Monday 30 December 2019

Book of the Month: Tigerman (Nick Harkaway)



Nick Harkaway is the pseudonym of Nicholas Cornwell. Nicholas Cornwell is the son of the legendary John le Carre, which, of course, is the pen-name of David Cornwell.

I do not know what impelled Nicholas Cornwell to take on the improbably sounding nickname; however, if the improbable plot-line of Tigerman, Harkaway’s third novel, is any indication, the man has a penchant for improbabilities.

Tigerman is the story of superhero, comic book style, except that Harkaway’s superhero does not have superhero-abilities as a result of a freakish accident to which so many of the comic book superheroes, from whom Harkaway seems to have drawn inspiration, are prone. Tigerman purports to be a realistic account of an ordinary man attempting superhero feats without superhero powers.

Although nothing freakish has happened to Lester Ferris, the eponymous hero of Harkaway’s novel, something very freakish and unpleasant is happening to the island of Mancreau, the fictional island, one of the many outer posts of the British Empire, situated between Africa and Asia, where Ferris is posted. The island has become literary toxic, you will not be surprised to read, as a result of the unregulated chemical work of the greedy multinational companies, which dumped the toxic waste in the sea near the island. The toxic waste is sending to the surface of the sea, and then into the atmosphere, toxic bubbles, which are wreaking havoc on the flora and the fauna of the island. They are also causing the kind of neurological disturbances in the humans which would send Oliver Sachs straight to his lap-top to dish out his next book of weird and rare neurological conditions. It is also gravely suspected that the core of the toxic waste, resting on the sea bed, has, somehow, given rise to a new strain of bacteria, which—no marks for guessing—are resistant to every known antibiotic, and which, if and when they are freed, will bring about the end of the humanity as we know it. If any of this seems a tad far-fetched, please be advised that this is just the beginning.

Ferris, the British sergeant posted in Mancreau, is a veteran of Afghanistan, so, it goes without saying, a burnt-out case. As the once mighty empire is handing over the toxic island, which is dying, to the NATO and UN forces, Ferris is given the ceremonial, though mostly redundant position of the British counsel at the British consulate that has the staff of one (including him). There are representatives of other nations: Dirac, a Frenchman who got into trouble for publically flogging an African war-lord in an African country the French had no business to be in the first place, but felt it was their duty to send a peace-keeping force to (no doubt because the African country was a French colony at the turn of the twentieth century, when the French dealt with the Africans far more cruelly than Dirac did with the war-lord); Pechorin, who is from Ukraine and (obviously) corrupt; and Kershaw from the USA, who talks tough, concrete, and does not get the English subtlety. The island is going to be evacuated soon; and, in these last, lawless days, around the island has formed a ring of ships, referred to in the novel as ‘Black Fleet’. The description of the ‘Black Fleet’ is (deliberately, I think) is vague, but the reader is invited to consider that all the big nations are fully aware of what is going on in the Black Fleet (‘a bit rum’, as Ferris might say—in the middle of the novel full two pages are devoted to the talking habits of the English, which, it has to be accepted, are curious—and diabolical, as the rest of the world would say). Ferris’s job, as the novel opens, is mostly to roam around aimlessly on the streets of Mancreau and exchange pointless pleasantries with the natives (at which, being English, he excels, although this is not cited as a characteristic of the conversations of the English). Ferris has taken under his wing a 10 year old boy, who is more into comic books than Dawn French is into sticky toffee pudding. The boy tells Ferris that his name is Robin, which, of course, is down to the boy’s unhealthy obsession with comic books. Ferris, a bachelor, harbours dreams of adopting the boy, but is not sure how the boy’s family would react to it; indeed he is not sure if the boy has a family. Ferris thinks that the boy has a family but is loath to ask him about it for the same reason he prefers not to ask the boy his real name (that curious English reticence, again). The bond between Ferris and the boy forms a major strand of the novel. For the best part Harkaway manages to make it affecting without becoming maudlin; at the same time the reader is expected to suspend his credulity as the British sergeant refuses to ask the boy the simple question about his family even as he (Ferris) gets involved in all sorts of derring-do at the boy’s behest. Ferris, who is an intelligent man, figures out many a conspiracy and shows skills in ferreting out secrets last shown by Sherlock Holmes; but is unable to bring himself to do the simple thing that would help him to solve the mystery of the boy’s provenance: either ask the boy a direct question or follow him and see where he goes. (In Ferris’s defence, if he had done it, his creator, Harkaway, would not have been able to string along the suspense for 300 plus pages.) Then, suddenly, there is an apparently senseless murder of a tea-stall owner called Shola whose ramshackle restaurant is frequented by Ferris and the boy. (Incidentally Ferris prevents them from killing the boy, who, so he thinks at the time, is not their primary target, by dint of a tin can containing custard powder as some sort of improvised bomb!) After Shola’s funeral Ferris, while roaming around, inebriated (as you do), in the cemetery, comes face to face with a tiger. When he tells the boy his encounter with the tiger the next day, the bot starts calling Ferris Tigerman, and the two of them spend their combined energies on preparing tiger-shields and face-masks (How much is this British counsel getting paid monthly?) As Ferris, in the Tigerman persona, attempts to solve the murder of Shola, he, as is only to be expected in such novels, stumbles onto more secrets neither he nor his boss in London—a woman codenamed Africa (!) and talks in a manner in comparison to which the female M character (played by the insufferable and vastly overrated Judy Dench in Bond films) is an epitome of serenity—wants to know. He also gets involved in the kind of scrapes, the likes of you and me would wet our pants just thinking about. In the process Tigerman achieves the celebrity status worthy of all comic books superheroes. As the novel reaches its climax, the action becomes more frenzied and plot more improbable.

There is much to be admired in Tigerman. The novel has one of the most surreal openings I have come across in a long time: Ferris and the boy ‘Robin’ watching a pelican swallow a live pigeon. Harkaway knows how to turn a drily witty turn of phrase. The dialogues (especially those between Ferris and Kershaw, his American counterpart; as well as between Ferris and the Japanese scientist who is researching whatever ghastly thing that is germinating on the sea-bed) are . The levity of the tone in these dialogues stands in stark contrast to the dense prose, sombre in tone, of many other sections of the novel. The tone, as a result, is somewhat uneven. The first half of the novel is reminiscent of a Graham Greene novel: a reticent, world-weary Englishman in the last days of a dying-out exotic island, pullulating with local myths. Just as the reader is getting accustomed to the gentle pace, the novel unexpectedly ratchets up a gear, and lurches into a comic book action-adventure territory that gives a jolt to the system. Many of the action sequences, though described in painstaking details, are not easy to visualise. Harkaway does not let the pace slacken and throws in surprises and twists by the bucketful, the last one being the biggest and the least convincing.

Tigerman is a literary comic book thriller; that’s the best way I can describe it. It is not a bad novel; it is not an easy novel to read; and it is not a memorable novel.

Sunday 29 December 2019

Bloody Christmas


Another Christmas is over. This year’s Christmas lasted longer. Almost four hours longer than the last year’s, by my reckoning. When you are not enjoying things, time seems to pass very slowly. I was invited by friends and I accepted the invitation for the same reason I accept most of the invitations I don’t want to accept: a pathological fear of saying no, which is matched by the excruciating paranoia that others would see through my excuses if I cooked them up and would view me with contempt and hostility. Even though I tell myself it matters not a jot what others think of me, I know that it does. 

