Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Bend in the river

The World is what it is – a phrase that now seems instantly Naipaul. Not only because Patrick French used it as the title for Naipaul's much publicized biography, but because a lot of Naipaul's writing seems to converge in these words – a real, clear and unapologetic observance of the world, which shuns romanticism and intellectual exaltation.

'The World is what it Is' are the words with which Naipaul begins his brilliant novel A bend in the River – his commentary on Africa. In his characteristic disdain for third world countries, Naipaul has reflected a plain, bleak and unhopeful reality, entertaining no optimism for post-colonial Africa. Unfortunately this dismissal is not born out of snobbery or an affected worldview, but is a reflection through an acute, intellectual but a very practical mind.

The protagonist, Salim, is an Indian whose family has lived in Africa for many generations. In a hope to create an individual identity and to escape from Nationalistic euphoria that has threatened his family business, he moves to the interior of Africa where he sets up a shop. In this interior town, which is referred as the town at the bend in the river, Salim experiences the confusion of post-colonial Africa. He meets young men full of pride marching off to fancy schools; he sees the ubiquitous portrait of the dictator, the Big Man, which keeps growing in size; he sees the rise of fancy buildings and listens to jingoistic, fashioned speeches. As a thoughtful outsider who is still not completely detached, Salim is an ideal narrator of the state with his slightly amused and slightly anxious annotations. He has little sympathy for the natives, who are believed by the outsiders to be malin, of evil disposition. Through a young man who has been put in his charge, he sees the ridiculousness of modern African who frequently changes attitudes and mannerism, trying to find his own identity but managing only to imitate others. This man also swings widely from the African of the bush to the modern man of wealth, finding discontent on each side.

But it is not only the darkness of Africa or third world countries that are at the center of this novel. It is also a story of alienation and self-imposed exile, and a quest for home, which Naipaul indicates to be futile. In the form of Indar, Salim's childhood friend, it seems to me that Naipaul presents a sort of an alter-ego – an intellectual who abandons his home and is grossly disappointed when confronted with the mediocrity of India which is his native land. In a rebellious streak to seek a separate identity, he criticizes others who accept this 'given' life:

And that is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them.

Indar, like Naipaul, also advises (Salim) to 'trample on the past', to let go of the romantic images of childhood and homeland, because that image exists only in the mind and not in reality. It cannot serve anyone to dwell in those images.

It is one of the most remarkable novels that I have read – at once superior and harsh. Its reality is disheartening to read, especially as part of a country which is grappling with a similar truth despite all protests.

Monday, December 15, 2008


To the Grey of Melbourne, originally uploaded by Shifting sands.

One of my Melbourne snaps was selected for the sixth edition of Schmap Melbourne Guides. I took this one at the St Kilda Pier - a very beautiful place. I loved the grey tones of the city, apart from its chilliness.

Might go there again next month for sometime. Look forward to it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Fear & Debates

Last week's ordeal of Mumbai has made fear very real. Suddenly, dates like December 6 have come alive again. I am traveling tomorrow - and with all the threats about possible air strikes, I am quite apprehensive. How does one deal with such things - give in to the fear and cancel plans? Or travel when security is at its tightest and no one is caught napping in a surprise attack.

Few days ago, after the attacks, I , like everyone else (because after such an event, there is nothing else that you can talk about) got into a long debate with a friend over terrorism. Amongst other things, he said that terrorism is also a war, except that the players change the rules to suit their strengths. They cannot play by the rules because the stronger forces will always make rules that will make it difficult for the weaker to win. To further his argument, if anyone needs a way of revolting against the wrongs done to him, since he cannot win this war with direct combat, nor with peaceful demonstrations, terrorism is a natural reaction, something that is justified in his belief system.
The horrifying thing is, that unless directly affected by terrorism, a lot of the fair and 'just' educated people will find this argument logical and the cause of the terrorist explainable. But is logical necessarily correct? If social consciousness separates man from animal, then there should be an objective way of differentiating right and wrong, attacking defenseless human beings falling on the clear wrong end. If a section finds itself weak enough to engage in direct combat, it should either submit to subjugation or collect forces to become strong enough for direct combat.
In the last few terror strikes, no agenda has been communicated along with the attack. Even after the collision of WTC, no party or community came out and made demands or even clarified the reason for violence apart from the proclaimed hatred for the West. If the war is towards a specific purpose or to correct some injustice, at the least a declaration of the purpose should be made.
It can be argued that it is futile to make a peaceful protest: the Dalai Lama has done so for many years and got nowhere. But where has the jihadi protest gone? Have them making the world a scary place to live in fetched the fundamentalists anything? (Unless spreading fear was their goal and not a means, in which case theirs is not a war)
All such debates are futile - we can argue and counter-argue and run in loops, that does nothing to abate the fear. Only momentarily makes you think of something other than the risk. To copy from the Economist, it is like eating kulfi in front of the Taj.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Shooting at the icon

These are days of shock and horror. Not just for those of us who reside in the city which has seen incredible mayhem in the last 50 hours, but for the entire nation, even the world. How different it is to drop a bomb and run away, even blow up as a human bomb in a flash. But to enter a city, to fill it with terror and then seize its softest points at gunpoint and engage in a long, endless battle without a thought of leaving it alive, is unprecedented and terrifying beyond belief. The key to winning a battle lies in the belief that the opponent will make an effort to save his life, but how much more difficult is this battle when the other wastes no thought to life - someone else's or his own. The Joker is always the most dangerous enemy.

Is it at all relevant that it has happened to India? Or that Pakistani nationals planned and perpetrated it? Perhaps, to a degree it is. But neither is the target limited to India, nor is the perpetrator confined to our neighbor. It is a war on all progress, made by all detractors of progress. Would engaging in a communal violence, which seems a possibility, or engaging in a war with Pakistan solve or eradicate any of it? No. Did American bombing of the wastelands of Afghanistan solve anything? No. If America has not seen a major terror attack since 9/11, it is more for its efforts to secure itself than its eradication of a country miles away. To save ourselves from terrorism, we need to wear a protective cover, for we cannot intercept every bullet.

The country we love to hate, and where perhaps a lot of this attack was seeded, is a country itself in deep trouble. We put their officials and leaders on hot seat and hurl accusations. But to lead a country full of fundamentalists and steer it towards open mindedness and progress, is a task for generations. Yes, they could come down with an iron fist on all these fundamentalist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba. But in all likelihood, that will draw these organizations into greater focus, generate for them sympathies in the name of religion. Which will perhaps all end in the massacres of those who uphold something other than fundamentalism in the country. Can India take over this country and eradicate the communalistic sentiment? If not, what will be achieved by this war or by freezing any peace talks? Almost everyone who planted a bomb on our trains was an Indian - does it mean that we wage a war on ourselves? What about the Indian National who funded this operation? Or the people living in UK for years?

How much power do our leaders have when they try to fight internal fundamentalism of a different nature? The Nucleur treaty was opposed, without reason or rationale, and the Government had to be a mute witness. It does not mean that the very sensitive and progressive Manmohan Singh stands by those ghosts of ideas. But what good would it be for the country to dissolve yet another government and see another, equally fragmented mixture come up. The issue was tackled, slowly, but to effect. Tact remains the ultimate resort of a government which is not autocratic. And we may like to remember that before breaking off the resemblance of ties with a neighbour.

