Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liquidation [2003]

In the brilliantly modernist novella Liquidation, Hungarian author, and Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor, Imre Kertesz’s 1st work after being conferred with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, was alternately introspective, melancholic, caustic and darkly humorous, as he delved into a subject that he’s been tied to throughout his writing days – the irreconcilable memories and scars of the Holocaust, and attempts at deciphering the “why” more than the “what”. In possibly a reference to Primo Levi, who delved on this period of history right from his harrowing debut memoir If This is a Man, the book’s central character, simply referred to as B (or Bee) as in The Trial’s K, was a famous writer who spent his childhood in the notorious concentration camp and has recently committed suicide. His death has created deep psychological turbulence in the lives of those who knew him closely – in particular, Kingbitter, an editor who’s become obsessed with his deceased friend’s literary estate and a wry observer of life in Budapest which is in transition from dictatorship to democracy; Judith, B’s ex-wife who’s decided to escape her past through marriage to a seemingly conventional man; and Sarah, who is married to a broken man who’s lost the functioning of one ear on account of police brutality and was engaged in a secret affair with B until his shocking demise. As an ironic meta-narrative element, B had composed a hitherto unpublished play on how his suicide would play out among the people he knew – this, along with his conviction that B had written a novel as well prior to his death, compels Kingbitter to pry into the lives of B, the people around B, and his own self. With the brooding air of a person trying to understand, a playful and self-deprecatory tone borne out of disillusionment, and traits of a detective story in its attempts at reconstructing events from past and present, Kertesz provided a terrific meditation on personal vis-à-vis public history, and the enigmatic relationship between life, fiction and myth.

Author: Imre Kertesz
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Drama/Psychological Drama/Holocaust Literature
Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Zinky Boys [1989]

War is futile and ugly business, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was especially so. The catastrophic military adventurism mobilized by Brezhnev in 1979, which lasted for a decade and led to incalculable damage both during its course and in its aftermaths, is pejoratively referred to as Soviet Union’s Vietnam War. Written by Svetlana Aleixevich, the iconoclastic Belarusian journalist who’s chronicled all major milestones in 20th Century Soviet history and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings”, Zinky Boys – the seemingly flippant title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the dead were shipped back home – is a deeply distressing account of the devastating human cost of this notorious war, written in her quintessential form of “oral history”. Composed through interviews with an array of Soviet citizens – disillusioned veterans left physically and psychologically destroyed, disconsolate mothers who’ve lost their sons, grief-stricken widows, sardonic civilians and nurses (largely women) left scarred by their dehumanizing stints there – it presented the bleakest side of the war in terms of how a mix of lies, false promises and coercion were used to lure the young and gullible to it, and how the reality, both during the after their experiences there, turned out to be vastly different from what they had either believed in or hoped for. It unflinchingly chronicled the callous apathy of the administration, the proliferation of brutality and violence, and how what the war was supposed to mean turned out very different from what it eventually stood for. As can be guessed, it earned considerable wrath from the powers that be upon its publication, and the author wryly acknowledged that by having a few of livid responses published as part of its postscript. Even if one doesn’t get to know about the politics and finer nuances of this key Cold War episode through this book, one certainly is left affected by its scathing indictment of it.

Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Genre: Non-Fiction/War/Montage
Language: Russian
Country: Belarus (erstwhile Soviet Union)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Counterlife [1986]

The Counterlife was both a continuation of and departure from the Nathan Zuckerman saga that Roth had established until then through the rapturous Zuckerman Bound trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson) – the Jewish-American diaspora, Carnovsky, and ironic exploration of Nathan’s, and in turn Roth’s self-conflicting attempts to break free while still being bound. Roth, however, essentially used the protagonist, his story, and his position as a stand-in for his own self, to touch upon a divergent array of subjects ranging from Israel-Palestine conflict and Zionism to familial differences and marital woes, and, meta-fictionally, his own role as an author. The novel finally boiled down to the shifting nature of truth and reality, and the idea of impersonation and role-playing as an integral aspect of human existence – aspects which were realized through the audacity of a formalist and the gleeful smirk of a prankster. The book begins innocuously with Nathan’s estranged brother Henry, suffering from an embarrassing consequence of medication for heart condition, impudently opting for surgery, and dying in the process; in a bravura display of deadpan wit, Henry is shown, in the next episode, to have survived the surgery – but, as a reverse side-effect, he has become a zealot and has shifted to the West Bank; Nathan’s visit there seemed a fascinating combine of Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back and Henry Bech’s trip to the ‘Holy Land’ in Updike’s Bech is Back. As made amply clear, multiple versions of events are chronicled through a beguiling mix of continuations and alterations – Nathan marrying and tentatively settling down in Gloucestershire; getting stuck with a lunatic who may be planning to blow up the flight from Tel Aviv to London (a hilarious short chapter worthy of short story in itself); and, in finally keeping with the novel’s overarching theme, the possibility of everything being figments of Nathan’s imaginations and fantasies. Vociferously argumentative and rambling in its narrative, this is a book which had Roth at his most ingenuous, digressive and petulant.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Marital Drama/Social Satire/Modernist Literature
Language: English
Country: US