Monday 26 October 2009

77 - 'A Suitable Boy' by Vikram Seth

On the front cover of my copy of 'A Suitable Boy', there is a quote from 'The Times' saying:

"Make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life".

I'm sure it's meant as praise, but, with this book running to 1474 pages, it could just as easily be a warning to slow readers that this will not be a quick one. This book is very much an epic.

'A Suitable Boy' is storytelling at its best, the kind of novel not often seen since the rise of post-modernism and the demise of the great Victorian novel. The book is peopled with a whole cast of characters intermingling across the length and breadth of post-independence India. Through these connected stories, over the space of eighteen months, Seth explores the life of his home country and examines the political, social and religious institutions which existed after the departure of the English.

The story begins and ends with a wedding, and, in that sense, nods just as much in the direction of Jane Austen (who receives a few mentions throughout the book) as of Bollywood. However, despite the frequent allusions to British literature, it is Russian novels which come to mind; the multiple strands with characters appearing in several different cities and households is strongly reminiscent of the way 'Anna Karenina' makes use of its characters to broaden the reader's horizons.

Of the major plot-lines, the foremost one is, as you would expect from the title, a search for 'a suitable boy'. At the wedding of her elder daughter, Savita, in the (fictional) city of Brahmpur, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (or 'Ma', as she is known to one and all) decides that it is time to find a husband for her younger daughter, Lata. This 19-year-old student is, understandably, not overly pleased at the prospect of an arranged marriage and becomes even more obstinate when she falls in love with a fellow student she meets in a bookshop. However, as the story progresses, Lata's character develops, and she comes to see the importance of family and the necessity of pleasing everyone, not just oneself, when choosing a life partner. Eventually, she is faced with the choice of three men, each of whom wishes to make her his wife...

Each of the men has his good (and bad) points, and, predictably, each of them is connected to the main families of the story somehow. Kabir, a young Muslim student (and cricketer) who crosses paths with the Mehras at several points; Haresh, the English-educated shoe manufacturer whom Ma puts forward as her candidate for an arranged marriage; and Amit, the brother of Lata's sister-in-law and a published poet. Despite the great size of India, and its vast population, the mischievous Seth even manages to create a casual meeting for Lata's three suitors, of whom only Amit knows the intentions of the others (the fact that the meeting of Lata's three lovers occurs in Calcutta on the third day of the third cricket test between England and India is especially cheeky!).

The other main strand is the 1952 general election, the first 'real' election, after the rubber-stamping of Congress at India's first (restricted) election. The reader follows Mahesh Kapoor, the State Minister of Revenue, in his struggles of both power and conscience. While he is initially concerned merely with the passing of a law transferring land ownership from powerful local barons to the peasants who have tilled the land for generations, he gradually becomes disillusioned with the Congress party (which is being taken over by a right-wing Hindu element) and considers leaving the party.

Of course, in post-partition India, politics cannot be separated from religion, and the unprejudiced Kapoor becomes more and more dismayed by the increasingly heated nature of the political scene. Matters are not helped by the plans of the Hindu community to rebuild a Hindu shrine to the west of the local mosque - and install a giant statue of a phallus inside... This religious tension comes to a head when the festivals of Dusserah (Hindu) and Moharram (Muslim), taking place simultaneously by chance due to the Muslim use of the lunar calendar, cause blood to be shed in the streets of Brahmpur, events which will continue to have repercussions for the main characters.

The third main story concerns Kapoor's younger son, Maan, and his relationship with the courtesan, Saeeda Bai. His passionate love for the famed songstress and their subsequent affair lead to a break with his family and exile to the countryside while he sorts himself out (a move which, as with everything else in this book, has much wider ramifications than first expected). This forbidden love causes tension not only with Maan's family but also with their friends - especially the family of Nawab Khan of Baitar, which has its own links to the alluring Saeeda...

While I have outlined a few of the main plot strands, it would be impossible to discuss every sub-plot of this gargantuan book. I haven't touched on Pran's (Savita's husband) struggles with his health and his promotion prospects, Haresh's attempts to find a suitable position in the shoe-making industry, Mrs. Kapoor's ongoing attempt to win Brahmpur's best garden prize... All minor tales, yet inextricably linked to the main strands and, once the reader has immersed themself in the book, just as important.

For such a long novel, 'A Suitable Boy' is very easy to read. The story comes together as a whole so well, its structure so masterly, that the reader is compelled to press on as quickly as possible, desperate to find out what happens next. Like life itself, long sections seem to move on slowly with no real drama, only to be interrupted suddenly by chilling, unforeseen events. Good as the book is, however, there are a couple of criticisms that could be levelled at it. Firstly, this is not really a book which concentrates on characterisation (and if it had, it probably would have been a few thousand pages longer): with a few exceptions, most of the characters are described rather than felt, and the books stands on its storytelling rather than on the complexity of the psychology of its protagonists. It's also true that, as with many 'big' books, characters can go missing in action at times. With so many parallel settings to deal with, Seth handles this side of the writing well, but the reader can feel a few seconds of confusion when a character is reintroduced 300 pages after their last appearance. Amit, especially, is treated in a very cavalier way for such a major character.