The fingers should not point towards a country. Yes, the country and its community needs to set its house straight, and not at this painfully slow rate. It is not the world that is marginalizing them, but they themselves. But that aside - even our country needs to set its security straight. Yes ours is a country of a billion people, and it is much more difficult to control it. But to let the planning of an operation of this scale go ahead without information is unbelievable. After knowing that sea route was used for transport of RDX for earlier bombings, a sleeping coast guard is unpardonable. Where is the department of Homeland security, which should have been formed after Dec 1991, then 1993, then 2002, 2003, 2006? To blame governments, demand resignations are simply political ploys that should be shunned by any self-respecting citizen. Which of the many governments that have held the centre been able to save anyone from threats?
What is the solution? A very involved intelligence. A crack team that can handle such situations in a short span of time. Securing of major buildings with escape routes - these are some of the obvious answers, the low-hanging fruits. In the longer run, the election commission could ensure that there be no political party that can campaign on the basis of divisive politics, or woo 'votebanks'. It should be made unconstitutional to do so. Moving to a bi-party systems, where the governments can take more firm decisions and be responsible for them, in stead of engaging in compromise politics. And education, education and more education that can guide those misguided towards truth and justice in stead of letting them waste themselves in the name of religious warfare. May be these are idealistic thoughts, and some problems cannot be solved. But to continuosly brave those problems and putting up the resilient Mumbaikar spirit is not a plus but hopeless foolishness.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Deborah's Theme: Once upon a time in America

Theme music from Once upon a time in America

Monday, November 10, 2008

Once upon a time in America

With once upon a time begin most stories from the past. Even this one looks through a keyhole in a man's past: a past of many complexities – friendship, crime, choices, love and guilt. And even though he is not a man easy to like, his complexities evoke a heartfelt sympathy.

The movie begins in the 1930's, which is presumably the present. From there we journey into the future of the 60's and look back into the past of 20's. (The transition from one period to another is nothing less than poetic). In the present, Robert De Niro as Noodles is being hunted by gangsters after something terrible has happened and his partners are found dead. He first hides in the opium den of a Chinese theatre and later escapes, to return to the town 30 years later. It is here, that he begins to tumble into his childhood and then to his adulthood, his memories interspersed and often triggered with episodes from his old age.

A child criminal, Noodles finds a friend and partner in Max and they move on to bigger crimes. On growing up they form another gang of Jewish mobsters, earning money off prohibition and robberies. Their friendship is often marred by their ideological differences, which continue to widen. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Noodles played a role in the deaths, something which had been thus far suggested by the miserable look of guilt in old Noodles' face. The story then comes back to the 60's, where Noodles has been called to the town for a last job. As he tries to track the person who is trying to hire him, and to meet his childhood sweetheart, he stumbles upon people and facts that steal his past away.

A widespread interpretation of the movie is that it is an opium dream, a theory triggered by an enigmatic last scene in which Noodles is seen smiling after an opium shot, presumably after he has discovered the deaths of his partners. In the story, through subtle and later direct references Max is shown in a negative color, which is interpreted as Noodles justifying the incident and unburdening himself of the guilt in his dreams. This is definitely an interesting and inviting interpretation, though not the one I had after watching the movie. I think the dream theory would take away some of essence of the movie, and make it less about guilt, betrayals, seduction into crime and more about transference of guilt.

Whatever be the interpretation, the movie is a work of brilliance. If you have the patience to sustain the first half hour, which is confusing and annoying it with its shrill telephone rings, the movie will draw you in for the remaining 3 hour 15 minutes. The background score by Ennio Morricone pulls the movie together, and says more than dialogues. It is this music which expresses Noodles' terrible guilt and then his unspeakable sorrow, and gives the feeling of ethereality, which also could be an inspiration for the dream theory. As I remarked earlier, there is a constant shuffling between times, and each shuffle is seamless and beautiful. Despite its slow pace there is a tension in the movie, which is borne out of a strong plot: the mystery of deaths, the mystery behind Noodles' new assignment, the friendship and rivalry between the two anti-heroes. The slow pace is deliberate, and gives space to art in the surrounding action. The photography is beautiful, especially the scene in the accompanying picture (also used on all film posters) – the old America is artfully created to make an impressive, epic image. Robert De Niro gives a wonderful performance, as does James Woods. Both Max and Noodles are not great men – they are petty criminals with no heroic qualities, people you would like to dislike for their unseemly atrocities – esp against women. It takes a stronger skill to portray such pitiable creatures than to portray heroes or evil villains. Their childhood portrayals are also as powerful and convincing as the adult ones. Everyone else has so much as not performed at all, which is also because none of them get much screen share, apart from Elizabeth McGovern. Despite the length of role given to her, she does a very ordinary task, particularly incomparison to Jennifer Connelly who plays the younger Deborah (Noodles' childhood sweetheart) and looks angelic.

It is intriguing that cinema continues to remain fascinated with and nostalgic about crime. The legend of Robinhood never leaves the stories about gangsters, even when they commit horrendous crimes like rape their girlfriends. The movie and the audience continue to feel for them, to cry over them and experience their desolation with a sense of loss.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Kreutzer Sonata: Penguin Great Love Series

The Penguin Great Love Series, as I have remarked earlier, is a brilliant collection, exploring some famous and intriguing writings on the subject of love. (My previous posts on books from the series can be found here, here and here.) I recently read another work from the collection: the controversial short novel from Tolstoy,The Kreutzer Sonata, which completely denounces the notion of love and much more.
Kreutzer Sonata is very artificially structured - the narrator meets the protagonist on a train, where the protagonist recounts his entire story. It is a story that begins in his youth of debauchery, leading to a ritualistic marriage. The marriage is far from smooth, as the couple alternates between ugly altercations and passionate love-making. They sail through this time with the ritual of child-births, until the wife decides to shift her focus from her children to herself. Her beauty attracts attention from men, among them a musician. Both of them pursue music together, while the husband is inflamed with jealousy. One day, upon finding them together in his house in the middle of the night, he murders his wife in a fit of rage.

On the face of it, it is a story of envy and possessiveness, which is a very common tale. However, more than the plot, what is remarkable about the work is the observations of the husband, Pozdnyshev. He believes that what led to the murder of his wife was not jealousy so much as it was his own physical relationship with her. That it was the destructive forces of sex , which consumed their relationship and her life. These observations are a reflection on Tolstoy's own ideas about chastity and physical intimacy at the time of writing this book, and were widely condemned for obvious reasons.

It is interesting how Tolstoy falsified the whole notion of marriage, holding it no higher than a state and family accepted prostitution. He claimed that an unselfish love does not expect physical gratification, but at the same time he ruled out the possibility of this love in a marriage, as marriages are based on the animal principles of lust. His views are strong - he denounces the physical need for sex as exalted by doctors. He believes that art, which is considered a higher and sacred virtue, is often the breeding ground for this unholy passion. The title of the story is meant to be an allusion to this idea.
The novel, as in the time of publication as now, brings to forefront some relevant questions. It highlights the struggle between superego and id, and it is clear that though Tolstoy is a champion of the former, he is unable to free himself from the latter and is constantly guilty on that account. This is a caricature reflection of the guilt felt everyday, by almost everyone - the desire to follow collective conscious and morality against the compelling greed which detracts from doing so, leading to a constant feeling of remorse. The book also questions the role and perception of women, criticizing their use as property, though in the end, it delivers them exactly that role. However, the criticism is genuine and strongly put across (like most other emotions expressed). Lastly, it also criticizes doctors and their manipulation of individuals and societies by advertising notions like sex is necessary for well-being or that there are specific rules that are critical for bringing up children in a healthy manner. I completely agree with this sentiment - the health industry for its sustenance has made life too managed - mandating several things which perhaps never even entered the minds of previous generations. Most food is off-limits, so is anything which is pleasing to the senses. The frenzy of new parents to give the best to their child is akin to a paranoia, and it is disgusting to hear them go on and on about what they can and cannot do as long as their little chickens have not become independent birds.

