Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stasiland [2001]

I’d spotted Stasiland around 8 months back while rummaging through the intoxicating bookstore Shakespeare & Sons, located at a quieter alley in the otherwise lively Mala Strana, and I’d known right away that I’d read this book soon. The Ministry for State Security, better known as Stasi, created a near-perfect physical manifestation of the dystopian, Orwellian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the erstwhile GDR or East Germany; ironically, it also provided a disconcerting mirror into the future where mass surveillance by governments on the private lives of its citizens is seen by most as an accepted norm, and perhaps even a necessary one. Like The Wall Jumper, Peter Schneider’s mesmerizing hyperlinked non-fiction account of life in divided Berlin, this gripping polyvocal journalistic novel written by Anna Funder – the form immediately reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, with this being more spunky, and more personal too – takes its readers behind the Iron Curtain into a world where nearly every aspect of nearly everyone’s lives were followed and chronicled with clinical efficiency by the state secret police. Funder, while working at a TV company in Berlin after the Berlin Wall had fallen, felt the urge to chronicle about this world and the myriad stories of lives irrevocably changed by the deeply insecure regime but left to be lost to time – deeply human tales of people who are left scarred for their lives, unreconciled to their memories, still seeking answers, striving to ensure history is not forgotten, and, in the case of former Stasi men, callous, unrepentant, or even hoodwinked themselves. Through these tales which are disturbing, infuriating, heartbreaking, and at times, darkly funny, and interspersed with the author’s wry observations, disarming style and superb storytelling, one is plunged right into the bleak and colourless Cold War zeitgeist of East Germany, with its misinformation, disinformation, mistrust, paranoia, bureaucratic machinery, moody atmosphere, strange ironies and a Big Brother that had all its people under constant watch.

Author: Anna Funder
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/Montage
Language: English
Country: Australia

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta

With The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Llosa created as much a powerful novel on revolutionary politics – which, though written in the Latin American context, would be relevant for most oppressive third-world regimes – as he provided a glittering discourse on fact being represented through fiction or, for that matter, fiction masquerading as fact, leading to the indistinguishability between history and myth. The tour de force work, simmering with both vigor and vitality, was compelling in its political consciousness, illuminating in its ideas on the nature of fiction, and commanding in its formal audacity. The eponymous protagonist, a life-long Trotskyist from Lima and a perennial outsider, after a life dreaming of revolution to rip Peru of social iniquity and political persecution, led a failed armed uprising in the Andes in the 1950s – an event which, now over two decades later, is largely forgotten despite having served as a precursor to an explosion of the revolutionary spirit across Peru. The book’s narrator (a stand-in for Llosa himself), who has built a career as an author and émigré in Paris, but has never been divorced from his country, and purportedly a childhood friend of Mayta, has taken the onerous task of re-constructing the events that culminated into his leap of faith, and de-constructing the myths and legends surrounding it. Using a series of candid interviews with the people who knew Mayta – his loving aunt, his heartbroken ex-wife, the level-headed sister of his comrade-in-arm who expired during the abortive attempt, his political acquaintances and rivals, people who witnessed and were part of that now forgotten time capsule. And what emerged through these diverse and disparate perspectives – moderated with acrid wit and deadpan humour by the nameless narrator – was a hauntingly complex, nuanced and elusive account of both the man and the guerrilla action, a stirring meditation on the changing nature of a nation’s socio-political environs and dynamics, and, in the end, through Rashomon-effect, an engrossing exploration of Llosa’s fundamental tenet that truth is not monolithic but relative and multi-layered.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Political Drama/Modernist Literature/Roman a Clef
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru

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