However, these are minor quibbles, and the fact is that 'A Suitable Boy' is an incredible achievement. It is little wonder that Seth spent over a decade working on what was originally to be a short tale about Indian marriages. Anyone who reads it will quickly get caught up in the intricate web of interconnected lives, turning page after page in the hope of finding out how the election results will fall, whether Pran will get his promotion, who Lata will eventually choose...

As mentioned, the book finishes as it started, with a wedding, and we are able to compare the two scenes and the people present at both. Some are better off, some have loved and lost; there are some new faces, and some loved ones are no longer with us; some friends have fallen out while others have reconciled old differences. It seems as if all the loose ends have been tied up neatly for us by the end of the novel. And yet... The final scene, with Lata moving away on the train, looking back from the window but unable to see what is happening behind, is a metaphor for the reader's experience. Despite the apparently 'clean' ending, life goes on, and the characters we have come to love will continue their lives after we (finally) put the book down. Which is, in a way, slightly depressing :(

But there is good news in sight! According to Vikram Seth's wikipedia page, the novellist is tentatively planning to revisit his most famous novel, skipping a generation to look at Lata's attempts to find a good wife for her grandson; yay! This book is scheduled to be released in mid-2013 (by which time, any slow readers should have finally finished the original!). And the proposed name? 'A Suitable Girl', of course. I, for one, am counting the days...

Friday 23 October 2009

Turning Japanese

I am now on page 850 of my current book, which means I have just over 600 pages to go - so no surprise that I haven't been quite as regular in my reviews as I usually am. Rest assured, I should be back on reviewing duties by the end of next week at the latest (provided that my wretched back doesn't take another turn for the worse).

Instead, of the aforementioned non-existent review, I thought I'd start a little series in which I look at what I'm reading and why. All of us have our own preferences and reading niches (both literal and metaphorical), so today I'll talk a little about one of mine. Are you sitting comfortably? No? Well, what do you expect me to do about it? Some people...

The observant among you (if there are any) will have already noticed the picture above, which gives away the theme of today's post - if the title hadn't given you enough of a hint. Yes, I'd like to talk about Japanese Literature and how I came to like it, even if I haven't really read enough so far to really be able to talk about the whole 'genre' in any depth. Those of you who have great eyesight (or know how to click on a photo) will have spotted that my Japanese shelf, soon to overflow and start a territorial war with the Chinese and Russian shelf just over the border (which is, historically, both apt and very unfortunate), consists of Yoko Ogawa's 'The Housekeeper and the Professor', a few Banana Yoshimoto books, three works by Yukio Mishima and every novel by Haruki Murakami which has so far appeared in English (even if one of them is a print-off of a bootleg PDF floating in cyberspace). But why?

Let's go back in time (cue Scooby Doo-type sound effects). My first experience with Japanese was back in sixth form when it was offered as an elective. For six weeks, twenty seventeen-year-old boys went through the first few chapters of the seminal (and highly boring) 'Japanese for Busy People', struggling to copy out hiragana and laughing ourselves silly at the American man on the tape (especially the way he said 'vocabulary' - it just cracked us up for some reason). After six weeks, the teacher got fed up and changed to something else which was so tedious that I no longer remember it. However, that short time was the seed for later experiences...

The next brush with Japanese occurred when I was at university. I was in my final year, an Arts student with no idea what to do after graduation, when I heard about the JET programme and applied to go and teach in Japan. In order to do well at the interview, I bought a few books and even looked up some stuff on something called 'the internet', a new invention which some computers could access (simpler times). After the interview, I was put on the waiting list, but, by the time I was offered a position, I had already accepted a job in Germany...

I stayed in Germany for two years, and it was great: I played football every weekend, got drunk with my team-mates, taught English (first in a grammar school and then in a private language school) and generally lazed around. Unfortunately, lazing around paid little (my job not much more), and I had a sizeable overdraft which my bank, somewhat unreasonably, seemed to want paid back. Then, one day, I got a letter from my mum with an advert for teaching in Japan inserted (either she knew I was interested in Japan, or she really wanted to get rid of me). Anyway, a couple of trips to London later, and it was Tschüss to Deutschland and Konnichi-Wa to Nihon!

I stayed in Japan for three years, mainly because I met my wife there and thought it would be a good idea to hang around. We both worked for a well-known company which first shafted me royally and then went bankrupt (I'm claiming a connection), but I worked for another language school in the final two of my three years there. So this is where I learned to love Japanese literature, right? Uh, no. In fact, if you're an English speaker and interested in reading Japanese books, Japan is the last place you would go as they're pretty expensive and ALL IN JAPANESE! In fact, the author I got into most during my time in Japan was Anthony Trollope as the English second-hand bookshop in Kobe had most of the Barchester Chronicles in stock. How bizarre...

In 2002, my wife and I moved to Australia (mainly because that's where she lived), and, one day, my wife went to the library and came back with a book of short stories by a Japanese writer (Haruki Murakami's 'After the Quake') because she was feeling 'natsukashii' for Japan. She hated it, I loved it, and you can imagine the rest. Since then, I've read all the fiction he's had translated into English and started branching out into the works of other authors (in part, thanks to Bellezza's 'Japanese Literature Challenge').