After his book met with severe criticism, Tolstoy published an epilogue to the story explaining his views. The views are mostly of a religious color, but are interesting to read.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The edge of Heaven (Faith Akin)

From the director of Head-on, this is another perceptive interplay of lives, emotions, generations and geographies. Threading together lives of six people, Faith Akin has created a beautiful, if a slightly morbid drama of relationships and penance. His characters are drawn together by diverse relations - filial, carnal, romantic and human, each a little strained.

The film is presented in three sections, Death of Yeter, Death of Lotte and the Edge of Heaven. Each of the two deaths is sudden and unexpected, even when you already know the title of the section. At the center of all these stories is Nejat, a second generation Turk in Germany, a professor of German. Nejat's father Ali, one day brings home Yeter, a middle-aged Turkish prostitute, with the intention of living with her. Though disapproving at first, Nejat accepts Yeter - the two form a kind bond which is looked upon suspiciously by Ali. In a fit of anger, Ali hits Yeter which leads to her death.
Nejat flies to Turkey to attend the funeral and sets out to look for Yeter's missing daughter Ayten. On an impulse, he decides to buy a German bookstore in Istanbul, settles there and continues his search. Meanwhile, we meet Ayten, who is involved in an armed rebellion against the government and escapes police to seek refuge in Germany. She meets a fiery, idealistic girl called Lotte, the two embark on a passionate relationship which is frowned upon by Lotte's mother Sussane. Ayten is eventually caught by the police, which leads to series of tragic events. But these events also bring together these unconnected people in an unusual companionship and inter-dependence, which even though highly co-incidental, appears natural and perfectly believable.
The story deals with many things - the alienation between generations is at the center, where each generation explores its independent life that it wants to hide and protect from the other. Each of them is angry at and disapproving of the other. Even a mild mannered Nejat is offended by his father's arrangement and is deeply resentful of the accidental murder committed by him. Susanne tries to restrain Lotte, and aware of the hippy life that Susanne once led, Lotte resents the restraint. Ayten and Yeter are never shown together in one scene (except a crossing once), live in different countries and have no idea of each other.
The movie also explores the relationship between Germany and Turkey, which is based on political correctness and a sense of guilt. Turkey itself is shown distracted with its conflict between its tilt towards tyranny and its desire to be seen as a modern and tolerant nation that is fit to join the EU. However, the slightly angelic message that Akin delivers through his narrative is that we can overcome all these divisions with a little bit of tolerance, forgiving and penance. But with prejudices and reservations, we stay a step away from this victory.
The movie is introspective, in contrast to Head-on which was violent and extreme. The whole contrast is embodied in the differences between Cahit, who was deeply dissatisfied and unhappy , and Nejat who is more or less is at peace with his life, but still feels a vague emptiness. Even Ayten's political discontent is muted in comparison with Sibel's sexual discontent.
On the other finer aspects of the movie, the performances by each character are extremely good. The camera has explored both countries with a familiar intimacy, exposing them in the weight of their ages. The music is beautiful.

Monday, October 13, 2008


After much deliberation, I have finally invested in a digital SLR - a Sony Alpha 300. It seems appropriate for my amateur attempts. Up to this point, I had quite enjoyed my Point and shoot, Sony DSC P100, which has been by my side for four long and faithful years. It has traveled with me to many places and captured many of my memories. But there are a few things which can be best filmed with only a DSLR (the vegetal photography for instance, which has suddenly become my favorite subject).
My P100, unfortunately, is not taking the new arrival very well and has been throwing tantrums. It initially flared into a rage, flickering its screen profusely , and has now restored to a sulky blurred image. Needless to say, these tantrums are causing me much grief as I cannot always carry around the bulk of the garangutan Alpha, and quite miss the compactness and efficiency of my long-standing friend. I hope it comes back to its senses soon - very soon.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Pickup

In Coetzee's Inner Workings, one of the best essays that I have read so far is also about one of my favorite books: The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. Given that they have always remained at loggerheads over the space socio-political issues deserves in literature, it was surprising to see Coetzee speak highly of any of Gordimer's work. It is, as Coetzee puts it, an astonishing work, and Coetzee's observation of it is acute and incisive, especially on the confrontation between philosophical and the rational.
The Pickup has an inward, spiritual dimension absent from July's People. But it has its political thrust too, not only in its exploration of the mind of the economic migrant, or one type of economic migrant, but in its critique and ultimately its dismissal of the false gods of the West, presided over by the god of market capital, to whose mercies Julie's South Africa has abandoned itself so unreservedly and who has extended his sway even into Ibrahim's despised patch of sand.
The Pickup is interesting in that, written in post-apartheid South Africa, it stripped Gordimer of her popular leitmotif of racism and forced her to explore new avenues. So she substituted the clash of races with those of cultures. But in stead of merely replacing the opposing forces, she changed also the nature of the opposition. What Pickup deals with is not inequality, but different equalities, each attracted with the other and unable to understand it. An illegal immigrant from an Arab country meets a young, rich South African girl, and both of them end up in a misunderstood relationship based on their physical attraction to each other. He wants to escape his poverty and his country, she wants to reject her father's wealth, his rationalism and ideals. As the immigrant is sent back to his country by the emigration office, she follows him as a wife, and finds herself mesmerized by the desert and the web of relationship that holds her husband's family together. And even though this family tie is often functionary and automatic, she finds comfort in it and soon makes a place within the household, especially amongst the women.
The novel is neatly divided into two different worlds, the world of the independent modern South African woman amongst her 'Table' (a set of modernist and liberal friends), picking up an Arabic boyfriend, and the world of the Arabic family where she becomes the compliant woman adopting to the social fabric, alienated from a husband who is looking to escape.
It is interesting that both the characters reject their own cultures and are lured by the other. Their relationship mirrors the constant fascination of Oriental with the Occidental and vice versa. They are attracted to each other as they are puzzled with each other. But it is difficult to determine who of them is the Oriental - is it the very practical man from a spiritual family who wants to escape his family history and find the luxuries of a material life? Or the woman who lives in her own apartment, drives her own car, but rejects all of it to embrace the desert in a country whose name was unknown to her all these years? Even gender confuses us, for isn't the male more Occidental than the female in traditional sense? But to contradict are her independence and his connection with his family, his sense of the traditional and her money. It is a question which is relevant to the converging world, because the convergence is being equally played by a divergence - as people travel everywhere, their differences draw them further apart even as they bring them together in the smaller space. There is a little more misunderstanding, and a little more attraction.

Here is a link to Coetzee's essay originally published in the NY Book review.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Last few days in Brisbane, and I am trying to tuck away everything. I really enjoyed my stay here, especially some time being alone and away from the overpowering weight of a routine.
The most beautiful evenings were spent listening to Eddie Vedder, walking on a wharf behind the story bridge. And some more spent with strangers stumbled upon.
I will miss this place.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

No, no, no Mr. Kar Wai. In flirting with Hollywood, please do not forget what you are loved for. We love the mood you create. We love your lights, your fleeting characters who do not speak, the ethereal music. Just because you are in America, please do not give so many words and tasks to your characters. Especially when they are played by actors who understand none of your romance. You have told us before that it is hard to say goodbyes, and you have said it much more beautifully. Please do not repeat it in the form of a common American romantic drama.

Norah Jones has a presence on the screen, but she has no softness which the (as it is weak) screenplay demanded of her. And there was so much focus on a story which was unimpressive to begin with. The only favorable impressions are created by Natalie Portman, who reminded me of the gambler played by Gong Li in 2046.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


What was I thinking?! picking up Autumn of the Patriarch for a tired journey beginning on a Thursday midnight! No, I have not traveled through even 100 pages of it yet, despite having traveled many miles on either side of the equator in a crammed plane seat. It is not a travel companion, but a book to be read when you are in one of your 'streams of consciousness'. Now that I am more awake, I am enjoying it much more.

