Sunday, September 24, 2017

Exit Ghost [2007]

Having now read 11 books by Philip Roth, I can possibly say that I’ve read a decent amount of him; yet it also feels surreal that 9 of them pertain to all those featuring his incredible alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman. Exit Ghost, which Roth confirmed as his final Zuckerman novel, and where the protagonist is now a septuagenarian like the author himself, completed the loop by tying the threads with the astounding novella which’d started this saga, viz. The Ghost Writer. Having lived for over a decade in the woods, shunning human contact and public scrutiny – that this once virile person with a hyper-active libido is now impotent and incontinent following a prostate surgery might well explain that – he decides to make a trip back to New York against his better judgements. Though, purportedly, the reason is medical, he’s plunged headlong into a past that is still fresh in his otherwise faltering mind and a present that he’d deliberately been avoiding all these years. Half a century back a young Zuckerman had had had the pleasure of being a guest to the house of his fiery and reclusive idol E.I. Lonoff, and there he’d met the captivating and enigmatic Amy Bellette, who he’d recreated as the real Anne Frank; Amy, as he accidentally stumbles onto, is now an old and lonely woman afflicted with brain tumour and living in a decrepit apartment with memories of the long-dead and out-of-print Lonoff. Meanwhile, he meets and becomes infatuated with Jamie, a ravishing married lady and wannabe write aware of her effects on men. And, connecting these two dichotomous threads is a brash young man and Jamie’s on-off lover who’s hell-bent on writing his version of Lonoff’s biography. This “late” Roth, with its maddening incoherence, self-effacing wit, flirtatious ramblings, formal playfulness, and ruminations on ageing, death and the pitfalls of art-artist duality, brought to a cheekily casual closure the intoxicating Zuckerman series which, with its thematic diversity and stylistic breath, truly defies any literary typecasting.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Mottled Dawn [1948-1955]

The Partition of 1947 was a momentous event in the contemporary history of the Indian subcontinent, and, with the carnage, massacres, rapes, murders, riots and homelessness that accompanied this mass exodus, it was also an unmitigated tragedy the kind of which it’s well-nigh impossible to either fathom or comprehend. Saadat Hasan Manto, iconoclastic Urdu Indo-Pakistani writer and one of the great practitioners of the art of short stories, composed some of his best works on this scarring episode which he had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand – Mottled Dawn is a wonderfully curated collection of 50 of his most well-reckoned tales, personal sketches and musings on Partition. Filled with bemused observations, brittle humour, lacerating wit, deep-set humanism, and exquisite interplay between artistic acumen and political consciousness – facets which have earned him comparisons with Gogol, Chekhov and O’ Henry – the anthology provides disquieting, multi-faceted and surprisingly level-headed perspectives on this corrosive and deeply divisive subject, which, despite the enormous attention and reflection it warrants, hasn’t been covered as much in literature and cinema as it ought to have. The collection is filled with allegorical tales that, with their understated commentaries, darkly comic tones and allegorical plot progressions, display the event’s dehumanizing aspects on one side and its utter ludicrosity on the other, thus imbuing them with a flavor which is quintessentially East European – a mental asylum patient gets stranded in no-man’s-land (Toba Tek Singh), a hapless dog running between the Indian and Pakistani army (The Dog of Titwal), a daily wage-earner’s irrational excitement for something he hardly understands (The New Constitution), a frenzied man realizing too late the despicability of his acts (Colder than Ice), a filthy public urinal providing a mirror to the crazy state of affairs (Three Simple Statements), two former comrades forced to battle out from across the border (The Last Salute), a senile lady’s believe that her daughter is still alive (The Dutiful Daughter), reflections by a man who was once Jinnah’s chauffeur (Jinnah Sahib), the cyclical nature of violence (Bitter Harvest), among a host of other gems.

Author: Saadat Hasan Manto
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Short Stories
Language: Urdu
Country: Pakistan

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Big Sleep [1939]

Raymond Chandler’s seminal debut novel The Big Sleep – which he wrote at the ripe age of 51 mostly as a means of meeting ends as opposed to creating “literature”, along with Dashiell Hammett’s celebrated The Maltese Falcon, remains the gold standard against which any hardboiled detective fiction is judged; and incidentally, the most iconic representations of both Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade on screen have been provided by Humphry Bogart in Howard Hawks’ tad overrated adaptation and John Huston’s masterful noir, respectively – so much so that its difficult now to read either book without often visualizing Bogie. Its greatness is easy to ascertain given its tremendous pop-cultural appeal and by the fact that Time magazine, Le Monde, Guardian, etc. have all included it in their lists of great novels; on a more personal note, revisiting this gritty, edgy, moody, misanthropic, gleefully twisted, devilish and relentlessly compelling roman noir was as much fun as it was close to a decade back when I’d succeeded in spotting a Chandler volume in the British Library in Calcutta in those pre-Amazon days when it was a rather difficult task getting hold of classic American pulp in India. Right from its famous opening paragraph, this grimy tale of deceit, lust, blackmail and murder, with the seedy and crime-ridden underbelly of 1930s LA as its backdrop, hooks one in as the loner, cynical, weary, acid-tongued, dangerously reckless, hard-drinking, chain-smoking gumshoe Marlowe – yet with a fierce sense of pride and honour – goes about solving, upon being hired by a dying and decadent millionaire, an increasingly treacherous case involving his client’s duplicitous daughters – a ravishing femme fatale and a crazy nymphet – a slimy mobster and his henchmen, a pornography racketeer, corrupt cops, and down-and-out hustlers, with a few corpses along the way. Chandler’s crackling hardboiled narrative style, with its bristling intensity, vernacular of the streets and the gutters, and corrosive humour, imbued a bleak urban poeticism into an otherwise wickedly and deliberately lowbrow prose.

Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir/Detective Novel/Mystery/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

City of Djinns [1993]

Delhi is a city of complex and myriad contradictions, and is a microcosm of India itself with its long and turbulent history, ethnic diversity, and enticing mix of ancient and modern, aristocracy and nouveau riche, wealthy and destitute; and the city’s climatic extremities provide a counterpoint to the city itself. William Dalrymple, who’d shot to fame with his adventurous debut work In Xanadu, chose this city, which he fell in love with and would go on to call his home, as the protagonist for his marvelous sophomore book – part wry memoir, part enchanting travelogue, part rigorous historical text – City of Djinns. He chose an ambitious narrative arc for this, starting with the near past and then wading his way through history, tackling truths and myths along the way – the ugly anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination; the scarring horrors of Partition; two topsy-turvy centuries of British Raj; the alternately dizzying and degenerate period of Mughal rule – with special focus on Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb; Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s dystopian Sultanate and ibn Battuta; the irresistible fusion of Sufism and Islamic mysticism into the city’s ethos; ascertaining the Mahabharata’s historicity by separating fact from fiction. And, while he traversed this incredibly long route temporally, he aptly juxtaposed that with an enriching year’s stay in Delhi – from the bitter winter, through pleasant spring and harsh summer, to the advent of autumn – as he went about meeting people, exploring places, experiencing the many idiosyncracies and thus understanding the city. The byzantine lanes, dilapidated buildings and seductive charm of Shahajahanabad (Old Delhi); the energetic Qawwali around Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah; the rootlessness of the city’s brash and colorful Punjabi populace juxtaposed against its culturally rich but economically dying Urdu-speaking residents; the forgotten ruins of Tughlakabad and Daulatabad; the heady allure of Hauz Khas Village with its history of intellectual enlightenment; the co-existence of divergent beauty of Lutyens’ Delhi and Mughal architecture; sadhus, maulvis, hakims, kabooter baz, dervishes, fakirs, eunuchs – the book, accompanied by sketches by his wife Olivia Fraser, was an absorbing cocktail on this massive metropolis.

Author: William Dalrymple
Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Travelogue/Political Histor
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Maggie Cassidy [1959]

Jack Kerouac’s life was synonymous to his oeuvre, and consequently his fascinating bibliography, though not written in any order, was in essence a running account – a roman-fleuve – chronicling various chapters from his own life. Though the 6th book in terms of publication order, Maggie Cassidy was chronologically the 3rd book in his so-called ‘The Dulouz Legend’, and portrayed slices from his high school and early college days – his eccentric set of friends at the working-class town of Lowell, Massachusetts, his close-knit French-Canadian family, his growing repute as a talented athlete, and most importantly, his on-off romantic tryst with the moody and fickle-minded Irish-American girl Mary Carney (the girl behind the titular character). Written in the form of “spontaneous prose” – a quintessential Kerouac verse representing the seamless transition from what’s in the mind to printed text, without the conscious filter of a litterateur – the book is awash in heart-warming nostalgia; elegiac remembrances of the blue-collar town sparsely populated with infectious and oddball people; moments of carefree fun and unadulterated joy with his doting pals; the indecision and hesitance associated with moving from a steady affair with a girl who adores him to one he can’t seem to stay away from even if she’s never fully certain of their relationship – alternately pulling him in and pushing him out; an inter-school sporting event staged with brimming liveliness; the buoyant and happy home-coming of his endearing father after a long stay away on account of work; and, at the very end, just a magical hint of the Beat, “on the road”, days lying ahead of him. Yet, for all its breezy episodes and happy moments, there is an understated streak of melancholia in its moody, deeply poetic, impressionistic, free-form narrative, evoking a palpable sense of lost innocence, lost youth and lost years, with the ominous whiff of World War II looming just round the corner. The book, therefore, provided an affecting glimpse into Kerouac’s formative years preceding, and antithetical to, the mad, restless and delirious counter-culture that he’s associated with.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Family Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical/Roman a Clef
Language: English
Country: US