And that's it: me and Japanese books. The floor is now open for questions.

Friday 16 October 2009

76 - 'Stasiland' by Anna Funder

After finishing 'Gruppenbild mit Dame', it was time to choose a new book (I described this lengthy process in an earlier post). Eventually, my eye was caught by the book you see to the left, and I decided to keep to my German theme with a switch to the other side of the wall. 'Stasiland', of course, is not a communist-era travel guide, but a non-fiction book telling of life in the part of Germany which, for forty-four years, was trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

The Staatssicherheitsdienst (or Stasi for short) was ostensibly responsible for 'state security' in the now defunct German Democratic Republic. In reality, it was the largest tool of mass suppression the world has ever known. Some sources estimate that at its height it had an informer to population ration of 1:6.5, and these informers were used to keep control of anyone who was an enemy of the state. How did you become an enemy of the state? They decided that you were one...

The writer, Anna Funder, is an Australian who lived and worked in Berlin for many years before deciding to find out a bit more about life in the former GDR and, especially, about the Stasi. She decided to interview people on both sides of the ideological divide, seeking talks with victims of Stasi interrogation and surveillance as well as with former Stasi operatives, informers and propagandists. Funder writes in a very involved, personal way and brings the stories of the previous decades alive, all the while trying to get her head around how it was possible for her to have had such a relatively free and easy upbringing while the people around her were deprived of basic human rights.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking. One woman gave birth to a baby boy with severe health problems which could only be treated at a hospital in West Berlin. After a few visits, she woke up one morning to discover a wall dividing her house from West Berlin and the hospital her son needed to visit. The son was smuggled over to the West by doctors at an East Berlin hospital, but the mother and father were not allowed to go over and join him. One day, the woman was summoned to an interview where she was offered the chance to visit her son. The price? Arranging a walk in the park with a young West Berlin student friend of the family who was known to help East Germans escape to the West - in the course of which he was to be kidnapped and transported to a Russian prison...

Another interviewee was a poster boy for the GDR regime and eventually joined the Stasi, only to find out that his father had been jailed by the secret police shortly after the war in order to stop him from becoming the mayor. When the son, on hearing his father's story, decided to quit, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of producing pornography, held in a cell for weeks and presented with a signed divorce document from his wife. The Stasi then said that he could be released and continue in his job if he signed the document too...

As well as the horrifying stories gleaned from the interviews, Funder also looks at what happened after the wall fell. This was a truly historical event, and one which was totally unexpected. My wife's family left Poland about a month before it happened, and an East German member of the football team I played in when I lived in Germany had a similar experience. Shortly before the wall came down, Hungary opened its border with Austria, creating the first gap in the Iron Curtain. Fearing that this expression of freedom would be crushed by the Russians within a short time (as had happened in the past in other places where uprisings had occurred) he set off, with his wife, son and father-in-law(!) on the long trek from the north of the GDR, down to Hungary, across the border to Austria and then back north to Westfalen (in the North-West of the Federal Republic of Germany - FRG). As it happened, he was waiting in a queue to cross the Austro-Hungarian border when the news came through that it was all over: now that's bad timing.

Of course, at the time, there was a huge feeling of joy, relief, vindication... the list of emotions is endless. However, once the dust (literally) had settled, it was not quite as clear that what had happened was exactly what the people had wanted. While some top Stasi members were prosecuted, many continued happily on their way, claiming (in scenes reminiscent of the Nazis) that they were just doing their job. Meanwhile, the ordinary people found life in the new unified German Republic not to their liking. Capitalism saw some of them fall by the wayside; rents, food and alcohol (!) were no longer subsidised, and crime, kept to incredibly low levels by the Stasi (one of the undeniable advantages of a police state is that there's little chance of criminals getting away with it...), had become an everyday part of their lives.

Like the September 11th terrorist attacks, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a genuinely historic (and historical) event. I remember having a history lesson the next day at school where our teacher almost screamed at us, "This is it! This is history happening before your very eyes!". Of course, being a fifteen-year-old boy, I had other things on my mind at the time, but even we schoolkids could connect the events happening on our television screens with the lessons on post-war Germany we happened to be having (of course, it wasn't so good for the German department who had just bought hundreds of editions of a brand-new book which gave heaps of background information on both the FRG and the GDR. In hindsight, calling the book 'Deutsch Heute' was probably tempting fate...).

To finish this review, which has turned into a bit of a trip down memory lane, I'd like you to look back at the picture and, especially, the text in the middle. The Samuel Johnson Prize is a prize for non-fiction books, and 'Stasiland' was the 2004 winner. One of the beaten short-listed works was none other than Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. For those of you wondering what I thought of 'Stasiland', I think that says it all better than I ever could. I'm not going to tell you what happened to the people whose stories I told you about (you'll just have to read the book), but before you judge them, just think about what you would do in their position. It's very easy to be tough and confrontational when you're reading; not quite so easy when your whole life is at play...

