A Review of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver

I am a little apprehensive as to how I should begin this review: there are so many things to talk about.

First of all, I consider this to be truly a great work of literature, not simply “fiction”.  As M.T. Vasudevan Nair said in his book, Kaathikante Kala (“The Art of the Storyteller”): “The real story is on the unwritten pages”; that is, it is the gaps, the pauses and the undercurrents between the characters (which the reader is forced to complete or imagine) which is the mark of great literature.  This is one hundred percent correct as far as We Need To Talk About Kevin is concerned.  The novel makes us think, long after we finish it.

It is not a fast read: even though Lionel Shriver writes beautiful prose, she writes about ugly things.  Reading it is almost like self-torture under hypnotism; you don’t want to do it, but once you are into it, there’s no way to stop.

The story is told in epistolary form, through the letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her absent husband Franklin Plaskett.  Eva is the mother of the infamous Kevin Khatchadourian, the architecht of the Gladstone High School massacre.  Eva’s letters are divided into two parts. One talks of the current time, her travails as the universally shunned mother of the infamous teen: the bereaved parents of Kevin’s late classmates have slapped a civil suit on her, which she is fighting in her typically disinterested manner, and visiting her son regularly in the correctional facility where he is incarcerated.  The other part of the letters traces Kevin from his conception up to the fateful Thursday.

As the story unfolds, we get a picture of Eva and Franklin. She, spirited, independent, liberal, proud of her Armenian heritage and a little contemptuous of her adoptive country: he, more conventional and boringly American.  Eva as the propreitor of the highly successful travel guidebook franchise A Wing and A Prayer never wanted a child.  But she succumbs to Franklin’s entreaties and conceives Kevin.  And from the moment he sets foot on earth, Eva’s life becomes a horror story.

Kevin, through Eva’s eyes, is portrayed as so evil that we shudder; as he grows up, his evil nature also expands.  To Eva’s frustration, Franklin remains oblivious to his son’s true nature, trying to recreate some fictitious “American Dream” in his backyard.  Eva and Kevin face off many times during the sixteen years leading to the apotheosis of his career on that Thursday afternoon, with Eva always the loser.

Kevin is an odd child from the start.  He shuns breast milk, does not talk (even though he has learnt how to) until he is three years old, and refuses to be toilet trained.  He is apathetic to everything, seeming alive only when he manages to goad Eva into a rage.  With Franklin, he plays the part of the All-American Child, but mockingly, as Eva suspects.

Kevin’s crimes are inferred rather than seen: apart from one incident during childhood when he sprays red ink all over Eva’s darling maps tacked to the walls of her study, his mother does not see a single instance of his misbehaviour (if we leave aside that masturbation scene with an open bathroom door).  But she is oddly sure that in almost all of the “incidents” he has been in (and they are many, including one in which his sister is maimed for life), he is implicated: but she is also convinced that her son is so clever as to hide his true nature from all except a perceptive few.

So the novel slowly moves towards its destructive climax, picking up speed, and when it occurs, it is much more than we expect.  It is a one-way ride into darkness.

Lionel Shriver says in the afterword that people who read the novel fall into two camps: those who see Kevin as truly evil and Eva as victimised, and those who see him as a victim of circumstances, mainly an indifferent mother.  It is easy to see why.  Ms.Shriver has managed to frame the narrative from the POV of Eva Khatchadourian in such a way that the whole veracity of the tale depends on whether we trust her or not.  The reader is forced to make a judgement of character and stick by it.  In short, how we see Eva and Kevin will depend a lot on who we are.

For such a dark novel, more frightening than any horror story, the novel ends on such a sweetly sentimental note that there was suddenly a lump in my throat.  Suddenly I remembered that for all his monstrous faults, Kevin is still only a child.

This book will stay with you for a long time after you walk away from it.  More importantly, it will set you thinking, if you are a parent… which is not a bad thing.

For you see, as parents, we do need to talk about Kevin.  We have been silent too long.

Enid Blyton (Childhood Memories of Reading, Part III)

I still cannot remember exactly when I discovered Enid Blyton.  My recollections starts with those wonderful stories of pixies, brownies, goblins, gnomes, trolls and fairies; sometimes living in a world of their own, sometimes co-inhabiting an idyllic English countryside alongside nice and naughty boys and girls.

