A Christmas Fable for All Times

18Heart-warming: that is my one word review for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

This has to be one of the most read and loved stories of all time. It works, whether one views it as a Christian allegory or a simple fantasy. I studied it in middle school and loved it: I was laughing along with Scrooge in the last chapter. I was wondering whether the magic would still work with a moderately cynical middle-aged man. It did.

The story could have been maudlin, sentimental, didactic and moralising. That it is none of this is due to Dickens’ mastery of the medium. From the beginning to end, there is hardly a word out of place: and the narrative is structured so meticulously that one simply floats through the story, along with Scrooge and the ghosts.

Take the first paragraph:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This sets the whole tone of the novel. The conversational style with its mock serious tone of voice; Dickens is sitting near to you, with a tankard of ale in front of him, on a cold December day in the neighbourhood pub. He is entertaining you with a Christmas tale. It is not to be taken very seriously, but the teller’s heart is in it-if you listen to it carefully, it may work wonders for you.

dickens_gurney_headThe handful of characters are finely etched: true to its fairytale nature, the “good” and “bad” are strongly bifurcated without any shades of grey, yet we find ourselves loving even the bad characters. Scrooge, for all his miserly and cantankerous nature, can never be taken seriously: his “bah!” and “humbug!”, we feel, are most applicable to the persona he presents to the world. And as we visit the lonely boy in the classroom, we get an idea how Scrooge turned out to be the man he is: the colossal insecurity of the impoverished child, developing into the worship of money for its own sake, and building a barrier of hatred against society so that it can never hurt him.

marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_blLike a five-act play, time and space are compressed into an evening, night and the next day. As we sweep through the narrative at breakneck speed, Scrooge’s character undergoes a tremendous transformation which is possible only in fables and fairy tales: however, the author has already set the stage for it in the opening chapter itself by showing us the chinks in his armour. The development of the miser of the first chapter into the loving philanthropist of the last chapter seems not only possible, but natural.

A perfect Christmas fable for everybody. Recommended for young and old alike.

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A Review of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

Oh, the city, city… the endless sea…
Fun and games on top, mud and filth beneath –
A beauty who smiles on the surface;
The mistress who wouldn’t let you go…

So wrote one of our poets.

You live in the city: and slowly, the city starts living in you. It takes on a life of its own in your mind. Once the city gets to you, it won’t let you go. (I speak from personal experience. I spent twelve eventful years of my life in Cochin, and I carry that city with me, even here in the Middle East.)

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Italo Calvino has immortalised the city in this slim volume of fantastical tales, told by Marco Polo to Kubilai Khan. Stories which may be distorted memories, fanciful imaginings or outright lies (Polo was not exactly truthful). There is no story as such. Vignettes of imaginary cities are listed, one after the other, in haphazard fashion, interspersed with conversations between the Khan and Polo. The pieces are absurd and surreal – one feels that if this book would have been illustrated, only Salvador Dali could have been entrusted with the task.

There are eleven “themes”, of a sort:

  1. Cities and Memory
  2. Cities and Desire
  3. Cities and Signs
  4. Thin Cities
  5. Trading Cities
  6. Cities and Eyes
  7. Cities and Names
  8. Cities and the Dead
  9. Cities and the Sky
  10. Continuous Cities
  11. Hidden Cities

…And five sketches under each, so there is a sort of mathematical precision. The themes are all jumbled together with no semblance of order. (After finishing the book, I made a discovery – one can cover the descriptions of the cities theme-wise, instead of sequentially, and get a totally different take on the book.)

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Each of these vignettes can be analysed in depth, and dissected using Freudian psychoanalysis or Jungian metaphysics: but I will not attempt to do so. It would be spoiling the beauty of the narrative. Each reader can find his or her own meaning in these cities – and most likely, it would be the city buried deep in their psyche which would be talking to them.

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So my friends, my only request to you is to come and visit these cities. You won’t be disappointed.

SenateDistrict-POP

The Magic of P. G. Wodehouse

PGWodehouse“I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn…”

P. G. Wodehouse

I discovered P. G. Wodehouse when I was eighteen or nineteen. I was studying engineering, staying at my ancestral home at Thrissur. This house was built in 1908, and as an aristocratic family we had a lot of connections with the vanished British Raj – a plethora of faded photographs and multitude of moth-eaten tomes lumped together in the attic. It was among these I found the hardbound copy of The Inimitable Jeeves on a lazy Saturday afternoon. I began to flip through the book, and was immediately hooked. I finished the book before evening. By that time, I was a hard-core fan.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (or “Plum”, as he was known affectionately to friends) wrote situational comedies. In the early eighties, Malayalam movies were coming out of a period of stagnation with a lot of avant-garde movies by brave young directors. A parallel stream, not quite apparent at the time but which took over the Kerala film industry by the end of the eighties, was the situational comedy with a bumbling incompetent as the hero (Malayalis who are reading this will remember the entry and meteoric rise of the Sathyan Anthikkad – Sreenivasan – Mohanlal combination): so maybe my discovery of Wodehouse was serendipitous.

As mentioned in the quote above, the Wodehouse stories are “musical comedies without the music”. They are mostly built around standard stereotypes of a vanishing England: the young man-about-town living on his father’s largesse or an inherited fortune; the vapid nobleman in his country estate; the domineering aristocratic matron; the young scion of the landed gentry, bent on making a disastrous alliance; and the imperturbable butler/ valet with his stiff upper lip. These characters, under various avatars, flit around the Wodehouse novel entering into hilarious situations and extricating themselves even more hilariously.

The stories are repetitive and built in the same mould, but that does not take away from their charm, because it is their sameness that the connoisseur enjoys. Indeed, to the acid criticism of one of his works that “it contains all the old Wodehouse characters under different names”, Wodehouse replied:

A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

This is the quintessential Wodehouse: you can’t get him down. He has the strongest weapon available to man – sharp, biting humour – and he will use it without mercy.

The Inimitable Jeeves

Wodehouse stories are built around a group of familiar characters who move around London and the English countryside, occasionally “popping over” to the USA or France. However, two of the most prominent cast of characters are the inhabitants of Blandings Castle, and Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. Jeeves was the first character who I came in contact with; incidentally he is also my favourite. So let me start with him.

