Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Last Samurai - Week 2

The Last Samurai is one book, which, even without clearly knowing what post-modernism is, I can call post-modern with some conviction. It has so many stylistic elements that could have never been found in traditional literature. The perspective changes in the middle of the book, there are many stories and anecdotes in the book, and Kurosawa's Seven Samurai always keeps holding the background.
The book is going through many things, primary amongst them is a young woman's attempt to bring up a child alone, while still trying to earn her living in a foreign country. She has no idea of the best practices of bringing up a child, and neither the time nor inclination to consult anyone on the topic. Sometimes her methods are atrocious - like taking her child to an art gallery to spend the entire day (because the house is too cold), or shuttling all day on the train line. The child hardly meets any other kids, and spends most of his time reading.
The various other things happening in the book include a lesson on Greek language, a primer on Japanese, pieces of the script of Seven Samurai, the story of Sanshiro Sugata, a story of blocked geniuses, and various other snippets on music and linguistics. It seems like a mosaic painting, and though the pieces look brilliant, sometimes, it takes a while to appreciate how they fit together. In Dewitt's book, it seems so far that the pattern is 'genius', but that does not necessarily fit everything. The stylistic nature also feels a little irritating sometimes, because it is done purely for effect - like sentences left mid-way and erratic grammar, which are disconcerting, and do not quite blend. Nevertheless, there is no boring moment in the book, except may be page 54.
The book has become a little more interesting ever since the son has begun to take longer parts of the narration. This is when his curiosity about his father begins to form a prominent theme of the book. I wonder if the curiosity about one's father is really so strong in a child, especially if he has had no interaction with other kids. Much is made out of this curiosity in many books and movies - and it seems as overdone as the eccentricity of dysfunctional families. Nonetheless, an Odyssey is always a good story...
To appreciate the references to the movie, I have begun watching The Seven Samurai. A great movie so far, but not one that I will be able to finish in one sitting because it is 3.5 hours long - something I am unable to fit in the current schedule.

The Middle Passage

Naipaul's Middle Passage begins with the description of his ship journey to his birthplace- Trinidad. This was probably the first travelogue that Naipaul wrote, and perhaps that's why the book is written in the way of a typical travel account - a journey starts and then gets to the destination. Funny incidents, people, anecdotes line it along.
The description of the ship journey is mildly tedious. There are many people on the ship who appear boring. What is interesting is the ship on which he is traveling - an immigrant ship Francisco Bobadilla (named after, I learned, a Spanish administrator who was Columbus' successor as the Governor of Indies and had been responsible for Columbus being sent back to Spain on charges of mis-management) , which carries immigrants from West Indies and takes them to UK. A few interesting moments of this journey occur when the immigrants come on-board - the reaction of the remaining passengers is that of superiority and disgust - at best of passivity and feigned disinterest. The holiday is over. Wild cows are here.
I have started enjoying the book after Naipaul's observations on the West Indian culture begin taking shape. The very first appear on the dilemma of West Indian historian:
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt? Shall he be as academic as Sir Alan Burns, protesting from time to time at some brutality, and setting West Indian brutality in the context of European brutality….Shall he, like the West Indian historians, who can only now begin to face their history, be icily detached and tell the story of the slave trade as if it were just another aspect of mercantilism? The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.
I am now in the pages where Naipaul is roaming around the streets of Trinidad, trying to come to terms with returning to a place which he apparently always saw as a prison while growing up. He still resents its limits, the 'second-rate' nature of everything - from radio to cinema to journalism. More than a travelogue, it seems like the grudges of a childhood finding a lovely articulate voice, and a space to vent those grudges.
Posted at Project Dogeared - a site for sharing thoughts on books while you are going through the reading process - much different from a post-read review.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Last Samurai @ Conversational Reading

