Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Magic Lantern [1990]

The legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had a near-telepathic ability to be at what he famously referred to as the “decisive moment”. The same epithet can easily be applied to what the political-historian Timothy Garton Ash accomplished with The Magic Lantern, his seminal journalistic account of the Revolutions of 1989 in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague which he personally witnessed in varying degrees (he cover Bucharest and Sofia too, albeit briefly, as he wasn’t there in person). He was there in Warsaw when Solidarity, the labour union founded by Lech Wałęsa in 1980 at a shipyard in Gdansk, made a historic clean-sweep at the first wave of parliamentary elections conceded by the powers-that-be – a victory that, along with Gorbachev’s Perestroika, accelerated the domino effect across the Soviet Bloc; he was there in Budapest when, in a surprising acknowledgement of the crackdown of 1956 uprising, the authorities allowed the epoch-making formal funeral of Imre Nagy – which saw over 100,000 Hungarians congregating at Heroes’ Square – 3 decades after his execution; he was there in Berlin when, in an incredible display of freedom, a horde of East Berliners walked into the West across the Berlin Wall – arguably the most visible symbol of the Cold War – and he was there walking alongside them; and he was very much there in Prague when a motley group of intellectuals – most of them banned post to the demise of Prague Spring – led by Václav Havel, made the Magic Lantern theatre their assembly, and led the disbanding of the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. His fascinating first-hand chronicle of these extraordinary times, when the string of near non-violent revolution (or “refolution”, in his portmanteau of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’) brought the Cold War to its end, was interspersed with his attempts at deciphering and deconstructing what possibly sparked these mass movements and what might potentially follow them – making this book both an absorbing here-and-now non-fiction reportage and a work of immense significance for historians, political scientists and interested folks like me alike.

Author: Timothy Garton Ash
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/Journalism
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mrs Dalloway [1925]

Published just 3 years after Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s immensely acclaimed literary classic Mrs Dalloway shared a striking resemblance with Joyce’s modernist masterpiece – both were stream-of-consciousness narratives and unfolded over the course of a single day – a technique that has been employed by many future writers; interestingly, the previous book which I read, viz. Samaresh Basu’s Prajapati, too, was formally similar. It was also quite fascinating in the way the points-of-view in this ensemble drama seamlessly transitioned from one character to another in the mode of a hyperlink narrative. And, when you add to that the complex thematic elements that it explored in the cheeky garb of a seemingly Victorian setting – the position of women in inter-war society, marital woes and unrequited love, existential issues, mental illness, the scarring effects of war, upper-class ennui, vanity, superciliousness and vacuity – you know that is not just any other literary text. The book’s central protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, is a bored, middle-aged and rather unhappy lady who’s planning to throw an ostentatious party at her posh London residence for her fellow upper-class friends and acquaintances. As she goes through the day preparing for the evening, the tale meanders through her inner conflicts and suppressed memories, as well through a host of diverse characters – Peter Walsh, who’s just returned from India and still holds a flame for Clarissa; Richard, her introverted husband; Elizabeth, her individualist daughter; Sally Seton, her childhood friend and to whom she’s secretly attracted to; Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked and suicidal war veteran – who cross each other’s paths, with design as well as inadvertently, over the course of the day, ending with the dizzying, satirical and mournful party that the story had been building up to for most parts of its length. The dense, convoluted, digressing, rambling, dry, downcast, trailblazing and oftentimes infuriating work has been included by Time in its list of 100 Best English-language Novels of 20th Century.

Author: Virginia Woolf
Genre: Drama/Marital Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Modernist Literature
Language: English
Country: UK

Monday, June 5, 2017

Prajapati (Butterfly) [1967]