Jeeves is valet to Bertie Wooster, the vapid young man-about-town who is an example of the idle rich: lacking parents, he is constantly bullied by his aunts (both the good and the bad) and who is frequently engaged to various young ladies, whom he doesn’t wish to marry. Jeeves, using his shrewd knowledge of human nature and his almost superhuman intelligence, gets him out of these “scrapes” in the end, gaining something in return (usually the sacrifice of an item of Bertie’s wardrobe which he disapproves of).

The stories are written by Bertie, and it is a credit to Wodehouse mastery of the language that he writes like a half-wit: for that is what Bertie is. Jeeves practically serves as his nanny (in the sarcastic words of Aunt Agatha, his “keeper”); he virtually controls the household. It is immediately apparent to the reader, but Bertie writes the narrative as though he is in control throughout – and this is the laughter, always simmering beneath the surface.

There are mainly two kinds of females who go for Bertie: one is the super-intelligent, domineering kind, as evidenced by Honoria Glossop and Florence Craye, who wants to make him read improving literature such as Nietzsche (“fundamentally unsound”, according to Jeeves); the other is the maudlin kind, perfectly characterised in Madeline Basset, who thinks that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy sheds a tear, a star is born.   (There is also a passing fascination with Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham – a girl with hair a “dangerous” shade of red, as Jeeves says – but that is over very fast due to the girl’s strange sense of practical humour.) These girls are all beautiful, and that is Bertie’s undoing: he gets into the engagement without thinking the consequences through. And then it is upon his valet to extricate him.

The Jeeves novels and stories are loosely connected, but each can be read and enjoyed in its own right. Over the series, Bertie is engaged to Florence thrice and Madeline twice, but saved from the scaffold at the last moment. The hilarious fact is that both these girls think that Bertie is madly in love with them, and is available the moment they decide to return their current lovers to cold storage. In the course of the narrative, he is suspected to be dangerously deranged, becomes known as a kleptomaniac, and is always in imminent danger of being beaten to a pulp by Stilton Cheesewright, Florence’s policeman admirer or Roderick Spode, the self-styled fascist leader of the “Black Shorts” who has been in love with Madeline since she was “so high”. Also, he is pestered by aunts: the “evil” Aunt Agatha who “chews broken bottles and conducts human sacrifices at full moon”, who is after him to get married and settle down, and fire Jeeves, whom she considers a bad influence; and the good Aunt Dahlia who invariably lands him in soup by enlisting him into her hair-raising escapades.

The stories follow mostly the same pattern. There is something Jeeves wants Bertie to do: discard an objectionable item of clothing, go on a round the world cruise, etc.: which he refuses. Then Bertie gets into a jam, mostly at someone’s country residence. After about two hundred pages of hilarious fun, Jeeves manages to extricate him, gaining what he wanted in the first place as reward. Whatever be the situation, he never loses his aplomb – the upper lip is always stiff. Once, in the depths of the well of despair, Bertie asks: “Jeeves, do ties matter at a time like this?” Jeeves’s answer: “Sir, there are no times when ties do not matter.”

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Blandings Castle

Blandings Castle is a character by itself. It is the ancestral home of Clarence Threepwood, the 9th Earl of Emsworth. Lord Emsworth is an absent-minded and amiable character, interested only in his farm and his price pig, the Empress of Blandings, and who desires nothing more than a quiet life. In this he is constantly thwarted by his formidable sisters (Lady Constance Keeble, Lady Julia Fish, Lady Hermione Wedge et al – a total of nine living and one deceased), all fierce matriarchs and all-round “tough eggs”; his disreputable younger brother Galahad, who is a member of the notorious Pelicans Club; and his super-efficient secretary Rupert Baxter, who suspects everybody on principle. These redoubtable characters, combined with a surfeit of nephews and nieces and their friends, makes it certain that life at Blandings is never dull.

There are two common themes in Blandings stories. One is the nephew or niece “incarcerated” in the country house to save them from an unsuitable alliance, usually by the matrons; and in this they are continually thwarted by Galahad, who lives up to his name as a knight errant. Galahad calls Blandings “Bastille”, and has bitter memories of his own youthful romance which was spoiled thus. The young lovers come to the country house under various assumed identities with his connivance and are immediately suspected by Baxter; sometimes there are even some real crooks in the pot-pourri. There is also the recurring reference to Galahad’s scandalous memoirs which is always on the verge of publication (containing, among others, the hilarious story of Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and the prawns), and the prevention of which is the avowed aim of his sisters and the British aristocracy. Various permutations and combinations on the same theme give us the delightful Blandings stories.

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Meet Mr. Mulliner and Others

One very popular Wodehouse character who does not have a novel to his name is Mr. Mulliner, who regales the regular visitors of The Angler’s Rest with “absolutely truthful stories” of his numerous nieces and nephews, in which regard he has been “most singularly blessed”. The Mulliner stories are brilliant variations on the “tall tale”, and each one of them is a gem.

Wodehouse has plenty of other characters who flit in and out of various novels and stories. Uncle Fred (Lord Ickenham) , Pongo Twistleton’s hyperactive uncle who runs around the countryside doing mischief in the name of “spreading sweetness and light”, a modern variation of the trickster archetype; Psmith (“The P is, of course, silent”) with his grand ideas; the oldest member and his interminable golf stories; Freddie Widgeon and the various girls he “loved and lost”; Bingo Little with his capacity to fall in love with “anything of the opposite sex”; Ukridge and his money-making schemes… the list can go on and on. And the interesting thing is that most of them live in the same fictional England and meet, greet and pass each other in the course of their fantasy lives.

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The Literary Magic of Wodehouse

Isaac Asimov once wrote that to learn to write good English, you have to read Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and P. G. Wodehouse. I would add to this and say that of the three, Wodehouse writes the best English: each of his sentences is well-formed, and there are gems scattered casually all over his narrative which make these stories a treasure-house for the budding writer. Wodehouse is insanely quotable, and you will find bits from his work scattered all over the internet. Some of my favourites are given below:

Pure wordplay

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

― The Code of the Woosters

(“Gruntled” is a word which does not exist. It is worked backward from “disgruntled”; see the cleverness here. Unfortunately, the word never caught on.)

A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant.

― Blandings Castle

Descriptions of People

Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.

– Carry On, Jeeves

The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say `When!’

My Aunt Dahlia has a carrying voice… If all other sources of income failed, she could make a good living calling the cattle home across the Sands of Dee.

