Sunday, April 30, 2017

Monsignor Quixote [1982]

The delightful late-career gem Monsignor Quixote, one of his so-called entertainers, provided Graham Greene a rather direct and yet a disarmingly light-footed means to delve into his favourite theme, viz. crisis of faith. The canvas, structure, setting and even personality types of Cervantes’ legendary 17th century classic Don Quixote provided the inspiration and foundation for this quirky novel filled with absurdist comedy and warmth. And, like another of his brilliant, albeit lesser-known, works, Travels with My Aunt, its central tenet is a picaresque road journey undertaken by two persons who couldn’t be more unlike one another – they do not just get to know facets about their compañero, through their differences, during the course of their eventful trip, it also allowed Greene the perfect springboard for his explorations, through a mix of whimsical banter and seriocomic misadventures, on the inseparable nature of religion and politics, particularly in the troubled and volatile landscape of post-Franco Spain. In a cheeky blurring of fact and fiction, the tale’s eponymous protagonist, a parish priest in the town of El Toboso, is apparently a descendent of his more famous namesake. When a moment of good fortune gets him promoted to a monsignor, his local bishop, who had scant respect for him to start with, becomes outraged enough to allow him a leave of absence. And so, along with “Sancho”, a Marxist-Communist ex-Mayor – an atheist, whose skepticism and lack of belief has, ironically, made the two something of a friend – he embarks on a road trip on an antiquarian Seat 600, which refuses to do over 40 and which he lovingly calls his “Rocinante”. Their quixotic odyssey, across cities and countryside, and through chapels, cheap hotels and brothels, earns them the scorn of both the Guardia Civil and the Church; meanwhile, over ample supplies of wine, they chat and quibble, with droll wit and melancholic air, over Catholicism, politics and everything in between.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Comedy/Picaresque Novel/Road Novel/Religious Satire
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stasiland [2001]

I’d spotted Stasiland around 8 months back while rummaging through the intoxicating bookstore Shakespeare & Sons, located at a quieter alley in the otherwise lively Mala Strana, and I’d known right away that I’d read this book soon. The Ministry for State Security, better known as Stasi, created a near-perfect physical manifestation of the dystopian, Orwellian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the erstwhile GDR or East Germany; ironically, it also provided a disconcerting mirror into the future where mass surveillance by governments on the private lives of its citizens is seen by most as an accepted norm, and perhaps even a necessary one. Like The Wall Jumper, Peter Schneider’s mesmerizing hyperlinked non-fiction account of life in divided Berlin, this gripping polyvocal journalistic novel written by Anna Funder – the form immediately reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, with this being more spunky, and more personal too – takes its readers behind the Iron Curtain into a world where nearly every aspect of nearly everyone’s lives were followed and chronicled with clinical efficiency by the state secret police. Funder, while working at a TV company in Berlin after the Berlin Wall had fallen, felt the urge to chronicle about this world and the myriad stories of lives irrevocably changed by the deeply insecure regime but left to be lost to time – deeply human tales of people who are left scarred for their lives, unreconciled to their memories, still seeking answers, striving to ensure history is not forgotten, and, in the case of former Stasi men, callous, unrepentant, or even hoodwinked themselves. Through these tales which are disturbing, infuriating, heartbreaking, and at times, darkly funny, and interspersed with the author’s wry observations, disarming style and superb storytelling, one is plunged right into the bleak and colourless Cold War zeitgeist of East Germany, with its misinformation, disinformation, mistrust, paranoia, bureaucratic machinery, moody atmosphere, strange ironies and a Big Brother that had all its people under constant watch.

Author: Anna Funder
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/Montage
Language: English
Country: Australia

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta

With The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Llosa created as much a powerful novel on revolutionary politics – which, though written in the Latin American context, would be relevant for most oppressive third-world regimes – as he provided a glittering discourse on fact being represented through fiction or, for that matter, fiction masquerading as fact, leading to the indistinguishability between history and myth. The tour de force work, simmering with both vigor and vitality, was compelling in its political consciousness, illuminating in its ideas on the nature of fiction, and commanding in its formal audacity. The eponymous protagonist, a life-long Trotskyist from Lima and a perennial outsider, after a life dreaming of revolution to rip Peru of social iniquity and political persecution, led a failed armed uprising in the Andes in the 1950s – an event which, now over two decades later, is largely forgotten despite having served as a precursor to an explosion of the revolutionary spirit across Peru. The book’s narrator (a stand-in for Llosa himself), who has built a career as an author and émigré in Paris, but has never been divorced from his country, and purportedly a childhood friend of Mayta, has taken the onerous task of re-constructing the events that culminated into his leap of faith, and de-constructing the myths and legends surrounding it. Using a series of candid interviews with the people who knew Mayta – his loving aunt, his heartbroken ex-wife, the level-headed sister of his comrade-in-arm who expired during the abortive attempt, his political acquaintances and rivals, people who witnessed and were part of that now forgotten time capsule. And what emerged through these diverse and disparate perspectives – moderated with acrid wit and deadpan humour by the nameless narrator – was a hauntingly complex, nuanced and elusive account of both the man and the guerrilla action, a stirring meditation on the changing nature of a nation’s socio-political environs and dynamics, and, in the end, through Rashomon-effect, an engrossing exploration of Llosa’s fundamental tenet that truth is not monolithic but relative and multi-layered.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Political Drama/Modernist Literature/Roman a Clef
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru