Reading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university...moreReading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university. I lived with several other foreign students from Asia in an off campus apartment, and by the end of my first semester, we found ourselves a nucleus for a small circle of variously hyphenated Asian Americans. Perhaps some of them were simply drawn to people who look like them, regardless of the differences in our backgrounds --- we were Indonesian, Cambodian, South Korean, Vietnamese and Hong Kong Chinese --- people who wouldn't have been drawn to each other had we lived in our native continent. Soon, we began to perceive that each of our new friends had some sort of identity issue going on. I wouldn’t call it a crisis, since some of them seemed to breeze through it with little difficulty. But for others, especially our Cambodian-American friend --- let’s call her Nina --- it was particularly acute. Too little to remember much of her homeland when she left it, Nina felt that she was constantly torn between the culture of her non-English speaking mother and the country that gave her family asylum and a chance at a new life. Her brother was a juvenile delinquent, something that she tellingly attributed to “cultural confusion”. In contrast, she did well for herself, attending an Ivy League college on full scholarship. Her English was flawless, and she dated a white all-American guy --- yet somehow she always felt out of tune. Nina was neither fish nor fowl, and she was painfully aware of it. She confessed that she liked hanging around us because she desperately wanted to understand Asian culture; to hear the language spoken, to eat the food, to feel the humid monsoon --- all without leaving the safety of her adopted American home. We sensed that she was somewhat fragile, and that much of this fragility came from the dual identity that she bore.
Of course, this is the classic immigrant’s theme, one that has been played out over and over again in American fiction, of which The Namesake is a worthy addition. I would not say that there is anything new or profound in the story, which is actually quite predictable, but Lahiri tells it in such a fluid, elegant prose that one can’t help to read well into the wee hours, absorbed in the meticulously observed, if occasionally repetitive, details of the various characters’ lives. She might not have reached the heights attained by the classic Russian novels that are often referred to in the novel, but she wrote with a clear-eyed yet compassionate insight, and the end result is both emotionally resonant and genuinely moving.
One star deducted for the saggy middle when the titular character began to engage in pointless, dead-end romances that seem to revolve around dinner parties in which the entire catalogue of Dean and Deluca gourmet delicacies are conspicuously consumed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to highlight the contrast between Gogol’s humble immigrant roots and the profligate habits of posh, sophisticated New Yorkers, but even fancy oysters and artisan cheeses get old after a while. (less)
This story has all the ingredients that should make it wonderful : Akbar, one of the most intriguing of Mughal emperors and his mysterious Fatehpur Si...moreThis story has all the ingredients that should make it wonderful : Akbar, one of the most intriguing of Mughal emperors and his mysterious Fatehpur Sikri, Renaissance Florence in all its colorful glory under the Medicis, Machiavelli, Jannisarries, grim Ottoman sultans, epic battles, and even a murder or two. But somehow all these elements fail to gel into a cohesive story. The exotic locales and historical figures are ably rendered in lush, sometimes breathless prose, but they lack character that make us care for them. They are little more than richly caparisoned puppets that mechanically move through the narrative, symbolic articulators of the author's ideas, but of little substance themselves. Which is a pity, since the themes explored --- the power of travel and the imagination, truth and deception, East and West, religious tolerance --- are inherently compelling.
The other thing that strikes me is the treatment of the female characters; they are either whores, concubines or wives, but virtually all of them are defined in terms of their sexual desirability to the men. Even Qara Koz, the titular Enchantress who is described as the most powerful woman in the story, derives her power and security solely from the powerful men that she has affairs with (oh, she is also a secretly a lesbian, but that hardly makes her a feminist paragon, Mr. Rushdie). That and the rather tedious smut and jarring profanities coexist uneasily with the lyrical writing and attempts at magical realism. Finishing this book is like waking up from a dream, which though wonderful in parts, leaves an odd, and slightly distasteful aftertaste.(less)
The story of Balram Halwai is a familiar story not just to those who know India but also to those who live in other Third World 'democracies' where th...moreThe story of Balram Halwai is a familiar story not just to those who know India but also to those who live in other Third World 'democracies' where the real dividing line are less ideological than economical. Despite belonging to the same nation and culture, there is a huge, seemingly unbridgeable gulf between rich and poor. The rich, or at least the middle class, gets access to the best food, education, health care, in short to the best condition for life, while the poor languished in the darkness of poverty, ignorance and neglect. The half-baked men of the novel, men like Balram and his family, have no chance of ever breaking through this barrier, an artificial line defended not just by their exploitative landlords, but also by corrupt state apparatus and even certain men of religion. It is impossible for them to escape the 'chicken coop' into which society has consigned them for life except through an act of extraordinary defiance, such as what Balram finally resorted to. In a topsy-turvy world where the corrupt frolicked in five-star luxury with impunity while innocent men go to prison to atone for their masters' sins, who is to judge whether what he has done is right or wrong ?
An impressive debut novel, utterly unsentimental and clear-eyed in its view of the dark side of the rapidly changing India. (less)
Amitav Ghosh's second novel is as beautifully written as his other novels, but the narrative, especially in the first part, somehow lacks cohesiveness...moreAmitav Ghosh's second novel is as beautifully written as his other novels, but the narrative, especially in the first part, somehow lacks cohesiveness. It reads more like the disjointed memoir of a precocious Calcutta schoolboy than a finished novel, endlessly flipping between different eras, sometimes disorientingly so. The grandmother is the most realized character in the novel, the only character who has seen it all, and whose presence holds together the different narratives. The book ends with a heatrbreaking revelation about events that happened the grandmother's last visit to her childhood home in Dhaka.
A beautifully written historical novel about 1830's India in the grip of the opium trade. The characters are just as diverse as the British Empire its...moreA beautifully written historical novel about 1830's India in the grip of the opium trade. The characters are just as diverse as the British Empire itself, each with their own dialects and idiosyncracies, all brought together by the opium trade's many tentacled hands into the Ibis, on a voyage that will irrevocably changed them forever. The author has obviously done a massive amount of research into the period, and this novel is so rich with details that it could veritably serve as an encyclopaedia of early 19th century Indian life, both at sea and on land. However, this was never allowed to stifle the narrative, which deftly moves between a half-dozen main characters and different settings with ease. The novel is as chock-full of exciting incidents as a door-stopper 19th century adventure yarn, without abandoning a realism which makes it a compelling page-turner. The humorous episodes, largely supplied by the Falstaffian figure of Baboo Nob Kissin, enlivens the story between accounts of opium addiction, imprisonment and various corporal punishments.
Ghosh's experiment with Anglo-Indian dialects adds tremendously to the authenticity of the voices of the characters, although sometimes it could be rather distracting, especially in the earlier part of the story. There is a glossary ('The Chrestomaty') appended to the end of the book, which is quite useful to decipher the various lingos, but regretfully, not all of the words used is included. Obviously, it would be more helpful if all the words are included so that readers wouldn't miss any bit of dialogue.
Probably Ghosh's best and most impressive work to date. As this is said to be the first part of a projected trilogy, I'll be waiting with bated breath for the next installment.