Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ghostwritten

By David Mitchell

Here I am, reviewing yet another David Mitchell. I quite dig this chap – his stories are clever and interesting, his characters span a variety of timescapes and landscapes and he’s on his way to perfecting a narrative format that is pretty unique (at least I have not read another quite like this).

Ghostwritten is Mitchell’s debut novel. It was noticed almost immediately, winning itself the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. For a debut, it is a pretty ambitious book – as its sub-title reads, it’s a novel in nine parts. Nine parts that are as diverse as they come. From a cult member terrorist in Okinawa on the run, to a broken investment banker in HK, a record store salesman in Tokyo finding love unexpectedly, an old woman living through China’s tumultuous history in south China, a transmigrating ghost who finally finds her human body in Mongolia, an art thief in post-Soviet St. Petersburg who is double-crossed, a depraved musician and ghostwriter in London also finding love, a nuclear physicist running away from the consequences of her work and last but not the least, a kind of super-intelligence that is controlling the world. Each of these stories is distinct and yet inter-connected in strange, inexplicable ways. One of the characters saves the life of another story’s character, one witnesses another’s death, characters in one keep re-appearing in others, and somehow one gets the feeling that each story is the cause or the effect of another.

This is a format Mitchell carries forward in Cloud Atlas (he loves repeating characters from his other books) to an even better effect. I am captivated and entranced. I love stories, and Mitchell is storyteller par excellence. One almost waits for the next surprise or twist round the corner.

There is one more book in his repertoire I am yet to read. I can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Goa!

Goa conjures up images of the sun, sand and sea. For many Mumbaikars, it is the idyllic getaway; the perfect antidote to the city’s traffic and noise, pollution and dirt. Goa is where Mumbai goes to refresh its soul, to recover from the daily fast-paced grind of big-city life. They say time itself moves slowly in Goa; almost the antithesis of Mumbai, where everyone seems to be in a terrible rush. It is almost a cliché – Goa is Mumbai’s alter-ego.

Over the years I have lived in Mumbai, I have had innumerable people tell me of their definitive Goa – the no-name shack that serves the best prawn balchao, the perfect hidden-away beach, the seaside café that serves the best apple pie, that little corner shop where you can buy the best grass in town. Each time I have heard this, I have listened to it with a bit of impatience. After all, I had been to Goa a handful of times and I had not discovered the magic of the place. Blame it on my indifference to beaches, the office conferences that have taken me there or the plain inability on my part to laze around on a holiday (shouldn’t we be making the most of a holiday, seeing as many sights as possible, doing as many things we can?), but all these descriptions of Goa were to me just plain clichés. Wouldn’t I much rather see Mandu’s historic forts than taste the local Goan beer?

But then, a weekend trip (coz of an office picnic) this Saturday showed me a glimpse of the Goa I had never before discovered. Lazing around on a beach shack with King’s beer and the fresh catch of the day, driving around through its leafy quiet by-lanes, taking a leisurely walk up to Vagadore fort to see the most amazing views of the Goa coastline (Dil Chahta Hai showcased it memorably), stumbling upon an unexpected flea market on one of the many beaches, sipping cashew feni and eating goan sausages while listening to the waves crash on the shore… maybe, I think, Goa is not over-hyped. Maybe the thousands of Mumbaikars who flock to Goa at every possible opportunity have a point. Maybe there is a point in just ‘being’ in Goa. Maybe, just maybe, as a copy writer colleague once put it, ‘There is a Goan in everyone’. Maybe there is a Goan in even me.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Picture-postcard pretty Prague. The river, the bridges, the castles - like a fairy tale come alive. You almost expect Prince Charming to come in and sweep you off your feet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Post-war Japan is the milieu. The protagonist and narrator is an aging painter, once renowned in Imperial Japan, now denounced in the period of the American occupation.

The book raises interesting questions. What is it like to lose a World War? And what is it like to have to look unflinchingly at your country’s past and your role in it and acknowledge that you and your country might have been wrong? And should an artist have a political role at all?