As I am home for a week, have picked up Sebald's Emigrants where I had left it. Somewhere in the midst of a melancholic tale. It is deeply touching and haunting, as Sebald's writing always is.

My Mumbai break is well-timed, with Landmark just beginning its annual sale - picked up a decent lot - Llosa's War of the end of the world (which got a repeated mention in the comments on my post on Death in the Andes here) and Coetzee's Inner Workings being the highlight purchases. Now all I have to do is read them.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Thomas Vintenberg's Festen has been on my watch list ever since I watched Breaking the Waves and Ubermensch introduced me to the concept of Dogme95. Finally, I found the movie on Quickflix (the DVD rental portal of Australia, which has a reasonably good collection, significantly better than seventymm and bigflix of India when it comes to titles from World cinema). The movie was well worth the hunt, more, in fact. It is one of the most impressive movies I have seen in sometime.
Dogme95 is a film-making movement initially drafted by Thomas Vintenberg and Lars von Trier, in opposition of the Hollywood enchantment with special effects and expensive sets. They drew out a manifesto and took the vow of chastity, resolving to make films as per the rules of the Dogme. Some of the more prominent rules were to shoot on location using a hand-held camera, abandon props, lighting and sets and make the whole movie in present time.

Though von Trier's Breaking the Waves was heavily influenced by the idea behind this manifesto, that movie was not a strictly Dogme movie. Festen was the first movie to follow the movement, though I suppose even this deviated from the rule of giving no directorial credits.
The Dogme rule appear very stringent at first, almost unnecessarily ascetic . It is only on watching the movie that one can appreciate how connected you feel when the peripheral effects and cleverness of filming is removed from the narrative and you can focus on the performances and the story.
Of course, the plot of the film is quite appropriate for a Dogme film and lends itself excellently to filming with a hand-held camera. It is a variation on the much-used theme of a happy family union becoming explosive and ugly. With the slightly awkward and shaky camera shoot, it feels like watching a home video of a birthday party. At some times you feel that you are the ignored guest on the show (like Harry in Dumbledore's pensieve) doing the shooting yourself.
The reunion is slightly tainted from the start, with the recent suicide of a daughter. It gets uglier when the elder son Christian makes a drastic accusation at his father. The fact that the most dramatic moment of the movie is so undramatic is what instantly made the movie so lovable. Hardly anyone in the party reacted at all to the speech. In a minute they went back to their festivities and chatter. Confused with the reaction, I had to replay the scene to make sure I had heard it right.
The movie is about exposing a dysfunctional family, but it also expresses the tenuous connections of families and the dilemma of hating your dear ones. When the film begins, Christian and his father still seem to share an affection despite what Christian knows he is going to say. Throughout the movie, passionate reactions and denials spurt out of the family, to protect their own despite their repugnance. The wife continues to shield her husband with generous claims of love and happiness - it is very hard to understand her stance and as Christian puts it - her hypocrisy is disgusting. But for someone who has accepted an ugly truth, it also seemed like the only way to react - to continue that acceptance.
Christian's character is singularly impressive. His dilemma and discomfort with the confrontation is plainly evident. Ulrich Thomsen is a brilliant actor, and his intensity shines through even the dull print and a simplistic hand-held camera.
I have come across wide criticism of the movie, which is more the criticism for sincerity of the Dogme95. I do think that it is overly dramatic to lay down a manifesto with drastic rules and take a vow of chastity, if all you want to make films without external hogwash. Also, it can be argued that the extensive editing done post-shooting is an artificial step too. However, the manifesto is only background information. There are different ways of making a movie and the technique used in Festen serves its theme and purpose well, making it a very compelling movie.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Head-On (Gegen Die Wand)

Every country bears a lot of weight on everyone who is born to it - all the history, the beliefs, fears, errors, successes and a lot more. When you chose to leave it, you also in a way try to offload all these weights and go out empty-handed to adopt something new with more openness. But no country is a new country. There are people already living there, weighed by the being of their nation. You can shed your weights, but it takes years before you can adopt theirs and become equal. That is the dilemma of emigrants - trying to lose and gain different weights at the same time, and stuck somewhere in between. A dilemma often propounded upon, but not always as well depicted and lived as the characters of Faith Akin's German-Turkish movie Gegen Die Wand.
Both Cahit and Sibel are Turkish emigrants living in Germany. Both of them are unhappy, disoriented and sick of their lives, on which they have given up. They meet in a clinic after making failed suicide attempts, and end up in a convenient marriage on Sibel's crazy insistence as she desperately seeks to move away from the dominance of her family and have an independent 'sexual life' as she puts it.
Both live as roommates, and slowly, even through their random and disjointed lives, a semblance of attachment begins to form between them, until they begin to fall in love. But just then a fit of anger lands Cahit in the prison, and Sibel disowned by her family. She moves to Turkey, and Cahit hangs on in the prison with only the thought of Sibel keeping him alive.
Sibel's disorientation in Turkey is almost complete, and it is such a vivid description of how she is more comfortable in the foreign land than in her own country. Even Cahit, when he finally lands in his country, seems to be so out of place and puzzled in being there. There is a scene when he tries to speak to Sibel's cousin in halted English to explain himself, because neither his German and Turkish appear adequate enough for expressing his emotions. That single scene says a lot about the emigrant's confusion.
What I liked about the movie is that even with many dramatic turns, it is a very non-dramatic film. The listlessness and the slow resurrection of both people is subtle and very natural. They are reticent people, never truly giving in to emotion, but more susceptible to anger and depression. There are some very good scenes - Cahit's Head-on in the beginning of movie being one, the English dialogue another. The last scene too, which reminded me of the last scene of Antonioni's L'eclisse in a way - though of course the latter was far more powerful and poetic. The movie is tied together with powerful acting and little dialogue. I found myself both disgusted and sympathizing with the two people who seem to have come unhinged.
Recently, I was also reading Sebald's Emigrants, which is such a subtly depressing but powerful book (as I have found each of Sebald's works to be so far, because he is an incredible writer), and it takes us through the lives of four emigrants. I have only read two yet, and neither of them are dramatic lives, but each life feels so uprooted and restless and unhappy that you could only imagine them waiting for the end.
Also, read a quote recently which sums it up a bit:
we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth..

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Death in the Andes

Recently I have felt inclined towards reading more Latin American literature – perhaps it is the after effect of reading a book as mesmerizing as Pedro Paramo, but I think I still have to find the right sequel. The Death in the Andes is definitely not one, and after putting it down, I can only feel slightly disappointed and confused more than anything else.

It begins as a mystery – a civil guard trying to find three men who have gone missing in a mining village of Peru. But even from the beginning, the mystery only seems to be in the background, somewhere hovering only in the mind of this guard and ignored by everyone else. Even the guard seems only to be flirting with this mystery, and is more distracted with hearing the love story of his adjutant and commenting on the social fabric of the village. Llosa spends a long time painfully detailing the romantic escapade of the young adjutant, on the other hand he fleetingly flips through many sublets that he opens and closes in the story. There are several characters in the book who hold centerstage for a while, as Llosa explores their thoughts, ideas, stories – but quickly brings them to a violent death at the hands of Sendaristas (the Shining Path Rebels), to return to the love story.

