Sunday, December 31, 2017

Café Europa [1996]

Café Eruopa, the delightful book of whimsical sketches, poignant reflections and wry socio-political commentaries on the post-Communist Balkan countries written by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić, is in the engaging tradition and form of non-fictional narratives on socio-political history chronicled like part-memoir through infusion of personal experiences, observations on daily life and interactions with regular folks. One is bound to be reminded of books like Peter Schneider’s darkly comical and brilliantly conceived masterwork The Wall Jumper and Anna Funder’s bleakly personal Stasiland, or for that matter, even, Saul Bellow’s discursive and immersive zeitgeist To Jerusalem and Back, while reading the various essays of varying depths, insights and beauty – alternating mock-seriousness and satirical rhetoric with ruminations laced with scorn, despair and sadness. Though, theoretically, the scope ranged across East and Central Europe and the Balkans – Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Warsaw, Prague, Tirana, Sarajevo, Belgrade, etc. – her primary focus was on Croatia in general and Zagreb in particular. Thus, like a rapidly transitioning montage, she traversed across a breezy spectrum – the craving of these newly liberated countries for European affiliations and acceptance; the labyrinthine Croatian bureaucracy as evidenced during purchase of goods and crossing borders; the hotchpotch created by mixing free market economics with still lingering Communist sensibilities; the convenient realignment of past and alteration of history, etc. Then there’s mordant reportage on an awry interview with the former head of the notorious Jasenovac Concentration Camp, assessment of Tito’s legacy, the Croatian President Franjo Tuđman’s hilarious faux-pas during a meeting at London, and an impromptu gathering at Ceaușescu’s grave. And finally one has seriocomic and affecting personal entries – a melancholic account of her deceased father; the absurdist experience of living in Istria where people identify themselves, in equal measures, as Croats, Slovenes and Italians; a bittersweet lunch with a family of Bosnian refugees in Stockholm – in her attempts to express and understand the scourging effects of nationalism and war, Kafkaesque transitions to pseudo-democracy, and what “Europe” signifies and stands for in its myriad connotations. 

Author: Slavenka Drakulic
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/Memoir/Political Satire/Montage
Language: English
Country: Croatia

Monday, December 25, 2017

Ignorance [2000]

Memory, political identity and the futile attempts at returning to a lost past are ideas which have frequented Czech émigré and French resident Milan Kundera’s works. In The Joke, his 1st novel, the protagonist returned after many years to avenge a wrong from the past only to realize that things are nothing as he’d expected and that everything has changed, including his memories. In Ignorance, which many had assumed to be Kundera’s final novel considering the hiatus of 14 years he took post its publication, the so-called “Great Return” to a lost time and space formed the hinge for its two principal protagonists. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 ended two decades of oppression, paranoia and Iron Curtain in Czech Republic which had started with the Prague Spring, and this relative relaxation of the country’s socio-political environment provides an opportunity to two expats – Irena, who’d fled to Paris with her now deceased husband and is now living with a generous, much older man, and Josef, who’d gone north to Sweden and is now a widower – to tentatively return to their homeland after the long exile of twenty years. A visit like that, however, can never be just that, and these two confused, fragile, lonely and hurting souls realize that too well over the course of their attempted sojourns to reconstruct and deconstruct their pasts. Josef is rekindled of his dislike for his elder brother and sister-in-law who’ve usurped a precious painting by an old friend he once owned; Irena, secretly bored with her partner, finds herself falling for Josef, who she had a brief encounter with long back while, unbeknownst of her, he’s clueless about her even if intrigued, when he accidentally meets him on the flight to Prague; and over the course of their “Great Return” they realize that the reasons for their departures were not just political but personal too. And one realizes along the way that this quest for nostalgic reunion and the ensuing existential crisis and pop-philosophy are part of Kundera’s own story as well.

Author: Milan Kundera
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Romance/Existentialist Drama
Language: French
Country: France

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Desolation Angels [1965]

