Friday, April 29, 2016

The Honorary Consul [1973]

The Honorary Consul holds a special place in “Greene-land” – while on one hand he called this his most personal work (reserving the tag ‘best’ for The Power and the Glory), on the other he’d found it one of the most difficult to complete – he faced a severe block two-thirds down the book that had nearly compelled him to quit. Fortunately he did succeed in completing it, and what he produced was a moody, gripping and trenchant political drama with deep moral ambiguities, making this an exciting companion piece to The Comedians, with strong traces of The Quiet American. What happens when a political crime, intended to bring the state to its knees, fails to elicit a commensurate response? – this question formed the key tenet for this tale set in the grimy and human corruption-ridden ambience of a provincial Argentinian town on the banks of the Paraná River. The book’s protagonist Eduardo Plarr, like Brown and Fowler in the latter novels, is a cynical, morally detached and conflicted loner of English descent, with deep-set political and Catholic dilemmas. When the town’s alcoholic Honorary Consul Charles Fortnum is mistakenly abducted by a group of political terrorists led by the troubled former priest Rivas, Plarr is automatically sucked into the murky affair – not just because Rivas was a childhood friend, but more so on account of the recurrent memories of his father who’d disappeared into the Paraguayan prisons for his seditious activities. Meanwhile, Plarr’s growing obsession with Clara, a prostitute from a local brothel who Fortnum has recently married, added a charged atmosphere of tension in sync with Greene’s panache for concocting complicated love stories amidst political muck. His irony-laden acquaintance with a novelist in whose works the idea of ‘machismo’ forms a central component, and the shrewd police chief in charge of diffusing the standoff, further catalyzed the proceedings. The tale, filled with characters that brilliantly evolved over its arc, was imbued with a brooding tragi-comic tone, bleak world-view and a dash of pulp.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Drama/Political Thriller/Religious Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bech at Bay [1998]

The amorous, episodic and gleefully self-referential journey of Henry Bech, Updike’s brilliantly conceived Jewish alter-ego, which had begun with the memorably zeitgeist and gently humorous Bech: A Book and was followed up with the deadpan and more introspective Bech is Back, received a triumphant conclusion with the scathingly satirical and mordantly funny Bech at Bay, the final chapter of ‘Bech Trilogy’. It started with the ageing Bech’s dryly humorous and quietly somber Prague trip (this worked better as the kick-starter to this volume as opposed to a finale in the previous) where he visits Kafka’s grave and meets a group of dissident writers. The narrative moved a gear up when, during the Festschrift of a pompous author of more “serious” works, as opposed to his books which are considered frivolous by self-conscious critics, he meets a junior editor who’d become his final wife and the mother to his only child which he’s slyly arm-twisted into, and is coaxed into chairing an elite club of antiquarian American artists. After a hysterical detour, where Bech is heavily reminded of his father by a Hollywood agent who’s sued him, the book was taken to a pulpy and disturbingly farcical fever-pitch when Bech, after a lifetime of enduring unsavoury reviews, decides to take bloody revenge on the critics who’ve been most obnoxious of ‘em all. The tale fittingly culminated with yet another European sojourn – this time to the droll Scandinavian winters of Stockholm – upon being named as the winner for the year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Bech’s uproarious process of composing a meaningful and relevant speech was marvelously juxtaposed with the sharp reactions that his victory has elicited and his deeply personal attempts at placing his love for writing amidst the complex socio-political history of the Jewish race. The fabulous curve that this quasi-biography followed, with a mix of amusing episodes and baffled reflections of a less alienating version of the protagonist in Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, made the trilogy a dazzling expression of artistic and political audacity.

Author: John Updike
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, April 15, 2016

Crime and Punishment [1866]

The first of his greatest works and his second full-length novel following his return from exile in Siberia, Crime and Punishment remains Russian giant Fyodor Dostoevsky’s single-most most renowned creation and a masterpiece in world literature – its influence on future artists and philosophers has possibly been second to none. This deeply introspective tome of a book, with strong Biblical overtones as the title clearly suggests, was many things at once – an engaging crime drama and police procedural, an intense psychoanalytical study of the mind of a criminal, a searing portrait of poverty and social alienation, a tragic melodrama on familial bonds and relationships, and a powerful meditation on what entails as a crime. The novel begins on an unforgettable note when its deeply disturbed protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, a former law student, murders a vile pawnbroker, by choice, and her dim-witted sister, by accident. What followed was a sprawling account of the spiraling impacts that spread across a multitude of characters – Raskolnikov’s ravishing, headstrong sister Dunya; the brilliant investigator, Petrovich, in charge of solving the beguiling crime; Svidrigailov, the brazenly sensual and gleefully depraved man who’s crazy for Dunya; Raskolnikov’s loyal friend Razumikhin; Sonya, the fragile daughter of a compulsive drunkard who’s been forced into prostitution and with whom Raskolnikov develops a lasting relationship. Raskolnikov’s “Napoléon Complex”, wherein a crime acts as a stepping stone for greater deeds, served as a key motif for what propels him, and that, combined with his unresolved dilemma between nihilism and charity on one hand, and faith and rationality on the other, made this a complex human treatise on existential angst and moral anguish. The vivid depiction of the seedy and sordid St Petersburg urban milieu, marvelously accentuated the book’s bleak and moody atmosphere, while the wintry epilogue in Siberia, carved out of the author’s experiences of hard labour in Omsk for political subversion (which formed the basis for the semi-autobiographical The House of the Dead) was implosive and disquieting.