So, there I was, sitting in the living room of my friends which resembled a gynaecologist’s waiting room. Watching in horror and then despair the couple’s five-year-old hurtle himself with apparent unconcern for his own safety at various objects in the room. Of the various ways in which the boy attempted grievous bodily harm, his most favourite activity was running from one end of the room at a speed faster than that of the late England fast bowler Bob Willis and throw himself on the sofa, not caring which body part he landed on. I was concerned that the boy might break his neck. My concern was not for the child's safety, I should clarify (though, of course, I wished the child no harm). I was concerned that I would end up spending hours in the local A & E with the distraught parents, if the boy did manage to injure himself.

After a decent interval following Christmas meal (turkey gone dry (I hate turkey), brussels sprout with chestnuts (I hate brussels sprouts), boiled carrots (tasteless; I hate them), and roasted parsnips (I don’t like parsnips)) I took my leave, reproaching myself for accepting the invitation (the recurring story every year: asking myself why I am going, as I make my way to the friend’s place, and asking, again, after manufacturing my escape, why I went).
Surely, there must be a less painful, at any rate, tedious, way of spending your Christmas. Granted, there are those who are less lucky than I am and spend the Christmas day with relatives whom they despise (who, they know, despise them), exchanging dreadful gifts and banal anecdotes of inconsequential life events.

And then I came across this article on the BBC website—people spending Christmas Day ‘with a difference’ across England.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-50823553


It is not easy to describe the emotions I experienced as I read the article: incredulity (it can’t be true; my eyes are deceiving myself), followed by horror (my eyes are not deceiving me), followed by dismay (what is happening to my country), followed despair (it is happening to my country), followed by relief (it did not happen to me), followed by gnawing anxiety (would I be able to refuse if invited to some or more of the events described in the article?).  The closest one can come to this panoply of emotions is perhaps when one miraculously survives an RTA in which one’s brand-new car is a write-off. 

Apparently, all over England, on the Christmas Day, hundreds of people gather to take a dip in the sea. Those who subject themselves to this justify it by saying that it is a ‘bit of fun’; that it gives you some time away from the stress of cooking Christmas dinner. If you are stressed by cooking a Christmas dinner, drink more wine (or any other alcoholic beverage of your choice); or feign a headache and lie down in the bedroom. I do not see the point in taking a dip in ice-cold sea water in the middle of winter. It is insane. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do it unless they are masochistic or driven to desperation. If they are feeling that desperate or driven to self-harm can they not watch the queen’s Christmas address?

Then there are those who gather the homeless and the lonely, and feed them. Why would you do that? There are food banks and Salvation Army soup kitchens where these individuals can go, can’t they, if they want something to eat and can’t afford? Why would you want to do it on the Christmas Day, or, for that matter, on any day? I suspect it is just a ruse for some people to feel smug and superior. Puffed-up moralists who wear their virtues, to paraphrase an observation from a Julian Barnes novel, as a tart wears her make-up. 

Some people go for park-runs on the Christmas Day. What’s the point in that? I mean, what is the point in running, on any day of the year? Running is OK if you are (like the son of my friend) a six-year-old with hyperactivity issues. Or if you are a twenty-year old man who has robbed a petrol-pump. Or you are caught short and the nearest lavatory is two-hundred yards away. Or you are late for train. Or a big bottom in tight Lycra is jogging in front of you in Hyde Park. But, to go for a collective run at five o’clock in the morning, in winter, with healthy-living-freaks (who no doubt munch on organic tofu) is self-inflicting pain. Running is bad for your knees—why would you want to damage your knees and increase the burden on the already over-stretched NHS? 

Finally, there are those who give birth on the Christmas Day and expect a medal from the world for this chance occurrence. What is the big deal in having your baby born on the Christmas Day? You got your bun in the oven a few months earlier; maybe there were pregnancy complications; and your baby happens to be born on the day the Western World deludes itself into believing is the birthday of JC (not Jeremy Corbyn). Does not make you a f**king Mary (who was reportedly un-f**ked). 

The best way to spend the Christmas Day is to treat it like any other bank holiday. Do not meet relatives if you can help it. Do not accept invitations from your friends (especially if they have young children). Don’t go for swimming in the sea or a parkrun. Don’t feed the lonely (these people, in my experience, are lonely for a reason). Spend the time with your immediate family (difficult to avoid that) and comfort yourself with he knowledge that the ordeal will not go on for ever. Then relax with a novel.








Wednesday 29 May 2019

Book of the Month: The Laughing Monsters (Denis Johnson)


The Laughing Monsters is the first book of Denis Johnson, who died in 2016, I read. I decided to read a novel by Johnson after I read an article about the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the Guardian.  In 2012, Johnson’s novel, Train Dreams, was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the panel reached the extraordinary conclusion that none of the finalists was worthy of the award. 
I picked up The Laughing Monsters because that was the only novel of Johnson available in the local library.
Describing the plot of The Laughing Monsters would be an exercise in futility, but let me attempt. The novel, set in four parts, involves two protagonists. The first is Roalnd Nair, a raven-haired Danish-American agent working for the NATO Intelligence Interoperability Architecture (NIIA). The second protagonist is Michael Adriko, who, although the novel does not spell it out, is a mercenary fighter, who holds Ghanaian passport and likes to tell everyone that in 2005 he saved the life of the then Ghanaian president by taking a bullet in his groin meant for the president; however he is most probably from Uganda or even Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). Nair and Adriko are friends, though probably not trustworthy, and fought together year ago in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. As the novel opens, Nair has arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to trace Adriko. Adriko has ‘disappeared’ while fighting with the US army against one of the militias in DR Congo. Why should the US military bother about a mercenary fighter who has gone AWOL? The American interest in Adriko is not clarified, but it is hinted that they are probably worried that Adriko, who, above everything else, is also a conman, might have hatched a devilish plan to sell enriched uranium to murky characters the exact connections of which are kept vague. Mossad might have been involved in some manner in this whole business. Adriko might have been trained, originally, by Mossad. Why should the Americans send a NATO agent on the trail of an African mercenary who has run away from their army in DR Congo, especially as they must have known that Nair, no saint himself, is an old mate of Adriko? I have no idea. What follows is a kind of picaresque, as Nair and Adriko go from Sierra Leone to Uganda, from Uganda to DR Congo, and back to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The romantic interest is provided by Davidia St Clair, an American, who is the daughter of the camp commander of the United States Special Forces Group (10th Division) from which Adriko is currently—as he quaintly puts it—detached. Davidia, who is clearly not dumb, is pretty clueless about Adriko’s shenanigans and intentions, and is even willing to believe his story that he wants to take her to the village of his clan in Uganda (or is it in DR Congo?) for a traditional African wedding. When Nair establishes contact with Adriko in Freetown, it is inevitable that he would start lusting after Davidia, even though he has a girlfriend who also worked for the NATO in Amsterdam. As the novel ends, Adriko and Nair are back in Freetown, and Nair, having hatched is own scheme, which I couldn’t tell you much about, as I did not fully understand this sub-plot myself, except that it involved a character called Hamid (no idea which party he works for, or, indeed, what might be the interest of this unnamed party in Nair, although the interest must be considerable seeing as Hamid is prepared to pay Nair handsomely for double-crossing—whom exactly: Adriko? NATO? CA?), is richer by 100 K US dollars, and is fondly dreaming about future (involving more cons and Adriko) in nearby African countries.

