone nuts after the Guardian published the story. Lord Bell felt—and he should know—that the story was “unquestionably in bad taste”.  Another Tory MP, Nadine Doris—who I believe has written a novel which she is flogging for 77 p or some such price on Amazon Kindle—is “gutted” and “shocked”.  Why? Because the publication of Mantel’s short story is so close to Thatcher’s death. Thatcher, Doris reminds Mantel, still has a living family. Doris concludes—to make this issue absolutely clear—that Mantel’s story has a character, Thatcher, whose demise is so recent.  (Would Doris have minded had Mantel waited for ten more years to publish this story? She had waited for thirty years already; would ten more years have been such a disaster?) Another Tory MP, someone called Stewart Jackson, is convinced that Mantel is a weirdo and her “death story” is “sick and deranged”. A Conservative activist called Tim Montgomery is disappointed that the Guardian chose to promote Mantel’s story full of hateful words about Mrs. Thatcher, his hero.

Is writing a short story about a recently diseased former prime minister of the country who—shall we say?—a divisive figure in the history of twentieth century British politics, in which the author depicts a scenario of the impending assassination of the said prime-minister suggestive of a mental illness in the author? Is it a criminal act? That depends, one would assume, on what is written. I read the short-story on line. Now I am no psychiatrist; neither am I columnist in a right wing, Labour-bashing broadsheet; nor a champagne swigging, minority-hating, homophobic Tory supporter; but Mantel’s short story struck me as a very well written piece with glimpses of Mantel’s trade-mark dark humour. You might accuse Mantel of bad taste or of sick mind but not of a criminal act that would have police arrive at your doorsteps with a search warrant for your mind, or social workers and psychiatrists wanting to put you on a community order unless you accepted antipsychotics. Mantel may be ideologically diseased and suffering from incurable hatred of Maggie Thatcher on the dubious grounds that Thatcher was a disaster for the country, but mad and a criminal? 

Everybody has a good and bad side. However, when one is judging a dead person, I see no good reason why only the best self-manifestations of the diseased should be the basis of the final judgement.

I am currently in the midst of writing a couple of short stories. The premise of the first one is as follows: David Cameron gets kidnapped by an army of cockroaches which tickles his privates with their hairy legs and giant antennae until he either agrees to recommend the cockroach-chief as the next leader of the Tory party, or dies of laughter-induced exhaustion. The second one, which is still in the conception phase, is an erotic fantasy revolving around the love affair between Teresa May and a giant cucumber.  However, I am worried now. I should perhaps wait until Cameron and May are six feet under for twenty years before I attempt to publish it.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Book of the Month: The Betrayal (Helen Dunmore)

In 1952, an ageing and paranoid Joseph Stalin decided that it was time to put the doctors in Soviet Union to the sword. The deaths of high-positioned Soviet apparatchiks convinced Stalin that doctors were agents of the Western powers, out to assassinate Soviet leadership by poisoning it. (The truth, of course, was more prosaic. The men died from natural—and in some cases self-inflicted—reasons such as advanced alcoholism and heart failure; and nothing that the doctors could have done would have saved them.) The last grisly and gruesome episode of Stalin’s “terror” was unleashed, which ended, mercifully, after only a few months with his death.  Innocent doctors—several of them Jewish (Stalin was not anti-Semitic for religious reasons, but he considered Jews to be potential Fifth Elements), were arrested, and confessions were obtained from them by Stalin’s usual tactics (beat, beat, and beat some more). The numbers, initially small, quickly swelled up to hundreds.  Public opinion against the arrested doctors was mobilised; preposterous articles were published in Pravda about the “doctors’ plot”—uncovered by the vigilance of the loyal party members—designed to kill top Soviet leadership including Stalin himself. (The headline of the article, which set the tone of the article, was: “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians”). The idea was to build up public fervour, leading to show trials. The arrested doctors were lucky in comparison with the millions who perished in Stalin’s ‘terror’ of the 1930s (which probably inspired Mao Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution”  in the 1960s) because the dictator died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in March 1953. (According to Simon Sebag Montefiero’s excellent Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Stalin was alone in his study at night when he suffered a “cerebrovascular accident”, and his death was perhaps hastened because no medical help was immediately available.)  The new Soviet leadership quickly distanced itself from Stalin’s last, mostly pointless, act of vengeance. The trials—set to start in March 1953—were cancelled, and the doctors released.

