Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Book of the Month: The Vegetarian (Han Kang)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 27 November 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Saint Teresa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 June 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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