Beat pioneer Jack Kerouac once famously stated, “When I'm done… it will cover all the years of my life, like Proust, but done on the run, a Running Proust”, while speaking of his sprawling, crisscrossing, deeply autobiographical bibliography. While the statement’s veracity is immediately evident from the series of books he wrote using the persona of Jack Duluoz – the so-called ‘The Duluoz Legend’ – nowhere is this perhaps more palpable than in the absorbing work Desolation Angels, given that large sections of it he’d also covered in his fascinating non-fiction collection Lonesome Traveler. Stoical, serene, rambunctious, messy, hilarious, reflective – this freewheeling and highly episodic volume was an mesmeric amalgamation of varying moods and tones as he traversed across the breadth of the United States, and beyond, both with and without company. It starts off with his stream-of-consciousness account of the 2 months that he spent alone as a fire-lookout on Desolation Peak; he followed that up with his trip through Seattle to San Francisco where he spent a week of madness and chaos with his idiosyncratic friends (Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, Grogory Corso, Orlovsky brothers et al) drinking, doping and swinging to bebop jazz; he then heads to Mexico City where, after a brief-while alone writing, he’s again joined by his crazy pals, and they together have a gregarious time along with a cackling morphine-addict HG Wells aficionado before taking an insane ride to New York; after a hysterical few weeks there where he hops from one apartment to another, renewing old acquaintances and falling in love, he makes the big trip by sea to the opium dens of Tangiers, to meet William S. Burroughs, and thereafter to Paris and London; the book ends with a cross-country ride on Greyhound buses with his mother, from Florida to Frisco and back. Filled with profound observations on life, freedom and death, an insatiable desire to “dig” people, places and experiences, oddball characters and quirky episodes, the book might easily qualify as one of Kerouac’s most breathtakingly ambitious and personal works.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Roman a Clef/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Man in the High Castle [1962]

Philip K. Dick, despite the enormous legacy that he left behind in the world of sci-fi literature and on contemporary pop-culture (due, in no small parts, to various filmmakers – Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Richard Linklater, Steven Spielberg, etc. – who either directly adapted his books or were heavily influenced by them) through his prophetic works, won only a solitary Hugo Award for a book which, though considered by many as his most influential novel along with Ubik, is difficult to classify as science-fiction. In The Man in the High Castle, Dick created a deeply discomfiting piece of Alternative History – a ‘what-if’ scenario where the future has ended up getting shaped differently vis-à-vis what we know and/or have experienced, as much on account of historical forces as due to certain choices made by people – where the Axis Powers have won World War II, and most of the world, and some planets too, are now either colonies of Nazi Germany or of Imperial Japan or both, as in the case of the US where the West Coast is governed by the latter and the East Coast by the former. Disquietingly, despite the dystopian nature of its premise, the historical and political developments have been shown as normalized, and mundane everyday existence, while being aware of nefarious developments elsewhere and the sinister possibilities even at one’s backyard, has managed to adapt to it and even live with it. Dick presented this complex fabric through multiple, loosely connected storylines and characters, incorporating metafiction (a book within the book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which has chronicled victory by the Allied Powers, but where, ironically, history has again turned out different from what actually happened, formed a key trope), political intrigue (tussle for power between Goebbels, Goering, Heydrich et al upon the sudden demise of Bormann, who’d assumed Chancellorship upon Hitler’s affliction with syphilis), metaphysical beliefs (the ancient Chinese text of I Ching features heavily), and adaptation of life to the volatile, Cold War-like power structure.

Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Political Drama/Science Fiction/Alternative History/Dystopian Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Feast of the Goat [2000]

Latin America in the 20th century has been a hot breeding ground and melting pot for authoritarian, power-drunk dictators, and consequently Latin American literature abounds with dictator novels. Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, as evidenced by 2 of his incredible works that I’d read before, viz. the deliriously brilliant Aunt Julia & the Scriptwriter and the bleakly polemical The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, has had the formidable power of imbuing his books with daring formalism, political immediacy and narrative edge, and The Feast of the Goat is yet another powerful elucidation of that. Set in the Dominican Republic, it is centered on the tyrannical regime of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, with his assassination in 1961 being the central hinge around which the sprawling and ambitious narrative has been woven. The storyline has three inter-related arcs structured in the form of 1-2-3 – in the first strand set in 1996, Urania, an accomplished New York lawyer, has returned on a whim to her hometown Santo Domingo after 35 years to see her father, a former Trujillista who fell out of the Generalissimo’s favour, and who she has avoided contact with all these years on account of a horrifying secret which had led her to flee to the US; the second and the third strands, dizzyingly populated with fictionalized representations of real people and historical references, are set on the fateful date of 30th May 1961, with the second focusing, in intricate details, on the last day of Trujillo’s life leading to his assassination, while the third centered on the assassins as they await the arrival of the Goat’s car so that they can ambush him. It was only near the last third, in depicting the bloody carnage and subsequent change in power structure that followed in the aftermath of the assassination, that the three strands collapsed into one; but until then they played out, tonally, almost like three distinctive novellas – a gut-wrenching tale of memory and loss, a tar-black political satire on the banality of power, and a slow-burning thriller from multiple points-of-view, respectively.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Political History/Roman a Clef/Historical Novel
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru