Sunday, July 25, 2010

Miscellany:

Interesting reads after a long, long while.

The Housekeeper + The Professor

By Yoko Ogawa

Modern day Japan, a brilliant mathematics professor, his housekeeper and her son are the constituents of the book. The professor is old and is the victim of an accident that has left his memory impaired. He can remember just 80 minutes of the immediate past, though he can remember what has happened in the distant one. The housekeeper is young and a single mother, coping with all that entails. Each day she comes to the professor’s house, having to introduce herself to him all over again. But over time there forms a special bond between mother, son and the professor. Mathematics is a kind of glue, with the professor infusing his love of numbers to the mother and son. Abundant numbers, amicable numbers, prime numbers, perfect numbers – all seem magical to the young housekeeper and her son for whom they take on a life of their own. It is a warm, cozy world that they create, the three of them. Of course, the outside world intrudes when they least want it. But the lack of memory, the indifference of outsiders, none of it can ultimately harm a bond that has been created so unwittingly and naturally. Ogawa writes a lovely little tale, suffusing it with intricate detail of setting, thought and action. Even the maths seems wonderful and enticing.

The Other

By David Guterson

I remember reading Snow Falling on Cedars and loving it. Guterson’s The Other, while being a good read is not in the same class.

John William Barry is The Other to Neil Countryman. He is upper class, country club, prep school variety while Neil comes from strictly working class, blue collar stock. They grow up in Seattle, Bill Gates territory. Their lives meet at an innocuous middle distance race that both of them lose. From then on, the teenage boys become friends, live through the post Vietnam decades, smoking pot, reading literature, trekking into the wild, having intellectual discussions about the state of the world. There is one big difference though. Neil does the usual things liberal American youngsters did in the seventies. Take a year off to travel around Europe, co-habit with a girl with the same sensibilities, get married, have kids. John William on the other hand withdraws from the world. For years, he inhabits a cave in the middle of the forest, subsisting mostly on what the forest can give him and what his good friend Neil can bring him from the outside ‘hamburger world’. He subscribes to ‘gnosticism’, a strange mystical religion and believes that everything outside is evil. Neil continues to keep in touch with him, feeding him books, food and Playboy; all the while contrasting his own regular life with his friend’s extreme one. John William ultimately dies, leaving his fortune to Neil. And it is left to Neil to make sense of the enormous burden of the gift and a life that was so different from his, weird and tragic and yet so strangely idealistic.

It is a slow ponderous book. Guterson does manage to get some amount of interest going with the strangeness of John William, but there is little sympathy he generates for any of the characters. Neil is workmanlike and plain lucky. John William has a childhood to blame for the way he turned out, yet there is no getting away from his bizarreness. And there is no other character that is sketched out enough to be interesting.

This is no Snow Falling on Cedars. But if you have lots of time and can’t seem to find anything more interesting to do, The Other will not be too bad a choice.

Juliet, Naked

By Nick Hornby

How is it that I have never got around to reading Nick Hornby? Not High Fidelity, not About a Boy. Juliet, Naked is my first Hornby and I liked it very much.

Maybe it’s something to do with being 40 and looking back on life and regretting the things you have not done. Like Annie. Who is 39, living in an uninspiring, innocuous British seaside town called Gooleness, managing a local museum, curating a show of Gooleness in 1964, living with Duncan for 15 years, childless. Duncan’s only passion is an American rock musician Tucker Crowe who made a few albums and then disappeared from the public eye. He is obsessed with Crowe, knows everything about his music and life and manages a website online where Crowe-worshippers like him get together to exchange notes. Hornby is quite at his best describing this ladd-ish music obsession. Annie is bored, wishes some of that passion for herself and is beginning to feel she has wasted the last 15 years of her life. Inadvertently, she invites a possibility of recklessness into her life when she posts a review of a new Crowe album, Juliet, Naked on Duncan’s website. Juliet, Naked is a series of work-in-progress recordings of Crowe’s most famous album Juliet. She is honest about the album’s lack of quality in her review and that ironically gets Tucker Crowe himself to write to her.