I don't know whether it is a positive of Llosa's work that the political motivation has been completely ignored in the book. The Sendaristas have been glossed over. They appear only to kill or punish or plunder, and remain as unexplained and mysterious as the pishtacos, the mythical vampires. It is almost as if they had no motives or reasons for the violence, and are only fulfilling the purpose of keeping death alive in Andes. Perhaps Llosa is being unjust to the rebels in doing so, or perhaps it is his polite way of rejecting their ideals completely. Once the villainy of the Sendaristas is completely established, they are suddenly dropped, and the ancient Peruvian love for death and sacrifice turns into focus. I suppose Llosa himself continuously experimented with the possibilities and followed them to a certain length till they appealed to him, and then abandoned them once they became stale. In a way, it does lead to some charm to the story, but to me the confusion created is slightly more compelling than this faint charm.

What is good in the book to me is the presence of many characters. It presents a collage of several stories, all leading to wasted lives, and you feel a certain gloom in every page. (Except the love story, which even though the main plot, appeared to me an anomaly in this tale of despair) For that matter, even the love story is sort of doomed, but the adjutant is so juvenile that it is impossible to feel depressed with his love.

I also loved the interplay between past narration and current dialogue. Especially, the civil guard's comments interspersed in the adjutant's story make it very interesting – it is like watching a trash movie with friends – you keep interjecting with comments, and later you can never separate the movie from those evil comments J
For all its failures, the book does succeed in inspiring fear. You see a land seeped in violence, and you can feel that the perpetrator of this violence or the cause is immaterial. From the ancient times, it is a land that has lived and breathed violence and worships spirits that demand death. Perhaps it is too imaginative a notion, but perhaps it is true that you cannot escape your history and continue to pay homage to it.

I did not think that this book was anywhere close to the Llosa that I have read earlier (The Storyteller). That was a very sincerely written tale, one which made you appreciate culture, history, even myths. This one is simply dark narration.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Spanish Cinema

Just getting into it - what better way to begin then to sink into the exceptionally beautiful and poetic Spirit of the beehive. To question the evils of the world through the silent eyes of a very pretty child.

And then watch the very beautiful Penelope Cruz play again the Sophia from Vanilla Sky in Open your eyes. This was certainly a far better version than the English one, though I have to say I had loved the English one a lot as well.

The Wanderers

The theme of a wandering man is central to many of Hamsun's characters, so it is perhaps only fitting that a book comprising of two of his writings be called The Wanderers. The cover contains two inter-twined Hamsun writings: Under the Autumn Star and Wanderer plays on muted strings, the latter a sequel to the first - and is a close but stale reflection of Hamsun's themes and moods, perhaps even a reflection of some of his own experiences
In the former, the wanderer Knut Pedersen leaves behind his city life with the romantic fantasy of leading a simple village life. He begins to do odd jobs on farms, but finds his heart often interfering with his idea of simplicity as he falls in love with the women of the house. His adopted simplicity is not able to lure him into settling down on a farm with one of the maids as his simpleton companion does. Like most of Hamsun's heroes, he hangs in abeyance in a feverish passion, that works to depress and exalt him alternatively, but also always keeps him on his feet. He is the confused man who does not know what he wants - whether it is the affections of one lady or the other, or merely a life in the woods. It is, in a way comical to read of his mild frustrations, because he seems to be oriented towards what he apparently escaped from while escaping the city. It is also comical because these are the confusions of a real person, whose element is inconsistency and not a singular approach to life which seems to be the characteristic of most other protagonists.
In On Muted strings, Pedersen, six years later, returns to one of the farms where he had worked during his earlier wanderings. And if there is a word that can describe the emotion of this narrative, it is the well chosen word in the title - muted. This hero is certainly different from Hamsun's other heroes, he is a quietened, withdrawn soul in contrast to the earlier restless character. There is that lack of the characteristic fervor, although still retaining his element of estrangement and frivolity. He is more a narrator now than the protagonist - as he observes the life of the landowners, which are portrayed in shades of decadence. Though I think he tries to refrain from it, Hamsun does pass his negative reflections on alcoholism and infidelity in his commentary, something that trivializes him a bit in my opinion. Though I do not expect an author to be an unbiased observer, I think he could keep well above the station of passing moral judgements.
I have quoted Hamsun on his view of his characters in an earlier post - I recently chanced upon a more detailed commentary on these characters which I found quite appropriate:

Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike. With most writers, such heroes are mere shadows, or, at best, symbols. But Hamsun is able to portray both the environment and the alienation, the soil and the extirpation. His heroes have roots even though they cannot be seen. The reader never knows precisely how they have become what they are, but their existence is real all the same.
Hamsun’s favourite hero is a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, rash, good-natured, with no plans for the future, always anticipating some happy chance, yet at the same time resigned and melancholy. Hamsun’s hero is frivolous in word and deed. He speaks to people as he would to a dog or to himself.
Perhaps this work does not quite compare to Hunger or Mysteries, and is only a slighted shadow of these, but it is a very good read, describing a real man and his romantic fantasies of a simple village life, and of a lot of other romantic notions. The translation by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass is excellent.

For those interested, the full text of Hamsun's The Wanderers can be found here, though from different translators. The book is also available now on Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Annie Hall

Once I had little patience with Woody Allen - he always seemed to play a self-obsessed neurotic character who just couldn’t stop talking. I suspect that I may have grown out of my short attention spans now – and that is perhaps the reason I am able to appreciate his movies far more. That could be a possible explanation of why I liked Annie Hall where Allen plays another of his neurotic characters. It was a very perceptive, if funny take on relationships and how complicated they are.
The movie is about the relationship between Alvy Singer, an 'anal' Jewish comedian and equally neurotic singer Annie Hall, who go through the usual mess of relationships - issues in bed, levels of commitment, dating blues and finally the problems of fundamental differences which makes them go seperate ways. (Literally). At every point you are wondering why they split up since they do love each other and are quite happy together. But as Allen puts it bluntly:
"I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.
And how often is it true that people are unable to feel safe and nestled in relationships that make them happy. Perhaps we are so insecure about the fading away of that happiness that we would rather see this death earlier than live in a dreaded anticipation for a long time. Is it that fundamentally we believe that we do not deserve true love or happiness? If we dread the end, the end already has landed on us and the relationship cannot really move forward, and thus in a way we bring about the end of our relationships ourselves.

The movie has a lot other things that make it a great film of wit - flashbacks in Bergman style, Alvy often speaking to the camera directly, Annie's spirit rising from the bed - everything that make it worthwhile to watch. But its brilliance is in its recongnition of the fundamental truth of the above lines.

Friday, July 25, 2008


It is almost a week since I have been living in this city. It is a pretty city, and it helps that I am living in the downtown, in a nice hotel-apartment on 30th floor where I can look down at the city glittering in its lights. There are a few libraries, theatres and performing arts centers around, which I have yet to explore. Sometimes, especially when you are alone, there are wide swings between extreme determination to get out of doors and a complete laziness to even move an inch. I think I am more in the latter stage, and I hope to move out of it soon. May be the International Film Festival beginning on 31st will help.
To stay alone in a new city is an experience - a feeling of isolation and longing interspersed with an excitement of independence. I don't know if I love it, but it is definitely worth going through once in a while. If only I did not have someone to miss at home :(

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Going to be in Brisbane for next three months - not sure if I will have get a net connection there during off-work hours. So might just not spend enough time here :(

Friday, July 11, 2008

Secrets & Lies

In the last few days, have spent a lot of time watching movies - on my TV screen, on the laptop, and even smaller versions - on the minuscule video screens in the flights. Some of them have been quite rewarding - most specifically Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies. It was almost a delight to watch, not in the least for its happy ending, which amidst a score of tragic tales of most good cinema seemed like a welcome breeze. It is the story of a working class white woman (Cynthia), who has an illegitimate daughter . However, in a few clouded conversations between her brother Maurice and his wife, we learn that somewhere there was another illegitimate child who was given up for adoption even before Cynthia could see the newborn. (In fact, most of what we learn of the movie is through these clouded conversations between different people) . Parallely, we also see a black young optometrist (Hortense) trying to find out about her real parents.