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Also, long before Toy Story, there were her toy stories where Teddy Bears and Golliwogs regularly came to life at night and had exciting adventures in the nursery.

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Noddy was a perennial favourite (though I did not read much of his stories).  Also, there was a character called a Golliwog in almost all the tales.  I could not understand what this strange being was supposed to be, but I was fascinated by him (this negative racial stereotype of an African has long since disappeared from children’s books and toy shelves, but I still miss him).

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The book I first remember in its entirety, however, is The Book of Brownies.  The old hard-bound copy I got from the Thrissur public library was almost falling apart: yet the yellowed pages had the magical musty smell of old books, and the old-fashioned illustrations inside were fascinating, of the brownies with their conical caps and long ears and noses.  It also helped that I had read this story in Malayalam as a serialised children’s novel in Mathrubhoomi Weekly – the brownies had been changed to children in that version.

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This is a full length novel of three brownies (Hop, Skip and Jump) who become unwitting accomplices of a witch’s plot to steal the Princess.  The King does not believe they are innocent, however; they are banished until they can locate and bring back their ‘goodness’ (since they exclaimed “Oh my goodness!” when the Princess was spirited away – and according to the King, they don’t have any, only badness!).  The brownies know that this is next to impossible, so they begin their journey with the idea of rescuing the Princess.  What follows is the story of their quest, told in episodic format.

And what a quest!  The parts I remember well are the magic cottage without a door; the land of very clever people where you have to speak only in rhyme; the witch (or ogress? – I don’t remember) who can be killed only by speaking a very long word without pause – and the ‘goodness’ bottles, representing the goodness in one.  How Hop, Skip and Jump win and lose, and win by losing, make up a fascinating children’s tale.  No wonder it is a classic.

Then I started buying books – the library was not enough to supplement my voracious appetite.  Most of the money I got for my birthday, for Vishu and Onam (I had started requesting people to give me Onappudava as cash by then, so I could buy books with it, rather than dresses!) went for books, most of them authored by Enid Blyton.  Those days, the cheap ‘Armada’ editions of most of her novels cost twenty to twenty-five pence each.  One penny was equivalent to twenty paise then, which meant a novel cost 4 – 5 rupees.  Since my stash usually amounted to twenty-five rupees, this meant 5 – 6 books at least.

The books had very bad binding, and most of the pages were falling out soon; but they were a treasured possession.  I still have them, and I have used the same covers as the copies I have in this article.  It was a great pleasure to see my son reading the same books, after a gap of nearly forty years!

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I think the first books I purchased were the “Secret” series, the “Adventure” series and the “Mystery” series.  Of these, the first two were more or less of the same mould – a group of children, two boys and two girls having fantastic adventures in outlandish places.  The “Mystery” series with the “Five Find-Outers and Buster the Dog” were somewhat different in the sense that they were traditional mysteries with a surprise at the end.  I had a special soft corner for this series because of lead protagonist, Fatty, was a fat uncouth youngster like me.  Many of those mysteries, in hindsight, were awfully easy to see through; however, they were mystifying enough for a pre-teen.

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These followed the so-called “Barney Mysteries” (I came to know the name only now), the gang of children slightly different by the addition of the delightfully infuriating orphan “Snubby” and the gypsy boy Barney and his monkey Miranda.  Then of course, came The Secret Seven and The Famous Five.

The composition of Blyton’s children’s gang is remarkably standardised: of the two boys, one will be slightly more of a “he-man” type than the other; one of the girls will be a wilting flower, a real “girly-girl” type, the other more bold (the extreme case being Georgina – “George” – in The Famous Five).  Sometimes, there will a gypsy child and last but not the least, a pet of some kind – most often a dog.  These pets stole the show, actually Jack’s parrot Kiki in the Valley series and Timmy the dog in Famous Five.

There were also the family stories, which I read later.  Looking back, I see these to be cloyingly sentimental, like a seventies movie and full of dated middle-class values – but I loved them.  Some of them, like The Six Bad Boys, The Family at Red Roofs and House-at-the-Corner still bring a lump to my throat in remembrance of the emotions they aroused in me at the time.