She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.

– Very Good, Jeeves

Situations

One of the first lessons life teaches us is that on these occasions of back-chat between the delicately-nurtured a man should retire into the offing, curl up in a ball, and imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum, which, when danger is in the air, pretends to be dead, frequently going to the length of hanging out crêpe and instructing its friends to stand round and say what a pity it all is.

– Very Good, Jeeves

He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.

– Big Money

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.

– The Luck of the Bodkins

(I get this look whenever I am about to speak Hindi!)

I could go on and on, but you get the drift. Some of these literary coups don’t strike you until you pass the sentence: then you go back and read it. Which is why Wodehouse is one of those authors who can be read again and again – and maybe the reason why his stories don’t translate so well to the screen.

***

The world P. G. Wodehouse was writing about ended after the Second World War, when mounting debts forced England to raise taxes to unprecedented levels. Most of the landlords and moneyed people were forced into austerity; the idle young man was forced to work; the barts and lords were forced to sell off their estates. The era of basking under the idyllic summer sun was over. However, it never disappeared from the minds of his fans.

The author Evelyn Waugh said:

“Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

This quote graces the back cover of the Penguin editions of Wodehouse’s works, and it is one hundred percent true. I do not know whether the younger generation is familiar with his works: but for those who are not, it would be advisable to redeem the lack immediately. Not many authors offer you the chance of improving your language skills while laughing out loud!

The Father of Malayalam Language

Thunchath Ezhutthachan.

The name is a hallowed one. Very few languages have recorded ancestry – and very few people can claim to have created languages. The gentleman mentioned above is widely recognised by us Malayalis (the people of Kerala) as the father of our language, Malayalam.

I had studied about Ezhutthachan (which itself means “Father of Writing”) in school. It is generally agreed that he created the modern Malayalam script; adapted letters from Sanskrit and Tamil to provide for all the spoken sounds in Malayalam, thus removing the discrepancy between the spoken and the written language. He also composed Malayalam versions of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. His Hari Nama Keerthanam (“Prayers in praise of the Lord’s Name”) is one of the most popular prayer songs even today.

According to popular legend, Ezhutthachan was a man of one of the low castes; a man who drank and ate fish (possibly also tapped toddy from coconut palms). In present day Kerala, the Ezhutthachans are ranked as OBC (Other Backward Caste). However, this caste name was adopted relatively recently (only in 1921). Before that anyone who taught children were known as “Ezhutthachan” (it may also have been “Ezhutthaasaan” – “Master of Letters”).

As it happens with most things in Kerala, the exact caste of Ezhutthachan has led to a caste dispute; both the Nair community (who belong to forward castes) and the Ezhutthachan community claiming him. With the status of historical records of Kerala being what they are, it is not likely that this issue will be resolved anytime soon, if ever. The problem is also compounded by the fact that all castes in Kerala from Nair downwards are officially Sudras according to the ancient system of the four Varnas (castes) of Vedic Brahmanism. The Brahmins who came to Kerala relatively late in history seem to have elevated some of the local ruling families to a higher caste and dumped the rest under the umbrella of Sudras – so Ezhutthachan may have been any non-Brahmin who taught children.

So much for official history. The renowned Malayalam novelist C. Radhakrishnan has a different story to tell – one which he has dug up from family legends.

A Personal Story

As a very young boy, as the author was reading a lesson on Ezhutthachan in his schoolbook, his grandmother astonished him by saying that it is about his ancestor, who preceded him by fourteen generations. That night and the nights afterward, she told Radhakrishnan the family story – how Ezhutthachan was persecuted by the Samoothiri (the Zamorin Raja of Calicut) for belonging to a family who traditionally opposed him: how his school was destroyed, his uncle and elder brother murdered: and how he himself was demoted to the condition of a “Temple Slave”, forbidden to teach and write, forced to manually operate a “Chakku” (a mill used to extract oil from copra and gingelly, usually pulled by bullocks or buffaloes) to earn a living for himself and his family: and finally when even these measures failed to kill the poet and philosopher within him, he was deported never to return on pain of death. The story cleared up the mysteries behind a family ritual, where the karanavar (eldest male member of a matrilineal family) annually buried and later unearthed a bunch of ancient texts – to recreate an event which actually happened when the soldiers of the Zamorin invaded Ezhutthachan’s home. It also gave the background of the family admonishment to naughty children, “I will make you push the chakku!”

Armed with this knowledge, Radhakrishnan went forward to write the story of his long-dead ancestor. The author confesses it was no easy task. He had to expend Herculean efforts to dig up facts from a past mired in myth and legend; running from pillar to post, consulting many authorities and resolving contradictions. He also had to face the ire of people who saw behind this a nefarious plot by the Nair community to “appropriate” the great man of letters. But Radhakrishnan persevered, and the result is the extraordinarily brilliant and poetic novel, Theekkadal Kadanju Thirumadhuram (“Divine Sweetness from the Churning of the Ocean of Fire”).

The Historical Background

The time period in which Ezhutthachan lived was a turbulent one. The Samoothiri, having seized power in the kingdom of Calicut, was in the phase of bringing the smaller kingdoms to heel. In this, he is abetted by certain Brahmin families who had their own agenda to carry out – make learning, which has become democratic in the wake of the Buddhist reforms, once again the monopoly of Brahmins and put all the uppity “lower” castes in their place.

There was a strange custom in place at this time. The Valluvakkonathiri who originally ruled the place called Valluvanad to the south of Calicut, was the patron of a festival called Mamankam at Thirunavaya, conducted on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river once every 12 years. The Samoothiri captured this town and usurped the patronage, which was not accepted by the Valluvakkonathiri. So the families loyal to him used to form a squad of 18 soldiers called a Chaver Pada (“Suicide Squad”), and attempt to kill the Samoothiri as he stood on a stage called the “Nilapadu Thara”. Of course, death was certain, but the custom was enacted without fail on every occasion: such was the depth of hatred.

The Story

Ezhutthachan had the misfortune to be born into double jeopardy in these turbulent times. His mother’s family (and according to matrilineal system of the Nairs, his family) were traditionally teachers, and therefore distrusted and hated by the hidebound Brahmins who feared that they will take away the knowledge of the Vedas and distribute it to all and sundry. His father belonged to a family of traditional Chaver soldiers, who had deep-rooted enmity with the Samoothiri.

Krishnan (as Ezhutthachan is named in the novel) never saw his father – he was treacherously killed days before he was born. However, the family lives on in relative peace at Thanniyur, patronised by the king of Vettathunad, one of the vassal states of Calicut. There is the elderly uncle, blind from cataract; his mother, slowly moving towards madness after the death of her husband; his eldest brother, Kuttan, who is charge of the teaching; and two older sisters – Seetha, mature and motherly and Cheeru, flighty and cheerful.

Seetha marries Unni, her father’s nephew, in time-honoured tradition. However, the tranquillity of the family is shattered when Unni decides to become a Chaver soldier. After his futile battle and death, one of the renegade armies of the Samoothiri destroys the Kalari (school) of the Ezhutthachan family. His uncle gives his life to save the ancient texts by dumping them in the well. The family has to move on: find a new place to put up a Kalari at Thiruvur, in a place called Thunchan Parambu (“Thunchan’s Compound”) which is rumoured to be inhabited by the ghost of an unfortunate toddy tapper and family who were murdered by an employee of one of the local Nampoothiri families.

This Kalari also progresses well. Cheeru marries Unni’s younger brother Gopi and Kuttan marries their sister Ammini. Krishnan Ezhutthachan in the meantime travels to Tamil Nadu, to an “Adheenam” – a centre of learning which makes no caste distinctions in teaching. When he returns after almost a decade as a young man, his nephews and nieces are grown up. Krishnan also marries and has a daughter in due course; but almost as a forerunner of the great tragedies about shadow his life, his wife dies in childbirth. During this time, his literary genius takes wings, however; he composes a devotional poem Hari Nama Keerthanam, and more importantly, modernises the Malayalam alphabet.

Meanwhile things have gone from bad to worse politically. The malice of a local Nampoothiri family, the Munayoor Illam, is unrelenting. The Portuguese have arrived, and having fallen out with the Samoothiri have joined forces with the Raja of Cochin. In the subsequent internecine war, the king of Vettathunad and the Samoothiri have a falling out, as the former refuses treat Cochin as an enemy. Samoothiri’s marauding army attack the Vettathu Palace where the Ezhuttachan family has taken refuge, and kill the young king of Vettath and Kuttan, Krishnan’s elder brother, in treachery. They also condemn Ezhutthachan to death for teaching Vedas to non-Brahmins and for arguing that enlightenment was possible for anybody, regardless of caste, in the Hari Nama Keerthanam (actually a basic tenet of Hindu philosophy).

However, there is a last-minute reprieve: the Mooppil Nair (local leader of the upper-caste Nairs) decrees that the low-caste infidel who blasphemed the Brahmins should be condemned to a fate “worse than death” – namely, making a living for himself and his family from the pittance earned by manually operating a chakku. Actually, the Mooppil Nair is covertly saving Krishnan from certain death, in return for education he received. However, it is indeed a cruel fate – the Ezhutthachan family (including all the widowed women and orphaned children) is transported to Sabara Kottam, designated as slaves of the temple to stay in a hovel in the virtual wilderness and earn their livelihood through the backbreaking labour of one member of the family.

However, you can’t silence the voice of poetry for long. Along with the song of the chakku as it rotates along the axis, the poet also sings – translating the Adhyatma Ramayana into Malayalam, giving the language it first epic poem. He soon does the same for the Mahabharata and Bhagavata. Obviously he cannot teach anybody or write these poems down – but they spread like wildfire, travelling from mouth to mouth, actively assisted by lovers of learning, both Brahmin and non-Brahmin, who care a hoot for caste distinctions.

The conservatives are incensed. They want to enforce the death sentence. However, deliverance comes in the form of Azhvanchery Thamprakkal, the spiritual head of all Nampoothiri families in Kerala, and a patron of literature and arts. He commutes Ezhutthachan’s death sentence to deportation. He is forced to leave his loved ones; and after once again travelling to his old Adheenam and a long stint as teacher there, he comes back and sets up a scholastic centre at Chittur in Palakkad, in the kingdom of Cochin.

The novel ends with Ezhuttachan in his last phase of life, still sorrowing for his estranged family – but looking forward to a peaceful death, and hoping for a peaceful future for mankind.

One feels that his soul is now smiling down from above, seeing his homeland attaining 100 per cent literacy and removing all barriers to learning imposed by caste.

Memorial to Ezhutthachan at his birthplace

 

Churning the Ocean of Fire

“Churning the ocean” is a concept closely related to the Indian psyche. According to Hindu myth, the Devas (celestials) and Asuras (demons or anti-gods), churned the celestial Ocean of Milk using the mount Manthara as the churn and the snake Vasuki as the rope, to get Amrutha, the divine nectar of immortality. This is interpreted psychologically as the refinement of the psyche, using both the positive emotions (symbolised by the Devas) and the negative ones (represented by the Asuras) so that immortality (oneness with God or the Brahman) is ultimately realised. Radhakrishnan uses this concept, as Ezhutthachan goes round and round the chakku. While doing this
backbreaking labour, the mind of the great man is busy composing the Adhyatma Ramanayanam. As he churns the sea of fire his life has become, his poetic psyche gets even more refined, and able to produce the divine sweetness of the song of Lord Rama.

The novel is written in first person; which is usually a limitation, but in this case once you finish reading it, you feel this is the only way it could be. The great man’s viewpoint is presented throughout – which is one of pacifism and peaceful acceptance of life and all that it brings. This is not fatalism, because the flame of optimism is never extinguished. This is the thought at the pinnacle of Indian philosophy – as Joseph Campbell put it, the “joyful acceptance of life’s sorrows”. As we are ground up mercilessly by fate like copra and gingelly seeds by the chakku, we get refined, and the essence of souls pours out like the oil.

Radhakrishnan’s language is poetic and his grasp of Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy exemplary. Also an enormous amounts of historical research has gone into the book. The author writes with passion – as his ancestor, it is obvious that he feels Ezhutthachan’s pain. However, this is not an easy novel to read. One should take one’s time to understand the history and savour the philosophy.

I am not going into the controversies here: obviously, when one tries to recreate history from so little documentation, there are bound to be many conflicting viewpoints. However, as a work of art, this novel stands alone. Radhakrishnan’s fictionalised history deserves to be the truth, we feel.

Like the fellow said, if it ain’t true, it oughtta be!

