Saturday, April 26, 2014

Internal Monologues

Silent House

Orhan Pamuk

It is a narrative of a week in Cenethissar, a small town near Istanbul. A week when Fatma’s 3 grandchildren come visiting her in her old house in a once-a-year ritual. Fatma is old, bitter, cranky, a Miss Havisham-like recluse, lost in her memories. Recep is her Man Friday, living in the basement, a dwarf who is also Fatma’s husband’s bastard child from a maid servant, a secret Fatma is at pains to keep from her grand children. Faruk is the eldest grandchild, a historian, trying to work at a book whose plot and structure keep eluding him, drowning his existential angst in alcohol. Nilgun is his pretty, left-leaning, book-loving sister, a character we don’t quite grasp, almost left as a prop to further the plot along. Metin is the youngest grandchild, ambitious, dreaming of making it big in America, in with a rich, young crowd, chafing against the family’s relative poverty. And finally there is Hasan, Recep’s nephew, with memories of playing with Faruk, Nilgun and Metin, yet now grown far apart especially in political ideology - running around with the Islamic fundamentalist crowd, learning to hate the communists and the western fascists.
The book is a series of internal monologues of five of these characters - Fatma, Faruk, Metin, Hasan and Recep. In a very stream-of-consciousness sort of way, each of these monologues tries to make the characters real, allowing them a less caricature-ish feel. Because caricatures they definitely are - the Islamic fundamentalist, the well-meaning communist, the western liberal historian, the awed-by-America young man. The characters represent each of the warring factions in a Turkey poised for a coup. The monologues try and make their stories personal, stories of real people living in history-making times. Fatma is the central figure though - suspicious of everyone around her, especially of Recep, without whom she would be lost, still fighting her dead doctor-husband’s atheistic views, remembering how her husband brought their once well-off family to ruin with his money-sucking plans to bring ‘superior’ western philosophy and science to conservative Turkey., drinking his way to death as he realizes his plans may never bear fruit, stuck with a wife who would never understand him. Fatma’s story is probably emblematic of Turkey itself - of age old civilization fighting a more modern world view, fighting to keep a still-relevant past alive at a time when it is under attack from different directions.
The failure of the book though, is really the failure of these monologues. They drag and turn boring after a while. The characters are too pat, too stereotypical. And other than possibly Recep, there is no one who really garners a reader’s sympathy. This is one of Orhan Pamuk’s earliest works - and it is definitely not one that makes you want to read more of him. Having read My Name is Red, one knows he is capable of so much more.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Spying Game

Absolute Friends

By John Le Carre

It has been a while since I visited Le Carre land. But each time I return, I realize nothing fundamentally changes. The spies still live in a morally ambiguous world and the individual moral compass is often at odds with the official wisdom that defines good and bad. This tension between the individual and the state had its best moments in the Cold War era, though. In his more recent novels, Le Carre tends to be much more didactic with a very definitive point of view on the evil influence of corporations in modern day governments. This point of view still has its good moments - like in his The Constant Gardener, one of my all-time favourite Le Carre novels. Absolute Friends, however falls very short of this standard.

Ted Mundy is the British spy, one of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, born in Pakistan to an English army officer. He spends his early years in the subcontinent, is sent to boarding school in England, then goes on to Oxford to learn German, dropping out to join the ‘60s left-wing protests in Berlin against the ‘bourgeoisie’ American view of the world. He befriends Sasha, a natural leader in these left-wing groups, a German who is rebelling against his Nazi-sympathiser father turned good Christian. Ted saves Sasha’s life in one of the protests that turn violent, but is forced to flee Germany, going back to his native England, where he joins the British Council, marries a local school teacher with ambitions of labour party politics, has a kid and in general is all set to lead an ordinary life. But it is not meant to be. Sasha returns, this time as a defector to East Germany, wanting to play the dangerous spy game. Ted becomes his handler, and a double agent, with the East Germans thinking him theirs while all the while it’s the other way round. He starts leading multiple lives, one Ted to his wife and family, one to the East Germans, and the third real one - that of a double agent. Sasha and he play this dangerous game for years...until one day the Berlin wall comes down and there is nothing left to play. Sasha disappears, Ted’s marriage falls apart, and the next we see him, he is living in Berlin again, this time with a Turkish immigrant and her son, working as a tour guide, trying to put a failed business behind him. But there is one more twist in his life. Sasha is back to try and recruit him into one of his idealistic plans for the world. But this end game turns out to be one twist too many. The plot begins to meander into one of the least credible parts of the story… and one is left feeling Le Carre was actually writing a different novel in the last part. It is a ridiculous end to an otherwise moderately-engaging story.

Ted Mundy is the quintessential Le Carre hero. Ordinary, every-day man, living a heroic life, unknown to the rest of the world - an unsung, unrecognized hero. Sasha is the friend, but he is a shadowy character, never completely clear in his motives and actions to the reader, a mystery influence on Ted. It is this blurry character that makes the whole plot somewhat vague and insubstantial. The other characters are all mostly props in the Ted and Sasha show. And it is a show that disappointing and strangely irritating - especially when you know what Le Carre can normally do with plot and character.