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)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Pedro Páramo [1955]

Pedro Paramo was Mexican immigration clerk turned writer Juan Rulfo’s 1st novel, 2nd book and one of only 3 works published in his lifetime. It is, therefore, a matter of incredible astonishment that this slender, eerie and befuddling novella became a pioneering and seminal work in the quintessentially Latin American genre of magical realism, and a tremendous source of inspiration for, among others, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Dense yet fluid, structurally audacious yet surprisingly accessible, earthy yet hallucinatory, and harsh yet poignant, this bleak, brooding and modernist tango between past, present, life and death was a tour de force in form, style, mood and atmosphere. The book begins with its narrator, Juan Preciado, arriving at a small town called Comala to honour the promise he’d made to his mother at her deathbed, viz. to look for his eponymous father. Upon arriving he’s apprised that his father is long dead, and finds Comala a ghost town filled with apparitions and whispers of the dead and the buried. In this strange world alternating between the real and the surreal, Preciado gets to know about Pedro Paramo – a cruel, pungent, ruthless, devious, womanizing and self-serving megalomaniac who indulged in murder, rape and violence during his life as the most powerful person in the town. Yet, for all his antagonistic characteristics, he’s also portrayed as a lonely and misunderstood man in love with a grief-stricken and increasingly insane lady, and this melancholic air that he’s imbued with made him a complex and compelling person. As the narrative constantly switched between present and past, one finds a fascinating mélange of characters stuck in a desolate and inescapable afterlife, half-spoken words and shifting truths, memories both sad and grotesque, a pervading sense of guilt, Catholic faith and brewing Mexican Revolution, and a world that has literally collapsed under its own burden of brutality and madness forcing the living and the dead to mingle, co-exist and even switch places with one another.

Author: Juan Rulfo
Genre: Magic Realism/Drama/Black Comedy
Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Curfew [1986]

A death can never be just another death when it is that of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s widow Matilde, and a home-coming can never be just that when it is to a country like Chile besieged under Pinochet’s iron-fisted military dictatorship. These fascinating springboards – at once historically grand and intensely personal – formed the basis for Curfew, José Donoso’s absorbing and masterful display of political consciousness, moral courage and narrative vitality. Mañungo Vera, a protest singer turned pop-idol, lands in Santiago after having lived in Paris for the last 13 years, to learn of Matilde’s death. There, on one hand, he gets to experience the complex, and oftentimes self-serving, agendas that various individuals and groups (the right-wing establishment, Neruda’s inner-circle, the Communist rebels) are striving to extract from this historic moment, while on the other he gets re-acquainted with the beautiful and enigmatic Judit, with whom he’d shared a passionate affair during their college days and learns how her tumultuous life-long tryst with radical left-wing politics has irrevocably altered her existence subsequent to his departure. Set over a span of less than 24 hours, the novel has been powerfully structured into 3 chapters – ‘Evening’, in the form of a hyper-link ensemble piece and deadpan comedy-of-manners, chronicled the multiple characters who have assembled at Matilde’s home; ‘Night’, in the vein of a tense thriller, provided a nightmarish account of Mañungo being stuck with Judit on the streets with curfew in force, while she’s planning revenge against the man who’d sexually abused her and her fellow detainees in a prison; in ‘Morning’, Matilde’s funeral turns into a circus of one-upmanship, and becomes a precursor to a shocking human tragedy. Combining wry humour, political satire, paranoid suspense and tentative romantic elements, and veering between embittered ‘present’ and melancholic ‘past’, Donoso created a grimly elegiac tapestry and richly complex microcosm of life in the repressive regime. In what added to its tremendous artistic significance and bravery, he wrote this post his return to Chile after being in exile for 15 years, with Pinochet still in power.

Author: Jose Donoso
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Political Thriller/Political Satire/Roman-a-Clef

Language: Spanish
Country: Chile

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze [1935]

Having earlier read (and loved) James Thurber’s brilliant, satirical, parodic, irreverent, ingenious and hilarious quasi-autobiography on his formative years, My Life and Hard Times, how could I control my urge for long from reading the next set-piece in the beautiful Library of America anthology on the writings and drawings of this eccentric American humorist that I own? Particularly so given its absurdist and ironic title, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. Unlike the earlier ensemble, this collection of idiosyncratic episodes was more disjointed in nature – unpredictably swinging from deadpan memoirs and ludicrous reflections to nonsensical chronicling of his acquaintances and absolutely unrelated short-stories – and often displayed far darker shades of pain, melancholia, loneliness, human corruption and casual violence. The narration freely veered from first to third person and back, and made it darn difficult to gauge the blurring lines where gleefully exaggerated caricatures transitioned into complete figments of Thurber’s fecund imaginations. Though some of the pieces were weaker than others, the collection provided ample evidence of Thurber’s mad genius – a man trying hard to talk her bored wife into agreeing to let him murder her; a laughing-stock who boasts of his good lucks only to become a bigger laughing-stock upon his accidental demise; the author’s crazy school-days filled with adults in fifth standard; a man with the most outlandish sense of humour; an incorrigible intellectual who, despite his unwillingness to complete anything, is considered a master by everyone around him; and, in a scorching indictment on the crazy world order in which Thurber lived (as we do, too), and which may well be one of the greatest (and shortest) socio-political satires every written, Jack (“Pal”) Smurch, a seemingly phony person with a disreputable disposition and dishonorable past, becomes, much to the dismay of those in power, a full-blown American hero to the public, prompting the government (led by the sleazy President himself) to take certain sordid corrective actions for, well, “the greater good”.

Author: James Thurber
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Short Stories
Language: English
Country: US