 

A Review of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

Time, you old Gypsy Man,

Will you not stay,

Put up your caravan

Just for one day?

               – Ralph Hodgson

“Time’s a goon, right?”

             – Bosco, a character from A Visit from the Goon Squad

 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is a unique book which defies analysis, probably because it breaks all conventions of storytelling. In fact, it does not tell a story at all. It tells many stories, not by traditional narration but by cameo glimpses into the intertwined life of a handful of characters connected with the rock and roll scene.

There is Sasha, kleptomaniac and former junkie; who is assistant to music producer Bennie, who is struggling with a failed marriage and an erectile dysfunction. There are Bennie’s rock-and-roll buddies, Rhea who’s in love with him; Alice, who he is in love with; Scotty, whom Alice loves; and Jocelyn, whom Scotty loves but who is having an affair with Lou, a middle-aged music producer who is married with kids. Then there are Lou’s children, Charlene and Rolph; Bennie’s former wife, Stephanie and her disturbed brother Jules, a journalist who has served time for the attempted rape of up-and-coming starlet Kitty Jackson.

There’s Dolly, publicist and Stephanie’s one-time employer whose career has collapsed after a disastrous party, and who is trying to restructure her life by promoting a South American dictator and her dead-serious daughter Lulu, who is currently working for Bennie. There is Rob, Sasha’s lover from her teenage years who commits virtual suicide by trying to swim in the East River while totally stoned. There is Ted Hollander, Sasha’s uncle on a mission to Naples to locate his niece who is wasting her life as a junkie and a hooker. There is Alex (who has spent a random night with Sasha once), who is trying to garner some unethical publicity for Bennie’s event featuring Scotty, trying to rejuvenate the failed careers of Bennie, Scotty and himself. And there are Sasha’s children, Lincoln who is slightly autistic and Alison…

…Plus a host of other characters, adding to a tapestry stretched out over time and space.

The novel (?) twists and turns in and out through the lives of these people, whose lives and destinies meet and intersect at various points. The structure (or lack of it) brings to mind Paul Haggis’ award-winning movie Crash: but whereas the movie is focussing on a single incident which brings together disparate people and all the events leading to it, the book lacks any such focus. It moves back and forth in time, sometimes breaking the conventions of traditional narrative. Consider the following passage:

The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to know that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.

 

Note the technique: time is suddenly telescoped, forcing the reader to lose focus and move back and survey the picture from a broader perspective. Also note the interesting fact that a major character, not yet formally introduced into the story [Lulu] makes an appearance here: it’s not clear on the first reading. In fact, this action happens outside the novel, and reinforces the impression the reader gets that he is only peeking into a cross-section of an enormously long and endless narrative, part of which is captured and laid out before him by the author.

The chapters are more of standalone narratives rather than parts of a coherent whole-yet they are inherently connected. Each tells part of the story from the viewpoint of a different character; some (for example, the fourth one) from the viewpoint of multiple characters. The narrative is sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the present: sometimes first person, sometimes third person and once (chapter ten), second person. And chapter twelve leaves linear narrative by the wayside altogether – it is a PowerPoint presentation (in fact, this presentation is the key to the novel – but more about that later)!

Two themes run through the novel – time, and music. And it does not take great cerebration to connect the two together. Music is essentially an art form which is sculpted in time (to borrow from Tarkowski) but unlike the narrative arts, it is non-linear, with themes spanning out and spreading forth. And the pauses are as important as the beats. This is the theme of chapter twelve, the presentation prepared by Alison, Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter.

The presentation is about the Blake family in general, Sasha, her husband Drew, and children (Lincoln, who may be slightly autistic and Alison, who is the author of the presentation). It is titled: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”. The presentation talks about many things: Alison’s quarrels with her mother, Lincoln’s inability to communicate, Sasha’s reluctance to revisit the memories of her youth… all analysed with respect to Lincoln’s obsession with the rest pauses in rock-and-roll songs.

Lincoln is interested in the pauses to such an extent that he times them to the microsecond and records and loops them again and again. He knows each of them by heart: the music is his only connection to the world. Drew is worried about it: he does not understand this obsession-while Sasha, more attuned to the world of music, does to a certain extent. But it is Allison who is perfectly in sync with her brother, and can trace the tortuous connection in his mind when he says “Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the end of ‘Fly Like an Eagle’, with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!” in place of “I love you, Dad.” It is she who graphs his pauses, thus providing spatial representation to his sculptures in time.

The beats and the pauses, which together creates music as they flow through time, is applicable to human lives also… or so the novelist seems to tell. For the actual protagonist of this novel is time: at once the ephemeral moment and the eternal ocean. Time, which can be measured only while it flows, and gets consumed in the measurement. Time the goon, destroying empires and civilisations in its relentless march; time the healer, healing any wound, however deep it may be.

Many of the characters in the story talk about the “movement from A to B”, while describing how their lives have changed (many a time in unexpected ways) as they progressed in life. But on the wider canvas of the novel, it is soon apparent to the reader that the movement is illusory: it has no meaning outside the mind of the person experiencing it. I have always asked this question to myself: will time exist if there are no changes happening in the universe, and no memory to record its passing? The question has always remained tantalisingly unanswered.

The novel starts with Sasha on a one-night stand with Alex in New York City: fittingly, it ends with Alex in New York, looking for Sasha. Of course he does not find her – as Bennie hopes, she has found a good life.

 

Alex closed his eyes and listened; a storefront gate sliding down. A dog barking hoarsely. The lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

th blu nyt

th stRs u cant c

th hum tht nevr gOs awy

A sound of clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet. Alex snapped open his eyes, and he and Bennie both turned – whirled, really, peering for Sasha in the ashy dark. But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.

 

So time goes on.

Highly recommended, especially for those readers who enjoy the unconventional.

A Review of “The Collected Stories of Saki” by H. H. Munro

H. H. Munro (Saki)

I do not know how popular Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) is nowadays. During my college days, short stories by him and O. Henry were mandatory in almost all college textbooks. I think “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry and “The Open Window” by Saki might be two of the most anthologised stories. The difference between the two authors is that while O. Henry directly appeals to our emotions and the twist at the end strikes with the power of a jack-hammer, Saki is more subtle and his stories appeal to our intellect. Saki’s stories are more enjoyable in retrospect, the mull over; whereas O. Henry can become jaded after a while.