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Probably the last set of Blyton novels which I read before I outgrew her were the “Circus” series.  These were different from the other stories.  They were centred around the circus run by Mr. Galliano, and narrated the tale of Jimmy and Lotta and the circus animals.  Needless to say, now I understand that the lives of circus members are not so idyllic, especially the animals!

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Recently, Enid Blyton has come under a lot of fire for her racist statements and portrayals and for the supposedly “middle-class” values she perperates.  In England, a nation which celebrates their authors, I found her conspicuous by her absence (except for the odd “Noddy” statue here and there). Also, her second daughter has written a book which portrays her as not a very benevolent mother or a good wife – see the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enid_Blyton).  I also understand that her books are being removed from school libraries or “sanitised” to make them suitable for our politically correct society.  However, I read Blyton in the simple ages before such concerns were very important – and I am thankful that I could enjoy her books for what they were: thumping good tales for children.

A Review of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.  It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Thus begins one of the most acclaimed, popular and controversial memoirs ever written: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  It won the hearts of millions of readers, the Pulitzer Prize, and the undying hatred of many Irishmen.  It even went on create, according to The Daily Mail, a new kind of literature – the Misery Memoir, or ‘mis-lit’.

McCourt firmly connects the misery of his childhood in the slums of Limerick to the endemic poverty of pre-World War II Ireland, a country raped by the English, and the joyless and guilt-ridden Catholicism of the people.  See how in a few deft strokes he gives us a précis of the book in one paragraph.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Frank’s “shiftless loquacious alcoholic father” is Malachy McCourt, who has fled to America with a price on his head by the English for his activities in the IRA.  There he meets young and spirited Angela Sheehan, out there on the lookout for opportunities in the New World.  It is love at first sight, and soon a “knee-trembler” (the sexual act done up against a wall) results in the conception of Frank, and Malachy has to do the right thing by the girl.

So Malachy and Angela end up wedded, and very soon, they have a large family: Frank, the eldest, Malachy, born one year later, Eugene and Oliver, the twins and Margaret, the youngest and the apple of her father’s eye.  With the birth of Margaret, her father’s shiftless ways improve, and he starts bringing home his salary on weekends: however, the child dies after a brief existence of six weeks, and Malachy returns to his old habits with a vengeance.  This consists of going to the pub directly with his salary on a Friday, spending it all there and coming fully drunk late in the night; getting his small sons out of bed, asking them to sing patriotic songs and promise to die for Ireland.  When the poverty becomes unbearable in the midst of the Great Depression, the family moves back to Ireland, in hope of greener pastures.  But they soon learn that things are worse in their home country.

First of all, the IRA refuses to acknowledge Malachy McCourt’s contribution to the war of independence, and the pension he had set his mind on evaporates into thin air.  Secondly, nobody is willing to employ him, with his Northern name and accent (in the South, the North are taken as traitors because they are mostly Protestant – a heinous crime, in the eyes of an Irishman – and the northern counties decided to stick with the Union) and “odd manner”.  And to compound it all, is Malachy’s alcoholism which is increasingly worsening.

The family settles into a miserable slum in Frank’s mother’s native town of Limerick.  The unhealthy atmosphere and poverty soon take their toll.  The twins, Eugene and Oliver, fall sick and pass away, one after the other.  Angela is hysteric, moving close to madness – and Malachy turns to his only consolation, drink, more and more often.

They move to a new house, as Angela cannot stay in the one where her children died – but it is worse than the old one.  The communal toilet, where the whole lane empties their slop buckets into, is located at the ground floor of their house, near the kitchen.  The stink is continuous.  While it rains, the whole ground floor is flooded with water, carrying in all the filth from outside: the family has to confine themselves to the bedroom upstairs (fondly nicknamed “Italy”, because of its warmth).

No one is ready to help the family.  Frank’s maternal Grandmother cannot accommodate them all in her house and Angela’s sister Aggie does not want to.  The children know precious little other than admonitions and scolding, and the hellish atmosphere of sin and punishment forever present as a miasma in their fiercely Catholic schools only adds to the woe.