When the two woman finally meet as Hortense tracks down her mother, is the most powerful and well-played out scene in the movie. Cynthia is surprised at seeing a black woman and is convinced that there is something wrong with the records, but the slow sinking in of reality is so momentous - with horror, excitement, affection and a terrible despair, all emotions rushing
in with force and awkwardness.

There are so many secrets in the movie - everyone is terrified of opening up and baring themselves, as if there will be an explosion if they do so. With all these secrets, there is a terrible restraint in all relationships, which stay coldly cordial on the surface, and you can perceive the constant stretching, until everything explodes at a family gathering.

Almost everything was right with the movie - the strong characters and actors who adopted those characters with an entirety, the build-up of the tension, specially at the family reunion, the subtlety of every scene and the helplessness of Maurice, who is stretched with all these secrets between his love for his wife and his sister's family.The scenes of his photo shoots, where he works hard to create illusions and hide the secrets between families with his happy pictures, are a metaphoric summarizing of what he also does in his personal life. On the other hand is Hortense, who, as an optometrist, wants to see things clearly, without any haziness. With her composure and sophistication, she is a contrast to the entire family, who spend the majority of their lives in a state of high emotional tension.

I remember that a long time ago I saw a french movie on a similar theme, where an unspoken secret keeps a family apart for years, until at a funeral the daughters succumb to the tension and speak out. It was a brilliant movie and equally well done. I am breaking my head over trying to find the name - without success so far. Anyone?

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Radetzky March

I have spent the last few days amongst ghosts. The more literal (and talkative) ghosts of Juan Rulfo's magnificent work Pedro Paramo, the haunting ones of Sebald's Emigrants (which I am still reading), and if these were not enough, the ghost of an entire empire speaking through the sombre voice of Joseph Roth in The Radetzky March.
I tried and tried to find the Michel Hoffman translation of this illustrious work, but found only the version translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Before reading, I had read enough about the superior quality of the former, and the wanting standards of latter. May be I do not have the ability to judge translations, but I was quite moved by the version I read. It was masterful story-telling, which was neither dense nor complicated, but a simple narration about an empire which suddenly found itself hung between changing times.

The novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where Roth had served in the army, and which he was quite nostalgic about for all his life. However, in stead of directly outlining the decline of this empire, in a creative stroke, Roth exchanged the empire with the Von Trotta family and described the empire's fate only in so much as it affected the fate of this family. The novel moves through three generations of the family, and each von Trotta is in many ways a constrained man. The largest part of the story revolves around the youngest generation, Carl Joseph Von Trotta, who is a very weak man, forever caught between the lure of duty (as chracterized by the playing of the Radetzky March) and his lack of conviction towards any ideas. He often considers leaving the army, but does not have the motivation to look for a civilian job, and hangs around in anticipation.

In fact, the entire novel is about anticipation. The empire is on a verge of change, and therefore in the chaotic stage where the old order is not respected enough and a new order is not formed yet. This abatement is very beautifully played out by Roth, may be because he felt this abeyance throughout his life after his exile from Austria.

There is so much in the book that makes it a superior work. There is the experience of an empire felt through personal pain, there is a presence of many powerful characters (Dr. Demant the best of them, whose death makes the meaninglessness of times even more pronounced), there is the haunting and helpess presence of the Kaiser in every place, there is a conflict of generations and those of thoughts, there is love, and honour and most underlined - there is death. Mostly meaningless and unheroic, which is not a mean achievement in an epic novel. For isn't every death in a novel about an empire supposed to be a death of honor and valor? And the fact there is no explanation for the decayence of the empire, except the expression of the widespread bias in minor incidents- against Jews, Slavs, Hungarians and everyone else.

Reading this novel, at many points I had a sense of deja-vu, for at those places it reminded me very closely of Zweig's Beware of Pity. Both Zweig's hero and Carl find themselves in the Austrian army, amidst similar kinsman who often dwell in rumours and squander hours in a pub. Both heroes find themselves implicated in matters of honor, which forces them to chose transfers. And both go to war without heroism. I wonder if the similar fate of the two is responsible for such a strong parallel, or if one's text influenced the other in some way. But that is beside the point, for the emotions each expresses is so difficult that they can never be confused for the other.

I loved the book. It is after all individuals who experience wars, crumbling empires and changing times. The empire simply crumbles without experiencing any emotion. I wonder why such a simple idea occurred to only this relatively obscure writer?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why haven't you written?

Ever since I read 'The Pickup', I have been an ardent fan of the South African Nobel laureate author Nadine Gordimer. She has the uncanny ability to portray the misgivings of mind and emotion, to draw many dilemmas and make them seem most natural.
Sometime back when her latest collection of short stories was released (Beethoven was one-sixteenth black), New york times published a review, comparing the collection to one of her earlier stories, Why haven't you written, and it was since then that I had been on a lookout for this earlier collection, as I found the idea behind the story so powerful.

Finally, after a few month's search, I have managed to get a very good second-hand copy of the book - it seems it is already out of print as I was unable to find a fresh copy even on Amazon.
The collection is a gem. I have read only about 4-5 stories yet, but they have been very impressive. Unlike the typical short story there is no build-up to the 'element of surprise' here but a simplistic narration of an individual's adjustments with personal and social demands.

In reality, the book is a compilation of stories from her earlier works - Soft voice of the serpent (a review here) and Livingstone's Companion (which seems to have been largely ignored by the reviewers' circle). All the stories are set in South Africa, and convey its various moods; of neglect, decay, liberalism, materialism and alienation.
I particularly loved the title storyWhy haven't you written, where an engineer who regularly travels on work falls in love with another woman on these travels, and in a drunken reverie writes a letter to his wife telling her about the affair.
Because so long as I accept that you are a good wife, how can I find the guts to do it? I can go on being the same thing - your opposite number, the good husband, hoping for a better position and more money for us all, coming on these bloody dreary trips every winter. But it's through subjecting myself to all this, putting up with what we think of as these partings for the sake of my work, that I have come to understand that they are not partings at all. They are nothing like partings. Do you undertand?
There is so much tentativeness in these words - a longing to have something more passionate than the decorative marriage, and yet a guilt of infidelity to a good wife. Through his return, he regrets the letter, and since there is a snow blizard and a postal strike, he is not sure if the letter has reached his wife. Back at home, he obviously wants to leave things as they are without stirring a storm in his life, and is constantly worried about the arrival of this letter. His dilemma has been well captured in words, with a startling intensity.

From the soft voice of the serpent, I quite liked the two stories: Talisman and The Defeated so far. The former is another variation on the theme of infidelity, where a bored wife starts an affair with an ex boyfriend, walking on the 'tightrope' between the security of the marital and the excitement of the extra-marital, without lending a thought to possible consequences. The latter is a story about an immigrant family, who struggle to give a better life to their daughter. The story describes their colorful and difficult life and gradually a distancing from the daughter who finds comfort in more material pursuits.
Looking forward to devour the rest of it.
A little more details on Gordimer as a short story writer here.

Monday, June 23, 2008


At the end, originally uploaded by Shifting sands.

Had intended this weekend to be a reading and movies weekend after a long time, since next weekend will be again wasted in flying to Sydney.
However, it ended up being a weekend of traveling. Not that I am complaining. The drive to Murud was one of the best I have had in a long time, as a considerable stretch runs along a beautiful and virgin sea.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nabokov's love

After a long time, I have come back to reading Nabokov. I had read him long ago with his Lolita, which I found to be a shocking work expressed beautifully. However, even with that impression, sometime it is easy to forget that Nabokov has written anything other than his ubiquitous Lolita. It is only when you begin to read his other works, the grave folly of this assumption is illuminated.