I had been on the lookout for a collection of Saki’s short stories, and stumbled upon this cheap edition quite serendipitously. I believe it contains all of his work; I had read quite a few of them in my teens and twenties, and savouring them again along with many which were fresh to me was a rare treat. I took this book very slowly, relishing the taste, like a single-malt whisky on a rainy evening: you get a pleasant high which stays with you for a long time.

Saki writes humorously; but he does not write humour, like P. G. Wodehouse whom he influenced. Bizarre would be a more fitting word. In this, he is akin to Roald Dahl, as his stories move from the funny to the bizarre to the uncanny to the truly horrific. Saki could be classified as a writer of black comedy, but he would not have recognised himself as such, because the term was coined almost twenty years after his death.

Many of his stories are indeed humour, though of a satirical nature. As is the case with most Englishmen, Saki revelled in ridiculing the hypocrisies of his fellow countrymen – notably those of the well-heeled, aristocratic lot. Two of his creations, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, are young-men-about-town who do not do anything other than flit about from one country house to another, getting into scrapes and helping others to get into scrapes. They are the prototypes of the “drones” popularised by Wodehouse. However, his humour frequently slips into satire and a darker kind of fantasy, which never happened with Wodehouse.

This volume comprises six collections: Reginald, Reginald in Russia, The Chronicles of Clovis, Beasts and Super-beasts, The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg – more than a hundred stories. They can be roughly divided into the following categories:

  1. Humorous pieces which cannot be called stories – they consist of a character (usually Reginald or Clovis) soliloquizing or in conversation with somebody (mostly an aristocratic member of the opposite sex), expounding unusual views on English life in a matter-of-fact way. They are classic examples of underplayed British humour.
  2. Stories of footloose young men and women, out to wreak havoc in straitlaced English society. I think these escapades are the ones which mostly influenced Wodehouse.
  3. Strange tales bordering on the fantastical which walk the fine tightrope between horror and humour: the kind of stories at which we have to laugh to prevent ourselves from shivering.
  4. Out and out fantasies. These may be satirical, darkly comical, or outright terrifying.
  5. Bizarre stories which are frightening without any supernatural element.

One common thread that runs through all stories is a child’s delight at cocking his snook at authority. Many of them actually feature children getting their own back at unfeeling grownups. Even if the children are not there, the author’s tone is one of the delighted rebellion of a naughty child at an orderly universe. Saki had been raised by a number of aunts, rather like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, and the rancour of a restricted childhood shows – because whatever be the case, like Bertie says: “Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen!”

A few of the stories require special mention in my opinion:

The Open Window: An excellent character study, the story develops from a normal enough premise and suddenly moves into a twilight zone, again to come back to the normal English drawing room. The story is simple and plausible, yet on rereading, one is able to glimpse a dark world residing in a young girl’s brain.

The Interlopers: Two men, out to kill each other because of a blood feud, are trapped under a tree. They settle their age-old quarrel, just to see fate arrive as the interloper.

Sredni Vashtar: An accident or the frightening wish-fulfilment of a cruel childish fantasy? This tale could be right out of “Tales from the Crypt” or “The Twilight Zone”.

The Hounds of Fate: A man, living a lie in a case of mistaken identity, finds somebody else’s fate catching up with him.

The Story-teller: A most unusual storyteller, with a most unusual story, manages to keep a group of children entranced during a train ride, even though their aunt doesn’t approve.

The Penance: A story of childish revenge which could easily have become a horror story.

Mind you, these are my personal favourites. Others may choose differently. The fact is that most of the stories are way above average.

One caveat: whoever did the proofreading for this book has done a horrendous job. The book is littered with typos, like stones in freshly cooked rice (to translate a simile from Malayalam).

If you have not discovered Saki yet, I urge you to do so. It will definitely be worth your while.

A Review of “The Art of Fiction” by David Lodge

Literary criticism is often daunting for a novice. I have ploughed through a lot of serious critical tomes in my life (most of them in Malayalam) to enhance my reading experience, but I must confess that I have been only partly successful: many of those erudite essays were way over my head. And when it comes to literary theory, I must shamefacedly say that I have still not understood the difference between “Classicism”, “Modernism” and “Post-Modernism”. Any mention of “Deconstruction” is enough to have me heading for the high hills! And even though I can write a grammatically correct sentence without help, the mention of “synedoche”, “metonymy” and the like makes me go weak in the knees.

However, as an avid reader, I am always interested in knowing what makes great literature work. What magic do these wordsmiths have, which we ordinary mortals lack, which makes us go to them again and again? It has been my dream to find a critic who would explain the tricks of the trade in simple terms for me – a dream which was realised through the above book.

In The Art of Fiction, popular novelist David Lodge explains the tools of the writer’s craft in simple English. It comprises fifty short articles, originally published as pieces in a newspaper column. Instead of quoting theory, Lodge takes one or two novels as example and uses them to illustrate particular aspects of writing good fiction. Fittingly, he begins with “Beginning” and ends with “Ending”!

Some of the aspects Lodge describes are common to all fiction (beginning, ending, point of view, introducing a character, suspense) while some deal with specific techniques writers use (stream of consciousness, interior monologue, repetition, defamiliarisation, time-shift): yet other chapters introduce us to schools of writing (Magical Realism, Surrealism). There are also interesting chapters on titles (I never really pondered on how much authors sweat over these!), the use of lists in stories, and the possibilities of the telephone. I found every one of them fascinating.

The author quotes from the story he is going to discuss at the beginning of each chapter, which passage is then analysed. This analysis is used as a springboard for jumping into wider aspects of the subject. Before one knows, one is engrossed in the analysis; and in the case of the stories one has read, it creates the classic “aha!” reaction – like seeing the secret behind a magic trick. And it also gives one the chance to ruminate on the same technique used by different authors (for example, Lodge’s analysis of the time-shifts in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie immediately had me comparing it with A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel written entirely based on this technique).

Newton said: “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” The same can be said of literature. The author’s inspiration, without the proper craft to package it, often falls flat. This book gives us an introduction that hallowed craft of the great writers; it also illustrates the fact that one can’t separate the subject from the form in case of great writing, for the novelist chooses the form of his story based on what he wants to convey. David Lodge introduced me to that craft in a very accessible way – and he has also inspired me to read the greats with a greater appreciation for their technique.