The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.  My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith.  Dad says they were too young to die for anything.  Mam says it was disease and starvation and him never having a job.

Frank’s mother’s family is pretty dysfunctional.  His mother and her sister are permanently at loggerheads.  They don’t like his father because he’s a Northerner.  Angela’s eldest brother Tom is not very comfortable with the family as they don’t like his wife.  The youngest brother, Pat, is mentally challenged and lives in a world of his own.  As Frank puts it (after he pukes up the sacred wafer in the backyard after his first confession):

Grandma won’t talk to Mam anymore because of what I did with God in her backyard.  Mam doesn’t talk to her sister, Aunt Aggie, or her brother Uncle Tom.  Dad doesn’t talk to anyone in Mam’s family and they don’t talk to him because he’s from the North and he has the odd manner.  No one talks to Uncle Tom’s wife, Jane, because she’s from Galway and she has the look of a Spaniard.  Everyone talks to Mam’s brother Uncle Pat, because he was dropped on the head, he’s simple, and he sells newspapers.

Death is ever-present: so is filth, sickness, sin and the threat of Hell.  Poverty and disease takes its toll on the populace so regularly that it has become a routine fact of life for the children.  (There is an incident narrated by Frank where the consumptive family members of one of his friends are dying one by one.  When his sister falls sick, the boy begs Frank and others to pray for her so that she doesn’t die during the summer recess – thus depriving him of two weeks’ time away from school!  The friends oblige, because they are promised sumptuous food at the girl’s wake: a promise on which the brother reneges.  So the kids seek vengeance, and pray that all the remaining family should die only during summer holidays.  And when the boy himself passes away the next summer, they feel that their prayers have been answered.)

Frank himself has had his dance with death immediately after his confirmation.  He’s admitted to the hospital with typhoid.  As he shuttles between life and death in the less-than-loving care of nuns, his only solace comes from the “diphtheria girl” Patricia Madigan in the next room.  They are placed far apart as a punishment for the sin of talking, but not before she teaches him the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.  However, she dies before she can recite him the whole story; and Frank has to bear the suspense until the illiterate hospital attendant Seamus learns it from somebody in a pub, and recites it to him.  The doomed love story of the highwayman and Bess, the landlord’s daughter serves as a pivotal point in the book for love, death and Frank’s own doomed first love, Patricia.

For in this depressing scenario, apart from death, there is also desire, lust and alcohol.  In fact, one of the main strengths of the memoir is how the author juxtaposes the descriptions of chamber pots filled with urine and excrement with Frank’s slowly awakening sexuality.  Lust is always mixed up with disease and death, and the sexual scenes (most of them implied rather than described) are more disturbing than exciting – for example, Frank’s public ejaculation in the park behind the library and later, his first sexual experience with the consumptive Theresa Carmody, who knows that she will not live for much longer, so is desperate for the experience.

The real downturn in the fortunes of the McCourt family begins when Malachy goes to England to work in the munitions factories during the Second World War.  It is a lucrative job, and many families grow rich outright from the money the men send from England.  But Frank’s father cannot let go of his Friday pint; and Angela and the children go from bad to worse, to the extent of pulling down the walls of their house to burn for firewood during the winter.  They are turned out of the house, and forced to move into the house of Gerard (“Laman”) Griffin, Angela’s cousin.

It is here that Frank’s world comes crashing down.  Laman is a waster, and a cruel one at that: he takes advantage of their situation, and Angela is forced to prostitute herself.  (Laman lives in the attic room, never coming down even for his primary needs.  Frank can hear Angela climbing upstairs, and the sound of “the excitement” happening up there, every night.)  But what finally proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back is Laman’s bicycle, sitting in the backyard.

Laman promises to give this to Frank for a trip to Killaloe: in return, he has to empty and clean the chamber pot every morning.  Frank agrees and carries out his part of the bargain faithfully, but the other party reneges on his promise.  When Frank questions him, Laman beats him up, even though his mothr tries to intervene.  But what really rankles Frank is what happens afterward.

