Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Human Factor [1978]


Graham Greene was a close friend of Kim Philby, the most legendary among the 5 Soviet double-agents within British Intelligence popularly referred to as the “Cambridge Five”, having worked with and under him during his stay in MI6. Consequently, not only did he extensively fall back on his personal experiences while writing the Cold War espionage thriller The Human Factor, many even believe that the novel’s central protagonist Maurice Castle was based on Philby even if Greene categorically refuted that assumption. If one were to draw a line with Ian Fleming on one extreme and John Le Carre on the other, this would be closer to the latter end of the spectrum considering Greene’s preponderance for mood, moral complications and psychological build-up over action and thrills; however, given the sardonic humour, wry irony, tussle of faith with doubts, undercurrents of melancholia, bitter comedy of existence, and portrayal of mundaneness amidst the grimy world of cloak-and-dagger, that the tale was filled with, would place it on an end of its own. The brilliantly etched protagonist, Castle, is an ageing, disarmingly sharp, deeply guilt-plagued and rather unspectacular bureaucrat edging towards retirement. His prior field stint in the draconian apartheid-regime of South Africa led to 3 different developments in his life – marriage to a black African woman who he rescued from the ruthless clutches of BOSS, being professionally responsible for a large section of the African desk in MI6, and developing moral responsibility to provide assistance to Communist African rebels through Moscow. Meanwhile, upon being apprised of a leak within the British intelligence, the smug, cynical and dangerously amoral Doctor Percival, a close confidant of C, decides on extra-judicial measures to save their organization from public scandal, while Security Head Daintry, an intensely lonely career man, is deeply troubled by Percival’s moral turpitude and wishes to deal with the mole by following due processes. Greene’s ability to traverse difficult themes – racialism, moral quandary, existential dilemma, international politics – made this late-career work a tense, bleak and quietly troubling novel.






Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Spy Novel/Political Thriller
Language: English
Country: UK

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Prague Orgy [1985]


Roth added a sly, cheeky, ribald, and for its slender length, surprisingly dense epilogue to his fabulous ‘Zuckerman Bound’ trilogy – which comprised of The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson – with the novella The Prague Orgy, written in the form of journal entries. Though largely unrelated to the narrative strand thus far, except for the facts that it featured Roth’s irresistible alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman and that he’d once earner tremendous fame for his post-modernist take on Jewish Americans, it highlighted and reinforced themes that had been explored in the trilogy – at times overtly while at others covertly. Zuckerman, upon striking friendship with Sisovsky, an expat Czechoslovakian writer banned from publishing anything in his home country on account of a political satire he’d written once, and currently living in America with a former actress banished for supposedly being a Jew-lover, decides to take a trip to Prague. The intent for his brief quest is to retrieve the unpublished Yiddish manuscripts of Sisovsky’s father from the clutches of his exhibitionist, embittered and self-destructive wife. His mission, however, turns out to be rather tricky as he makes acquaintance of the lonely lady hankering for companionship, encounters a grotesque underworld of decadent excesses, and makes first-hand discovery of the totalitarian Communist regime behind the Iron Mask where personal and political freedom is an oxymoron. Lacerating literary criticism, evaluation of what freedom entails through a gleefully subversive aesthetic, the joy of stumbling upon an undiscovered piece of work, and Kafkaesque comedy of human existence in a world gone awry – these were but few of the themes he deftly touched upon here. This, fortunately for aficionados like me, wasn’t the last of Zuck as the fascinating character went on to make appearances in 5 more highly reckoned novels.






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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Anatomy Lesson [1983]


Rarely has an author indulged in such lacerating self-criticism of a career-defining work, painted such vitriolic picture of fame and success, or meditated on the diverse socio-political and philosophical themes that have characterized him as a writer, as Roth so bravely did in his pseudo-autobiographical ‘Zuckerman Bound’, and more particularly, the last 2 novels of the trilogy, viz. Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson. In the former, Roth’s incredible alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman was fresh from the success of his notorious bestseller Carnovsky; here, Zuckerman is approaching middle-age, and continues to be hung up on the way the book changed his life and shaped the perceptions of the world about him. Approaching 40, living in New York off the wealth amassed from the above-mentioned novel post which he hasn’t published anything in close to a decade that has elapsed since then, and with Nixon’s Watergate Scandal playing on the background, he’s plagued with a debilitating pain running through his body that, despite diagnoses by everyone from GPs to acupuncturists and psychiatrists, refuses to leave, and even makes him feel that his inflammatory novel might be the source of his affliction. So he now survives on a heady cocktail of prescription drugs (most notably Percodan), vodka and the occasional marijuana toke. The story starts with the glibly jobless writer, still in love with the Great Books, living in his Manhattan apartment in a curious liaison with 4 ladies – a shy painter, a frank married woman, a confused student and an extremely vulnerable, self-hating lady, while in a psychological tussle with a renowned Jewish critic Milton Appel who’s been vocal about Nathan’s book, and who Nathan even briefly impersonates with hilarious results. And it ends with him traveling to Chicago to study medicine. As the verbose, at times overbearing and always savagely funny novel progressed to its rather grim final pages, Roth indicates that his alter-ego’s pain is not as physical as it is existential.






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

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Basement Room [1936]


Graham Greene collaborated twice with British filmmaker Carol Reed by writing screenplays for two of his most renowned movies. However, unlike the legendary Brit Noir The Third Man, the moody and atmospheric source novel for which, and not to forget the brilliant recreation of war-ravaged Vienna, Greene wrote with the movie in mind, he wrote the longish short story (or novella if you will) The Basement Room more than a decade before it was adapted into The Fallen Idol. One, of course, needn’t be aware of these tidbits which are a key to properly interpreting both the literary works, as Greene clearly spelt them out in the respective prefaces. The linear, compact and curiously packaged story – interestingly quite removed from his novels that I’ve read so far in that it didn’t have a politically turbulent backdrop to it – was written while on his way home from Liberia to home by ship, in order to escape the boredom of the long journey (reminiscent of the superb opening sequence of The Comedians, perhaps). Narrated from the point of view of a na├»ve kid, it chronicled, through a tale reeking with lies, secrecy, deception and betrayal that are components of an adult’s world, the oftentimes painful process of growing up and the associated loss of innocence. When his wealthy parents leave for vacation, young Phillip, who’s led a highly protected life so far, is left in his mansion to the care of middle-aged butler Barnes who the kid is emotionally close to on account of his ability to fabricate tall tales. Barnes failing marriage to his domineering wife, who too is employed at Phillip’s household, and his growing intimacy with a much younger lady, which leads the proceedings to an acrimonious and unfortunate finale, was what this perceptive narrative was about.






Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Psychological Drama/Coming of Age
Language: English
Country: UK