Saturday, June 25, 2016

Naomi [1924]

Those who, like me, are fond of Japanese New Wave cinema – the fabulous filmography of Shohei Imamura in general, and also few specifics from Koreyoshi Kurahara, Masaki Kobayashi’s, etc. – would have much to rejoice and may also experience a sense of déjà vu while reading Naomi, the first significant novel of Nobel laureate Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, one of Japan’s most important modern novelists. Portrayal of Japan’s fast-changing post-War socio-cultural environment and ensuing collective confusion, its increasing Americanization, and a bristling battle of marital wits and wills between a strong woman whose independent streak constantly challenges gender expectations and a cuckolded husband striving in futility to establish his patriarchal role, along with its gleefully risqué, ribald and lurid Lolita-esque tale of a man’s growing, self-destructive obsession with a much younger woman, made for considerable controversy  upon the novel’s serialization in an Osaka newspaper. Interestingly, while the older readers were offended by the eponymous female character’s unbridled aggression, brazen sexuality and manipulative nature, the younger generations, and young women in particular, were highly enamored by her. When Jōji, a mild-mannered loner working in a large organization in Tokyo and the tale’s self-deprecating narrator, makes acquaintance of Naomi, a naïve but captivating young girl with resemblances to Mary Pickford, he decides to become her guardian. Her disreputable family background, coupled with his desire to turn her into a model Westernized lady, makes him a father-figure to her to start with. However, his platonic love traverses through infatuation, simmering lust, fetishism, jealousy and even anger, to masochism, rabid obsession and complete self-capitulation, as she matures into a lady who’s just too crafty, conniving, self-confident, free-spirited, hedonistic, amoral, sultry and mindful of her effects on the men around her – a coquettish femme fatale if you will, in this unconstrained, unapologetic, pulpy, darkly funny and lucidly written book that early feminists would as much admire as they would probably loathe.

Author: Junichiro Tanizaki
Genre: Black Comedy/Marriage Drama/Social Satire
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Fear of Flying [1973]

Erica Jong’s sensational debut novel Fear of Flying is that rare example of a first work which, like Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye, Heller’s Catch-22 and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, has become a pop-cultural milestone, and rarer still of a book which, like Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Nabokov’s Lolita and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, has had to wage a war with societal morality in its journey to legacy. Though it would be preposterous to place this on the same pedestal as the mentioned masterworks, that it crashed into the male bastion of the world of letters, and went on to become a leading voice in the Second-Wave of Feminism, made this special. This deeply semi-autobiographical novel was, in equal measures, a trenchant social critique, a bristling marriage drama, and a darkly comic expose on psychoanalysis and neurosis; but, above all, it was a breezy, humorous, philosophical and affecting tale of Isadora Wing, Jong’s 29-year old free-spirited alter-ego, grappling with intense indecision between heteronormative expectations, fidelity and guilt, on one hand, and her inner wants, desires and freedom of choice, on the other. Beginning with the fabulous first line “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I'd been treated by at least six of them”, the novel, written in the form of a memoir, chronicled the physical and spiritual journey of Isadora who, while on a business trip with her stable but depressive husband with whom her marriage has become intensely stale, finds herself falling for a dangerously detached British psychiatrist. As she takes off in a cross-Euro road trip in her quest for a “zipless” encounter, she is constantly reminded of her first husband who went bonkers, her demanding upper-class parents, and her puritanical sisters, and introspects on everything from her Jewish-American roots, socio-political hypocrisy, and the place of women in a patriarchal world, to the means of deciphering the class structures of countries through their public toilets.

Author: Erica Jong
Genre: Marriage Drama/Road Novel/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Feminist Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, June 3, 2016

Too Loud a Solitude [1976]

An easy means for identifying a draconian regime is to note its propensity towards tyrannizing literature through embargos, censorships and alteration of texts to further its ends, and this theme has been covered by authors over the years – be it by Orwell in 1984 or by Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Hrabal, whose works were frequently banned by the repressive state on either side of the brief window of Prague Spring – courtesy his association with an underground literary group and his panache for subversive narratives – knew this scenario only two well. Too Loud a Solitude, therefore, can be considered a stirring culmination for this defiant litterateur and seditious humorist with a thing for political dissidence. A gleeful combine of absurdism, magic realism and stream-of-consciousness, the novel had as its protagonist the diminutive, cackling and middle-aged Hanta – a man who’s physical stature, social ineptitude, ambivalent moral compass and position as an outsider immediately reminds one of Ditie in IServed the King of England and Milos Hrma in Closely Observed Trains; he has been compacting waste-paper into ugly bales in a dank cellar for over 35 years, and has built a massive library in his cramped apartment out of the discarded classics he’s been surreptitiously rescuing over the years. This lonely, misunderstood, and self-educated man with a fondness for Gypsy girls, freely quotes from Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hegel, Sartre, Camus et al during his rambling soliloquies reflecting on life, lost love and the crazy world around him, silently observes the never-ending war between rodents in the grimy sewers beneath his cellar, drinks an inordinate quantity of beers at forlorn cafes, and realizes his extinction when a sinister, state-of-the-art compactor arrives at the scene that clearly signifies a drastic change in the societal order. The fact that Hrabal, too, had worked as a trash compactor for a while and had built a library in his garage like Hanta, added strong autobiographical overtones, along with subtle political subtexts, in this slyly allegorical, grimly idiosyncratic and darkly comic parable.

Author: Bohumil Hrabal
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)