I can hear Mam crying when she blows into the globe of the paraffin oil lamp and everything goes dark.  After what happened she’ll surely want to get into her own bed and I’m ready to go into the small one against the wall.  Instead, there’s the sound of her climbing the chair, the table, the chair, crying up into the loft and telling Laman Griffin, He’s only a boy, tormented with his eyes, and when Laman says, He’s a little shit and I want him out of the house, she cries and begs till there’s whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.

In awhile they are snoring in the loft and my brothers are asleep around me.  I can’t stay in this house for if Laman Griffin comes at me again I’ll take a knife to his neck.

Frank sees this as the ultimate betrayal: he does not understand that his mother has to prostitute herself to keep a roof above their heads (I wonder how many poor kids have to undergo the same humiliation on a daily basis).  He leaves home, and stays with his mentally challenged uncle in his Grandma’s house, who has passed away by this time.  Frank lands a job as telegram delivery boy in the post office – he has come to the conclusion that he has to somehow fend for himself, by hook or by crook.  He moves on to a more lucrative job with a newspaper dealer, and also takes up a part-time job as the composer and deliverer of threatening letters to defaulting debtors for a moneylender lady.  Ultimately, it is with the money stolen from her purse (technically: the lady is lying dead at that time) that Frank boards the boat to his dreamland: America.

But that is in the future yet, when Frank turns nineteen: before that, there is that distressing scene with Mam, after he had “drunk his first pint”.

…She says, That’s a nice state to come home in.

It’s hard to talk but I tell her that I had my first pint with Uncle Pa.  No father to get me the first pint.

Your Uncle Pa should know better.

I stagger to a chair and she says, Just like your father.

I try to control the way my tongue moves in my mouth.  I’d rather, rather be like my father than Laman Griffin.

She turns away from me and looks into the ashes in the range but I won’t leave her alone because I had my pint, two pints, and I’m sixteen tomorrow, a man.

Did you hear me?  I’d rather be like my father than Laman Griffin.

She stands up and faces me.  Mind your tongue, she says.

Mind your own bloody tongue.

Don’t talk to me like that.  I’m your mother.

I’ll talk to you any bloody way I like.

You have the mouth of a messenger boy.

Do I?  Do I?  Well, I’d rather be a messenger boy than the likes of Laman Griffin oul’ drunkard with the snotty nose and his loft and people climbing up there with him.

She walks away from me and I follow her upstairs to the small room.  She turns, leave me alone, leave me alone, and I keep barking at her, Laman Griffin, Laman Griffin, till she pushes me, Get out of this room, and I slap her on the cheek so that tears jump in her eyes and there’s a small whimpering sound from her, You’ll never have the chance to do that again, and I back away from her because there’s another sin on my long list and I’m ashamed of myself.

Yes, one more sin: symbolic matricide to add to theft, fornication, lying and whatnot.  The miserable Irish Catholic childhood is in full flower when Frank wanders over to the church to bid goodbye to God forever, and more particularly, the saint whose namesake he is, St. Francis of Assisi.  However, in front of the statue of the saint, what he finds is confession and consolation, in the form of a kindly Franciscan priest, Father Gregory.  As Francis confesses all to his patron saint, the father sits near him being “only a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord”, assuring him that God forgives all who repent.  Thus, we feel, a sort of peace has been made: Father Gregory has shown Frank a way out of the hellhole of guilt and sin he has been wallowing in since he could remember.

The book ends with Frank on the deck of the boat sailing into America, into New York, into the land of dreams and opportunity.  To the question of the Wireless Officer of the boat (“Isn’t this a great country altogether?”), he replies in true Irish fashion: ‘Tis.

The Controversy

This review wouldn’t be complete if I did not touch upon the controversy surrounding the book.  To be fair, not even the book’s greatest detractors say that it is badly written.  No, Frank McCourt has been criticised not for bad writing but for falsification of facts, and for making crude caricatures of Irishmen.

From The Daily Mail, 21 July 2009:

But as well as starting a publishing phenomenon, McCourt’s searing bestseller Angela’s Ashes, which has sold some five million copies, also began a terrible feud.

