There is an episode in the comedy sitcom Mind Your Language, where Jeremy Brown's motley crew of students drawn from all over the world to learn EngliThere is an episode in the comedy sitcom Mind Your Language, where Jeremy Brown's motley crew of students drawn from all over the world to learn English tell jokes to pass the time. Juan Cervantes, the Spanish bartender, tells a hilarious joke: at the end, he is in stitches, unable to stifle laughter, because the joke is so funny. The problem is, it is wholly in Spanish, so nobody else in the class can understand.
This novel left me feeling like one of those class members.
This is the story of old Nikolai Mayevskyj (pronounced "Mayevski"), eccentric immigrant engineer from Ukraine who falls in love at the age of eighty-four with a sex-bomb, Valentina, who is thirty-six. Valentina has the only goal of finding domicile for herself and her "genius" son, Stanislav, in the UK: and the recently widowed engineer is an easy target. Nikolai's daughters Vera and Nadehzda (the first-person narrator) are appalled, and set about rescuing their father from this scheming vixen, burying their running feud about their mother's legacy temporarily. In the process, a lot of dirty family laundry is unearthed, a lot of distressing events take place, but true to the tradition of comic literature, things pan out in the end.
If one believes the blurbs on the jacket, the novel is "extremely funny" (The Times), "mad and hilarious" (The Daily Telegraph) and "...a comic feast, a riotous oil painting of senility, lust and greed" (Economist). But I found it to be nothing of the sort. The deliberate comic tone of voice that the author adopted was jarring, in view of the fact that extremely serious matters like the abuse of the elderly was being described. You can't laugh such things off.
Also, there is the matter of portrayal. All the characters were seriously lacking in sympathy: there is hardly a one there the reader will care to identify with. Many of the conversations (especially where a kind of pidgin English was used to parody the Ukrainians' imperfect grasp of the language) were narrated in a tone of mockery - and when an author mocks her own creations, how can the reader take them seriously?
The book Nikolai is writing, A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian, is included as a sort of metaphor for the journey (historical, mental and physical) of the East European expatriate engineer, interested only in machines, from the communist East to the capitalist West. Nikolai's reading of excerpts of the book is interspersed with the main narrative throughout the novel, which though informative, failed to meld with the main story. The unspeakable horrors suffered by the family under Stalin and the Nazis somehow fail to make the impact they should, mainly because of the author's insistence on keeping up a comic tone.
However, three stars for a worthwhile story, and a social problem well-presented. But one is forced to think Ms. Lewycka would have created more of an impact if the book was written in dead seriousness. There is nothing more distressing than a joke which falls flat....more
For a person drunk on the film society culture prevalent in Kerala during the Seventies and Eighties, "Rashomon" is a magic word.
Akira Kurasowa’s filmFor a person drunk on the film society culture prevalent in Kerala during the Seventies and Eighties, "Rashomon" is a magic word.
Akira Kurasowa’s film enjoys cult status among movie buffs. It is rivetting in its presentation of “truth” in many layers, presented as a conversation among three people: a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner who take shelter under the ramshackle Rashomon city gates to escape a downpour. The story is the death (murder?) of a man, the rape (?) of a woman and the capture of a bandit responsible (?) for both: as the story unfolds, the differences in the widely varying testimonies of the people involved force us to have a rethink on what “truth” means.
I had heard about this movie a lot before actually seeing it; and it lived up to its hype and more when I finally got around to seeing it. But this review is not about the movie. It is about the magical short story which was its inspiration – and other stories like it, penned by one of the great figures of Japanese literatures, the turn-of-the-century novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
When I first saw the movie, I was so taken up by the sheer visual beauty of Kurasowa’s storytelling that I did not ruminate much on what this movie was based on, even though I saw the “based on…” title in the beginning. It was only after joining Goodreads that I came to know about this book, and was immediately hungry for it. Having read it, it has left me hungry for more by the same author, and Japanese literature in general. It is so shattering in its impact on the intellect, even in translation; I cannot imagine how powerful it must be in the original Japanaese – for, as Haruki Murakami says in the introduction, the translation can never capture the power of the original.
Akutagawa is a tragic figure. His mother went mad shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his childless maternal uncle and aunt. Even though they were a highly cultured family and young Ryunosuke was lucky to have a childhood exposed to a lot of intellectual pleasures, he was constantly plagued by ill-health and bullying in school. His ill-health continued into youth: he suffered from chronic insomnia and fears of madness. The misfortunes of family and country also distressed his oversensitive soul to an inordinate extent. Until finally, on 24 July 1927, Ryunosuke Akutagawa committed suicide by an overdose of Veronal.
The author’s gifted and tortured soul is visible throughout this amazing collection of stories. It is divided into four sections: (1) A World in Decay, (2) Under the Sword, (3) Modern Tragicomedy and (4) Akutagawa’s Own Story. These sections correspond to four periods of Japanese history as well as four creative styles which took birth from Akutagawa’s fertile imagination.