The Laughing Monsters starts as a promising spy story, but then morphs into a surreal travelogue of Nair’s confused journey through Uganda and DR Congo. There are some bravura scenes in the novel, such as the one towards the end when Nair reaches the village Adriko comes from and where Adriko plans to marry Davidia (who has, of course, been whisked away halfway through the novel, out of the narrative, never to return again). Here Nair runs into Adriko, having lost contact with him earlier when the Americans ambush them (having finally cottoned on to what the two might be up to). The village has been reduced to nothing, as much because of the endless rapacity of the Congolese army and militia alike, as because of the rapacious extraction of gold and other minerals (no doubt by the multinationals, although that is left to the reader to figure out) that has rendered the water and soil toxic. The children are dying and the remaining adults are barely alive, semi-deranged ghosts, who, according to a missionary woman (who could be said to be equally deranged in her own way), should get the hell out of there. However, the village priestess, also known as the queen, who calls herself La Dolce, and who, Adriko claims is the cousin of his late father, refuses, and, demanding a sacrifice, squares up to Adriko, having descended from her throne, which happens to be a wooden chair, up in the trees! However, such scenes are far and few between, and do not have any direct connection to what you thought at the beginning was going to a taut spy-story. That is a major short-coming of the novel: the context and the story are so underdeveloped that such set-pieces, as also some other (such as the one when Adriko, while driving in a stolen Suzuki at a speed that refuses to come below breakneck, mows down an African woman, and neglects to stop).

Nair, the protagonist from the perspective of whom the story unfolds, is a kind of anti-hero you’d encounter in a Graham Greene or John le Carre novel: sardonic, cynical, droll, and who is very aware of his character deficiencies (he sends semi-passionate, revelatory e-mails to his girlfriend in Amsterdam and then sleeps with possibly underage African women, whom he unsentimentally describes as ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’). Nair’s loyalty to Adriko is inconsistent (although he can’t be loyal to Adriko seeing as he has been assigned to trace Adriko and find out what Adriko has been up to), at any rate he does not let it come in the way of trying to get into the knickers of Adriko’s girlfriend. Half-way through the novel Nair is either drunk or so confused that he can’t figure out whether he is writing to Davidia or his girlfriend (Tina). He does in the end decide not to betray Adriko and hand him over to the Americans, which, insofar as you can make out, was the plan at the start of the novel. Nair is obviously a character that is morally ambiguous. Fully able to recognise the virtuousness of human nature, Nair knowingly makes choices that are amoral. In the end it is a character for whom you have neither sympathy nor much of respect.

Adriko is depicted as a true buccaneer, and a larger-than-life character. He, however, comes across as more of comic con man than someone who has hatched up a fiendish scheme to sell enriched uranium to rogue traders. 

The female protagonists in the novel have the depth of soggy cardboard. Davidia, who has “very high and very round” breasts, and rolls her hips in a “very African” manner, is supposed to be smart, free-thinking, and educated. You wonder what this woman is doing with Ariko in Sierra Leonne in the first place. The meek manner in which she allows herself to be taken back to her papa suggests that the fifth fiancée of Adriko (as Nair helpfully points out on more than one occasion) mistakes infatuation for true love, but thankfully comes back to her senses. The love-triangle involving her, Nair and Adriko is half-baked and unnecessary. As for Tina, Nair’s girlfriend, largely a passive recipient of Nair’s monologues, which he e-mails her, her only positive act in the novel  is of sending a cameraphone picture of her bare (and substantial) breasts to him.

What stops reader’s interest dissipating is Johnson’s keen ear for dialogues and his talent for vivid descriptions. There are passages in the novel that are create a mood of unease not unlike that in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The dialogues are sharp, crisp and pithy, and a joy to read.

The Laughing Monsters is not a tedious novel to read; it is even a moderately enjoyable novel; however I suspect it is not Johnson’s best.










Sunday 31 March 2019

Book of the Month: The Collaborator (Mirza Waheed)


The unnamed narrator of The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed’s debut novel, a finalist for the 2011 Guardian Best Debut Novel award, is a 19 year old Kashmiri Muslim boy, who is burning with hatred; he is seething with rage; he is incandescent with anger. The hatred, the rage, the anger are directed at the Indian army, representing the might of the Indian state, that has been fighting what the Indian government describes as the proxy war with Pakistan-trained militants, who cross the LOC—the Line of Control—the de facto border between the Indian- controlled and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. In this brutal war, the Indian army has indulged in wholesale torture of the Kashmiri Muslim youths, rape of Kashmiri Muslim women, and wanton destruction of their properties—according to the protagonist of the novel.

The period is sometime in the 1990s and the secessionist movement in Kashmir is at its deadliest. The dreaded and despised Indian army is everywhere in Kashmir, terrorizing and brutalizing its people.

The unnamed protagonist belongs to the Gujjar community in Kashmir—the nomads. However, the Gujjars have put down roots in a hamlet called Nowgam, near the LOC, where the tiny community has lived since the independence and partition of India. In the peaceful and innocent days of his childhood the narrator has played cricket with his close childhood friends near the border, oblivious of the watch towers and sentry posts that always existed on either side of the border. All of this belongs to a past that is becoming increasingly mist-filled. The 1990s have arrived, and with it the secessionist movement, to which Pakistan is providing more than just moral support. The hamlet and the area surrounding it are of strategic importance to Indian army, as it is one of the major passes in the mountains through which the jihadists and Pakistan-trained militants infiltrate into India. A proportion of them is foreign nationals such as the Arabs and the Afghans and the Chechens; but there also many Kashmiri youths who crossed the border into Pakistan, received training in Pakistani camps, and are now attempting to return to Indian-controlled Kashmir to wage the ‘battle for freedom’. There is a massive army camp very near to the hamlet, and heavy presence of Indian soldiers. The hamlet itself is empty save for one family: that of the narrator. The narrator’s father, who is the Sarpunch—the head—of the Gujjar clan, has refused to leave the hamlet; the rest have left, having come to a (not unreasonable) conclusion that the area is becoming too dangerous, not least because of the excesses of the Indian army, with its pre-dawn crackdowns to weed out what it describes to Indian media as terrorists. All of the narrator’s close childhood friends have disappeared one by one: they all have crossed the LOC and gone to Pakistan to receive training. The narrator has not seen any of them since. He wants to cross the border too, like his friends, and return to the Indian-controlled Kashmir wielding a Kalashnikov. But he has not taken that step, torn as he is between the opposing urges of joining the ‘freedom fight’ and caring for his elderly parents. And to make his inner humiliation complete, the narrator is employed by the Indian army to do a job which he finds utterly degrading. His job is to go down in the valley—the no man’s land on the Indian side of the LOC—where lie the bodies of hundreds of men killed by the Indian army, and recover their identity badges, which, in due course, would be presented by the Indian army to the media as identities of the jihadists trying to infiltrate into India from Pakistan. Here we meet Kadian, the demonic, foul mouthed captain of the Indian army, who is in charge of the army operations in the area. Kadian, the narrator believes, is responsible for the deaths—murders—of hundreds, if not thousands, of Kashmiri youths. The narrator loathes Kadian with a passion and fantasizes ways in which he would kill the ‘bastard’, as Kadian, his throat moistened with generous portions of whisky, repeatedly subjects him to harangues, full of invectives and contempt for the Kashmiris and the Pakistanis, reminding—as if to counterbalance—from time to time that he (Kadian) is there just to do a job. The novel ends on a depressing note: the evil Indian army captain has not met his comeuppance; after murdering thousands of ‘poor Kashmiri boys’ he is going back to India on leave—he has finished his ‘Kashmir stint’. The narrator, unable to see the dead bodies of his ‘brothers’ rotting in the valley, is setting them on fire, even though he is aware that, really, the bodies should be buried—as they are Muslims—having reasoned in his mind that burning, still, is preferable to the bodies being mutilated by crows and wild animals of the jungle.