The journey of Samaresh Basu’s iconoclastic and controversial novel Prajapati and the precedence it set for authors in India, is certain to draw parallels with what Henry Miller’s works achieved – his seminal debut novel Tropic of Cancer in particular, and his Obelisk Trilogy in general – in the American context. It created outrage upon its publication when charges of obscenity were levied against it, leading it to be banned by the Court; the author and the readers had to wait for 17 long years before the Supreme Court reversed the earlier verdicts and allowed its release, and in turn dealt an important statement against the ugly outreach and utter subjectivity of morality. Set largely over the course of a single day (except for the last few pages which spilled over to the next day), and extensively interwoven with flashbacks which made the narrative constantly jump back and forth across time even if the central arc was extremely compact temporally, the book powerfully explored a crucial and potentially the penultimate day in the life of its anarchist, asocial and rebellious protagonist. The tale’s first-person protagonist Sukhen, a college drop-out who’s become a local strongman, is in direct contravention to his two politically connected and antagonistic elder brothers – though they indulge in theft, subterfuge, and fraudulence, they are protected by the garb of respectability, he, on the other hand, is fiercely who he is. He’s unpredictable, lascivious, profane, prone to violent outbursts, and unapologetically in-your-face, and though, from the standpoint of bourgeois conventionality, he’s a lumpen-proletariat and therefore reprehensible, these very facets make him stand apart from the rotten hypocrisy that surrounds him. He’s in a complex, sexually charged and surprisingly tender relationship with Shikha, and, as brilliantly chronicled through his inner monologues captured through gritty, edgy and vitriol-laden “language of the gutters”, of late he’s suffering from intense existential crisis – and these made him a well-rounded character and this a compulsive probe, and a politically loaded one too, into the society’s seedy and avoided underbelly.

Author: Samaresh Basu
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Modernist Literature
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Dean's December [1982]

Saul Bellow loved placing his protagonists at the cusp of existential meltdown, and exploring the ensuing despair, dilemmas, conflicts and resolutions through a mix of vitality and reflectiveness, and always laced with urban poetry, wry humour and a drop of absurdism. In The Dean’s December, his first novel after being conferred with the Nobel Prize in Literature, mortality was a predominant theme, and like the devastating Mr. Sammler’s Planet a decade back, he delved it with the kind of detached irony, befuddling wit and streak of melancholia, which are quintessentially Bellow, even if this was him at possibly his most somber and understated (the comparison is especially stark vis-à-vis the incredible exuberance of his previous novel, Humboldt’s Gift). And, this, like all his works, was understated yet charged, and quite defiant too, politically. Albert Corde, formerly a journalist of considerable repute based out of Paris, took the unlikely decision of returning to his native Chicago and, surprising all his peers, moving into academia as the Dean of a university – perhaps to settle down with his lovely astrophysicist wife of Romanian origin, or perhaps, contrapuntally, to rediscover America as evidenced by a couple of searing articles he’s written about Chicago’s subaltern underbelly which has ruffled feathers among many. The unfortunate death of a student in his institute gets him drawn into the murky affair – more so with the involvement of his radicalized nephew and his publicity-seeking cousin; and his gyroscope is thrown into the dumpster upon his unplanned trip, in the middle of the above complications, to the grey and stifling Bucharest with his wife, as his aged mother-in-law – an out-of-favour Communist and a remarkable woman who Corde reveres – is dying at a stifling government hospital. The two disparate worlds, with their idiosyncrasies, tragi-comedies and dissonances, coupled with an incidental catch-up with a former pal who’s now a smug big-shot, throws Corde into a chaotic personal drama filled with dry comedy, bleak and meditative moodiness, and grand conversations on the human condition.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Existentialist Drama/Social Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cold War [2005]

Being a prominent Cold War academic and historian – he’s a Professor of Military & Naval History at the Yale University, a member of the Wilson Centre’s Cold War International History Project, and author of a number of influential books and articles on this field – writing yet another book on this might have been just another day in the park for John Lewis Gaddis. However, what made the succinctly titled The Cold War truly different from anything he’d written on this yet, is that he had to traverse a fine line between the rigour of an academician, on the one hand, and the ability to captivate non-academic readers, on the other. In other words, it had to be commensurate with his stature, while also having the appeal, lucidity and brevity of a paperback. Right from the foreword, where he began with George Orwell composing his ominous final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four – the 1948 masterpiece which would provide a near-surreal mirror to the post-War years ahead – one gets an immediate confirmation that this is going to be a compulsive read on a subject that couldn’t be more gripping and fascinating than this. The book covers nearly every key facet that either defined or was borne out of the Cold War – nuclear arms race and multiple crises averted between two superpowers at political and ideological loggerheads; the spread of overt and covert influence (forced occupations, regime changes, etc.) across East Europe, the Middle-East, Far East, Africa and Latin America; the devastating wars where the superpowers were brought to their knees (Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan War, etc.); the personalities who shaped history (Truman, Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Honecker, de Gaulle, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, Gorbachev et al), the defining events of the era (Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Suez Crisis, the Revolutions of 1989, etc.). However, instead of being just a text on history, it was more of an op-ed, a critique and a discourse on geo-politics, and, oftentimes, also a diatribe, given that far more pages have been devoted to Soviet atrocities vis-à-vis the American ones.

Author: John Lewis Gaddis
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/War
Language: English
Country: US