Thursday 15 October 2009

75 - 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' by Heinrich Böll

I'm feeling a little washed out at the moment; reading in a foreign language does that to you. Although my German is fairly good, reading German books in the original version is always a more difficult task than reading anything in English, so getting through this 374-page novel of wartime Cologne was a big task (and I'm very happy, and relieved, to have managed it in just under a week - although my continued absence from work may have had something to do with that...). I apologise, however, dear reader, if I have led you to believe that I didn't enjoy the week; this book is definitely worth the time spent on it.

Just as with my previous Böll novel, 'Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum', 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' (translated, rather clumsily, as 'Group Portrait with Lady' - sometimes translation can be an inexact science) concentrates on a female central character, whose life is laid out for the reader through interviews and documents. However, the treatment of Leni Pfeiffer, the heroine of this novel, differs in several important ways from that of the charming (and deadly) Katharina B. Where the reason for the interest in Ms. Blum's life is clear from the start, the reader is mainly left in the dark as to why Leni's life is important enough to be reconstructed. In addition, while 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' is at least three times as long as 'Die Verlorene Ehre...', the enigmatic Leni is seldom to be seen or heard.

Of course, this is part of Böll's plan (and a very good one it is too). Through interviews with a couple of dozen friends, colleagues and family members, not only Leni's life is described; Böll also paints a picture of life in Cologne as lived by ordinary people before, during and shortly after World War II. The supposed objectivity, which gives the story a semi-historical feel, is enhanced by the use of an intermediary to gather the facts and conduct interviews. This man, known only as Der Verf. (the 'Verf.', presumably short for Verfasser, or editor) acts as a guide through the tangled web of relationships which need to be uncovered in order to find the truth about Leni's life.

At first, the book appears to drag a little. The constant interviews, the lengthy monologues (some of which go on for dozens of pages with relatively few paragraph breaks), the constant referral to sources; for the reader who is looking for an answer as to why this research is being carried out, frustration slowly sets in. However, it soon becomes clear that this research is being done to tell us about everyone - not just Leni, but all the people in her life - and how they made it through this awful time in history (and what became of them afterwards).

The main thread of the book, Leni's story, is a simple one, and we know most of it right from the start. A young German girl loses a lover at the start of the war, marries (and then loses) another soldier and then falls hopelessly in love with Boris, a Russian POW working with her in her wartime job making wreaths for funerals. It sound a little far-fetched, but Böll sets the situation up meticulously so that there is not the slightest bit of doubt as to the authenticity of the situation. Of course, this relationship would have cost both of them their lives if it had been discovered (especially with some Nazi co-workers on the lookout for any seditious activity), so it progresses slowly and in great secrecy until normal life starts to unravel in 1945.

The story makes it quite clear that the war was lost by 1945, and the fearsome air attack on Cologne on the 2nd of March (described near the end of the book in several accounts) was followed closely by the Americans' entry into the city. However, the line between war and peace was not as defined as we may expect; there was a long period where defeat was certain, but there was no telling how long the war would drag on for, and this is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. Each of the characters interviewed had to think about both how to get through their day alive and how they would avoid punishment once the Allies had taken over. For women and children, this wasn't such a great concern, but anyone who had been heavily involved in the war effort had to make contingency plans and gather proof of their relative 'cleanliness' to use in peace time - all the while hiding this from the military who would have shot them for defeatism...

What happens after the war is even more interesting. Some of the characters come out of their ducking and diving smelling of roses while others, generally the quieter and more honest ones, struggle to make ends meet. Those who have profited from their war-time experiences stress, in their interviews with Verf., the efforts they took to help other people and the work they put in (and the risks they took) to build their fortunes. However, thanks to the multitude of sources available to the reader, we are able to hear the other side of the story, and the way the less fortunate describe events does not always tally with the description the winners give.

One of the central themes running through this book is the success of capitalism and survival of the fittest; by 1970, when Verf. is carrying out his research, the political pendulum seemed to be swinging back to the conservative side of the spectrum (if not quite to the Nazi side...). Two scenes towards the end of the novel illustrate this. In the first, two businessmen (who have known Leni since they were babies) explain why they are going to throw her out on the street, using debts she has run up as an excuse to cancel her lease (frozen at a price well below the market rate). In their eyes, Leni is failing the market system by refusing to work, even though she is only in her forties, and sub-letting rooms at the same price to foreign workers, thus perverting the market and ensuring that the workers send their money home rather than spending it in Germany!

The second involves a psychological report on Leni's son, Lev, who is in prison for deliberate falsification of documents. The report, while generally positive and well meant, criticises Lev for what it describes as his 'Leistungsverweigerung' (a refusal to perform to his full potential). That may seem a little harsh, but you need the full background to understand how harsh. Lev has always done his job well, but in his refusal to make an effort at school and his disinclination to use his talents to the full at work and move up to a managerial position, he is deemed to be offending against his employers - and his society. Capitalism gone mad...

In all this madness, we, like the characters in the book, are forced to make decisions and take a stand. It is very clear where Böll's sympathies lie, and this is shown in the way Verf.'s attitude changes as the novel nears its close, from a fully detached objective chronicler, to a more involved relater of tales until he finally (like the reader) becomes emotionally involved in the story, to the extent that he begins to be a part of the events he is supposed to be recording.