Kashmir, ever since India achieved independence and partition (although I wouldn’t have thought she sought to ‘achieve’ the latter)—when Muslim majority Pakistan was carved out of India— has been a bone of contention between the two nations. A Muslim majority state ruled by a Hindu maharaja at the time of partition, who decided to annexe it to India, Kashmir—referred to variously as ‘paradise on earth’ and ‘India’s Switzerland’—has been the cause of one full-scale and two proxy-wars between the two countries, in the six decades of India’s independence. The end of the 1980s saw the beginning of a fierce war between Indian army and—depending on your political sympathies—the freedom-fighters or jihadi-terrorists. The secessionist movement (I prefer this, as it is a neutral term, which suggests that a proportion of Kashmiri population wished to secede from India) was at its peak in the 1990s. During this period Kashmir achieved the dubious distinction of being the most militarized zone in the world. India poured in three quarters of a million soldiers in Kashmir (in addition to other paramilitary forces), which meant, the novel informs the reader at one stage, that there was one soldier per six civilians in Kashmir during this period. Over the past two decades India has shown to those, who wished to break away its only Muslim majority state (hence presumably the interest of Pakistan in it) by violence, that it is a hard state when it comes to these matters and, no matter what, Kashmir will not be allowed to secede. The back of the militant movement apparently is broken, but simmering resentment among the locals towards India and civil unrest remain. In the process the Indian army, which continues to have considerable presence in Kashmir, has been accused of human rights abuse, fake encounters to liquidate terrorists, and obtaining information by torture. At the end of the novel, are given statistics: since the beginning of the conflict in 1989, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Kashmir; more than 4000 people are thought to be incarcerated in various Indian jails without trials; and more than 8000 have simply ‘disappeared’. One does not know how reliable these figures are (the novel also mentions that the Indian government disputes these figures). In one section of the novel—one that focuses on the meetings between the narrator and the dreaded Kadian—is mentioned Papa 1, the rumoured Guantanamo Bay style prison Indian army had erected in Kashmir, and where the captured jihadis / freedom fighters (again, take your pick) were subjected to severe torture in order to obtain information.

Fiction is a powerful way to give expression to the collective memories of peoples traumatized by violence. With it come responsibilities, as there would be those who would treat the ‘fiction’ as a quasi-documentary evidence of what ‘really happened’.

Let’s have a look at what is obviously ‘fiction’ in The Collaborator. In an interview of Waheed I came across on the Net, he says that the hamlet—Nowgam—near the border—is fictional. No village has ever existed so near to the LOC. Similarly, the mountains of bodies lying in the no-man’s land, which the narrator is tasked with searching, are ‘fiction’. The large portion of the novel, thus, is fiction in more than one way. It is entirely a construct of the writer’s imagination: it is not a ‘fictional account’ of real events—important to bear it in mind, as the novel purports to express, fictionally, the ‘real’ tragedy of Kashmir. It is a device—and a very powerful device—that represents the inhumanity of the Indian army, which the novel portrays as the enemy of Kashmiri people.

The reader is faced with the ideological force driving the novel from its first page. The novel makes no attempt at neutrality. It has identified the enemy: Indian state and Indian army. The narrator is an unabashed admirer of the insurgents (as the Indians call them) and of Pakistan. He has no confusion in his mind as to which side of the border he stands, metaphorically speaking. What he lacks is courage to take that final step: sever his ties with his family and fight for a higher cause. The Pakistanis are ‘brothers’, the militants trying to infiltrate into Kashmir armed with explosives, Kalashnikovs and AK-47 are ‘poor boys’; while the Indians are ‘bastards’, ‘rapists’, and ‘murderers’. The demonic face of the Indian state is Captain Kadian, who, during his monologues in front of the-inwardly-boiling-but-outwardly-complaisant narrator, repeatedly sneers at the Pakistanis (stupid sister****ers) and Kashmiris (disloyal mother***kers); expresses his contempt for the namby-pamby, ‘bleeding-hearts’ lefties in Delhi and Calcutta; derives great pleasure in the ghastly spectacle of dead bodies rotting in the no-man’s land in the Indian side of the LOC, so that the ‘sisterf***king Pakis’ and ‘ISI bastards’ can see for themselves what has happened to the ‘boys’ they trained in their camps; and justifies and underestimates the impact of the violent methods used by the army and para-military forces in Kashmir. Kadian is not a man, it would be fair to say, whose heart is overflowing with love for humanity—when that humanity comprises Kashmiri Muslims and Pakistanis. Herein lies difficulty. While there is no law against jettisoning neutrality (artistic license and all that); indeed, as many Philip Roth novels ably show (for example, Plot Against America), it can drive forth a point very powerfully—here, you can’t help feeling that Waheed has overegged the pudding. The reader is treated to repeated descriptions of atrocities linked—directly or indirectly—to Indian armed-forces in Kashmir. Several examples based on hearsay (the narrator has ‘heard stories’) are given of the barbarism of Indian army, which is depicted as a relentless, ruthless, inhuman machine. It has no love for Kashmir and its people, and it overwhelms the young Kashmiri ‘boys’, who have a genuine grievance (as the narrator sees it). It tends to get a tad hysterical at times, not unlike the Bollywood films, the songs from which are shown to be big hits amongst the narrator’s friends (an example of an unwitting paradox: the narrator and his friends don’t consider themselves Indian; they hate India; yet enjoy singing songs from Bollywood films)—the jihadists / freedom-fighters in the making. All of this not only compromises the credibility of the narration, it also detracts from the drama of the human tragedy in Kashmir. The narrator struggles to consider that the Indian army can have any function in Kashmir beyond terrorizing and marauding its people. Particular scorn is reserved for the governor of Kashmir, ‘who has no surname’—“the former leader of the demolition gangs and their bulldozers (who ran over the one-room tenements and lavatories of the poorest of poor squatters in India’s capital because their haphazard slum-clusters had no storm-water drains), the clinical undertaker of forced, compulsory vasectomies.....—sent by the ‘Centre’ [Delhi, India’s capital] to oppress local population. (A bit of Internet search revealed that the hated governor in the novel, ‘the king of curfews’, was one Jagmohan, and he had a surname—Malhotra. Interestingly, Jagmohan was governor of Kashmir between 1984 and 1989, and for 6 months in 1990; that is only in the initial months of the insurgency. This does not quite tally with the time period of the novel and when he makes his appearance in it; but then this is a novel and the author is permitted to take artistic license). Indeed, there are times when you wonder whether the diatribes of the whisky-sodden captain Kadian, deeply unpleasant as they are, are entirely without merit. I am not sure whether that was the intention of the author. The task Kadian gives to the narrator—that of searching the dead bodies in the valley for ID badges—is so ridiculous, it is scarcely believable. While one understands it as a device by the author to emphasize the point (as if not already emphasized) that the Indian army is evil and lacking in common human decency (and also allows the author to stage some fascinating meetings between Kadian and the narrator), surely he could have thought of a different device that wouldn’t have stretched the limits of readers’ credulity.

