Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brothers Karamazov

I have not been much exposed to Dostoevsky except for a few short stories (In fact except for a bit from Tolstoy and Gogol, I have somehow skipped the Russian writing altogether). I have liked Dostoevsky's short stories, and so his megalith had been on my reading wishlist and on my shelf for sometime now. I am glad I picked it up finally, for it was definitely amongst my top ten reads this year.

It is a story of parricide, where a son is accused of murdering his father, and the conservative Russia is aghast at such a heinous crime. (I suppose such an overt crime will raise contempt even today, despite the apparent apathy which has been cultivated through over-exposure to all kinds of horrifying crimes). However, this book can barely be summed as a book of crime or a courtroom drama, even though it has elements of both. Dostoevsky has added everything: a little bit of mystery-as the actual murder is never shared with the reader, a little bit of romance, some philanthropy, some religion, some sociology and a lot of philosophy and psychology. To think of it, he hardly left anything. Except perhaps science fiction, which he replaced it with mysticism and prophecy.

As is expected from such a heavy tome (my edition was 1040 pages long!), there were a few sub-plots and each was given a lot of detailing. The story began two days before the murder, and I had finished almost 600 pages before even the whiff of murder appeared. The narrator gives a detailed account of the movements of the brothers, their conversation amongst themselves, their conversation with others, the entangled love stories, the family drama and the religious discourses at a monastery in town. However, it is to Dostoevsky's credit that he would exit the detailing just when it began to get arduous, though the sheer length of the book did ask for a lot of reader's patience.

I liked the narration of the book. Most of the time the narrator pretended to be another resident of Staraya Russa (the town in which the novel is set), giving an account of the happenings. But this did not prevent him to be omniscient, omnipresent and completely aware of even the most intimate discussions amongst the characters.

Apart from the main plot, the book outlines a religious debate and explores the question of existence of God. Ivan, one of the Karamazov brothers who seem to have done a lot of rational thinking, gets into many such discussions. He also argues the rationality of having a system of justice separate from the justice of church (or God), and the book seems to subtly raise the same concerns with its plot.

Brothers Karamazov, apparently is the masterpiece that Dostoevsky hoped to write before meeting his end. He put in a lot of himself in his last work, including his own grief upon his son's death. The grief finds expression in the sequence of the captain and his dying son Illyusha. The benign hero of the novel, Alyosha is also named after Dostoevsky's departed son. It is believed that the death changed both Dostoevsky's mind frame and the course of this novel significantly. Though it did not prevent Dostoevsky from writing the signature masterpiece.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

On Thanksgiving

Yes, I am not a Christian, neither of the western world, but on the day when so many people are offering an appreciation for their blessings, I can join them in appreciating a few things that make me happy:

  • A walk with my headphones on my ears and my ipod in my pocket, as the breeze makes my hair fly
  • The pure joy and richness of written word
  • To sit by the window and look down 16 floors at the the vehicles rushing by
  • To reach home every evening and close the door on office
  • To experiment with movies on the handsome looking LCD screen
  • My small library
  • The ability to criticize everything and everyone
  • To have a set of friends who never say no to a trip or to an evening of fun
  • Good Wine
  • To work with people who can have a good laugh
  • Living with the perfect person
  • The mountains and the beaches

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Amarcord (I remember)

I have very recently begun exploring Italian movies, and Fellini is a revered name of this genre. Sometime back I watched Otto e Mezzo (8 1/2) by this movie-maker, and was rather impressed by the work. The movie is a depiction of a director's brain-work as he struggles through a director's block, exhausted of any original and artistic ideas. During this period, he delves into memories, fantasies, dreams and nightmares, mostly absurd and illogical. However, the viewer is always kept confused between the mind-work and reality, as both of them overlap with a persistence. It is a well known fact that it was an autobiographical movie, and after watching Amarcord, it appears that Fellini likes to put in an autobiographical element to his works.