This is a very good book (as you would expect from a work which gave the Nobel Prize committee a final gentle nudge), but it's also very different. It requires a lot of patience, a fair amount of interest in the history behind it and an ability to critically engage with the text. Coming from a country on the other side of the front line, I found many of the details in this book new and surprising. Obviously, I don't know quite as much about the war as I'd thought... As the Second World War recedes into history, it's important to look back, as Böll does, to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Serious Issues with Libraries

Here is a lovely picture of the plum tree in my garden in full bloom a couple of weeks ago. Not for any real reason; I merely thought that my random posts deserved a picture just as much as my review posts. Very pretty, no?

Anyway, while I am tearing through another German monster as quickly as possible (a book, not some Yeti-like creature from the Bavarian Alps), I thought I'd relate a little story about something that happened to me last week. Are you sitting comfortably? Tough; I'm starting anyway...

Last week, in an attempt to ease the pain, I went off to Casey Aquatic Centre, where I whiled away an hour in the swimming pool (good for the back) and the sauna (good for the soul). On leaving the centre, on my way back to the car (a tiny, bottle-green Suzuki Baleno; I have the girl's car while my wife has a larger car, which is red - and which my daughter calls 'The Big Red Car' for obvious reasons), I noticed the local library across the road, and, avoiding the hordes of schoolkids who had just piled out of a coach on their way to tormenting the poor people who had arrived at the pool a little later than I had, I decided to pop inside (the library, not the coach) and see what I could find.

My primary aim was actually to see if they had any Julian Barnes in stock as I had expressed a desire in an earlier post to read some of his more famous works after finishing 'The Lemon Table'. They had one of his books; guess which one it was...

Anyway, I didn't give up there (obviously;otherwise, this would be a really pointless post) and decided to browse the shelves to see what goodies I could find amongst the piles of Potter and the newly-opened Dan Brown extension (with room left for his latest pile of... I mean, bestseller). As I walked past 'G' (and not 'M', strangely enough), I caught sight of some familiarly pastel-coloured books lurking on the bottom shelf, and, bending at the knees as all Catholics and bad back victims must, I had a closer look. Sure enough, just six inches above the carpet covering the floor of Narre Warren library, there were three or four books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (author of 'Love in the Time of Cholera' and 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'), none of which I'd read before.

And then, as I was stretching out my hand to pluck them from their nesting place, it happened. I froze, and a voice in my head said, "But wouldn't you rather buy these books?". I got back to my feet and stood there for about five minutes, trying to ignore what had just happened, but it was no good. The little voice had struck again, and I was forced to move on. You see, ever since I started earning enough money to buy books, even second hand, I've been loath to borrow a book which I suspect I may like because, if I do like it, I know I'll want to buy it. However, the prudent, sensible, financial side of my persona (the one who pays bills the moment it gets them and has nice spreadsheets to prove it) will then veto the purchase as there's no point buying a book you've already read. Therefore, every time I step into one of these places, I fall into the classic library Catch-22: the books are either not worth reading or too good not to buy. It's the best catch there is...

OK, I'm exaggerating slightly, but I do tend to leave libraries with books which I'm not altogether sure about rather than ones I've been wanting to read for ages. On this occasion, I eventually managed to stroll up to the desk with 'Saturday' by Ian McEwan (he's not quite up there on my must-read list yet, despite my review of 'Atonement'), 'Ignorance' by Milan Kundera (too short for me to buy full price) and some big yellow book by Martin Amis (if I can't remember the name, it's obviously not something I was planning to buy). Relieved to have run the gauntlet and come out relatively unscathed, I handed my books over, only to discover that I had left my library card in my other wallet (well, why would I need it when I was only going swimming?). As the librarian was politely, but firmly, explaining that I would be unable to take the books home with me on this particular day, I felt (and this may not surprise you) quite relieved. Obviously, it just wasn't meant to be.

As I turned to walk away, the librarian glanced at my books and said, "Good choice, though". While it's always nice to have your taste in books validated by someone who won't let you have them, I did feel that this was a little below the belt. I walked back to the little green car, lost in thought and submersed in my memories of the whole traumatic event. I'm sure I'll get over it, and I may even go back next week (I've even moved my library card into my swimming wallet - not that it swims, it's just... oh, you know what I mean), but there's one thing that bothers me about the whole experience. It's not the book choosing dilemma, uncomfortable as that was: it's the fact that despite man being able to send telescopes into space to look for evidence of life in other galaxies, Narre Warren library is unable to lend a member with three different forms of photo ID any books because he has left a tiny square of plastic at home. I think there's a moral in that for all of us.

Please let me know if you find it.

Saturday 10 October 2009

74 - 'Pinball, 1973' by Haruki Murakami

The first thing which comes to mind as I write this review is that I really should be more organised in future; this really should have been book 73... Oh well, moving along, please have a look at the beautiful cover picture on the left; nice isn't it? I imagine that it's an artist's rendition of J. and the Rat at J.'s bar (although I think I would have made it a lot darker and grimier). Sadly, I do not have that (or any) edition, and I am unlikely to in the near future. Shortly before starting this review, I had a quick look on Amazon to see how much it would set me back. Would you believe that a battered copy is available for US$446.20 while a (nearly) new copy is being offered for a cool US$2000?