The short-lasting episode against the Soviet doctors, in the last days of Stalin’s dictatorship, is the inspiration behind the Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore’s 2010 novel The Betrayal.
Dunmore, who won the inaugural (1996) Orange Prize for A Spell of Winter, enjoyed success of another sort with her 2001 novel The Siege which was commercial success. The Siege tells the story of the first (and the harshest) winter during the three-year siege of Leningrad by the Germans during the Second World War.

In The Betrayal we meet some of the characters in The Siege. It is almost ten years since the siege of Leningrad. Stalin, apparently immortal, is still ruling the Soviet Union. Andrei is a young paediatrician (with special interest in arthritic conditions) working in Leningrad’s hospital. His wife, Anna, works in a children’s nursery. Andrei and Anna live together with Anna’s younger brother, Kolya. We learn that Anna’s mother (also a physician) died in childbirth while her father, a writer and poet who fell out of favour in the 1930s and was ostracized (but was lucky enough not to have been sent to Siberia), died, together with Marina—a woman who probably became his partner after his wife’s death—, during the siege of Leningrad. Andrei and Anna are slowly building their lives from the wreckage of the Second World War, in Stalin’s Russia, taking care—as most under Soviet dictatorship did—not to do anything that would make them conspicuous. Then one day Andrei is approached by Russov, a highly positioned doctor in Andrei’s hospital, for a second opinion on a ten year old child who has been admitted with a swelling under his knee. The child is the son of a high ranking KGB officer named Volkov. Andrei senses a trap. Years of living under Stalin have taught Andrei that he should do his utmost to steer clear of anything that has to do with the party officials. He suspects that the child’s condition is potentially serious and Russov is trying to pass on the buck. Anna advises Andrei to call in off sick on the day he is supposed to see the boy. Andrei declines (did I forget to tell you that he is a conscientious doctor?) and examines the boy. His suspicions are confirmed. The child, he reckons, has a tumour growing on his bone. This is not his area of expertise at all and he decides to tell Russov who—Andrei knows—must have known this even before he asked Andrei for an opinion.  What the boy needs, Andrei thinks, is a good surgeon. However, any hopes Andrei might have had of wriggling out of the case are dashed when he is summoned to meet Volkov, the boy’s father. Volkov informs Andrei that his son has taken a liking for Andrei and he, Volkov, wants Andrei to be the doctor overall in charge of the case, never mind that he is not an expert in the field. Andrei recommends a biopsy of the swelling, which, he tells Volkov, is most probably a tumour. The biopsy is performed by a Jewish female surgeon called Brodskaya. The biopsy shows that the tumour is of a particularly malignant variety (called osteosarcoma) with poor prognosis. The only option which has a chance of saving the boy’s life is amputation of leg. Which is what Brodskaya—another conscientious, hard-working doctor—recommends. Andrei conveys the “expert opinion” to Volkov and suggests that in Leningrad Brodskaya is the best surgeon to carry out the operation (thus unwittingly doing to Brodskya what Russov did to him). Volkov is not happy. He is not happy that his son is going to lose his leg; and he is not happy that the surgeon who will carry out the operation is Jewish. In the end he agrees, threatening vaguely that there would be hell to pay if anything goes wrong. The operation is carried out; the boy is discharged; and Andrei thinks his ordeal is over. But it is not (we are only half-way through the novel). Within months the boy is back with symptoms that strongly suggest that the tumour, despite Brodskaya’s extensive surgery, has spread to lungs. The boy is going to die. Volkov is incandescent with rage. It is doctors’ fault; indeed it is more than just incompetence; it is a conspiracy, and the Jews are involved. His son is dying and the doctors will have to pay. Thus begins the nightmare for Andrei and Anna.  I shall not reveal how the plot develops for not wanting to give away too much, but anyone familiar with the “doctors’ plot” will have an idea the direction the novel is going to take.