At Conversational Reading, a rather interesting blog on World Literature, a second book read is happening. Their last book read was Javier Marias' famous trilogy'Your Face Tomorrow' - and it was this book read that prompted me to pick up the book myself.
The current read is an interesting book by an American Author Helen Dewitt, called The Last Samurai. The book is about a single mother, bringing up a child prodigy. Her methods of bringing him up are unique - to provide male role models for the fatherless child, she uses Akiro Kurosawa's Seven Samaurais. For keeping him occupied she asks him to mark words from different languages.
In the first few pages that I have read so far, it looks like a very interesting read - tied with anecdotes and references, which is lately becoming a popular trend in the books I have been reading.
It is a book a little hard to lay hands on in the Indian book-store, but since Conversational Reading gave enough notice, I ordered a copy from Flipkart.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Between the devil and the deep Blue Sea

Sebald's On Natural History of Destruction is a collection of essays on German literature and its handling of World War II incidents. The four essays in this book are:
  • Air War and Literature, based on lectures given in Zürich in 1997
  • Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch
  • Against the Irreversible: On Jean Améry
  • The Renorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Works of Peter Weiss
As mentioned above, the second essay, Between the devil and the deep blue sea is Sebald's criticism of the mildly celebrated German author Alfred Andersch's work. Even reading the epigraph gives an idea of what Sebald is going to say in the essay. It quotes a line from the cover of one of Andersch's books where he is called a great German writer. Below the quote Sebald mentions that the words were written by Andersch himself.
So from the very onset, Seblad seems to be annoyed with Andersch's sense of self-importance. His entire essay points out examples from Andersch's work where he has twisted events and his memory of it to bring out a rather large self-image. Certainly from Sebald's examples, Andersch seems to stand in a poor light. In his personal life, Andersch abandoned a Jewish wife right before holocaust reached its nadir thus compromising her security, he indulged in petty ego clashes with critics, and he spent three months in a concentration camp himself. Andersch's work has dealt with many events in his life, but in neither has Andersch been honest, according to Sebald.
It is an interesting essay, particularly his criticism of the work Efrain makes me almost want to read Andersch. So far I have heard Andersch's name only in the context of 'internal-emigration' - a term which I found delightful to hear. Sebald's essay, however, takes away the enigma from this emigration and reduces it into an abeyance, an inertia to make the move.
I am a little surprised at classification of this essay as literary criticism - it focuses more on Andersch's personal life and failings - his desertion in Italy and the divorce to his wife, his inability to take criticism. In comparison it speaks little of the literary quality of his work.
In the first essay of the book, Air, war and literature, Sebald has criticized German authors for maintaining silence on the bombing and complete destruction of the German cities in the last phase of World War II. Sebald's demands from literature have been stringent in that essay, and that comes out in this essay as well. As in the previous essay, Sebald does not like Andersch taking a literary license to 'fictionalize' his accounts. In demanding a complete narration, Sebald seems to be very rigid, and arguably takes a restricted view of literature.
Surprisingly, this book is very Un-Sebaldian when it comes to its use of images. The book has very few images, and the lacuna is striking - especially when even in the description of Weiss' paintings in the last essay Sebald keeps the pictures conspicuously absent. This could be a reason why I thought this work was less evocative than his other works, but I think Sebald's rigid view of literature and its roles also had a significant part to play in my reaction to the work.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In both its parts that I have read till now, Your Face Tomorrow is a fascinating read. Each of these books are almost housed in single nights and in the disturbing, absorbing events of those nights. You are drawn to the mystery of the nature of Deza's work, but the plot is least of the writer's (and possibly the reader's) concerns. Those single nights are described slowly, thoroughly, painstakingly. (5 minutes described in 90 pages)It is more a journey into Deza's mind - how a drop of blood connects to another,how a hit against the walls takes him back to years before he was born, to the experiences of his father.

What I find so remarkable is Marias' grasp on the whole. The connection between events, and even the two parts of the book is seamless. He does not mention something and forget about it as he moves to the next story. He may be wandering to different places in his narrative, but he comes back - making even those wanderings focused.

Of course there were moments when his digressions test your patience. At least mine was tested a few times during the book when it simply refused to move forward, circling in the same ridiculous events, in the ugliness of Rafita or the vanity of Mrs. Manoia. During those times, carrying on seemed difficult, but that passed.

This second book is much darker than the first, and thus also more riveting. There are many teasers - Perez Nuix's request and what it means, the possibility of Rafita's death, and it all makes the thought of the next book more delightful.