The Collaborator does not satisfy at another level in that it fails—it does not even attempt—to examine the reasons underlying the disenchantment of the Kashmiris with India (assuming they are disenchanted). The explanation, such as is offered, is meagre. The narrator’s childhood friends, as also—the author would have you believe—thousands of young Kashmiri men, turned militants as a reaction to the excesses of the Indian army. Now I am no expert on the Kashmir problem, but it does strike as tad simplistic. You are left wondering why the Indian army and the paramilitary forces descended on Kashmir in the first place, forty years after it was annexed to India. That, one could suppose, is because the novel is told from the point of view of a village boy who has never been even to Srinagar (the capital of Indian controlled Kashmir), let alone rest of India. It is therefore understandable that the boy will not have a considerate, well-rounded view on the geo-political problems afflicting the region. However, the absence of a sound—even plausible—reasoning, coupled with relentless animadversion of the Indian state and Indian army, makes the narrative imbalanced. Occasionally, there are examples of militants torturing Kashmiri people who they (the militant) think are informers of the Indian army; but the author’s heart is not in it. What he is interested in is giving a chapter and verse ‘account’ of the crimes of Indian army. The plight of Kashmiri Hindus—who lived there for generations and were made destitute by the Islamic militants—is described in one sentence. As you read it you feel that the truth—whatever that is—has got to be different from the simplistic viewpoint of the protagonist..

Where the novel succeeds is in creating an atmosphere of menace. The descriptions of the crackdowns by the Indian army, the visit of the loathed governor to the hamlet, identity parades carried out by the army to ferret out terrorists / freedom fighters hiding in villages are utterly gripping. At places the novel reads like a thriller. Waheed has a great feel for dialogues: the foul-mouthed ‘wisdom’ of Captain Kadian, appals and fascinates you in equal measures. The novel is also a lament on the passing on of an innocent world. There are lyrical, elegiac—almost haunting—descriptions of the natural beauty of the region where the narrator spent his childhood.

The Collaborator is the debut novel of Mirza Waheed. It is said that the first novels are often autobiographical. The author-information tells you that Waheed was born in Srinagar (capital of Indian controlled Kashmir). At the age of 18 he went to Delhi where he enrolled in a university and completed a degree course in Literature. He then worked in Delhi for a few years (and, for the past ten years, has been living in London for the BBC Urdu service.) The trajectory of the author’s career gives its own message about the Indian state, which the protagonist of his novel sees as an oppressing, unjust, immoral and hateful force.

The Collaborator is gripping in parts in its depiction of the calamity that has befallen Kashmir. It seems like a novel written out of intense anger, and the writer seems as overwrought as the protagonist of his novel by the tragic subject matter.


















Sunday 24 February 2019

Book of the Month: The Misogynist (Piers Paul Read)


In Nothing to be Afraid of (also reviewed on this blog), Julian Barnes’s entertaining and immensely readable meditation on death, appears a writer who is identified only as ‘P’. ‘P’ is Catholic and is concerned that when he dies he will be separated from his wife and children who are atheist (and presumably will not be admitted to wherever ‘P’ hopes he is going).

I read in article in the Guardian that ‘P’ is the author Piers Paul Read.

Geoffrey Jomier, the protagonist of Read’s sixteenth novel, The Misogynist, is not  catholic. For the best part of the novel Jomier is an atheist. He is also a retired ex-barrister who leads solitary existence in Hammersmith, on the wrong side of Shepherd’s Bush, several pegs down from Kensington where he used to live until his divorce from his wife Tilly. Tilly had an affair with Jomier’s friend Max, who is richer than the average Sheikh in Abu Dhabee. Even though Tilly is the guilty party (in Joimer’s eyes, and many would share his grievance) it is she who has done well out of the divorce. Their house in Blenheim Crescent was sold and two thirds of the proceeds went to Tilly; Jomier ended up paying the mortgage on Tilly’s new house and a monthly sum for each of his two children until they turned eighteen. It is not therefore surprising that Joimer is bitter than the lemon I squeezed in my gin and tonic last night, even though the divorce that ‘took him to the cleaners’ and reduced his ‘disposable income suddenly’ to ‘a quarter of what it was before’, happened many years ago. To add insult to injury, the infidel Tilly is now married to her hirsute lover, Max, happily for all outward appearances, and lives in a large house in a posh part of London. (The house for which Jomier paid the mortgage is now rented out, swelling further Tilly’s already considerable income; is there no justice in the world?)

Jomier is now in his sixties. He is single. He has a lot of time on his hands, which he spends (a) transcribing the diaries he has kept over the years in electronic format until they merge with the present diaries which are already in electronic format (which gives him ample opportunities to think about his dead friends many of whom led less than perfect private lives), and (b) pontificating on all manner of things— from immigration to feminism, in a manner and style that are not dissimilar to those of his creator’s columns in the Daily Mail. Jomier resents that the ‘elegant squares in Belgravia remain empty because the non-domiciled millionaires are elsewhere’. He does not approve that titles are bestowed on immigrants (‘Sir Joshua and lady Zion, Lord and Lady Japati, Baroness El-Aksa, Nazir Bookerbanana, OM’).  Bradford and Leicester have become ‘Islamic cities’. He does not think that feminism, on the whole, has been a positive force; it is, he is sad to note, the principle reason for the break-up of marriages in the UK. Jomier might be an atheist, but no one in his right mind will accuse him of liberalism. He probably considers ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse. Liberalism, as far as Jomier is concerned, is ‘about being non-judgmental about people’s sex lives, but hyper-judgmental about pollution and fox hunting and Tesco and Margaret Thatcher.’ At one stage Jomier lists the ‘Seven Sins of the Secular State’, which are: ‘Racism, Misogyny, Homophobia, Elitism, Smoking, Obesity, and Religious beliefs’; and concludes that he is innocent only of faith and fatness, and he no longer smokes.

In between his lamenting about the deplorable state of affairs of the modern world and reminiscing of his dead friends, Jomier visits his son Henry, who works in the city. Henry lives with his ambitious wife, who is a corporate lawyer, and two children. Henry is (by Jomier’s current standards) rich and lives in a half-a-million worth house in Queen’s Park (which is now worth twice the money he paid for) but is unhappy because his friends are richer than he and live in houses in Notting Hill (which have quadrupled in price). Jomier also has a daughter, named Louisa, who is married to a rich Argentine farmer (whom she met in her gap year) and lives in a joint Catholic family—five children and a mother-in-law who rules with an iron fist—in Buenos Aires. You will not be surprised to learn that Jomier has a low opinion of his son-in-law whom he regards as an unsophisticated and uncouth. As for his son, Jomier worries that he is turning into a bumptious version of himself. Jomier and his ex-wife, Tilly, despite years of separation, have not come to form an easy, relaxed relationship. They see each other only at the birth-day parties of Henry’s children where they scrupulously avoid eye-contact. They take turns in spending Christmases with their children, Jomier worrying inwardly that his son’s family prefers Tilly over him. Being single and unattached and of certain age, Jomier gets routinely invited to parties organized by friends. At one of the parties Jomier is introduced to Judith, a yoga-teacher and a divorcee. Jomier embarks on a relationship with Judith, which, assisted by weekly meals at Indian restaurants and Viagra in the bedroom, proceeds smoothly—the two even spend a Christmas together in Venice—until Jomier receives the news that his daughter Louisa is gravely ill with a ‘mysterious’ blood disorder. The Doctors in Buneos Aires can’t diagnose exactly the condition, so Louisa is brought to London (cue for Jomier to rail against the NHS and doctors). Louisa’s illness comes to have a profound effect on Jomier’s views about the world, relationships, and theology in a way he does not envisage. As the novel comes to its end, we meet a Jomier who is more relaxed about things (although he would probably still recoil if called a liberal).