Masuji Ono is the painter and narrator who is at present leading a quiet retired life with his unmarried daughter in a Japanese city that hasn’t escaped the ravages of war. He spends his days tending to his home and garden and going out to the local bar with his drinking buddy. An occasional visit by his married daughter and her young son and the marriage talks for his younger daughter provide the only ‘events’ in his life. Yet these events precipitate the onset of darker memories, of a time when Ono was a renowned painter, used in the Japanese imperial war machine. Of a time when he denounced his teacher and his pupil, artists of the ‘floating world’ (‘the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink’, a transient world of beauty worth celebrating) in the cause of a narrow nationalism. Ono, of course, grows to believe that art needs to go beyond the world of pleasure and seek something more tangible and purposeful. And so he becomes a part of the Japanese propaganda machine urging his countrymen to build an empire.

Japan loses the war, of course, America brings democracy to the country and Ono is discredited. His past becomes an embarrassment to his daughters and he is forced to confront it. It is not easy, yet he is honest enough to be able to be able to come to terms with the fact that he and his generation might have been wrong. “I accept that much of what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people….All I can say is that at the time I acted in good faith.” It is a recognition of the faults of a generation and at the same time a justification for it.

What struck me most about the story was the unabashed readiness of post-war Japanese society to accept that the past is an embarrassment. A whole nation goes to war, and 10 years later, you accept you were wrong? Is it that easy? Isn’t there a kernel of resentment against the victors? Apparently not, as the new generation channels its resentment towards the older Japanese who led them to the war.

Ishiguro’s simple and straightforward writing as usual is able to evoke a time and place that is completely alien to the reader. The portrayal of Japanese society in the first half of the century is detailed – the round-about way of approaching delicate matters in dialogue, the extreme formality in father-son/ teacher-pupil relationships, the preponderance of suicide. Ishiguro has of course, never lived in Japan past his 5th year. Yet his representation of post-war Japan reads authentic to someone who has never been to Japan. It is strange that the last book I read was a Murakami – an authentic Japanese writer who writes of a Japan that could have been any country in the world (the place is quite incidental to the plot and characters). And here is Ishiguro, an English writer who tells a story that could be set in no country but Japan.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami

This is the book that made Murakami so famous in Japan that he had to take refuge in the anonymity of Europe and later the US. Norwegian Wood is a simple straightforward narrative with little of the ‘fantastic’ that is so much a part of his other novels. It is the story of a young man, Toru’s journey into adulthood.

Written as a remembrance by a 37 year old Toru, this story moves from school life in Kobe to university days in Tokyo. University life in Tokyo seems very Western – Toru reads Scott Fitzgerald, Updike, Thomas Mann and listens to the Beatles, Bill Evans, Cream, Simon & Garfunkel. It’s the late ‘60s and there are rumblings of the student unrest in the background, but there is never any intrusion of that into the story. In fact, there is very little intrusion of the outside world into Toru’s inner world. He does go out partying and picking up women with his college friend Nagasawa. But that is never the real Toru – he is most himself with his books and his intense relationships.

The story is of Toru’s relationship with 2 women – the Naoko who is the love of his life and Midori, his college-mate. Toru’s obsession with Naoko is long-lasting; 17 years after he has last seen her, airplane renditions of Norwegian Wood, her favourite song, can still bring him to his knees. He knows Naoko from his schooldays in Kobe. She is his best friend Kizuki’s girlfriend. Kizuki, for reasons he cannot comprehend, commits suicide at the age of 17. Later when he and Naoko make their way to college in Tokyo, they meet again and Kizuki’s death binds them together like nothing else can. He begins spending more and more time with her; their Sunday walks across Tokyo providing the highlights of their weeks. He begins to see however, that Naoko is a troubled young woman with demons to fight in her head. She retires to a home in northern Japan to get her bearings back, and he visits her there periodically, spending time just ‘being’ with her and her roommate, an older woman Reiko. He believes it is just a matter of time before Naoko will become alright and she can come back to Tokyo with him. But life isn’t always that easy - Naoko soon loses her fight with her demons and she is lost to him forever.

While Naoko is fighting for her sanity, Toru meets another woman – Midori. The antithesis of Naoko, Midori lives in the here and now. Vivacious and highly energetic, Midori knows enough of the downside of life to realize the importance of living life fully. The more Naoko withdraws from the world, the more Toru is drawn towards the life Midori shows him. Yet at the end, Norwegian Wood is Toru’s paean to Naoko.

Death and suicides stalk the book. At one point, Toru says, ‘Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life’. It could prove the guiding principle of the book. Pain accompanies a loved one’s death. But it is living with that pain, even learning from it, and yet getting on with life – that is the journey into adulthood. To me, this book was Toru’s learning of that lesson.