Locals called him ‘a conman and a hoaxer’, and claim he ‘prostituted’ his own mother in his quest for literary stardom, by turning her into a downtrodden harlot who committed incest in his book.

The article goes on to say:

Their three biggest criticisms of the book, aside from the endless grinding misery it depicts, include the description of a local boy, Willy Harold, as a Peeping Tom who spied on his naked sister. It turns out that Mr. Harold, now dead, never had a sister – which McCourt did later acknowledge.

They also disputed McCourt’s account of his sexual relations with Teresa Carmody, when he was 14. She was dying of TB at the time, and locals were outraged that he sullied her memory.

Frank Prendergast, a former Limerick mayor and local historian who grew up within 200 yards of McCourt’s house, says that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father.

‘He suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘But he has traduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’

Frank McCourt replied to these criticisms: “I can’t get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.  Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they’re kidding themselves.”

True or false?   After finishing this devastating memoir, the only thing I can say is that it is beautifully written.  McCourt may have caricatured the Irish, but I never found them comic, but largely sympathetic.  And Angela’s act of adultery (if it ever happened) only raised my esteem for her; for a lady stooping to such a depth to keep her family alive.  What an effort it must have taken her!  Poverty is very real, and people do many things which they are ashamed of later: who is one to judge?  “Judge not, lest thou should be judged.”

In closing, I do not think Frank McCourt’s memoir is entirely truthful.  Nor do I consider it outright lies.  As Julian Barnes said in The Sense of an Ending, history is most probably not the lies of the victors, nor the delusions of the defeated: they are the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

Frank McCourt was such a survivor.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part II)

Well… those detective novels.

The first name that comes to my mind is Neelakantan Paramara, since I discovered Kottayam Pushpanath much later.  Paramara was a popular author even during my mother’s childhood: unlike other famous detective novels of the time, which as I said earlier were plagiarised from English novels, he wrote original novels.  His popular detective was Bhaskar, who used walk about the Ernakulam streets in a “bush coat” and “felt hat”, smoking a cigarette!  (Can you imagine this happening in the seventies?)  The immediate image that comes to my mind, when I visualise Detective Bhaskar, is this:

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Yes, good ol’ Prem Nazir in detective guise.

This “international uniform of the C.I.Ds” (quoting Sreenivasan from Pattana Pravesam) is derived from the hard-boiled private-eye movies of Hollywood: what is normal there becomes laughably comic while transplanted to Kerala soil.  However, I found nothing strange in this and for quite a long time, thought this was how detectives dressed.

Paramara’s novels had fantastic names (“Pathalagruhathile Dhoomakethu” – The Comet from the Nether Dwelling; “Manthrakkinattile Sundari” – The Beauty from the Enchanted Well; etc.) and even more fantastic premises (in one story, the criminal gang used corpses animated by batteries to kidnap girls!).  I remember there was always a secret gang, located in some inaccessible place (again, a staple of Malayalam movie thrillers), and the gang leader would be totally unsuspected till the end of the novel in true whodunit tradition.  Paramara also had an obsession with sex, which I can analyse with hindsight: there were always girls with “thighs like slabs of butter” in the gang hideaway, and the villains would always be “fondling the girls around the waist”… yes, yes, I know, there was much less censorship of what kids read in those days.

Kottayam Pushpanath, whom I discovered in middle school, was more ambitious and international in his approach.  He had two detectives, one national and one international: Detective Pushparaj and Marxin.  Pushparaj tussled with baddies in Kerala and the rest of India, while Marxin’s arena was mostly in the Carpathian mountains – and he used to meet Dracula quite frequently.  For the famous vampire came to life again and again in Pushpanath’s novels, till one had a doubt whether he was borrowing from Bram Stoker or vice versa!

(I still remember one of Pushpanath’s novels [Hotel Seiko] set in Cochin, where people who took rooms in the hotel just disappeared.  Ultimately it works out that the manager is feeding them a secret poison which makes them shrink into nothing!  The clue which sets the detective on the correct path is a brassiere, left by a young woman, with the hooks still fastened which proves that she disappeared while wearing it!  Talk about science fiction scenarios.)