In Geoffrey Jomier, Paul Piers Read has created a character that is not dissimilar to many in Kingsley Amis’s later novels. Jomier is a deeply cynical and profoundly disillusioned man, who holds sour views on the 21st century Britain (London, to be more exact), which border on being reactionary. Yet he is not offensive. That is because he has a knack of expressing himself (again like many of Kingsley Amis’s protagonists) in a manner that brings a smile to your face, even as you disagree with the views themselves. There is an air of innocuousness about Jomier. His whole demeanour is of a man who has accepted that he is second-rate and is accepting (although not happily) of his less than scintillating career as a barrister (his application to become a QC was rejected) and failures in personal life. Therefore, when he expresses outrageous views such as ‘man’s penis was created by God to inseminate the female of the species’ or ‘inconsistency, like menstruation, is a female attribute that one knows but does not mention’, instead feeling outraged, you are likely to exclaim ‘Cheeky Bugger!’  Jomier makes liberal (the only area where he is liberal) and mostly effective use of irony. Only occasionally do his musings take on the unappealing hectoring tone.

The Misogynist is a sharply observed novel. It offers the reader the worldview of a man in his sixties, who increasingly finds himself at odds with the values of the society around him. There are passages of droll comedy in the novel, for example Jomier’s pedantic counting of the expenses of the Christmas holiday he has with Judith and his anxiety that the expenses should be divided exactly as he and Judith agreed at the beginning, not realising, amidst the obsessive computing, how it would make him appear. Jomier is an acute observer and has an unfailing eye for the inconsistencies in others; yet he remains, for the best part of the novel, oblivious to his own inconsistencies and failings, which he tries to rationalise with his animadversion of political correctness, liberalism, feminism. Jomier’s powers of observation are at their best and most caustic when he is describing women. The first things he notices about women are their breasts and bottoms. However, there is a barely concealed vein of revulsion when he describes female body parts (pubic hairs are like lichen, vulvas are slimy), although, to be fair to him, he is equally unsparing when it comes to his own sexual functions. He can’t get an erection without Viagra and when he does manage to ejaculate, it is neither pleasurable nor ecstatic—‘not the gusher from a newly tapped oil well but a coughing splutter from a rusty pump’ (that is an imagery you don’t need).

The Misogynist is a neatly crafted novel. When the final twist comes in the story it seems an appropriate culmination to the trajectory of Jomier’s life.

In The Misogynist Piers Paul Read has managed the feat of making a man who holds deeply unfashionable views almost likeable. At one stage Jomier says that he likes people who share his sense of humour, catch his ironies, people who are oblique, unassertive, cynical, and disillusioned. He could almost be describing the English national character. Even if you share only some of the attributes with Jomier, you will enjoy this darkly humorous, satirical novel.




Monday 28 January 2019

Book of the Month: Here I Am (Jonathan Saffron Foer)



The title of Jonathan Safron Foer’s 2016 novel, his first in a decade, is taken from the Book of Genesis. “Here I am,” is what Abraham tells God after God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The imputations of Abraham’s cryptic response are explored by Foer in the context of his novel’s gifted, if ultimately flawed, protagonist Jacob Bloch.

Jacob Bloch belongs to the third generation of Jewish diaspora, after his grandfather Isaac left the horrors of Europe behind and built a life for him and his family in America, starting as a shop-keeper. Jacob, a secular Jew, is a successful, if creatively frustrated, television screen writer. He has written a prize winning novel years ago, but, for several years he has been hacking out the screenplay of a popular sitcom, which, while it ensures the steady flow of income that supports the comfortable life-style in Washington DC, leaves him feeling creatively unfulfilled. Jacob lives with his wife Julia, and three (smart, precocious and, for these reasons, irritating) sons—Sam, Max and Benjy. Julia is an architect, successful like Jacob, and (like Jacob) is creatively unsatisfied, not having built anything yet. Jacob’s father Irv has turned into a provocative media blogger who has a special talent for detecting anti-Semitism (Europe has become a Jew-hating continent (when was it not?); French are ‘spineless vaginas’ who would shade no tears over the disappearance of the Jewish people; and Germans were the only true European friends of the Jews, but they were  bound to run out of their ‘guilt and lampshade’ one day) and whose preferred solution to deal with any anti-Israel sentiment is to take out the offender to an open field and napalm. As the novel opens we learn that Isaac, nearly hundred, is about to be shipped off to a care home as he is finding it increasingly hazardous to live on his own. Isaac wants to die but is postponing his death (as if it is in his gift) until the Bar Mitzva of his eldest great-grandson, Sam. Sam, who is growing into a surly and opinionated teenager, is in trouble at school having written offensive and racist words in his book (including the N word, which is totally unacceptable), a charge he persistently and tenaciously rejects. Julia does not believe him, but Jacob does. Here the reader gets the first inkling that all might not be well with the Blochs. And the readr is right: the mid-life snafu arrives.  The crisis in the Blochs’ marriage arrives over the most trite, yet the most devastating, of matters. Julia discovers texts Jacob has sent to a work colleague which makes you wonder whether the talented television script writer wasn’t moonlighting as a script writer for porn industry. Julia believes Jacob’s submission that although he and the woman exchanged salacious texts, nothing happened between them (she knows he would lack the guts), but that is not enough for her to stay in the marriage which has been losing its shine. Julia may have many good qualities, but forgiving marital infidelity, even though only in texts, is not one of them. As Jacob's marriage implodes and descends into the predictable pettiness, resentment, and self-pity (expressed, however, in scrupulously polite manner and language, the estranged partners being in agreement that they must keep up the front of reasonableness and moderateness for the sake of children), another crisis arrives in their lives which poses serious questions to Jacob about his Jewish identity in the pluralistic American society and its freedom: the destruction of Israel (Foer rather dramatically opens his novel with the sentence that informs the reader of this calamitous occurrence). The dramatic worsening of Arab-Israeli relations (if that were possible) following an earthquake, the ensuing mother of all wars between Israel and practically the whole of the Muslim world, and the threat to the very existence of Israel form the second strand of the novel. Jacob has a cousin (once removed) in Israel; he is the grandson of Isaac’s brother who decades earlier decided to migrate to Israel. Jacob’s Israeli cousin (as the cousin, Timir, is frequently referred to in the novel), is a confident, brazen-faced, assertive man who has achieved financial success doing business and deals that do not get covered in the pages of Financial Times. Timir (like Jacob) has got his leg over on occasions over the years, but (unlike Jacob) he is smart enough not to have got caught. Jacob has a complicated—loving but tense—relationship with Timir. Timir arrives in the USA with his middle son just before the Arab-Israeli war breaks out. Goaded by Timir (who informs Jacob that he does not have enough real problems), and perhaps subconsciously feeling the need to send a message to Julia, Jacob decides to go to Israel in response to an emotional appeal made by the Israeli prime-minister to the Jewish diaspora to return to the motherland in her fight for survival (a rare instance of hysteria in the novel, worthy to be in a Philip Roth novel). Julia does not stop Jacob (Julia’s depiction in the novel is a tad unsympathetic: she is a somewhat cold and distant figure who is bored with Jacob and takes the opportunity offered by Jacob’s inappropriate texts to end the marriage and start relationship with the father of Sam’s friend) and (predictably) this moment of heroism (or insanity) does not last. As this sprawling novel ends, the reader is left (or is meant to be left) grappling the questions of identity, relationships, and human existence.

Here I Am is (relatively) more straightforward in its structure compared with Everything is Illuminated, Foer’s debut novel (my most favourite). The novel has many sub-plots which appear to play hide and seek with the reader; they disappear for a while, only to appear briefly again when you are not expecting them. These digressions and subplots can be a bit confusing at times, and give a fragmented feel to the novel (I don’t know whether that was deliberate). Foer’s tendency to switch between formats (combined with chronological dislocation of the narrative) can be exhausting for the reader. Long passages of texts (bristling, I have to say, with incisive observations and mordant humour) alternate with long passages of stichomythia—so long in fact that the reader must go over the dialogues more than once to understand which statement is said by which character. As one can expect from a Foer novel, there are passages of great wit and verbal acrobatics notwithstanding occasional cross-over from irreverence to puerility. There are bravura set-pieces in the novel, and comic one-liners abound; but, for all that there are also passages which are long-winded where Foer seems to try too hard to be quaint.

Here I Am is a reflection on what it means to be a modern man in the modern world, Jewish or not. I read that there are many autobiographical elements in Foer’s novel (he was married to Nicole Krauss for ten years before the couple separated in 2014). Even if you did not know that, in Jacob Bloch Foer has created a protagonist in whose foibles—his neediness and self-absorption, his solipsism—as well as qualities (sensibilities, inherent decency) many men would see a reflection of themselves. Perhaps there is also a message somewhere in it: it is the heroics and not the sensibilities that will get you through life. That is a great strength of this not-perfect novel.


Sunday 27 January 2019

Books Read in 2018


 Below is a list of books I managed to finish reading in 2018.

  1. The Shrimp & the Anemone (LP Hartley)
  2. The Train (Georges Simenon)
  3. The Next Best Thing (Anita Brookner)
  4. The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)
  5. The Infatuations (Javier Marias)
  6. Sing Unburied Sing (Jesmyn Ward)
  7. The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)
  8. For Two Thousand Years (Mihail Sebastian)
  9. Hospital Babylon (Emogen Edward Jones)
  10. Mendelssohn is on the Roof (Jiri Weil)
  11. Lucky Jim (reread) (Kingslay Amis)
  12. Unity (Michael Arditti)
  13. Party (Elizabeth Day)
  14. It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis)
  15. His Bloody Project (Graeme Macrae)
  16. The Mandibles (Lionel Shriver)
  17. The Bell Jar (Re-read) (Sylvia Plath)
  18. In the Café of Lost Youth (Patrick Modanio)
  19. A Strangeness in My Mind (Orhan Pamuk)
  20. The End of Eddy (Edouard Louis)
  21. Birdcage Walk (Helen Dunmore)
  22. Bright Precious Days (Jay McINerney)
  23. Tell Tale (Jeffrey Archer)
  24. Swing time (Zadie Smith)
  25. Breaking Cover (Stella Rimmington)
  26. Adrian Mole and the Prostate Years (Sue Townsend)
  27. Love and Fame (Susie Boyt)
  28. 4321 (Paul Auster)
  29. Frankenstein (Mary Shelly)

 Non-Fiction

  1. For Who(m) the Bell Tolls (David Marsh)
  2. Horrible Words (Rebecca Gowers)
  3. I Maybot (John Crace)
  4. I Partridge (Steve Coogan)
  5. Life in Question (Jeremy Paxman)
  6. A year in Provence (Peter Myale)
  7. When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Calanithi)



A dishearteningly low number of 36 books in the year, way below my target of a book a week. But I guess these things are relative. A colleague was telling me the other day about her new year’s resolutions (without the slightest interest on my part; I had not initiated this conversation). There was the usual list of improving fitness and joining a gym (which, I suspected, were her resolutions every year—this woman on a treadmill is like a hamster on a wheel; peddling furiously but going nowhere, weight is still piling on), and I was about to think of an excuse to bring this boring exchange to a swift end, when she mentioned, “And I am going to read lots more books this year.” “How many?” I asked. “Eight, at least,” she said.


The year started on a disappointing note. I began reading King of Pain, which was on my Kindle for many years, described as a dark, sharp and funny novel, '2012’s most enjoyable read', according to a bloke called Neil Genzlinger who wrote in the New York Times about it. I can’t now remember why I did not or could not finish the novel. I must not have found it all that sharp or funny. I remember halting reading the book and making a mental note to return to it sometime later in the year, but never did. Maybe I shall give it another go this year.


This is another thing about the books I read in 2018. As I went through the list of books I read, I was astonished to learn that I had read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I have no memory of reading this book. I therefore read some of the reviews on the Internet to see whether that would jog up my memory. Nope. And this is, according to Taiye Selasi, the author of Ghana Must Go (another novel I have been meaning to read but have not got around to do it yet), Smith’s finest novel. Should I read it again? On reflection, perhaps not. If the novel failed to leave any trace on my mind, there is no point in reading it again. I do like Zadie Smith, though. I shall wait for her sixth novel, which, Selasi might conclude, is even better than the fifth, and therefore the finest.


2018 ended, too, on a boring note. I had to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. This book was chosen by the book club of which I am a member. 2018, a member of the book club informed us, trembling with excitement, was the two hundredth’s anniversary of the first publication of this “iconic novel”. “We must read it,” he ordered. Either people did not have the courage to disagree with him or they were as excited as he was about the two hundredth’s anniversary. At just over 160 pages, Frankenstein is not an overlong book; but that did not make it any easier for me. It was painful, toiling through the stodgy prose of Mary Shelly, which sucked the life out of the story which was neither believable nor particularly interesting. OK, we are prepared to suspend our belief when we decide that we want to read a story about a monster, but some attempts at developing the plot would not have gone amiss. Everyone in the novel, be it Frankenstein, or the English dude who writes letters to his sister telling her this story, or even the monster, speaks in the same manner and style: wordy and long-winded. Nothing that happens is not met with a commentary that goes on for several paragraphs. This novel epitomised for me everything I dislike about the nineteenth century novels. Tedious does not even come close to describe it. The only discovery I made (not having watched any of the Hollywood films), is that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster but of his creator.

I re-read Lucky Jim and The Bell Jar, two books chosen by the book club.