In this return to Nabokov, quite by accident, I picked up an interesting assortment which is strongly inter-connected, with the themes merging into each other. I picked up first a short story collection from Penguin pocket series - Cloud, castle, lake and then after a short break simultaneously started reading Mary, which was his first work, and Speak, Memory, his autobiography.
Cloud castle lake has a handful of stories, but the best I liked amongst them was the Admiralty Spire, which is all about keeping the past alive in fiction, something Nabokov perhaps did in his many works. Even though in this story he seems to criticize the fictionalization of memories, he is himself guilty of this crime, as I discovered from the three readings. In the story, an anonymous reader writes a letter to the author of a romantic book, accusing the author of kidnapping and distorting the memories of his first love. He then describes his version of the affair. What is interesting is, within a few days of each other, I read the same version of the romantic interlude being described thrice - first in this story, then in Mary, and then again in Speak Memory when Nabokov actually describes his first love affair with a girl called Tamara. It is the same meeting in the country side, days of happiness, the sudden distancing that falls on them in Petersburg and then the ache of separation after a physical distance is super-imposed on the emotional one.

Mary, his first work, was clearly meant to re-live his beautiful memories of Tamara, and lend an outlet to his romanticized impressions of the affair that haunted Nabokov long after he separated from her. What it also expressed in this delicious work is how memories are sometimes far more satisfying than actual meetings or love affairs. For Nabokov, separation from Tamara almost coincided with his departure from his homeland, and thus an ache for one corresponded with the ache for the other forming a beautiful and irresistible mixture.

Speak Memory is an exceptional autobiography laced with many sentiments. Here you meet a rather emotional Nabokov, trying to hold precious pieces of memory like moments with his mother and the childhood of his son, not to mention the memories of his beloved Russian home. And of course Tamara.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Confused: Breaking the Waves

It is confounding to feel touched by and be utterly disgusted with the same person. Perhaps so much innocence is bound to be abominable. It is also confusing to watch a movie which resounds with a surreal beauty and horrifies with its bleakness. The only thing which seemed to make any non-confusing sense was Bess' choice of a personal God over the horrors of some sadistic, un-ringing church.
I think I loved the movie, apart from being completely revolted by it.

Monday, June 02, 2008

On Writing

It would be such an extraordinary help to me if I were lucky enough to find a suitable winding up for this little essay. I had stuck just at a rather difficult point in it, where there ought to be a quite imperceptible transition to something fresh, then a subdued gliding finale, a prolonged murmur, ending at last in a climax as bold and as startling as a shot, or the sound of a mountain avalanche--full stop
-Knut Hamsun (in Hunger)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Beware of Pity

After reading Zweig's 'Beware of Pity' recently, I came upon a less than generous review of the story in Time's:
...one of those puddle-depth stories that, draining themselves with a sort of literary eye dropper, pretend to contain oceans of ideas. The tedious technique might seem justified if it conveyed vivid people, or even lively situations. Beware of Pity conveys only one droplet of an idea (there are two kinds of pity: good & bad) diluted in gallons of plot.
Though the review was being written for the movie, it is clearly meant for the story itself. I personally thought the review rather unjust. Though there were times when I thought the author was purposely leading us to believe that there was far more severity to the situation than there actually was, and was over-analyzing/dramatizing the sequence of events, I found it remarkable for its very thorough analysis of 'pity' and detailing of mind's working when faced with moral choices. By chewing repeatedly the same idea, Zweig has been successful in presenting a complete psycho-analytic case. Which,perhaps, is what he intended, as he apparently 'saw himself as a kind of Freud of fiction'. I also think it is an unreasonable demand to expect an ocean of ideas from every good piece of literature - a good piece of literature can also choose to present one idea completely and thoroughly, and that sometimes has greater merit.

The story, in short is about a young second lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, who after spending most of his life in the military, is rather immature and clumsy in his social behavior. Invited at a landowner's place once for dinner, he asks his daughter for dance, to which she violently reacts as she is a cripple and unable to stand on her feet. Ashamed with his insensitive behavior, Anton tries to atone for it with a friendly visit,and before he knows, is thoroughly engulfed in a vortex of sympathy which finds him spending every day with this girl.

There were a few features in the story which were very remarkable - one of them is a scene where Hofmiller is enjoying a lofty ride on his horse, galloping swiftly, when suddenly reminded of the girl, feels guilty for this speed and his joy at horse-riding, and recedes to a slow halt. What is so remarkable is not just the description of the scene, which is very visual, but also the germination of the idea of pity and commiseration, which marks the rest of the book.
At many places, Anton alludes to an Arabian story where a young man takes pity on a flailing old man and puts him on his shoulders. The old man turns out to be a djinn who clutches the man's shoulders in a vice-like grip, refusing to be dislodged. This analogy of pity with a djinn is often repeated and serves quite well to describe the author's suffocation.

I have not read Zweig before, and this is one of his most illustrious works (apparently the only novel that he wrote and published in his lifetime). I would like to read his Chess Story and also The Post-Office Girl. There is a nice article on the latter (and also on Zweig's writing in general) in Nation.
BTW, I am quite intrigued with the parallel between the lives of Zweig and Joseph Roth.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Persepolis: I rarely find good movies on flights, but found this one on the Thai airlines in-flight entertainment system quite accidentally. It is an autobiographical, French animation movie. Written by Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran during the period of Islamic revolution, it is a story of these years and of her later life in Vienna. Adapted from Satrapi's graphic novel, it is a very simple animation, and quite adorable. Without getting sentimental, it explores the life around the little girl and captures her growing up pretty well with her small rebellions against the fundamentalist rule.

Monday, May 19, 2008


I will make my character laugh where sensible people think he ought to cry.
And why? Because my hero is no character, no 'type,' ... but a complex, modern being.
- Knut Hamsun

I don't know whether Hamsun spoke these words to describe the character of Nagel in his work Mysteries, but I can say that in Nagel, he was successful in what he intended to carry out. Even though he does not want to call his hero a character, I found the (anti?)protagonist of Mysteries to be a remarkable character - for his inconsistencies and realities.

In this novel, a stranger (Nagel) lands in an idyllic, 'simple' coastal town of Norway, for no particular reason. In his unexplained, eccentric existence, he throws the apparently well-formed community into a commotion, bringing out the subtle evil and in-equations amongst the people. Throughout the story, everyone tries to unravel the mysteries behind this stranger - the town, the reader and most of all Nagel himself, who seems to be as puzzled by his actions as others are. Very appropriately, even the writer seems to explore the mystery for a while, and then leaves it unfinished.

I found Mysteries to be a novel of the subconscious. Very often, Nagel seems to act on instincts, which, if he explores, turn out to be conscious logical behavior choices. There are many dreams and memories that seem to guide him, and in each he (and the reader) tries to find a symbol. Although, Nagel's behavior could also be inspired by a very acute level of consciousness (as he suggests a few times), where he is able to predict the impact of his behavior on other people. In this calculation of moves, he appears to me very similar to the Johannes of Seducer's Diary, though Johannes was far more consistent with his premeditation than Nagel. In this, he is much closer to a 'normal' modern man, who is sometimes calculative, manipulative, sometimes moved to humanitarian acts and sometimes just plain silly and argumentative. It is quite remarkable that Hamsun is able to draw out these lapses into the subconscious, and so fluidly merge them into the conscious.
Apart from the symbols that drive Nagel, he himself is a symbol of modernism, as he breaks from the norms of a collective conscience and chooses personal and individual confusion. This choice may be the force that thwarts the town's order and poses a question to its apparent stability. He opposes all established beliefs, even though he may not have a very sound logical standing in negating them. He seems to uphold inconsistency, unpredictability, and risk, and is therefore dangerous to the limited town.
There is a lot that I feel like saying about this work, which I found remarkably enthralling, but I don't think I am much refined to put them down as a long essay - perhaps I will link those thoughts through in bits on the blog later. For now - I will stop at: I loved Nagel. And Hamsun. I will read more from this writer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


What is this strange madness, Petrarch asked of his young secretary, this mania for sleeping each night in a different bed?
What am I doing here? (Rimbaud writing home from Ethiopia)
Somehow, with Chatwin's Songlines in my hands, this trip to Australia does not seem that abortive. Even though, the Australia that I am seeing is poles apart from the one he has written about - the distance runs in centuries, perhaps even worlds apart. I cannot reconcile the two images as I walk the street. But flying over this land, which is such a large desert, I thought I actually saw those songlines on the ground below.