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Genre: Crime Drama/Philosophical Novel/Psychological Novel
Language: Russian
Country: Russia

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Closely Observed Trains [1965]

Bohumil Hrabal, despite being regarded as one of the greatest Czech writers, is largely known outside his homeland (and that too among only ardent cinephiles with simultaneous passion for world literature) through Jiri Menzel’s adaptation to screen – a cornerstone in the short-lived Czech New Wave movement and a masterpiece in world cinema – of one of his most famous books Closely Observed Trains; Hrabal, who loved infusing his works with bleak irony and dark humour, might have possibly winked at this paradoxical incongruity. The novella’s narrator Miloš Hrma, like Ditie in I Served the King of England, is a quintessential Hrabal protagonist – a geeky, maladroit, diminutive and a largely apolitical young man (albeit minus the latter’s amoral streak) whose life, however, is defined and destined by the dark political developments around him. An apprentice at a small train station in Bohemia in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, he’s struggling to come to terms with his manhood – a rather embarrassing situation with the girl he loves led him towards attempted suicide, and is in awe of gleefully anti-authoritarian train dispatcher Hubička, who’s become an anathema for his bosses for having left imprints of German rubber stamps on a young telegraphist’s posterior. Through a host of funny developments, idiosyncratic characters and ludicrous lineage – his great grandfather was killed trying to stop through hypnotism German tanks entering Prague, his grandfather received pension from the age of 18 on account of a war-time injury and mocked people who had to work for a living, his father built handy stuff through scavenging items from garbage dumps – the naïve, bumbling Miloš is led towards committing an act of incredible political sabotage, but only after doubts about his manhood are quashed. The whimsical humour, absurdism and riotous storytelling, combined with trenchant political jabs and understated pathos, made this amusing coming-of-age story, which seamlessly traversed from low comedy to high tragedy, a bristling assault and a subversive parable on the dehumanizing effects of war and the dangers of blind obedience.

Author: Bohumil Hrabal
Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/Coming-of-Age/War Novel
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Thirty-Nine Steps [1915]

Written by Scottish author John Buchan while recuperating from a bout of ulcer, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the earliest books to popularize the theme of ‘innocent man on the run’. Published just after the outbreak of WWI, the smart timing, coupled with its break-neck pacing and championing of good-old British patriotism, made this a smashing hit. Hitchcock was so taken by its central tenet – a man, accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, being forced to go on the lam as he’s chased by the police as well as the bad guys – that he adapted it into cinema in 1935 which won him his first great commercial success, and then made the theme his own in a number of subsequent films, most notably North by Northwest (the spectacular airplane sequence seems ‘been there done that’ once one has read this book). Richard Hannay, in his first of five appearances, is an expat Scot who has returned home after a long-stay in Rhodesia, and is experiencing a severe bout of boredom whiling his time in his flat in London. His tranquil life, however, goes for a toss, when a Brit spy named Scudder is murdered in his apartment, but not before revealing an elaborate plan hatched by German anarchists that can potentially prove catastrophic for his country. He realizes that all circumstantial evidences point towards him, and more importantly, he’s also burdened with taking the secret to its logical conclusion; therefore what ensues is a sprawling chase sequence from the bustling metropolis of London to the idyllic Scottish moors and back. Such has been the book’s enduring appeal, despite its over-reliance on deus ex machina and the protagonist’s rather implausible ability to get out of sticky situations, that it went on to influence such diverse authors as Ian Fleming and Graham Greene, and has become something of an icon in Britain. Logical inconsistencies aside, the deadpan humour, thrill-a-minute developments, sparse narrative style, and great evocation of the Scottish landscapes, made this a breezy, engaging read.

Author: John Buchan
Genre: Thriller/Spy Thriller/Adventure Novel
Language: English
Country: UK