Friday, October 24, 2014

If This Is a Man [1947]

Italian Jewish chemist turned writer Primo Levi created one of the most important literary works of 20th century – listed by Le Monde in its list of “100 Books of the Century” and cited by Phillip Roth as “one of the century’s truly necessary books” – with his breakthrough debut novel If This is a Man. This harrowing, heart-rending and deeply personal autobiographical tale provided a chillingly candid first-person account of his punishing time as a prisoner in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp during the final days of Nazi Germany’s regime. Arrested for being part of an Italian Resistance group, the then 22-year old Levi spent 1 year – from February ’44 to January ’45 – at the detention facility, and in this seemingly brief time spent he witnessed and experienced the horrific atrocities that the Jews and political prisoners endured there – back-breaking hard labour, brutal corporal punishments, inhuman living conditions, and most devastating of all, random and en masse “selection” of people for being executed at the gas chambers. Despite the degradations that the book is rife with, the book never lost its sense of humanism through unlikely friendships, last straws of hope, striving for survival against all odds, acts of unexpected kindness, lucky escapes and so forth. It also chronicled the astounding proliferation of trade and commerce that the in the form of basic necessities which were always at short supply, the various means used by some prisoners to get into good books of the powers that be, and the serendipitous escape of those who hadn’t died by then after the Nazi surrender. The book, despite its slender size, packed a wallop on account of its dense and bleak contents, and would forever continue to be a shuddering yet undeniably lyrical and poignant account of what happens when fascism, with its calculated madness and unrelenting monstrosity, is given a free hand to rule. Levi’s sophomore novel The Truce is generally considered as a companion piece to this book.

Author: Primo Levi
Genre: Memoir/War Drama/Autobiographical Novel/Holocaust Literature
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tropic of Cancer [1934]

Rarely in literary history has an author managed to evoke such astounding brilliance and pop-cultural significance, or such intense controversy for that matter, with his debut novel as Henry Miller did with Tropic of Cancer. The 1st chapter in his ‘Obelisk Trilogy’, which also comprised of Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, and so called because they were all published by the now defunct Obelisk Press which was known for pushing boundaries, the book was banned in the US and Great Britain for a whopping 30 years until a landmark trial in 1964 overruled the ludicrous charges of obscenity that had been levelled against it by Conservatives and Victorian moralists. Unapologetic and irreverent in both its choice of prose and means of depictions, filled with unbridled energy, glibly provocative and profane, infectious in its romping chronicle of the seedier underbelly of pre-War Paris, brimming with caustic humour and searing wit, and with an unflinching eye for the profound as well as the putrid, the fabulous semi-autobiographical novel, with its episodic nature, disjointed narrative and stream-of-consciousness mode, provided a fascinating glimpse into what it means to be alive and happy amidst filth, chaos, poverty, uncertainty and struggle. In its unabashed upholding of free speech, liberation, bohemianism, freewheeling anti-establishmentarian spirit and rejection of conventional social mores, it also succeeded in being a terrific pre-cursor to the Beat Generation. Through a seamless intermingling of fact and fiction, Miller chronicled his series of interactions with idiosyncratic characters of varied nationalities – poets, writers, artists, pimps, prostitutes and whatnots – during his eventful stay as a vagabond in Paris, and in turn a meditated on the city’s underground literary circles, myriad shades and contradictions, thus making this marvelously written book, considered by Time, Modern Library and various others as one of the greatest books of 20th century, a powerful socio-cultural document and a staggering masterpiece of personal artifacts.

Author: Henry Miller
Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Stream of Consciousness/Social Satire/Modernist Literature/Memoir
Language: English
Country: US/France