The reason for this incredible over-pricing is that while 'Hear the Wind Sing', Murakami's first 'novel', is still readily available in the translation produced to help EFL learners, the English version of the follow-up book went out of print very quickly and is, therefore, now only available to the disgustingly rich. Luckily, a quick web search usually brings up a link to a PDF version - one more reason for book lovers to say hurrah for computers...

This novella takes up the story three years after the conclusion of 'Hear the Wind Sing', with our unnamed hero (who, for the sake of convenience - and for reasons which will be obvious to any true Murakami fans -, I will call Toru) now living on the outskirts of Tokyo and working in a translation agency which he has set up with a friend from university. Meanwhile, the Rat is still living in their home town, watching the sea, hanging out by the graveyard and whiling his hours away at J.'s bar at the end of the day.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that neither of our old friends are particularly happy with their lot. Toru is stuck in a rut, accomplishing the same tedious translations day after day and spending several hours a day fighting the notoriously soul-destroying Tokyo commute; the Rat, having dropped out of university (and rich enough not to really need to do anything else), is just drifting around, waiting for something, or someone, to give his life some meaning.
The two friends, hundreds of miles apart, find different ways to deal with their existential angst (a pompous expression which, nevertheless, is particularly apt here). Toru reads Kant, spends his spare time with a nameless pair of identical twins who somehow seem to have stumbled into his life, and later goes on a quest in search of the pinball machine he used to spend his money (and time) on. The Rat, struggling to stay interested in life, falls into a convenient, yet unsatisfying, relationship with (yet another) unnamed woman, while mulling over whether or not to leave his town and follow his fate elsewhere...

At only 79 pages, the book is fairly brief, but Murakami packs a lot into his second novel, including many of the features which have won him worldwide fame. Anyone who has watched a lot of French films will be reminded of them by the mood of the book (it may, dare I say it, invoke a sense of deja vu...): the constant rain, the ever-present drinking and smoking... I think you could easily transplant this story to Paris (and the hometown to Brittany) and make a great interpretation. The sense of time passing wastefully and regret for times past are palpable, and the reader senses that something has to give. The lack of names only adds to this sense of disorientation (as do the twins; in a funny way, having two girlfriends - if that's what they are - instead of one, seems to make Toru appear lonelier than he would if he were alone).

Having talked about French films, it's an English one which comes to mind as you ponder the method to Murakami's madness - "What's it all about, Alfie?". Murakami certainly doesn't answer the big questions of life, but his protagonists definitely ponder them. Their respective efforts to shake themselves out of the rut they've fallen into may make many readers reconsider their own lifestyle choices (living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne - which, in England, would be in another county -I definitely sympathise with Toru). The big question, though, is how do the two friends resolve their issues?

Of course, Murakami's first two (short) works set up the third part of 'The Trilogy of the Rat', 'A Wild Sheep Chase', his first full-length novel, and the book where his passion for the bizarre really comes to fruition. Therefore, it's a shame that the great man is unwilling to sanction the publication of his first literary efforts; yes, I know that he probably doesn't need the money, but he'll definitely gain new fans (yes, and a few dollars too; I, for one, would snap them up in a heartbeat). You never know, it may just help him in the quest for that elusive Nobel Prize too...

Thursday 8 October 2009

73 - 'A Room With A View' by E.M. Forster

One of my favourite things in life, up there with a great Shiraz, listening to my favourite music on my (old and battered) i-Pod mini and smashing shots past the keeper from twenty-plus yards, is finding books I've wanted to read for ages in second-hand shops. When I find one by E.M. Forster for just $1.50 Australian, I'm even happier. Mr. Forster is fast shooting up my most-read-author-of-the-year list, having already supplied two of my favourite novels of 2009 ('Howard's End' and 'A Passage to India'), and, after finishing this short and sweet example of understated Edwardian fiction, I am very tempted to go after some more of his books before the end of the year.

The story is divided into two parts: the first (shorter) section is set in Florence and follows young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch on her leisurely holiday in Italy, introducing us (and her) to a cast of people at a boarding house, several of whom are to play further roles in the tale. After a couple of chance encounters with one of them, the young George Emerson, Lucy, under the protection of her spinster cousin Charlotte, races off to Rome - at which point the first part ends.

The second part takes place back in Lucy's home village, back in the safe home counties of the south-east of England. Safely engaged to the eligible, if somewhat loveless, Cecil Vyse, Lucy has managed to suppress any disturbing memories from her European adventures: at least, that is, until a vacant cottage is let to a couple of familiar faces...

If the above summary sounds a little bit Mills & Boon-ish, well, it does run that way at times. I haven't seen the film, but I had heard of it, and even if I hadn't seen her young face plastered across the cover of my battered copy of the book, I still might have had Helena Bonham-Carter's elfin face flashing through my mind on reading certain sections of the book. All the sources I've skimmed through agree that this is the lightest, happiest and most accessible of Forster's novels, and there is a distinct hint of chick-lit about it if you skim the surface.

