Friday, November 23, 2007
I feel a change coming on.
For months I've been concentrating on books which are either brand new releases or fairly contemporary, and while I'm not about to plunge head first into the so called "classics" I do believe I will be reading more and more "older" books.
Here are the five I've just finished:
Roald Dahl - "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More"
Adolfo Bioy Casares - "The Invention of Morel"
Giorgio Bassani - "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis"
Isabel Colgate - "The Shooting Party"
Mikhail Bulgakov - "The Heart of a Dog"
Of these, the one I enjoyed the most was Bassani's. Set in the italian city of Ferrara just before the beginning of the II World War, it follows the life of a young jewish man and his relationship with a brother and a sister who happen to be the progeny of the wealthiest and most renowned jewish family of the city. The wonderful thing is how the book, a memoir told in the first person manages so skillfully to convey the intricacy and nuances of the jewish community (those who are observant, those who are not; those who are wealthy and those who are not; and those who supported the fascist party and their counterparts)while never loosing sight of the most important thing: for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" is first and foremost the story of a first (and unrequited) love between the narrator and Micól Finzi-Contini.
There are, to be sure, disquietening events (such as the expulsion of the young jews from the local tennis club) which point to tragedy ahead, but Bassani cleverly withdraws any suspense from the table: from the very first pages we already know none of the Finzi-Continis will survive the II World War. This allows the reader to give undivided attention to the events unfolding: the unnamed narrator's difficult relationship with a father who adores him but who is frighteningly unaware of the gravity of the political situation (as is most of the jewish community); a father who is quick to criticize the Finzi-Continis, and just as quick to bask in pride when his son becomes a good friend with the children of the family; the tragedy of Alberto's (the elder Finzi-Contini) homossexuality (which is merely hinted at, this being an italian book published in 1962); Micól's cryptic personality, who seems at times to flirt with the narrator just to rebuff him immediately afterwards; in effect, a normal nineteen-year old trying to grasp the complicated path between childhood friendship, adolescent fling and adult love; and the gentile Giampero Malnate (the objet of Alberto's affection) a young communist of the most intense and simultaneously, naive convictions.
But even tracing all of these (and several others) webs of relationships is just part of what made "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" so engrossing - it is also incredibly visual, or maybe cinematographic is a better word. I finished it feeling as though I had walked the cobbled streets of Ferrara, cycled through the snow on a chilly night, walked the paths of the Finzi-Continis garden,climbed its stone walls, felt the warmth of their Palazzo and, of course played a whole lot of tennis.
Bioy Casares' "The Invention of Morel" was the hardest to read. I felt the author was determined in keeping me and my rational impulses at bay, which of course he was. The book is presented as the written log of an escaped prisioner alone in an island, for soon after his arrival strange events begin to take place. A party of revellers appears on the big house (called "museum") which exists on the island, but even though, our narrator falls helplessly in love with one of the women from the group, when he finally confronts her, the girl acts as though she does not see him. For the reader it is instantly obvious that she really does not see him, and we aim to find out why: is he dead? is she dead (along with the rest of the group)? is the narrator suffering from dellusions caused by the comsumption of indigenous berries? Is the "museum" a mental asylum where all the characters are institucionalized?
Why is Morel, apparently the leader of the group, forever engaging in mysterious conversations with the others where it is hinted that all will be solved in a matter of days? What are the strange contraptions kept in the basement of the building? Why are the tides impossible to understand and why, on certain days can two suns be seen in the sky?
Our narrator, obssessed with Faustine, and with the idea that the whole thing is a complicated ruse by the police, to capture him, is of little help to the reader. He states at the beginning that he means to keep his records as clear and scientific as possible, and this he does, the result being that we feel as though we are watching the events at a great distance. We forever want to yell at him "look out" or "over there, you fool"!
Faustine was inspired by Louise Brooks the silent film star and that got me thinking that there is a certain feel of a silent film to "The Invention of Morel". Just as our narrator cannot seem to communicate with his beloved (or any of the others on the island), so did I as a reader feel estranged from the action. But that wasn't necessarily bad, it was just incredibly confounding and strange.
The answer to the riddle of the island was completely unexpected and again, bewildering. It also poses all kinds of philosophical questions. Very unsettling, and yet I ran out to get another of Bioy Casares' books, which must mean something.
Dahl's book was a gift and what a gift! His short-stories might delve into the fantastic but I loved them because the writting is so old-fashioned. And what do I mean by that? I mean good ol' no-nonsese story telling, not made to impress anyone or in order to fill an assgnment for a creative writing course (on this subject read Stephen King on the NY Times).
When the world just seems incredibly grey and full of cinics this a great book to curl up with (meaning any given day).