The quotes above are from the chapter "From the Notebooks" - lovely chapter. And a wonderful book, that I will place far above his 'In Patagonia'

Somewhere in the book there is a dialog (here being Australia):
"Pity we didn't get here first"
"We, the Russians?"
"Not only Russians", he shook his head, "Slavs, Hungarians, Germans even. Any people who could cope with wide horizons. Too much of this country went to islanders. They never understood it. They're afraid of space."
Perhaps that is why everyone has huddled themselves in a few pockets and the land stands on its own. Awkward with its expanse?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Diary of a Seducer

The Seducer's Diary is another book from the Great Love series by Penguin which I mentioned in an earlier post. After reading this, my enthusiasm for the series has increased even more and I have managed to find and order a few more titles, which now happily adorn my shelf.

Seducer's Diary is primarily a philosophical work from Soren Kierkegaard: a 19th century Danish philosopher, and one of the earlier enthusiasts of Existentialism. It is part of one of his most illustrative works Either/Or, which I hope to read sometime. In Either/Or, with a few fictional pseudonyms, Kierkegaard argues for both the aesthetic (Either) and ethical (Or) aspects of life. It is in the Either or the aesthetic part that Seducer's Diary finds its place.
In itself, the Seducer's Diary is a complete book, even though it gives a unidirectional perspective, as different from the balanced perspective that Kierkegaard intended with the complete book . It seductively indulges in aesthetics, in the joy and happiness of being in love.

Written as part of diary entries of Johannes, the seducer, recounting his deliberate planning and plotting in the pursuit of a girl Cordelia, the book takes us through the meticulous thought process of Johannes. His remarkable consciousness of Cordelia's mind and thoughts is evident in the reading of each entry. He plays on her subconscious, remaining on the periphery, gaining her confidence from this periphery and giving her a false sense of power over himself. As she gets drawn to him, he then introduces an aloofness, feigning distance and indicating a fading of this power, which makes her confused and anxious, and she tries eagerly to bridge this distance and resume power again.

The game seems simple enough. Certainly there are in this world many a men and women playing similar games in a less conscious form. However the consciousness of it is the most impressive part of the work, not to say mildly shocking.

There are some biographical allusions to this work, especially pointed out by John Updike in his introduction to this work (Incidentally, my edition did not have this introduction but I read parts of it in the google preview of this book). Kierkegaard himself broke up his engagement with a young girl (Regine Olson) whom he had coveted for a long time. He remained unmarried, and this work is seen as his confession, his version of the entire episode. Perhaps it could be so. But if it is remorse, there is little of it that is seen in this work, which remains a delicious, arrogant recounting of a laborious victory.

I loved this work, mainly for Kierkegaard's articulate expression of Johannes thoughts on love. There is also some truth in his words which is perhaps felt universally - most people rush to conquer and get engaged in love and they don't know what they have conquered. It is in the drawn out months before a confession or engagement is made, the months of pursuit that are more aesthetic. Hence it is the melodrama of pursuit and mischances that play out the centrestage in most movies, while the 'they lived happily ever after' is always the small inconsequential part which no one is interested in - the part at which people get up and leave.

A beautiful work. I may have idolized Johannes, were it not for his misogyny and nauseating views on women!

Thursday, May 08, 2008


It is almost impossible to disentangle one-self from memories. It always begins at 'In the old times...' and forever, one just keeps hanging around near the past. It does not matter then whether the past was beautiful or sad, or whether we even had something there. It is a mad affinity, which just keeps you looking over the shoulder, dawdling, not wanting to go on. It is almost painful to disengage from this fantasy, and leave, to carry on with a life which will look beautiful only tomorrow, but is only a barren land today.

On watching the last part of this trilogy by Wong Kar Wai, I am simply overwhelmed. Whatever it was that had touched me in 'In the mood for love', was played out even more supremely in this sequel. Throughout watching of it, I felt such a deep sense of melancholy and tragedy, that it almost left me feeling yearning for a tragedy of my own. I felt a strong inclination to dabble a bit more in the recess of the mind - to indulge, so to say, in memories.

2046 begins where In the mood... left off. But the Chow of 2046 is so different from the Chow of the earlier film. He is only a shadow of himself, a shadow which is almost unrecognizable. Gone is the innocent charm, replaced by the shrewd look of a worldly man. I have heard some people say that it is not necessary to watch the earlier movie to appreciate this one. But I don't think I can imagine the movie playing out without the context of the other. It is only because I knew how deeply he was affected by his love in the prequel, that I can appreciate how estranged he now is, and how desperately he seeks to recapture the memories. By being around women who carry parts of his lady-love Su, but always failing to capture her or being satisfied with these parts. He continues to dwell in the memories, which he metaphorically calls 2046. It was in this hotel room number that he had secretly met Su in the earlier movie, and perhaps spent his happiest moments.

I did not mean to sound sentimental - I am at most moments far removed from this weakness. I think I should blame it on the expert technique of Wong Kar Wai - who took 4 years to create this splendid mood, and perhaps those years worked on me. There is something infinitely romantic about the love that fails and then wanders aimlessly. Infinitely romantic if it is given to the haunting music and red hues and empty eyes.

I also loved the science fiction angle of the movie. He used uncomplicated, obvious metaphors for which you do not have to go hunting to crack the code, and that's why they were even more appealing and striking.

But meeting love out of time and place, which is supposed to the tragedy of Chow: this is a tragedy of his own making. In each of his loves, time is not against him, and does little more than offer a little resistance. For the sake of the movie's potery, however, he choses melancholy, and that is all very well :-)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


The Paper cuts blog from NY Times talks about a Panel discussion on the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. I have read only one book from Bernhard and was immediately struck by the geriatric leanings that Dale Peck mentions in the discussion. I loved the passage quoted by him from Concrete:
Even early in my life there were times when I had no one - I at least knew that I had no one, though others were always asserting that I did have someone. They said, You do have someone, whereas I knew for certain that I not only had no one, but - what was perhaps the crucial and most annihilating thought - needed no one. I imagined I needed no one, and this is what I still imagine to this day. I needed no one, and so I had no one. But naturally we do need someone, otherwise we inevitably become what I have become: tiresome, unbearable, sick - impossible, in the profoundest sense of the word. I always believed that I could get on with my intellectual work if only I were completely alone, with no one else around. This proved to be mistaken, but it is equally mistaken to say that we actually need someone. We need someone for our work, and we also need no one. Sometimes we need someone, sometimes no one, and sometimes we need someone and no one. In the last few days I have once more become aware of this totally absurd fact: we never know at any time whether we need someone or no one, or whether we need someone and at the same time no one, and because we never ever know what we really need we are unhappy, and hence unable to start on our intellectual work when we wish and when it seems right.