However, books rarely survive past their centenary without having something a little more substantial to offer than a happy ending, and 'A Room with a View' is a lot more complex than it may appear. Lucy's awakening is part of a wider reflection on the role women should play at the start of the twentieth century. Today, it seems absurd that she requires a chaperon to travel abroad and that she acquiesces to some of the restrictive demands of the people around her, but this was the reality for women in the Victorian era, and it is only with the change of monarch and a shift in mentality (as well as the wars just around the corner...) that the first baby steps towards equality were taken. Lucy's eventual rejection of the oppressive, possessive Cecil, who regards her more as a piece of art in his collection than as a real-life, breathing, living human, parallels this wider societal development.

Society at the time of this story was changing in more ways than just the emancipation, if you like, of women; another change, represented in this novel by the Emersons, is the blurring of the lines between the formerly strictly segregated classes. Whereas, in Victorian times, the upwardly mobile were often portrayed as ungentlemanly and unworthy of the attention they sought from the more genteel, Forster reverses the roles, portraying the Emersons as quirky but 'nice' while Cecil Vyse, Reverend Beebe and, even, Lucy's mother are ridiculed for their inability to adapt to rapidly changing times. This distinction between 'static' and 'progressive' characters is an important feature in other Forster works, especially notable in the contrast in 'Howard's End' between the stick-in-the-mud Wilcoxes and the bohemian Schlegels (one of whom was played, in a Merchant-Ivory film - of course - by none other than... well, I'll let you guess...).

Forster's themes were to be drawn on their grandest canvas in 'A Passage to India' (another Merchant-Ivory adaptation), and some of the scenes in his earlier work point to those in the later text. George and Lucy's moment overlooking Florence is comparable (in a light-and-dark kind of way) to Adele Quested's moment in the Marabar caves; the Emerson' effect on the Honeychurches and their circle can be likened to the disastrous attempts to mix the native and Anglo populations in India. However, by Forster's own admission, the later novel must be considered greater as he believed it was wrong for 'modern' writers to contrive a happy ending. In this sense, indeed, 'A Room with a View' would have to be regarded as an 'inferior' novel...

It's a shame it was only mid-week (and mostly daylight) while I was reading this as I think a glass of Shiraz or two would have gone nicely with this book (or, in deference to the setting, a fine Chianti). After the tiring struggle with 'Anna Karenina' (a book which is probably best avoided by someone with back issues), Forster's subtle love story was just what the doctor (or the physio) ordered. However, it does make me think that I may have been overdoing it with the classics if this was my relaxation. Whatever the superficial similarities, this is no chick-lit; 'A Room with a View' is definitely worthy of classic status

Wednesday 7 October 2009

72 - 'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

So, why is this book called 'Anna Karenina'? No, really, I don't get it. Rich girl marries older man, gets bored, snatches younger man from the marital wishes of a younger girl and then regrets it, just one strand among many in Tolstoy's great novel. 'Anna Karenina' (or 'AK' as I like to call it - it has a certain ring to it) is a wonderful book; Anna Karenina, on the other hand, described on the back of my edition as "one of the most loved and memorable heroines in literature", is a needy whinger who gets what she deserves. Ah, I hear the knives sharpening in the distance already...

The book was written in the mid-1870s and portrayed contemporary Russian life in its three main locations: Moscow, Petersburg (St. Petersburg to you) and elsewhere (which, in a country like Russia, contains a lot of possibilities). The eight books switch back and forth between the settings, following a host of characters interconnected by friendship, family ties or societal relations. There are two main plots (although the idea of a plot is rather loosely used here): Anna Karenina's affair with the dashing young soldier Vronsky and landowner Constantine Levin's search for both happiness and an answer to his questions about the meaning of life. Although the two stories begin with the same pivotal event (Anna's meeting with Vronsky at a ball), the two pivotal strands actually play out quite separately, only loosely tied, as mentioned above, by the fact that the two main protagonists move in the same social circles and, hence, come across the same people at different times and in different settings.

Levin, loosely based on Tolsoy himself, is on a voyage of discovery,wanting nothing more than to marry the woman he loves and, once that has been (eventually) achieved, to find out what exactly he has been put on this earth to do. The reader follows him through his eventful courtship through the great cities of Russia and back to his home territory in the country, where he tries to take out his existential angst on his farming (as good a way as any of dealing with it, I suppose). Through his eyes we see the bureaucratic, staid streets of Moscow and the hedonistic, socialite sets in Petersburg and wonder, with him, whether everyone else knows better or whether his way of life is a good one. Being a Tolstoy creation, fulfilment naturally comes with religious enlightenment, but more in the sense of a belief in a divine entity than in the steadfast committal to the teachings of any church.

The treatment of the church, what little of it there is in this book, led me to compare the background of this novel with that of another great nineteenth-century power, Britain. I've now read a fair bit of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy which allows me to make comparisons between the situation in Russia at the time with what, for example, Trollope was describing in England. In terms of religion, the Russian version seemed more vibrant and personal, but also more separate from everyday life. It would be hard to imagine any of the Shcherbatsky sisters marrying a priest (even were it permitted!), but in the world of the Barchester Chronicles and the Palliser novels, a vicar can be quite an acceptable catch. Even where marrying into the church would be considered a little beneath your standards, the clergy were also considered good company and part of the social setting, especially in the country and the provinces.