If you are a book-nerd like me without much knowledge of the workings of the great literary machine, this book is for you.

A Review of “The Color Purple”

You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

This is what the man fourteen-year-old Celie calls Pa tells her after he rapes her; and this is what she does. The epistolary novel, The Color Purple, is a compilation of this correspondence.

Celie is an illiterate black girl, deep in the American South. She keeps on writing letters to God, narrating her distressing tale in short, staccato and flat sentences which however feel loaded with misery: such acute misery that the reader is likely to throw the book away during the first few pages. She is raped by her father, and two children born out of that relationship are taken away and presumably killed, by the father himself. Her sick mother dies heartbroken, and Celie is then literally sold off in marriage to Mr _____ (unnamed throughout the novel, except for his first name Albert, revealed later on), who is lusting after her sister Nettie, a more beautiful and educated girl. The idea of ‘Pa’ to force Mr _____ to marry Celie is to have Nettie for himself. However, Nettie runs away to Celie; then to Africa with a missionary couple to escape the attentions of Celie’s husband.

Into this world of dissolute, chauvinistic men and silently suffering women enters two spirited ladies: Celie’s stepson Harpo’s wife Sofia and the singer Shug Avery, Mr _____’s old flame. Sofia is a spirited young woman, who does not take white supremacy and male chauvinism for granted. She fights back, giving as good as she gets: hitting back at Harpo when he tries to discipline her, and ultimately landing up in jail for attacking the mayor for his condescending remarks. Shug Avery is a rare breed in those days: a liberated woman. A singer by profession, she was unable to marry Mr _____ because his father would not hear of it: but that does not prevent her from coming and staying with her old lover. Initially she is antagonistic towards Celie, but a curious friendship (ultimately lesbian) develops between the two as she becomes aware of Celie’s sad plight.

It is on this relationship that the story hangs – because Celie slowly starts developing a sort of self-respect, ultimately allowing her to stand up to her husband. In the meantime, Nettie has travelled to Africa with the missionaries Corrine and Samuel, who also happen to be the adoptive parents of Olivia and Adam, the children of Celie. She keeps on writing to Celie, but the letters are hidden by her husband because Nettie wouldn’t submit to his wishes, long back: they are unearthed by Shug. From then onwards, the novel becomes a correspondence between Nettie and Celie. Celie, Shug, Sofia and Harpo’s new wife “Squeak” (Mary Agnes) find an unlikely bonding among themselves, which encourages them to leave their no-good husbands and strike off on their own. Squeak discovers a singing career and Celie starts to sew pants (she starts wearing pants also, symbolically). Sofia, serving the mayor’s wife in lieu of her jail sentence, strikes up a curious love-hate relationship with her daughter; she also takes pleasure looking after Henrietta, Harpo’s sick daughter by Squeak.

Through Nettie’s letters, Celie comes to know that the man who raped her is not her father but her stepfather. He dies eventually, leaving her her mother’s house; Celie has suddenly become well-off.

Meanwhile, Nettie along with Samuel and Corinne is busy doing missionary work with the Olinka, an African tribe whose very existence is threatened by British tea growers. The missionaries try to save the Olinka from extinction, but they are unsuccessful in doing so. During the long years spent in Africa, Corinne dies and Nettie marries Samuel. Adam falls in love with a girl from the Olinka tribe, Tashi, and marries her.

Meanwhile, the Second World War begins. Celie is shattered by a telegram saying that the ship carrying Nettie and her family have been sunk by the Germans. However, she still keeps on getting letters from her. In the end, they suddenly turn up – it seems that they did not drown after all! The novel ends on a surprisingly maudlin note, which would have been cliché had it not been so fitting.

***

What makes this novel so effective?

The story, very inexpertly summarised by me above, is rambling and lacking in cohesion. It narrates extremely distressing events, and very rarely does it give us a feeling of warmth. There are very few literary passages. Still, the effect is devastating.

Ruminating on it, I came to the following conclusion – it is the effectiveness of the narrative voice and the way the POV has been developed. We talk about unreliable narrators. In an epistolary novel, the narrator has to be unreliable to a certain extent. However, Celie’s uneducated and uncultured voice is so honest, that we start identifying with her from the first sentence:

Dear God,

I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.

Celie literally does not know what is happening to her. Her letters have the raw strength of a child’s honesty, narrating distressing incidents which should never happen to a teen. She takes all the punishment the world and a man give to her, and develops a fatalism which is a kind of strength.

As the novel progresses, the narrative voice slowly matures. It is all credit to Alice Walker how she has managed this gradual shift in voice: as a reader, you find the woman growing old in front of your eyes. Sofia gives her a glimpse of what a woman of spirit can be like – but it is Shug who opens her out. Their lesbian relationship is physical as well as spiritual.

Shug is a masterly creation. It is she who unlocks womanly feelings in Celie, gets her Nettie’s letters and gives her the courage to stand up to her husband. In fact, Shug is Celie’s alter ego, the woman she wants to be: her love affair is more an attempt to be one with the other than carnal satisfaction.

There is an extremely significant chapter where Celie “loses” her religion; she starts writing to Nettie instead of God. She cusses God to Shug, only to be surprised to learn that she is a believer! Only, Shug’s God is different from Celie’s.

Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for…

…I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.

This is the God of the Upanishads: “Aham Brahma Asmi” (I am the Brahman) and “Tat Tvam Asi” (Thou Art That). The ultimate knowledge, the still point at the centre where the Bodhi tree stands. Once one has reached there, all is bliss. It is significant that it is from this point that Celie’s fortunes start changing: in fact, the world is the same; it is her relationship to it which has drastically changed.

Nettie’s adventures in Africa provide a nice counterpoint to this narrative. It is a sort of return to the roots for a black woman from America, for whom Africa is the equivalent of a fairy tale kingdom. Nettie finds the roots fast disappearing: but Adam’s marriage to Tashi brings it full circle. The name “Adam” here cannot be a coincidence.

Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, the happy family reunion at the end is contrived but fitting, it is needed to round out Celie’s personal journey. Her last letter is addressed to

Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.

Yes. Oh yes!

A Review of “Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon.

For a person drunk on the film society culture prevalent in Kerala during the Seventies and Eighties, this is a magic word.