The Betrayal is not an excessively complicated novel. Dunmore leaves the readers in no doubt as to which side she wants them to be on. It is a novel in which the characters are either black or they are white; there are no shades of grey. It is a battle between those who are beyond reproach and those who are ignorant, paranoid and vengeful. (Vulkov does show some promise at being more than just a two-dimensional, stereotypical KGB monster, but only fleetingly). Andrei and Anna are so perfect—hard-working, idealistic, conscientious, so very understanding of each other (Anna “understands” why Andrei would want to get involved with the Vulkov case even if that means trouble), and so much in love with each other—that you wish at times for them to have at least one good fight, or, failing that, unsatisfactory sex life; but no!, these two enjoy brilliant sex-life. The supporting cast of characters, like the protagonists of the novel, are neatly divided into good (Andrei and Anna’s friends) and weaselly (Russov who lands Andrei in trouble, and Maslov, the professor who refuses to stand by his protégée after Andrei’s fall from grace). As you read the novel, you do feel sorry for the plight of Andrei and Anna, but not excessively—and you feel guilty about it—because you find—there is no kinder way of saying this— them a bit dull.

The Betrayal is a novel of two halves. The first half of the novel is brilliantly paced. There is a sense of urgency and foreboding right from its first sentence (“It’s a fresh June morning without a trace of humidity, but Russov is sweating”) and the tension builds up from there on. Dunmore has done her research thoroughly (there is a page-long bibliography at the end of the novel and the reader is urged, in case he wants to know what other books Dunmore researched, to read the bibliography of The Siege) and she conveys superbly the atmosphere of oppression, suspicion, mistrust, and antagonism that many characters in the novel find themselves in the midst of, and which no doubt engulfed the Soviet society during Stalin’s dictatorship. The mindless drudgery, petty bureaucracy, and obsession of small-minded officials with numbers and statistics (which, they hope, will further their careers) that seem to have been endemic to many a Communist dictatorship, are described very drolly. The exhortations of Anna’s boss (at the children’s nursery) to collect more pointless data and deluge the mothers—tired by the daily grind of hard-work—with simplistic advice and information provide the only light relief in a novel which is grim almost till the end. 

By comparison, the second half of the novel drags a bit. As Dunmore describes, with obvious relish, Andrei’s ordeal in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow (where he is transferred), when he is interrogated, the reader can be excused for feeling a tad impatient, wanting to know how it all ends for him. While there is no doubt that the descriptions of Andrei’s torture in Lubyanka are authentic, they do tend to slow down what until then is an exquisitely paced novel. The end, when it comes, is a bit anti-climactic, but is probably in keeping with the resolution of the historical doctors’ plot. The ending also suggests that the reader shouldn’t at all be surprised if in due course a third novel featuring Andrei and Anna and their child(ren)—Anna gives birth to a daughter when Andrei is in prison— appears.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book of the Month: The Last Runaway (Tracey Chivalier)

The protagonist of Tracy Chivalier’s 2012 novel, The Last Runaway, is a twenty year old Quaker woman named Honor Bright.

The name of the protagonist and her Quaker background are clues as to the course of the heroine’s life in the novel. Whether Honor Bright is bright can be a matter of opinion; what cannot be doubted are her honourable intentions. The woman is more upright than Gandhi and more honourable Mother Teresa.

