Monday, June 26, 2017

The Power and the Glory [1940]

Rated by many novelists (including John Updike in his introduction to the book) and bibliophiles as Graham Greene’s masterpiece, included by Time magazine in its list of 100 Best English-language Novels of 20th Century, and considered, along with Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, amongst his so-called quartet of “serious novels”, The Power and the Glory remains an incredibly powerful, gritty and gut-wrenching work on the crisis of faith – both personal and societal – at the backdrop of severe socio-political turmoil and upheaval. Greene spent 2 solitary months in Mexico in 1938 – particularly in the state of Tabasco – in order to research for a non-fiction account of the vicious persecution of the Catholic Church and purging of the clergy by the state’s anti-clerical Governer, which he then chronicled in the travelogue The Lawless Roads; many of the aspects and characters which he’d witnessed, including inspirations for the tale’s unnamed protagonist, also ended up becoming part of this incessantly bleak and unrelentingly downbeat novel, and, combined with his cinematic prose, imbued it with a terrific here-and-now flavor and sight-and-sound. The principal protagonist, referred to by the epithet “whiskey priest” in reference to his dubious moral standing vis-à-vis the Church’s puritanical expectations, being possibly the last priest alive in that region and with a fat bounty on his head, is on the run from the authority. Attired in a tattered suit, down to his last dime, plagued with severe guilt on having once fathered a child and for his love for alcohol, and with hardly any place to hide from the relentless Lieutenant hunting for his head, he’s forced to embarks on a harrowing and fatalistic journey; and during the course of this he gets to visit his disreputable past, encounters treachery and violence, and experiences moments of bitter irony. Composed in the form of a gripping thriller, and laced with disillusionment, melancholia, acerbic narrative and deeply ambiguous world-view, this book is bound to leave one both shaken and stirred.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Political Thriller/Religious Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Magic Lantern [1990]

The legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had a near-telepathic ability to be at what he famously referred to as the “decisive moment”. The same epithet can easily be applied to what the political-historian Timothy Garton Ash accomplished with The Magic Lantern, his seminal journalistic account of the Revolutions of 1989 in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague which he personally witnessed in varying degrees (he covered Bucharest and Sofia too, albeit briefly, as he wasn’t there in person). He was there in Warsaw when Solidarity, the labour union founded by Lech Wałęsa in 1980 at a shipyard in Gdansk, made a historic clean-sweep at the first wave of parliamentary elections conceded by the powers-that-be – a victory that, along with Gorbachev’s Perestroika, accelerated the domino effect across the Soviet Bloc; he was there in Budapest when, in a surprising acknowledgement of the crackdown of 1956 uprising, the authorities allowed the epoch-making formal funeral of Imre Nagy – which saw over 100,000 Hungarians congregating at Heroes’ Square – 3 decades after his execution; he was there in Berlin when, in an incredible display of freedom, a horde of East Berliners walked into the West across the Berlin Wall – arguably the most visible symbol of the Cold War – and he was there walking alongside them; and he was very much there in Prague when a motley group of intellectuals – most of them banned post to the demise of Prague Spring – led by Václav Havel, made the Magic Lantern Theatre their assembly, and led the disbanding of the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. His fascinating first-hand chronicle of these extraordinary times, when the string of near non-violent revolution (or “refolution”, in his portmanteau of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’) brought the Cold War to its end, was interspersed with his attempts at deciphering and deconstructing what possibly sparked these mass movements and what might potentially follow them – making this book both an absorbing here-and-now non-fiction reportage and a work of immense significance for historians, political scientists and interested folks like me alike.

Author: Timothy Garton Ash
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/Journalism
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mrs Dalloway [1925]

Published just 3 years after Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s immensely acclaimed literary classic Mrs Dalloway shared a striking resemblance with Joyce’s modernist masterpiece – both were stream-of-consciousness narratives and unfolded over the course of a single day – a technique that has been employed by many future writers; interestingly, the previous book which I read, viz. Samaresh Basu’s Prajapati, too, was formally similar. It was also quite fascinating in the way the points-of-view in this ensemble drama seamlessly transitioned from one character to another in the mode of a hyperlink narrative. And, when you add to that the complex thematic elements that it explored in the cheeky garb of a seemingly Victorian setting – the position of women in inter-war society, marital woes and unrequited love, existential issues, mental illness, the scarring effects of war, upper-class ennui, vanity, superciliousness and vacuity – you know that is not just any other literary text. The book’s central protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, is a bored, middle-aged and rather unhappy lady who’s planning to throw an ostentatious party at her posh London residence for her fellow upper-class friends and acquaintances. As she goes through the day preparing for the evening, the tale meanders through her inner conflicts and suppressed memories, as well through a host of diverse characters – Peter Walsh, who’s just returned from India and still holds a flame for Clarissa; Richard, her introverted husband; Elizabeth, her individualist daughter; Sally Seton, her childhood friend and to whom she’s secretly attracted to; Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked and suicidal war veteran – who cross each other’s paths, with design as well as inadvertently, over the course of the day, ending with the dizzying, satirical and mournful party that the story had been building up to for most parts of its length. The dense, convoluted, digressing, rambling, dry, downcast, trailblazing and oftentimes infuriating work has been included by Time in its list of 100 Best English-language Novels of 20th Century.

Author: Virginia Woolf
Genre: Drama/Marital Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Modernist Literature
Language: English
Country: UK

Monday, June 5, 2017

Prajapati (Butterfly) [1967]

The journey of Samaresh Basu’s iconoclastic and controversial novel Prajapati and the precedence it set for authors in India, is certain to draw parallels with what Henry Miller’s works achieved – his seminal debut novel Tropic of Cancer in particular, and his Obelisk Trilogy in general – in the American context. It created outrage upon its publication when charges of obscenity were levied against it, leading it to be banned by the Court; the author and the readers had to wait for 17 long years before the Supreme Court reversed the earlier verdicts and allowed its release, and in turn dealt an important statement against the ugly outreach and utter subjectivity of morality. Set largely over the course of a single day (except for the last few pages which spilled over to the next day), and extensively interwoven with flashbacks which made the narrative constantly jump back and forth across time even if the central arc was extremely compact temporally, the book powerfully explored a crucial and potentially the penultimate day in the life of its anarchist, asocial and rebellious protagonist. The tale’s first-person protagonist Sukhen, a college drop-out who’s become a local strongman, is in direct contravention to his two politically connected and antagonistic elder brothers – though they indulge in theft, subterfuge, and fraudulence, they are protected by the garb of respectability, he, on the other hand, is fiercely who he is. He’s unpredictable, lascivious, profane, prone to violent outbursts, and unapologetically in-your-face, and though, from the standpoint of bourgeois conventionality, he’s a lumpen-proletariat and therefore reprehensible, these very facets make him stand apart from the rotten hypocrisy that surrounds him. He’s in a complex, sexually charged and surprisingly tender relationship with Shikha, and, as brilliantly chronicled through his inner monologues captured through gritty, edgy and vitriol-laden “language of the gutters”, of late he’s suffering from intense existential crisis – and these made him a well-rounded character and this a compulsive probe, and a politically loaded one too, into the society’s seedy and avoided underbelly.

Author: Samaresh Basu
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Modernist Literature
Language: Bengali
Country: India