Akira Kurasowa’s film enjoys cult status among movie buffs. It is rivetting in its presentation of “truth” in many layers, presented as a conversation among three people: a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner who take shelter under the ramshackle Rashomon city gates to escape a downpour. The story is the death (murder?) of a man, the rape (?) of a woman and the capture of a bandit responsible (?) for both: as the story unfolds, the differences in the widely varying testimonies of the people involved force us to have a rethink on what “truth” means.

I had heard about this movie a lot before actually seeing it; and it lived up to its hype and more when I finally got around to seeing it. But this post is not about the movie. It is about the magical short story which was its inspiration – and other stories like it, penned by one of the great figures of Japanese literatures, the turn-of-the-century novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

When I first saw the movie, I was so taken up by the sheer visual beauty of Kurasowa’s storytelling that I did not ruminate much on what this movie was based on, even though I saw the “based on…” title in the beginning. It was only after joining Goodreads that I came to know about this book, and was immediately hungry for it. Having read it, it has left me hungry for more by the same author, and Japanese literature in general. It is so shattering in its impact on the intellect, even in translation; I cannot imagine how powerful it must be in the original Japanaese – for, as Haruki Murakami says in the introduction, the translation can never capture the power of the original.

Akutagawa is a tragic figure. His mother went mad shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his childless maternal uncle and aunt. Even though they were a highly cultured family and young Ryunosuke was lucky to have a childhood exposed to a lot of intellectual pleasures, he was constantly plagued by ill-health and bullying in school. His ill-health continued into youth: he suffered from chronic insomnia and fears of madness. The misfortunes of family and country also distressed his oversensitive soul to an inordinate extent. Until finally, on 24 July 1927, Ryunosuke Akutagawa committed suicide by an overdose of Veronal.

The author’s gifted and tortured soul is visible throughout this amazing collection of stories. It is divided into four sections: (1) A World in Decay, (2) Under the Sword, (3) Modern Tragicomedy and (4) Akutagawa’s Own Story. These sections correspond to four periods of Japanese history as well as four creative styles which took birth from Akutagawa’s fertile imagination.

In the first section, stories (most of them retelling of old legends) set in the Heian Period (A.C.E. 794 – 1185) are included. This was Japan’s classical era; a time of peace, prosperity and opulence when art and culture flourished. But as is common with most ancient kingdoms, it declined and power slipped from the hands of the aristocrats into the hands of the warlords. It is this twilight period that Akutagawa uses as a backdrop for his stories of degeneration and decay. The title story of the collection, Rashomon, encapsulates the entire misery of the country in the symbol of the gate of the capital city of Kyoto. The city having been struck by one calamity after another, the author says:

With the whole city in such turmoil, no one bothered to maintain the Rashomon. Foxes and badgers came to live in the dilapidated structure, and they were soon joined by thieves. Finally, it became the custom to abandon unclaimed corpses in the upper storey of the gate, which made the neighbourhood an eerie place that everyone avoided after the sun went down.

The stage is thus perfectly set for a set of disturbing stories. Rashomon narrates the story of a jobless servant who is sheltering from the rain inside the gate and an old woman, who steals hair from the corpses lying there to sell to wig-makers, justifying it by pointing out that the dead people were also thieves and cheaters. Ultimately, she inspires the servant to become a thief himself who starts off on his new career by stealing her clothes!

In a Bamboo Grove, one of the most extraordinary stories ever written (this was the inspiration for Kurasowa’s film, even though he used the Rashomon gate as a symbol of the decay he was portraying) narrates story of a dead warrior, a thief and a raped woman from the viewpoint of each of the protagonists. Each of the stories is different and equally believable from the evidence available at the scene of the crime and the statements of the witnesses. Who we believe will depend a lot on who we are.

But the story which impressed me most in the whole volume is Hell Screen. This gem of a novelette gives us a taste of horror, Japanese style – I could understand how movies like Dark Water, The Ring and The Grudge came into being. The tale of the deformed artist Yoshihide (nicknamed “Monkeyhide” because of his deformity), the tapestry of hell he paints for the Lord Horikawa, the artist’s daughter who is a serving girl at the Lord’s mansion and the pet monkey has all the elements of a medieval ghost story and a gothic romance. However, it is Akutagawa’s narrative style (whereby he leaves a lot unsaid) and his choice of the narrative voice (that of an unnamed member of the Lord’s retinue) that are masterful. The story is a one way ride into darkness.

In the second section, we move forward to the Tokugawa Shogunate (A.C.E. 1600 – 1868). This was the last feudal military government of Japan. During this period, the shogun elders of the Tokugawa clan ruled from Edo Castle. As Jay Rubin, the translator, says, the Tokugawa centralised feudalism “imposed the principle of joint responsibility on all parts of society, punishing whole families, entire villages, or professional guilds for the infractions of individual members. This fostered a culture based on mutual spying, which promoted a mentality of constant vigilance and self-censorship.”

In the story Loyalty, the disastrous effects of the madness of a samurai on an entire dynasty is described: in this merciless world, it does not mean just the destruction of a person, but of a whole bloodline. The other two stories included describe the clash between Christianity and Japan’s traditional religions. These distressing tales are rendered with much empathy and wit.

In the third section we find a sarcastic Akutagawa, full of black humour. The Story of the Head that Fell Off and Horse Legs use the trappings of fantasy to create a sort of darkly comic tale. In Green Onions, we can see an author smiling at himself and his fellow-scribes, in a pastiche of a romantic tale.

There is a whole tradition of autobiographical writing in Japan, called “I-Novels”, where the author’s life itself is fictionalised. Even though Akutagawa initially stayed away from this genre, he finally succumbed to peer and critic pressure and started writing such stories. It is here that one can see a fine mind finally unravelling. There are hints of this in the first three stories, especially in The Writer’s Craft where an author is forced write an elegy for somebody whom he barely knows; just on the strength of his writing talent. This sense of unease is increased in Death Register where he tabulates the demise of friends and relatives: and in The Diary of a Stupid Man and Spinning Gears (where Akutagawa keeps on hallucinating spinning gears on one side of his vision), we sense that we are standing on the edge of a minefield. (Spinning Gears was published posthumously.)

This is a well-chosen set of stories, with a fantastic introduction by Haruki Murakami. There are explanations about the historical periods, and background information on each story. The timeline of Akutagawa’s life is also provided. The book satisfies one, not only literally, but also as a window to Japanese literature.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

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.