Saturday, August 26, 2017

Maggie Cassidy [1959]

Jack Kerouac’s life was synonymous to his oeuvre, and consequently his fascinating bibliography, though not written in any order, was in essence a running account – a roman-fleuve – chronicling various chapters from his own life. Though the 6th book in terms of publication order, Maggie Cassidy was chronologically the 3rd book in his so-called ‘The Dulouz Legend’, and portrayed slices from his high school and early college days – his eccentric set of friends at the working-class town of Lowell, Massachusetts, his close-knit French-Canadian family, his growing repute as a talented athlete, and most importantly, his on-off romantic tryst with the moody and fickle-minded Irish-American girl Mary Carney (the girl behind the titular character). Written in the form of “spontaneous prose” – a quintessential Kerouac verse representing the seamless transition from what’s in the mind to printed text, without the conscious filter of a litterateur – the book is awash in heart-warming nostalgia; elegiac remembrances of the blue-collar town sparsely populated with infectious and oddball people; moments of carefree fun and unadulterated joy with his doting pals; the indecision and hesitance associated with moving from a steady affair with a girl who adores him to one he can’t seem to stay away from even if she’s never fully certain of their relationship – alternately pulling him in and pushing him out; an inter-school sporting event staged with brimming liveliness; the buoyant and happy home-coming of his endearing father after a long stay away on account of work; and, at the very end, just a magical hint of the Beat, “on the road”, days lying ahead of him. Yet, for all its breezy episodes and happy moments, there is an understated streak of melancholia in its moody, deeply poetic, impressionistic, free-form narrative, evoking a palpable sense of lost innocence, lost youth and lost years, with the ominous whiff of World War II looming just round the corner. The book, therefore, provided an affecting glimpse into Kerouac’s formative years preceding, and antithetical to, the mad, restless and delirious counter-culture that he’s associated with.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Family Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical/Roman a Clef
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Traveling with Che Guevara [1978]

On 29th December 1951, two buddies from Córdoba – 29-year old biochemist Alberto Granado and 23-year old medical student Ernesto Guevara – embarked on a long-planned trip to explore Latin America in the former’s motorcycle La Poderosa II. This iconic journey, which saw them travelling 8000 km over 7½ months across all imaginable geographical terrains through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, using a plethora of modes which included, apart from their 500cc Norton bike, buses, lorries, boats, cars, train, airplane and even raft, using every possible means including as hitchhikers and even stowaways, and with the spectrum of their accommodations including tents on open grounds, police stations, hostels, hospitals, lodges, homestays, abandoned houses and whatnot, was covered in fascinating details by both men in their individual diaries. While Motorcycle Diaries, arguably the more famous of the two accounts, unforgettably portrayed what possibly sparked Ernesto’s transformation into “Che”, Traveling with Che, written by his older compadre, remains an equally absorbing travelogue – their unquenchable spirit of adventure; their natural rebellious streak; their zany trysts with people and places; their love for maté, tango and football; their burning political consciousness; their infinite empathy for the poor and the downtrodden; their snub of authorities; their growing anger at the apathy, exploitation and oppression that they witnessed; their desire to serve through the times they spent at various leprosaria; and their desire to know and see their “own long-suffering continent”. Brimming with verve and vitality despite the numerous odds and setbacks they faced over the course of their grueling and arduous odyssey filled with lucky coincidences and narrow escapades, the book is as much a chronicle of two natural-born beatniks as it is a searing political statement bound to move its readers nearly as much it impacted its two principal protagonists. That, upon completion of this journey, the two comrades would next get to meet nearly 8 years later – a year after the historic Cuban Revolution – added a note of quiet irony to the absolute unpredictability of life itself.

Author: Alberto Granado
Genre: Non Fiction/Memoir/Travelogue/Political History
Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007]

By the time Cold War was in its final leg, the American state’s principal antagonist had started shifting from Soviet “Red Scare” to the Middle-East. Though the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, harrowingly covered in Svetlana Alexievich’s polyphonic non-fiction Zinky Boys, was possibly the inflexion point of this changing world political order, 9/11 unarguably sealed this change and left in no doubt who the West’s arch-enemy now was. Princeton and Harvard Law School educated Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s gripping, delicately balanced and deceptively lucid novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist provided a telling account of what this meant and its repercussion – politically and existentially – on one individual. It starts in an eerily suspenseful manner when a mysterious Pakistani man strikes an unlikely conversation with an American man at a café in Lahore. Chronicled in the form of a dramatic monologue, the story’s enigmatic narrator Changez confides his startling story to the fidgety, suspicious stranger, each potentially with agendas of their own – how he, as a brilliant young man, graduates summa cum laude (much like the author himself) from Princeton, gets hired by a prestigious financial consultancy firm into valuation of ailing organizations, and quickly becomes the hottest rising star there; and, as the final step to his acculturation, he also embarks on a tentative relationship with the beautiful and emotionally fragile WASP daughter of a wealthy New Yorker. Beneath this success, however, everything isn’t hunky-dory, and his glittering American Dream starts crumbling with what follows post the collapse of the World Trade Center. As early evening turns to night, and tea is replaced with kebabs, Changez’s looping, one-sided story gradually reaches a fever pitch in sync with the moody atmosphere and sense of something sinister lurking round the corner. Though one may as well virulently disagree with the book’s political crux as grudgingly agree with it, Hamid’s tackling of a complex, sensitive and provocative subject as this with such candour and in such an engrossing manner certainly merits appreciation.

Author:Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Political Drama/Political Thriller
Language: English
Country: Pakistan

Monday, August 7, 2017

The God of Small Things [1997]

The God of Small Things, the smashing debut novel of Arundhati Roy which won the Man Booker Prize, is a lush, haunting and evocative elegy to memory, loss, broken dreams and growing up, with an overarching sense of deep melancholia, disquietude and fatalism pervading its dream-like narrative, albeit punctuated with irresistible bursts of beauty and playfulness. A work of incredible formal bravado and linguistic prowess, this mesmeric tale of familial disintegration, through its microcosmic setting, provided a powerful mirror to the complex and disconcerting truths about social discriminations in India along multivariate lines of caste, class and gender, and the devastating repercussions of breaching these divides. Set in the small town of Ayemenem in Marxist Kerala, the basic premise is centered on how the tragic death of a young girl provides the final spark to a slow-burning keg, leading to the breakdown of a well-off but barely strung together Syrian Christian family – the adorable, wide-eyed 7-year old fraternal twins Rahel (clearly Roy’s alter-ego) and her brother Estha; their divorced, headstrong mother Ammu who makes the fatal error of falling in love in violation of social taboos; Ammu’s charming, Oxford-educated brother and the dead kid’s father Chacko; the family patriarch Mammachi, and her scheming sister Baby Kochamma. Roy’s storytelling brilliance captured complex socio-political themes with disarming simplicity through the eyes of the two unforgettably etched siblings; through terrific use of kaleidoscopic, non-linear narrative which teasingly revolved around the tale’s mysterious center-piece by moving back and forth in time; and through evocation that was grim yet funny, grand yet intimate, brutal yet tender, stark yet magical, turbulent yet serene, disturbing yet lyrical, ferocious yet bittersweet, exuberant yet brooding, adult yet child-like. This triumphant book, on hindsight, also provided a fascinating peek into Roy’s transition to a firebrand political activism championing social causes on behalf of those at the bad-end of governmental overreach, and it would be 2 volatile decades before she’d publish the stunningly apt follow-up The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Author: Arundhati Roy
Genre: Drama/Coming-of-Age/Family Drama/Political Drama
Language: English
Country: India