Amarcord is far removed from the serious and a rather hopeless tone of Otto e Mezzo, and is a rough and risque comedy. It is Fellini's recollection of his rustic hometown of Rimini, as he takes us through an year of this town's life. It's a town which enjoys its silly rituals, lusts after women and has a bunch of bored school boys indulging in fantasies that they hide from their prohibitive church. It is a rather conservative and retrograde town, rejoicing in simple entertainments like cheering the passage of a very large ship (Rex), and tumbles into chaotic activity on arrival of the Fascist leader Mussolini.
Though the movie is largely told from the perspective of young Titta, who is actually a cinematic version of Fellini's own youth, it is actually a collage of different stories featuring different people. Though the scene with the tobacconist features in almost all discussions that I read of the film, I thought there were other sequences which deserved better attention - for example the sequence of church confession which depicted the un-accommodating and unrealistic nature of the church, the sequence about the uselessness of school education and the hilarious scene with uncle Teo!
This film has been described in many places as a 'Coming of age' film, though frankly, the 'growing up' part was not too visible to me. In fact I thought that the end scene where the town's femme fatale gets married to a Fascist officer, almost eliminates from the story Titta and what happens to him at the year's end.
Overall, I think this movie was a well done tribute from Fellini to his hometown, and it was apparent that he was looking back at this small place fondly and without reproach for all its misgivings.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

While studying history, the two world wars captured my imagination more than any other historical event. However, even amidst these, I was most haunted by the holocaust - a tragedy of boundless dimensions that touched and wrecked the life of millions of beings. Since then, I have come across this horrific truth in many movies and books, and it is still a mystery to me as to why this ugliness fascinates me and the rest of the world so much that we pursue it time and again.
This fascination and a suggestion from a fellow blogger prompted me to pick up this book. It is said that Sebald is an authority on holocaust, and thus what I was expecting from this book was another vivid account of the misery afflicted on Jews. But in stead, this book completely stormed me by giving a haunting account of life after the holocaust and a victim's almost violent denial and suppression of its memories.
The book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz - an academician who, in his childhood, is forced to leave Prague as a refugee due to the Nazi accession of Czech territory. He lives in London under an alias and does not come to know his true identity until senior years of schooling. During this phase of anonymity, his subconscious mind suppresses all memories of his exile and childhood spent in Prague.
At some stage, perhaps after meeting the narrator of the novel (who almost seems indistinguishable from Austerlitz himself), he decides to go down the memory lane and uncover the fate of his parents, who, it turns out were not able to escape the holocaust. To piece together the history he goes first to Prague, then tries to trace his mother's movements from one ghetto to another. Eventually he attempts to find an account of his father's life.
Austerlitz's life through these narratives, appears to be a tale of melancholy, disorientation and identity confusion. He is almost friendless and detached, seeking solace only in buildings and their stories. It is this silent loneliness and personality disintegration which makes the story so powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sebald's narration is monotonous. He uses a narrator to convey Austerlitz's story, but apparently the only purpose the narrator serves is to screen off parts of the story and emotions that a first person narrator could not have escaped. The gaps between the meetings of the two serve well to cover the gaps in the protagonist's life. An interesting dimension is added by the use of pictures, and I understand that it is a dimension used by Sebald in most of his works. The pictures do not have any labeling and sometimes you have to struggle to find a connection between them and the accompanying text. While this may be disconcerting at times, the pictures also say their own story and somehow make the sense of a haunting isolation more acute. I particularly liked the use of Turner's watercolor 'Funeral at Lausanne', which reminds Austerlitz of farewell and a funeral he himself attended.
It is difficult to imagine how many lives would have been shattered by a whimsical tyranny, and when we shudder it is only for those who met this terror. But it seems much harder to imagine the agony of those who lived in the aftermath of this terror and survived to face the tremors everyday.

Monday, November 12, 2007


I have been away from blogging for sometime now. Though the initial gap was attributed to work(!!), the later part was for a much better reason - a week long trip to Manali and Lahaul/Spiti! The trip was out of the world, with its share of adventure, madness and fun. I can't wait to write down about it on my travel blog, though looking at the work piling on my desk, it will be sometime before I will get time to do that.
Also saw the two new Bollywood "Blockbuster" releases - Sawariya and Om Shanti Om. The latter was fun, if you watch it as a spoof on Bollywood in general, but the former was a complete disaster. After reading Dostoyevsky's 'White Nights', I should have stayed away from this one, for Sanjay Leela Bhansali has made the story into a self indulgent movie with almost talentless actors. One should stay away from adaptations if they have nothing to lend to the narrative. It is a crime to make a musical curry out of a presentable theme. Perhaps the dreaminess of the movie could have been delightful if the actors were not so serious about themselves and could show some emotion in stead.
I am not in the least a bollywood fan and such movies reinstate my general disinterest. I think current Bollywood is far removed from greatness and focuses too much on selling starry dreams.