Jilted by her Quaker fiancé in England who decides to abandon not just Honor but his faith in order to marry a non-Quaker woman he has fallen in love with, Honor decides to leave the bad memories and the Quaker community of Bridport, Dorest behind, and travels with her more enterprising sister, Grace, who is set to go to Ohio, America to join her Quaker betrothed, an ex-neighbour of the Bright family. Upon reaching America Grace swiftly (and conveniently) pops her clogs and Adam Cox, the man who is set to marry Grace (and does not know of Grace’s death) ,is faced with Grace’s younger sister, who, he doesn’t know, has travelled with Grace to America. After spending a few awkward weeks in the Cox household—Abigail, Grace’s would be sister-in-law, recently widowed herself, and, as subsequent developments show, having marked Adam as a possible replacement for his dead brother, does not take kindly to the uninvited guest, possibly marking her as a rival—Honor, not keen at all on returning to England, although in her letters to her friend back in Bridport she moans endlessly about the brash Americans who lack subtlety, because of her horror of sea-sickness (!), marries into another Quaker family in the community, after making love with her would be husband, Jack Haymaker, in a cornfield (a very un-Quakerish behaviour, if you ask me, although I am no expert on the mores of the nineteenth century Quakers). Honor starts her new life with the Haymakers, with her husband, Jack; mother-in-law, Judith; and Jack's unmarried sister, Dorcas. At this stage Honor is faced with a moral dilemma that threatens to break her marriage (and which gives the novel its title). Soon after she reaches Ohio Honor becomes aware of the so called Underground Railroad, a network of liberal minded Americans who provide shelter and food to slaves who are escaping from South, towards freedom in Canada. Indeed soon after her arrival in America, while awaiting Adam Cox to fetch her, Honor spends a few days with a feisty alcoholic (no cause and effect relationship, here) named Belle Mills, who is heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. Her half-brother, Donavon, on the other hand, is an egg that is bad (and not even trying to be good). Donovan is a slave-catcher, and has the law on his side. Herein lies Honor’s moral dilemma. As a Quaker she is vehemently against slavery and wants to do what she can to help the escaping slaves who are passing through Ohio; at the same time, as a Quaker, she is also expected to obey the law. Her in-laws are in no doubt as to what course of action the family should follow: obey the law and steer clear of the runaway slaves. The slaves have obviously enough wits about them that brought them all the way from the South to Ohio; and the same wits would see them make their way to freedom in Canada. And if they get caught, well, it’s too bad, but what can anyone do about it? Honor Bright begs to differ. She wants to hide the slaves from Donavon, and give them water and such comestible as can be gathered. (Donavon seems to be the only slave-catcher in the area who, for reasons best known to him, has taken into his head that stalking the Quaker community, in particular the Haymakers, would greatly enhance his chances of catching slaves.) The situation in the Haymaker family is fast reaching what the hostage negotiators describe as impasse. Honor Bright refuses to back down, and, even though Jack has managed to put her bun in the oven, decides to leave the marital home to stay with Belle Mills. Belle is not best pleased with this development, not because she does not wish to share her alcoholic beverage (although that could be a reason; the recidivist alcoholics have been known to be notoriously selfish in these matters), but because she is worried that Honor's presence in her house might put her secret activities linked to Underground Railroad in jeopardy. And she is right. Donovan the rapscallion begins visiting his half-sister's house with worrying frequency, giving signals that are hard to miss (and ignore) that while he suspects Honor of harbouring sympathy for the runaway slaves he also finds the pregnant Quaker woman a trouser-stirrer. The end, when it finally comes, is as predictable as it is formulaic. It all ends well for Honor, you will be pleased to know. Donovan meets his comeuppance; and the person who sends him packing to his meeting with his Maker is Belle, who can't be prosecuted for murder as she herself is dying having drunk her way to liver cirrhosis.

Tracy Chivalier, an American novelist who lives in England (and probably has a Quaker background), has built for herself a formidable reputation as a novelist of historical fiction. In The Last Runaway she attempts to combine historical narrative with romance. The result is a strangely unconvincing and anaemic novel. Chivalier, as the afterwards of the novel informs, has undertaken a lot of historical research for this novel. (The Underground Railroad system, for example, was an actual system run by the whites that helped slaves on the run from their masters.) To Chivalier’s credit, for the most part, she does not allow the painstaking research to sit heavily on the novel, and avoids the temptation of showing off. The first half of the novel is full of what can be described period details aimed at conveying the minutiae of the daily life of the nineteenth century Quakers. The readers can be excused for feeling a tad weary after being subjected to a detailed account, that runs into pages, of how quilts are sown, accompanied by a scholarly discourse on the relative merits of the American and English styles (the English type is more intricate and requires more skills, in case you want to know).

The problem with the novel is that the plot does not really go anywhere. There is no drama. It is almost as if Chivalier is too much in awe of the central character. Honor Bright has the conviction of her beliefs that one can expect in the self-righteous. The moral uppitines, combined with the fact that Honor, in reality, is doing not a great deal to ease the afflictions of the runaway slaves (leaving water and dried meat outside of the house must have been of help, but it would stretch the limits of credulity to think that the slaves, who have managed to travel several hundred kilometres, would have been unable to survive without the meagre food rations; and did they really need the Haymakers when the there seems to be only a solitary slave-catcher in the region, Donavon, whose attentions and energies are divided between getting drunk and casting lustful glances at Honor’s loins?) makes Honor Bright, for the most part, more irritating than a kidney stone. The latent sexual attraction between Honor and Donavon remains just that; this strand of the novel remains frustratingly underdeveloped. The main the characters are either two-dimensional or cartoonishly implausible or both.

The strength of the novel is its prose. There is a soothing quality and an understated elegance to Chivalier’s prose that makes The Last Runaway an easy enough read despite its rather lame story that is neither a romance nor serious historical fiction. Not one of Chivalier’s best, I am afraid.