I had read Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s debut novel, years ago, and remember enjoying it thoroughly. Reading it second time round, after many years, was still enjoyable; but the novel seemed a bit dated, and some of the set-pieces in the novel, such as when Jim, in a drunken haze, damages the guest room in his mentor’s house and, upon waking up the next day, ineptly tries to cover the misdemeanour (of which he has little recollection), goes on just a tad too long and ceases to be funny. Luck Jim, I decided, after my second reading of it, is an excellent novel; but not the novel I would recommend you should start with if you have not read any of Kingsley Amis’s novels. I would suggest Jakes’ Thing or Stanley and his Women, Biographer’s Moustache or One Fat Englishman. All of these novels are funnier and more biting satires than Lucky Jim, I think. Read these novels first. Then read Lucky Jim.

The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the American poetess Sylvia Plath, who killed herself in less than a month of the publication of the novel which was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. It is an autobiographical novel which describes a period in the life of a young woman, who experiences a breakdown of some kind and keeps on harming herself or making attempts on her life. She gets admitted to asylums where she is given the electric treatment. The electric treatment does not work the first time but does the second time. It is an absorbing tale in the same way watching live coverage of a car crash is absorbing: you are appalled but can’t shift your gaze away from the screen. The title, ‘Bell Jar’ is apt in conveying the sense of feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped experienced by the narrator. It must be excruciating to be trapped in the troubling thoughts inside your head, from which there is no respite.

Unity was the first novel I read of the British novelist Michael Arditti. The prose of Unity is elegant and assured. Arditti cleverly mixes historical facts with fictional events in the novel in which life characters mingle with fictional characters. Unity was a pleasure to read. I think, I shall read more novels of this novelist.

Occasionally you read a novel, which, when you finish it, you are glad you read. The Underground Railroad, the American author Colson Whitehead’s novel, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction (as also the 2016 National Book Award for fiction) was one such novel. It is an extremely well-researched novel. It is Whitehead’s skill that he does not parade the breadth and depth of the research that must have gone into writing the novel. Thrilling, as Barak Obama described it.

Lionel Shriver was another author whom I read for the first time in 2018. The Mandibles, first published in 2016, is set in near future—America between 2029 to 2047. The novel tells the story of its eponymous family, four generations of it. The novel is slightly slow to take off, but, once it does, absorbs you utterly. Shriver has a great feel for the human foibles and pretentions, which she throws into relief with great relish. The Mandibles is a biting satire and has many comic scenes (maybe I was imagining it, but I thought Shriver's prose style and the wry asides which appear regularly in the novel, were similar to the style of Barbara Kingsolver), but ultimately it is a sombre commentary on how quickly values and behaviours disintegrate when money disappears.

Anita Brookner is a favourite writer. Not the easiest of writers to read, but I have never found her novels to be anything less than superb. The protagonist of The Next Big Thing, a 73-year old German émigré called Julius Herz, is in many ways, like the protagonists of many other Brookner novels. He is intelligent, a recluse, and has a special talent for torturing himself with analysis and re-analysis and, when he is finished with it, some more analysis, of everything. Like most of Brookner’s novels, The Next Big Thing proceeds at a glacial pace and nothing much happens. That is, in my view, the beauty of it. Brookner’s novels, like a good whiskey, are not to be gulped down in a hurry. You must savour them slowly.

I decided to read It Can’t Happen Here, the 1930s novel of Sinclair Lewis (the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature), because a year or so ago it was promoted in many bookshops in the UK as the novel that predicted Donald Trump. Many years ago, I’d read Babbit, one of Sinclair’s most famous novels, and although I don’t now remember much of it, I remember liking it. I can imagine why those who are opposed to the Trump Presidency would see the echoes of what they think is currently going on in America (not good) in the protagonist of It Can’t Happen Here, Burzelius (Buzz) Windrip, a populist politician who becomes America’s president on the backdrop of the Great Depression in the 1930s. But there, really, is no comparison, I think, between the America depicted in Sinclair’s novel and the twenty-first century America under Trump. Sinclair’s language is direct and straightforward, and he does not much care for crafting exquisite sentences (I thought). He is more interested in the message he is giving; and he gives it with the force of an HK-27 Cyclops. The novel is satirical at times, but later turns into a direct (and not wholly convincing) description of the struggle between the liberal values and tyrannical dictatorship, which, whatever you might think of Trump and America, isn’t America of today.

Another Nobel prize winner I read in 2018 was Patrick Modanio. His short novel, In the Café of Lost Youth (title of the novel taken from a quote by the French philosopher and Marxist theorist Guy Debord) is in four parts, each part narrated by a different narrator. Each has known a young woman called Louki, who has mysteriously disappeared. This is a strange and atmospheric novel, melancholic in its tone, which depicts the Bohemian world of the 1950’s Paris (the period of the novel is not clarified, but I thought the novel was set in the 1950s)—languid, but also brooding and slightly sinister—extremely well.

Orhan Pamuk was the third Nobel Laureate I read in 2018. His 734-page novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, is not a novel, it would be fair to point out, that can be read in one sitting. It is an absorbing family saga, but it is also a loving chronicle of a city. I have never been to Istanbul; however, after reading A Strangeness in My Mind, it seems like a magical city.

Paul Auster’s enigmatically titled, 4 3 2 1, is, at more than thousand pages, requires even more concentration and stamina than does A strangeness in My Mind. 4 3 2 1 is the reason why I could not meet my target of fifty novels in 2018. It took me more than two months to read just this novel. What makes 4 3 2 1 a memorable read is Auster’s assured, plush, sumptuous prose (notwithstanding occasional drifts into overlong sentences, Philip Roth-style, which go on for a page at a time); his humane approach and the gentle humour. This gigantic and ambitious bildungsroman is also a commentary on an important epoch in the twentieth century America

Another novel which is suffused with an undercurrent of menace is Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. Set in Bristol, it tells the story of Lizzie Fawkes, the daughter of a radical advocate of women’s right, and who is married to a property developer. The period of the novel is French revolution, but the story takes place in Bristol. Lizzie’s step-father, Augusts is a passionate advocate of the Republican cause and is in support of the revolution. Lizzie in the meanwhile is trapped in a marriage that has hit turbulent waters because of the financial difficulties faced by her husband that are tangentially affected by the French revolution.  Birdcage Walk strikes a few false notes (in particular, the unconvincing prelude), and is probably not Dunmore’s best, but it still is a very good read.

Finally, Graeme Macrae’s His Bloody Project, which was apparently long-listed for the Man-Booker Prize a few years ago, was an unexpected and absolute joy. It is a blackly funny and fiendishly witty tale of a murder in the Scottish Highlands in the nineteenth century. Belter of a book.

Two of my favourite writers, Philip Roth and VS Naipaul, died in 2018. I consider Naipaul to be the greatest writer in English of his generation. I have been meaning to re-read all the novels of Naipaul for a while. I wanted to read at least a novel each of these giants of literature in 2018 but did not somehow get around to do it. Maybe this year.

As always, the non-fiction books I read were fewer than the fiction; but I liked all of them.

Below is a list of my top fiction books of 2018

  1. The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)
  2. The Train (Georges Simenon)
  3. Mendelssohn is on the Roof (Jiri Weil)
  4. The Bell Jar (Re-read) (Sylvia Plath)
  5. His Bloody Project (Graeme Macrae)
  6. The Shrimp & the Anemone (LP Hartley)
  7. The Mandibles (Lionel Shriver)
  8. Lucky Jim (reread) (Kingslay Amis)
  9. Unity (Michael Arditti)
  10. 4321 (Paul Auster)