I think all these detectives borrowed equal parts from the classic English sleuth and James Bond.

A Review of “Documents in the Case” by Dorothy L. Sayers

Ellery Queen said: “Sayers has done more to add literary tone to crime fiction than most of her contemporaries.”  This is undoubtedly true.  Sayers writes better English than most of her contemporaries, and her literary erudition simply shines through her stories.  They are sometimes more slow-moving than conventional whodunits, but if you take the time to savour the prose and the way the narrative is constructed, it can be a rewarding experience.

There is usually no “rabbit-out-of-the-hat” ending in novels by Sayers, when the detective assembles all the possible suspects and picks out the least likely one as the murderer.  Her stories are usually more mundane and down to earth: we come to know the likely suspects halfway through the story.  The mystery is exactly how the murder was committed – the method, the opportunity, the unbreakable alibi.  This novel is no different in that sense.  However, it does have major differences in the fact that it does not contain Lord Peter Wimsey, and is written almost totally in epistolary format.

George Harrison, amateur cook who dabbles in the use of unusual material to prepare his dishes, is found dead in “The Shack”, a remote country cottage in the village of Manaton in Devon.  Apparently, it is an accident: he has eaten the poisonous Amanita muscaria, or “Fly Agaric”, in place of the edible Amanita rubescens (“Warty Caps”) – a common enough mistake as the fungi grow in the same area.  He has been alone in the cottage for three days when the accident happened, so any question of foul play is ruled out.

But his son, Paul Harrison, is not convinced.  He knows his dad too well to know that he won’t make a silly mistake like that.  And when he comes to know that his young stepmother Margaret is having an intrigue with the painter Harwood Lathom who has been sharing their building, and this Lathom was staying with the unsuspecting Harrison at “The Shack” a couple of days before the death, his worst suspicions are aroused: he is sure it’s murder.  But the problem is, Lathom has a cast-iron alibi, as though he knew in advance it would be needed.  How Paul unravels exactly how George was poisoned forms the heart of the story.

Sayers has structured the novel in two parts: “Synthesis”, leading up to the crime, and “Analysis”, showing how the mystery is unravelled.  It is presented in the form of a dossier prepared by Paul Harrison to Sir Gilbert Pugh, Director of Public Prosecution, comprising various letters in chronological order and statements from Harrison himself and John Munting, Lathom’s friend who is a bestselling author, to fill in the gaps.  The letters are written by Agatha Milsom (Margaret Harrison’s companion) to her sister; John Munting to his bride-to-be; George Harrison to his son and Margaret Harrison to Harwood Lathom.  The beauty of this format is that every one is an unreliable narrator!

Agatha Milsom, whose letters opens the narrative, is by her own confession “undergoing a difficult phase” and seeing a psychiatrist – the lady obviously has a severe case of hysteria, and a dangerous repressed sexuality.  She sees George Harrison as a boor who is terrorising his poor wife.  In the letters Munting writes to his wife, however, Harrison is shown in more favourable light as a traditional middle-aged husband who is played upon by a drama-queen wife.  George’s letters to Paul (who is an engineer, away in Africa on an assignment), however, show us an indulgent if somewhat old-fashioned husband.  The crux of the story comes when Agatha Milsom encounters a man on the staircase landing in the night during Harrison’s absence from the house: she is sure it is in John Munting, come down to steal her chastity, and creates an uproar.  Harrison thinks it is Munting all right, but the target is his wife; and duly throws him out.  The fact is that it was Lathom wearing Munting’s dressing gown, out for a midnight assignment with Margaret.  Munting, in the true tradition of the gentleman, takes the rap for his friend by keeping his mouth shut.

The misunderstanding is cleared up to a certain extent after Agatha Milsom is institutionalised – George Harrison is willing to dismiss the whole episode as a figment of the companion’s diseased imagination.  Lathom keeps up his affair with Margaret (her true nature is revealed in the letters she writes to Lathom, which are included here) as well as his friendship with the cuckolded husband: he gets so chummy with the latter so much as to stay for extended periods with him at his village hideaway.  One day, he forces Munting to accompany him there against the better counsel of his conscience – to find Harrison having met his end in Agony.

