Sunday, May 29, 2016

Focus [1945]

Human history, to rephrase Marx, is a history of prejudice and persecution. Arthur Miller, renowned largely for his seminal plays – most notably Death of a Salesman, had experienced virulent anti-Semitism during his stint at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, and that formed the basis for his powerful debut novel Focus. Lawrence Newman, the tale’s meek and mousy protagonist, is a senior Personnel manager at a sprawling Corporation; the job of this Gentile 40-something man living in a predominantly Christian suburb, is to ensure that only correct “types” are employed, with Jews being on the top shelf of the forbidden list. Though not overtly hostile to minority communities, as a WASP in a respectable white-collar job he’s smugly superior about his place in America’s class structure, and tacitly perpetuates the rampant bigotry through his apathy, disdain, inaction and participation – he doesn’t give a damn when a Hispanic woman is molested outside his home, easily stereotypes the Blacks he sees on the subway, doesn’t hire a lady with a Jewish appearance, and quickly re-aligns himself when a White Supremacist group takes the onus of driving out an old Jewish candy-store owner from the neighborhood. However, when he’s forced to wear glasses on account of failing eyesight, people around, ironically, start mistaking him for a Jew – it starts on a more routine note when he’s demoted and his job application is refused by multiple organizations, but starts taking a more sinister and even violent form when he’s clubbed with Finkelstein by the local Christian Front for their anti-Semitic activism. The Kafkaesque novel, which brilliantly alternated between a dark satire, bleak ruminations and a taut psychological thriller, on the wonderfully etched backdrop of New York (the sardonic evocation of a particularly warm NYC summer in the penultimate chapter qualifies as the epitome of narrative description), was a disturbingly prescient portrayal of social, religious and political discrimination against communities that are considered subaltern by the mainstream majority, and consequently is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.

Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Psychological Thriller
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Our Man in Havana [1958]

Graham Greene had a fascinating panache for time and place, aided in no small parts by his tryst with the British Foreign Service and his experiences in volatile locations around the world – no wonder, the murky Cold War era played such a dominant role in so many of his books. Written a year before Castro’s cigar-smoking guerilla revolutionaries overthrew the decadent and corrupt Batista dictatorship in Cuba, Our Man in Havana was a delightfully prescient tale, filled with deadpan humour that alternated between chuckle-inducing amusements and black comedy, which wryly satirized the then atmosphere of paranoia, hostility and cloak-and-dagger adventurism. When James Wormold, the novel’s docile and clueless middle-aged vacuum salesman, plagued with ennui and the constant desire for extravagance of his capricious daughter who’s bound to remind one of the female protagonist in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is approached by MI6 to be their man in Havana, he concocts a seemingly harmless plan to earn some easy cash by recruiting fictitious agents and inventing a story of a clandestine military establishment for developing a weapon of mass destruction which bears a funny resemblance to a giant vacuum-cleaner. However, when his secret reports start getting intercepted by the other side, his uneventful life ends up becoming treacherous and dangerous by the day. A host of hilariously caricaturized “types” – a lonely WWI veteran who is Wormold’s drinking partner, a ruthless Chief of Police with a disturbing theory on the “torturable class”, an impotent and guileless assassin, the buffoonish head of MI6, and a sassy yet gullible female employee of the Secret Service with whom Wormold embarks on a sweet affair – along with brilliant evocation of the swanky hotels, smoke-filled bars and seedy nightclubs of the city on the cusp of history, made this comic, absurdist, moody and self-referential tale a potent evocation of Greene’s life-long dilemmas and troubled relationship with matters pertaining to faith, espionage and international politics.

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Killer Inside Me [1952]

For an aficionado of roman noir few things can be more satisfying than stumbling upon a delectably dark but criminally under-read text. The Killer Inside Me, justifiably referred to as "one of the most blistering and uncompromising crime novels ever written", and written by Jim Thompson, a largely forgotten author of pulp fictions who had also written the screenplays for Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory, is a darn good elucidation of one. Written from the point of view of a cold-blooded sociopath with a damaged psychosis, but cloaked in the garb of a genial common man, it painted a bleakly nihilistic world view and a deeply unsettling psychological portrait; in the world of crime literature this sure holds an important place for its artistic bravery. The book, therefore, through the seemingly average but essentially dangerous anti-hero, touched upon the inherent dichotomy between a person’s social image and his inner self, and hence the constant role-play necessitated from controlling one’s inherent impulses in order to conform to societal norms. Lou Ford, the 29-year old Deputy Sheriff of a small Texas town, has everything going for him – a boss who’s fond of him, town folks who all seem to like him, and a childhood girlfriend who’s crazy about him. Within his easy, laidback charm, however, lies a canny, misogynistic, murderous and unpredictable lunatic plagued with a scarred memory on account of certain damaging childhood incidents – a ticking time-bomb on the verge of exploding. His house of cards starts crumbling down when he becomes obsessed with a striking high-end prostitute, and decides to use her as a bait to strike at a wealthy oil magnate with whom he has a score to settle. Soon there’s double murder, and that’s just the beginning to this hellish ride. The chilling tale was complemented by an edgy, hardboiled prose, jaundiced humour, tar-drenched fatalism, gripping narrative, Freudian overtones and a blazingly realized central protagonist.

Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, May 8, 2016

To Jerusalem and Back [1976]

A nation doesn’t exist in vacuum, with Israel being a classic example of this maxim. Speaking either of its complex history or its troubled geo-political presence entail also touching upon Palestine, West Bank and Sinai, upon Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and for that matter, upon the US, Soviet Union, and Europe. To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow’s discursive, impassioned and immersive memoir on his visit to the country during the mid-70s, and written in the form of a journalistic diary, is the second-generation Jewish emigrant’s attempts at discovering the “real” Israel, bereft of effusive nationalism, prejudiced harangues or pat judgements that are not just self-defeating but also reckless and dangerous. He spent many months in the country, and consequently the book succeeded in being a powerful yet a rational synthesis of the various people he met and interacted with – politicians, writers, poets, professors, kibbutzniks, Jews, Arabs, journalists, friends, common folk, Conservatives, Marxists, humanitarians – along with his impressions from the myriad books and articles that he has read on the country’s past and present. From Rabin to Kissinger, from Amos Oz to Sartre, from Warsaw ghetto to Russian Gulags, a huge arc was traversed in this valiant attempt of his. It, therefore, was as much a sun-washed account of people and places, and sights and sounds, as it was a perceptive and anti-partisan meditation on existence, morality, survival, violence, wars, dirty international realpolitik, and of course, Jewish Holocaust and the Palestinian Question. Bellow’s mastery in infusing moments of reflection and melancholia, with chuckling observations and crackling wit, made this journey from Chicago to Jerusalem and back as much a physical travelogue as a spiritual one. By the time one reaches the final page, I felt saturated at the series of viewpoints and references contained within its covers, and enthralled by the multiple ‘truths’ and perspectives that are relevant not just to the topic at hand but also similar geo-political complexities around the world.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Travelogue/Political History/Montage
Language: English
Country: US