Their correspondence gets to be a relationship and soon we are familiar with Tucker Crowe’s regrets too – his string of ex-wives and children he does not really know, decades of artistic incoherence, his inability to form any meaningful relationship. Between Duncan, Annie and Tucker, we are witness to a full-blown thesis on loneliness and the lengths people can go to for love.

Juliet, Naked is honest to the point of ruthlessness. Yet its honesty is never without humour, irony and wit. Hornby writes profundity with a touch of lightness. His offbeat style marries quirky comedy and moral anguish cleverly. This is a find.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


The Immortals of Meluha

By Amish Tripathi

We know that the Indus Valley Civilization still retains an aura of unsolved mystery with their strange seals and un-deciphered language. The term Meluha is attributed to this civilization, hypothetically what the Sumerians called them. Amish Tripathi, one of the many b-schoolers turned writers, sets his first novel in Meluha, in 1900 BC.

Tripathi pulls strands of Hindu mythology into a kind of an Indus Valley setting and creates a computer-game-like world, filled with action and love, heroes and kings, good and evil. Of course, this is neither history (the IVC is the perfect land conceived by the maryaada purush Ram?) nor mythology as we have read it. But in a strange wonder-filled way, Tripathi creates a racy read, one that will stand you in good stead these days if football is not your thing.

Shiva is the hero. The writer conceives of him as an ordinary mortal, a rough chillum-smoking, battle-scarred Tibetan tribal chieftain who through the vagaries of fate ends up leading the Suryavanshis of Meluha, the people of Ramrajya, against what he thinks is evil – the Chandravanshis of the neighbouring Swadweep. There is love in the form of Daksha’s daughter Sati (remember your mythology?), a seemingly perfect society (painfully similar to Plato’s Republic) mixed with undercurrents of injustice (outcastes in the form of Vikarmas and Nagas), magic potions (the Somras of the Vedas) that grant longevity, and a dharmayudh. It is the archetypal hero’s (in this case, a god’s) journey and just as in the archetype, self-doubt and the questioning of the goal is a critical phase. In this book, part of a trilogy, the culmination is this phase – where Shiva is left questioning the morality of his actions and the nature of good and evil.

This is not anything deep or informative or meaningful. Enjoy it as a light-hearted romp through a fantasy world of heroes and pop-philosophy, pseudo-science and re-written mythology. Finish it in one sitting on a plane or a lazy Sunday. And look forward to the next instalment whenever Amish Tripathi decides to write it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Beatrice and Virgil

By Yann Martel

I remember Martel’s Life of Pi as warm and whimsical. Beatrice and Virgil, his next novel is different – serious and allegorical, sometimes heavy and ponderous, very rarely touching.

Henry is a writer, much like Martel himself. He has written a fairly successful book but his next concept novel has run into trouble. Writing about the holocaust (because so few writers have actually tackled this epochal event) in a new way – with a novel and an essay bound in the same book, his publishers reject it as too radical, strange and unwieldy. Disillusioned, Henry moves to a new city with his wife, gives up writing for the time being, acts in a local theatre, takes music lessons and works in a chocolate shop. His life moves along on an even keel, with a dog, a cat and an upcoming baby. Until he meets up with a taxidermist who wants to share a play he has written with him. The play is called Beatrice and Virgil and is the heart of the novel. It is a Waiting for Godot with the lead characters being a donkey and a monkey, talking about the extermination of animals. The taxidermist shares the play with him chapter by chapter, and it takes little time for the reader to realize the extermination is actually a metaphor, something Beatrice and Virgil call ‘The Horrors’ and that this is not meant to be a straight forward story at all.

Beatrice and Virgil is interesting in a strange, unmoving way. It is obviously a writer’s Orwell-ian attempt at a powerful allegory. But this is not Animal Farm or 1984. There is little subtlety and very little finesse. Yet the attempt at the allegory itself evokes curiosity and carries the reader forward, stumbling through the chapters of the play, staying a bit more through Henry’s life and thoughts. The end of the book however is inexplicable. I have no idea why it was needed except to make clear that the allegory indeed was about the holocaust, if anyone had not got it by then.

All in all, I have to be less than enthusiastic about Martel’s new work.