The second part is mostly narrated by Paul Harrison and Munting, with brief letters and reports from the inquest inserted in between, and is the conventional amateur murder investigation.  However, there is no detective with his brilliant intellect here, and the detection mostly consists of painstaking legwork.  The solution, when it comes, is through fortuitous chance which nevertheless is entirely believable.

This is a very fast read: a good mystery, though not outstanding: and contains some brilliant characterisation.  Sayers’ capability to write in four different voices must be commended.  The opposing viewpoints presented in the juxtaposed letters wrong-foots the reader, not allowing the formation of an opinion on any of the characters.  This forces one to keep an open mind until about midway in the book.

Extremely enjoyable.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part I)

I have been reading ever since I can remember – books were the main pleasure of my life.  In a childhood spent in the absence of TV, video and computers, books and the occasional movie were the “time pass” for a non-athletic boy severely lacking in physical intelligence and the social graces.  Thankfully, I had an educated and liberal family filled with readers.  Books were available without restriction.  The literary journal Mathrubhoomi, filled with articles, stories and poems by the great writers of Malayalam, arrived weekly on the doorstep.  It had a children’s section edited by “Kuttettan” (the poet Kunjunni), aimed at budding readers and writers, which was eagerly consumed by myself the moment I got the magazine in hand.  I also used to stare at the beautiful illustrations by the famous artist Nampoothiri, drawn for the serialised novels – now I realise that most of those novels were later award-winners (Khasakkinte Ithihaasam, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, etc.)

But the real treat came during the summer vacations spent in my ancestral home at Thrissur.  This is a huge house (still very much existing!) filled with cavernous rooms exuding the musty and mysterious smell of old dwellings.  Apart from the vacation pleasures of the Vishu festival, the famous “Thrissur Pooram” and the attendant festivities, it meant to me two months uninterrupted reading, unspoilt by the need to mug up boring text books.  I would spend the major part of the day reading – in my bed; in the drawing room after dinner when the family was chatting, oblivious to them all; even up a tree!  It was absolute bliss.

There is an “Exhibition” in connection with the Pooram festival: several visits to this event was a must.  In those days, the Soviet Union was very much a live entity, and the exhibition invariably had a stall for “Prabhat Book House”, the authorised publishers of Soviet books in India.  This stall was virtually a treasure trove for me: one used to get beautiful illustrated books of Russian fairy tales, printed on glossy paper in beautiful colours, for throwaway prices.  This was my first introduction to the magical world of fairy stories – I still remember them, along with the taste of popcorn I used to buy from another stall alongside.

Another memory is of the “detective novels” (as we used to call mysteries, in Malayalam) I graduated to from the picture books.  There used to be an old unused building in our compound where a lot of this category of old books, leftovers from my grandmother’s, mother’s and aunts’ childhoods, were kept.  These were kept in a dark room, and there was the weekly ritual of going to collect books to read (an adult always accompanied me).  I still remember the thrill of anticipation as the room was opened and the musty smell of old books hit me – the feeling was almost religious, that of entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple.  The novels were stacked on the floor.  Most of them were very old so that the pages tore at the slightest hint of rough use; there was also the scourge of old buildings – termites – so that many pages were eaten away, and piecing together the story was itself the job for a detective!  Still I loved these pulp novels, many of them plagiarised English mysteries (Sherlock Holmes changed to “Swarloka Hamsan” – you get the picture!) and some of them original though with highly improbable plot lines.  The authors were extremely popular writers of that era (Kottayam Pushpanath, Neelakantan Paramara etc.), to a populace that was still largely ignorant of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.

The library is also another fond memory.  The Public Library of Thrissur is housed in the Town Hall, an old building with vaulted ceilings and huge bay windows.  The walls are fitted with shelves, thickly lined with old books bound in paper and leather.  The afternoons spent there were heavenly – dreaming with a book open in my lap, looking at the dust motes dancing in the late afternoon sunlight slanting in through the windows.  I made my first acquaintance of Enid Blyton there, an acquaintance which was to stay with me right through to my early teens until I discovered Agatha Christie and the Hardy Boys.

(To be continued…)