Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liquidation [2003]

In the brilliantly modernist novella Liquidation, Hungarian author, and Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor, Imre Kertesz’s 1st work after being conferred with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, was alternately introspective, melancholic, caustic and darkly humorous, as he delved into a subject that he’s been tied to throughout his writing days – the irreconcilable memories and scars of the Holocaust, and attempts at deciphering the “why” more than the “what”. In possibly a reference to Primo Levi, who delved on this period of history right from his harrowing debut memoir If This is a Man, the book’s central character, simply referred to as B (or Bee) as in The Trial’s K, was a famous writer who spent his childhood in the notorious concentration camp and has recently committed suicide. His death has created deep psychological turbulence in the lives of those who knew him closely – in particular, Kingbitter, an editor who’s become obsessed with his deceased friend’s literary estate and a wry observer of life in Budapest which is in transition from dictatorship to democracy; Judith, B’s ex-wife who’s decided to escape her past through marriage to a seemingly conventional man; and Sarah, who is married to a broken man who’s lost the functioning of one ear on account of police brutality and was engaged in a secret affair with B until his shocking demise. As an ironic meta-narrative element, B had composed a hitherto unpublished play on how his suicide would play out among the people he knew – this, along with his conviction that B had written a novel as well prior to his death, compels Kingbitter to pry into the lives of B, the people around B, and his own self. With the brooding air of a person trying to understand, a playful and self-deprecatory tone borne out of disillusionment, and traits of a detective story in its attempts at reconstructing events from past and present, Kertesz provided a terrific meditation on personal vis-à-vis public history, and the enigmatic relationship between life, fiction and myth.

Author: Imre Kertesz
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Drama/Psychological Drama/Holocaust Literature
Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Zinky Boys [1989]

War is futile and ugly business, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was especially so. The catastrophic military adventurism mobilized by Brezhnev in 1979, which lasted for a decade and led to incalculable damage both during its course and in its aftermaths, is pejoratively referred to as Soviet Union’s Vietnam War. Written by Svetlana Aleixevich, the iconoclastic Belarusian journalist who’s chronicled all major milestones in 20th Century Soviet history and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings”, Zinky Boys – the seemingly flippant title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the dead were shipped back home – is a deeply distressing account of the devastating human cost of this notorious war, written in her quintessential form of “oral history”. Composed through interviews with an array of Soviet citizens – disillusioned veterans left physically and psychologically destroyed, disconsolate mothers who’ve lost their sons, grief-stricken widows, sardonic civilians and nurses (largely women) left scarred by their dehumanizing stints there – it presented the bleakest side of the war in terms of how a mix of lies, false promises and coercion were used to lure the young and gullible to it, and how the reality, both during the after their experiences there, turned out to be vastly different from what they had either believed in or hoped for. It unflinchingly chronicled the callous apathy of the administration, the proliferation of brutality and violence, and how what the war was supposed to mean turned out very different from what it eventually stood for. As can be guessed, it earned considerable wrath from the powers that be upon its publication, and the author wryly acknowledged that by having a few of livid responses published as part of its postscript. Even if one doesn’t get to know about the politics and finer nuances of this key Cold War episode through this book, one certainly is left affected by its scathing indictment of it.

Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Genre: Non-Fiction/War/Montage
Language: Russian
Country: Belarus (erstwhile Soviet Union)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Counterlife [1986]

The Counterlife was both a continuation of and departure from the Nathan Zuckerman saga that Roth had established until then through the rapturous Zuckerman Bound trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson) – the Jewish-American diaspora, Carnovsky, and ironic exploration of Nathan’s, and in turn Roth’s self-conflicting attempts to break free while still being bound. Roth, however, essentially used the protagonist, his story, and his position as a stand-in for his own self, to touch upon a divergent array of subjects ranging from Israel-Palestine conflict and Zionism to familial differences and marital woes, and, meta-fictionally, his own role as an author. The novel finally boiled down to the shifting nature of truth and reality, and the idea of impersonation and role-playing as an integral aspect of human existence – aspects which were realized through the audacity of a formalist and the gleeful smirk of a prankster. The book begins innocuously with Nathan’s estranged brother Henry, suffering from an embarrassing consequence of medication for heart condition, impudently opting for surgery, and dying in the process; in a bravura display of deadpan wit, Henry is shown, in the next episode, to have survived the surgery – but, as a reverse side-effect, he has become a zealot and has shifted to the West Bank; Nathan’s visit there seemed a fascinating combine of Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back and Henry Bech’s trip to the ‘Holy Land’ in Updike’s Bech is Back. As made amply clear, multiple versions of events are chronicled through a beguiling mix of continuations and alterations – Nathan marrying and tentatively settling down in Gloucestershire; getting stuck with a lunatic who may be planning to blow up the flight from Tel Aviv to London (a hilarious short chapter worthy of short story in itself); and, in finally keeping with the novel’s overarching theme, the possibility of everything being figments of Nathan’s imaginations and fantasies. Vociferously argumentative and rambling in its narrative, this is a book which had Roth at his most ingenuous, digressive and petulant.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Marital Drama/Social Satire/Modernist Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter [1977]

Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter magnificently straddled the space between fact and fiction, and in doing so the Peruvian Nobel Laureate created a work brimming with joie de vivre and mad creativity in its effortless interplay between mock-gravitas and deadpan humour. The mad romp of a novel portrayed a ‘coming-of-age’ episode from the author’s own life along the lines of a Felliniesque memoir, and mashed them with an ingenious structure, delicious meta-fictional elements and an infectious, multi-layered panorama of life in 1950s Lima. As an 18-year old guy unwillingly studying law, earning a few bucks in Radio Panamericana, composing short stories, and dreaming to shift to a garret in Paris and become a writer one day, Mario’s life experiences a remarkable transition upon the arrival on the scene of Aunt Julia and the titular scriptwriter Pedro Camacho. The young Mario becomes infatuated with and eventually falls head over heels for the striking 32-year old lady who, apart from being a good 14 years older to him, is also a divorcee and his aunt by relation – thus making their torrid and scandalous affair seem straight out of a saucy expose. Meanwhile he also makes the acquaintance of the Bolivian pocket-dynamite Camacho who’s joined the low-brow next-door neighbour Radio Central, and with indefatigable energy and fecundity, starts churning out a slew of radio serials. Interestingly, the afore-mentioned made for one half of the book – the odd-numbered chapters; the even-numbered ones, made in the form of standalone stories, were essentially Camacho’s tales – pulpy, lurid, outrageous and brilliantly rendered soap operas bursting with crime, violence, sex and melodrama. And, when the prolific scriptwriter’s crazy work-schedule starts taking a toll on his mind, they start converging into a delirious potpourri of characters from disparate stories and oftentimes with altered backstories. Julia Urquidi, the author’s 1st wife to whom he dedicated this book even though their marriage didn’t last very long, later wrote a memoir on her version of their story, What Little Vargas Didn’t Say.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Memoir/Comedy/Coming-of-Age/Social Satire/Romance/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting [1979]

“Laughter” (particularly of the satirical and subversive kind) are weapons which are oft-employed against the ones in power, while “Forgetting” (Politics of Memory) is a powerful tool in the hands of the ones in power. Milan Kundera, who traversed the entire arc from being a party loyalist to a pariah in Czechoslovakia, touched upon both these facets in his marvelous debut novel The Joke, and made references to them explicit in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which formed a crucial touchstone in his life. This was the first work that he published after his expatriation to France, and he ended up losing his citizenship to his homeland upon its publication. Divided into narratively disjointed but thematically interlinked chapters, each of which could have been converted into standalone novellas, this is a deliciously elliptical novel where fiction is interspersed with metafictional quips, sharp political commentary and tragicomic autobiographical elements, and chronicled with a mix of nonsense humour, brittle irony, shades of surrealism and fantasy, irreverence, allegory, absurdism, poignant human drama, and melancholic undercurrents that have emanated from Kundera’s personal tryst with the totalitarian Soviet regime. Even if it wasn’t bereft of certain amounts of unevenness, given its fragmented structuring, it is, nevertheless, filled with moments and episodes of dizzying ingenuity and brilliance – the fervent attempts of a man to shake off the officials trailing him and his increasing awareness that he’s become a persona non grata for the state; the futile attempts of a lonely lady, who’d defected from Prague from her now-deceased husband, to retrieve certain documents from her past; Kundera’s reminiscences of the last days of his father; the hilarious gathering of famous Czech poets, referred using the names of past masters (Voltaire, Goethe, Boccaccio, Petrarch et al), debating literature and gossiping on personal foibles over alcohol; an island filled with kids where the arrival of a lady leads to sexual curiosity and chaos; the somber occasion of a man’s funeral turning into a lowbrow farce.

Author: Milan Kundera
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Absurdist Fiction/Magic Realism
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)