Other scenes in 'AK' which led to comparisons with Trollope were the election chapters and the scene in the great club. Obviously, Russia, only having abolished serfdom relatively recently, could not be expected to have attained the levels of Westminster proceedings by this time, but the rowdy events of the elections in 'AK' have more in common with the petty electioneering of paid agents in Dickens, Eliot and Trollope than with the almost sacred precincts of the Houses of Parliament as described in, say, 'Phineas Finn'. Similarly, the contrast between the styles of gentleman's clubs was striking. In 'AK', the London-style small, exclusive home away from home, just for a few dozen like-minded men, is replaced by a cavernous roman-style amphitheatre of luxury for the man about town. While still exclusive, all entertainments appear to be on a much larger scale - and, of course, in place of the claret and port, the drink of choice is vodka...

But, dear friends, let's not beat about the bush any longer; let's talk about old AK herself. What is it about her which people are supposed to love, and why do I just not get it? I promise you, I did try. I went into this vowing that I would forget my prejudices and try to see the positives in poor Anna, and I can see how the poor woman is trapped by circumstances, trying to navigate her way through an affair which would hardly have raised an eyebrow had the roles been reversed. In my previous post, I mentioned Tolstoy's view on the hypocrisy prevalent in attitudes towards male-female relationships, a view which is fully expanded upon, using Anna as his guinea pig. It's also true that she is written charmingly, leaving the reader in no doubt as to her allure and beauty; you can easily forgive the male characters, including Levin, for hastily revising their judgements of her on making her formal acquaintance. And yet...

Anna goes to a ball and carries on with a young man she knows is heavily involved with another woman (Kitty Shcherbatsky, ironically, the love of Levin's life); she rushes headlong into an affair with little justification other than that her husband doesn't understand her; she voluntarily runs away with her lover, leaving her son behind, choosing her own selfish satisfaction over her duties as a mother (something she admits herself); and as for her fickle, whinging, egotistical behaviour at the end of the novel... well, I had very little sympathy for it at all. I can understand that her position was difficult, but she seems to have made things as awkward as possible for herself at every step; the blame for her plight cannot be shifted onto the shoulders of her indifferent husband or her increasingly bored lover. As with many a character, fictional and real, a tragic end seems to distort our perception of Anna's true worth; certainly, I found her more of a distraction than the most important part of this great work of literature.

Putting Anna to one side though, the sheer size and scale of this piece of writing makes it difficult to compare 'AK' with many other pieces of fiction, contemporary or classical. One which comes to mind, despite the very different spheres in which the two novels are set, is George Eliot's 'Middlemarch', a work which also spends the best part of 800 pages exploring life's big themes (but in a much smaller setting). Like Eliot, Tolstoy uses the novel form to search for the truth behind our beliefs and the reasons we do what we do. That his arguments are still relevant today - and his thoughts on belief, family and society certainly are - is a reflection on how good his writing is.

Sorry. I still don't care much for Anna, though.

Saturday 3 October 2009

Tales of the Wounded

Standing, I salute you all, ready to inform you of... well, not much really. It is now eleven days since the GBC (great back crisis), and I am writing this fortified by red wine and standing with the keyboard precariously balanced on the back of my usual seat. I'm not really sure why I'm writing (although, having read the previous sentence, you may have your own thoughts on this matter), but since when did having very little to say stop anyone from publishing their thoughts (not looking at anyone in particular {cough, Dan Brown})?

Anyway, I'm ploughing through 'Anna Karenina' (again) at a fair rate of knots and will be ready with a review shortly - although you may wish to skip it if you are one of those people that Wordsworth Editions describe as regarding Anna as one of literature's best-loved creations; I don't quite see her that way... Not that I don't like the book (it's great); sometimes it's important to treat the book and the eponymous hero(ine) separately.

Nothing to report on the acquisitions front either. My absence from work (and from a computer which is not riddled with spyware) means that the Book Depository is out of bounds for the moment, and I no longer buy books from so-called 'shops' anymore - although I did get a beautiful Charlie & Lola book entitled 'This is actually MY party' for little Emily last time I ventured out of the house. Of course, I still have a dozen or so unread books snoozing somewhere on my bookcase, so it's not as if I'm going to go hungry anytime soon.

Speaking of unread books, there are a few there which must, nay, WILL be read by the end of 2009. I believe that I have already mentioned my plan to read Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy', but I have a couple more novels which I would file under 'Unfinished Business'. One is 'Don Quixote', a book which I started a couple of years back but shamefully lost interest in after a hundred pages or so. The other is Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged', which I am just as determined to hate as I am to read...

One last piece of news afore ye go: as part of the impressively industrious Dan Holloway's 'Free E-Day', I will be writing a short story (all by myself!) and providing a link, here on my blog, to a free download for anyone foolish enough to wish to read it. I won't say any more about that now, but there are more details on the brochure on Dan's site for those who are interested. Oh yes, have a look at what other people are giving away too (especially Dan) - it all goes down on the 1st of December.

Hmm. Red wine does not dull pain as much as Panadeine Forte, but it definitely makes you sleepier - night, night everyone :)