Monday, 30 January 2017

Book of the Month: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 2 January 2017

Books read in 2016

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The top ten novels in 2016 were as follows:

1.       The Zone of Interest (Martin Amis)

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

3.       The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

4.       The Noise of Time (Julian Barnes)

5.       Skylight (Jose Saramago)

6.       Money (Martin Amis)

7.       The President’s Hat (Antoine Lauren)

8.       The Sympathizer (Viet Thanah Nguyen)

9.       Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

10.   Worst. Person. Ever (Douglas Coupland)

I must get my reading back on track this year.