Isabel Colgate's "The Shooting Party" is pure, unadultered escapism of the highest order. I almost felt guilty reading it, so quickly did I dive right in the story, set during a weekend of "sport" (the birds probably don't enjoy the aerobics much)in an english country mansion, in 1913. If I could have gone back in time for a day, this would be a top destination. Julian Fellowes's introduction to the Penguin edition explains why, in 1980, this was a daring, even revolutionary book (Fellowes was the scripwriter of "Gosford Park"), which is all very well and good, but today it is hardly shocking, only great, which is even better.
You can hardly mistake "The Shooting Party" for a period piece since the servants are not only seen, but also heard. What's more they also think! There is even an (admitedly naive at least politically)animal rights campaigner/socialist at hand. A wealth of characters between the host family, their guests, their servants and workers provides a rich canvas for Colegate who achieves with equal sucess the voice of Ellen, the maid or Sir Randolph Nettleby. There are exotics, (an hungarian count and a jewish businessman from South Africa) mean gentlemen, clueless young girls, salt of the earth men, generous women and a couple of prodigious young people from both the "upstairs" and the "downstairs", not to mention a pair of star-crossed lovers and a dead body at the end (without which no english country weekend is complete).
Bulgakov's "Heart of a Dog" is a small book, which feels tiny after the lenght and breath of "The Master and Margarita". It is a satire in which an imminent Moscow doctor transplants the pituitary gland and testicles of a man into a stray dog, who shortly after starts to metamorphosize into a human and to develop the character flaws the donor displayed while alive (alcoholism and thievery), while also displaying the particularly irritating trait (for Doctor Preobrazhensky, at least) of taking up with the building commitee which is composed of ignorant and agressive revolutionaries.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
The city of Karachi is the main protagonist of "Kartography", a city where the streets truly have "no name" and where directions are intimately tied with events.
It may be violent, chaotic and "brazilified", with the wealthy taking their cars between mansions and country clubs, but Shamsie had me believe it is also magical - somewhere beauty is hard to come by and all the more unexpected and precious because of it.
The story centers around a childhood friendship between Raheen and Karim. Just when they step into adolescence and could have naturally evolved into boyfriend and girlfriend, Karim's father decides to take his wife and son to London and away from the escalating sectarian violence in the city.
The distance creates some misunderstandings, but the greatest one is caused by family history, for Karim's mother was once engaged to Raheen's father, and the boy's mother to the girl's father. What happened is intimately connected to the political violence of 1971, when Pakistan fought East Pakistan (Bangladesh), and to the ethnic groups each of the grown-ups belong to.
How much (or how little) Raheen and Karim know about these events will drive a wedge into their friendship, even though they never discuss it openly.
After boy and girl separate at Karachi's airport, each 13 years old, we next meet Raheen at an Ivy League university in the States. Frankly I didn't much enjoy that part: I kept feeling I'd read it before in some other book.
It's complicated, because the reality is that so many Pakistani, Indians, Chinese etc do go to universities in the U.S., many to study writing (like the author)and yet on the page, those experiences usually read like a cliché.
The other thing is that Raheen, our narrator, grows up to be less than likeable. At 13 she is a spirited young thing, but at 20 she's a bit of a sulker, unable to withstand any real affection from men, and she really does believe everything is about her.
In all honesty many 20 year olds are like that, but it sure gets a little grating. But never mind, soon Raheem and Karim, along with best friends Zia and Sonia are back in Karachi and "Kartography" really takes off - scaling violence and political unrest seem to conspire in order to throw our protagonists into similar tragic situations as those faced by their parents 20 years earlier.
There are many interesting map lines in "Kartography": the different kind of emigrants Raheen and Karim become (she, oblivious to the political situation of her country; he, obsessed by it); the subplot of their parents tale explained in separate chapters dated 1971; and the shifting identification of country, social class and ethnic group.
Overall, "Kartography" is an enjoyable book, though it left me with some nagging questions. There seem to be a lot of young writers, born in third world countries and educated in anglo-saxonic universities who rely on their regions of birth for their subject matter. In itself, that should hardly constitute a problem, but good literature needs more than a first hand knowledge of an exotic location.
One gets the feeling that in american universities these writers are urged to "write about what you know", and so they do. But they seem to aim at a western audience and so, play the "exotic" card rather heavy-handedly, while the main characters, the narrators, are of an almost absolute western sensitivity.
I don't really know what driving at exactly, except that of course, I want my books set in Karachi or Beijing or Seoul, but maybe I don't need the "benefit" of a american/ british university educated narrator every time.
Would those books get published quite as easily? I don't know.
I guess I used to be more naive about book publishing and have only recently started to realize that, like everything else, it is also political. There are many new writers who come from different ethnic backgrounds being published in the U.S. yet, it seems to me that most of them, besides being mostly female, have in common a degree in "Creative Writing" of some sort in a well-known university. Sometimes I fear they are all being coaxed into writing in a certain way by american professors, or worse, that only those who do, get published.