In the first section, stories (most of them retelling of old legends) set in the Heian Period (A.C.E. 794 – 1185) are included. This was Japan’s classical era; a time of peace, prosperity and opulence when art and culture flourished. But as is common with most ancient kingdoms, it declined and power slipped from the hands of the aristocrats into the hands of the warlords. It is this twilight period that Akutagawa uses as a backdrop for his stories of degeneration and decay. The title story of the collection, Rashomon, encapsulates the entire misery of the country in the symbol of the gate of the capital city of Kyoto. The city having been struck by one calamity after another, the author says:
With the whole city in such turmoil, no one bothered to maintain the Rashomon. Foxes and badgers came to live in the dilapidated structure, and they were soon joined by thieves. Finally, it became the custom to abandon unclaimed corpses in the upper storey of the gate, which made the neighbourhood an eerie place that everyone avoided after the sun went down.
The stage is thus perfectly set for a set of disturbing stories. Rashomon narrates the story of a jobless servant who is sheltering from the rain inside the gate and an old woman, who steals hair from the corpses lying there to sell to wig-makers, justifying it by pointing out that the dead people were also thieves and cheaters. Ultimately, she inspires the servant to become a thief himself who starts off on his new career by stealing her clothes!
In a Bamboo Grove, one of the most extraordinary stories ever written (this was the inspiration for Kurasowa’s film, even though he used the Rashomon gate as a symbol of the decay he was portraying) narrates story of a dead warrior, a thief and a raped woman from the viewpoint of each of the protagonists. Each of the stories is different and equally believable from the evidence available at the scene of the crime and the statements of the witnesses. Who we believe will depend a lot on who we are.
But the story which impressed me most in the whole volume is Hell Screen. This gem of a novelette gives us a taste of horror, Japanese style – I could understand how movies like Dark Water, The Ring and The Grudge came into being. The tale of the deformed artist Yoshihide (nicknamed “Monkeyhide” because of his deformity), the tapestry of hell he paints for the Lord Horikawa, the artist’s daughter who is a serving girl at the Lord’s mansion and the pet monkey has all the elements of a medieval ghost story and a gothic romance. However, it is Akutagawa’s narrative style (whereby he leaves a lot unsaid) and his choice of the narrative voice (that of an unnamed member of the Lord’s retinue) that are masterful. The story is a one way ride into darkness.
In the second section, we move forward to the Tokugawa Shogunate (A.C.E. 1600 – 1868). This was the last feudal military government of Japan. During this period, the shogun elders of the Tokugawa clan ruled from Edo Castle. As Jay Rubin, the translator, says, the Tokugawa centralised feudalism “imposed the principle of joint responsibility on all parts of society, punishing whole families, entire villages, or professional guilds for the infractions of individual members. This fostered a culture based on mutual spying, which promoted a mentality of constant vigilance and self-censorship.”
In the story Loyalty, the disastrous effects of the madness of a samurai on an entire dynasty is described: in this merciless world, it does not mean just the destruction of a person, but of a whole bloodline. The other two stories included describe the clash between Christianity and Japan’s traditional religions. These distressing tales are rendered with much empathy and wit.
In the third section we find a sarcastic Akutagawa, full of black humour. The Story of the Head that Fell Off and Horse Legs use the trappings of fantasy to create a sort of darkly comic tale. In Green Onions, we can see an author smiling at himself and his fellow-scribes, in a pastiche of a romantic tale.
There is a whole tradition of autobiographical writing in Japan, called “I-Novels”, where the author’s life itself is fictionalised. Even though Akutagawa initially stayed away from this genre, he finally succumbed to peer and critic pressure and started writing such stories. It is here that one can see a fine mind finally unravelling. There are hints of this in the first three stories, especially in The Writer’s Craft where an author is forced write an elegy for somebody whom he barely knows; just on the strength of his writing talent. This sense of unease is increased in Death Register where he tabulates the demise of friends and relatives: and in The Diary of a Stupid Man and Spinning Gears (where Akutagawa keeps on hallucinating spinning gears on one side of his vision), we sense that we are standing on the edge of a minefield. (Spinning Gears was published posthumously.)
This is a well-chosen set of stories, with a fantastic introduction by Haruki Murakami. There are explanations about the historical periods, and background information on each story. The timeline of Akutagawa’s life is also provided. The book satisfies one, not only literally, but also as a window to Japanese literature.
Novels can be plot-driven, character-driven or idea-driven: it is generally accepted that serious "literary" fiction is mostly of the last two categorNovels can be plot-driven, character-driven or idea-driven: it is generally accepted that serious "literary" fiction is mostly of the last two categories. In character-driven stories, rather than events, it is the development and analysis of human nature that takes front stage. The events are just a backdrop. Skillfully executed, they are sometimes more exciting than the wildest adventure story; however, when the execution falls flat (as in Undue Influence by Anita Brookner), the result is a disaster.
Claire Pitt is a lonely young woman, living with her widowed mother. Her crippled father has passed away some time back. Claire is suffering from some kind of existential angst (at least, that is what her first person narrative indicates): she cannot form any lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex, even though she hints that she has had adventures aplenty. Claire's only friend is Wiggy, an artist, who is happily in relationship with a married man - though even with her, Claire finds it difficult to unburden herself. She continuously fantasises about the lives of the people she meets, providing them with imaginary pasts, presents and futures. She is also adept at analysing the emotions of other people (according to her own yardstick, of course).
As the novel opens, we find Claire reeling under the death of her mother, the only human being who she could claim to be attached to. She suddenly realises that her sinecure job at a bookstore run by two old ladies is her only tenuous hold to life. As Claire desperately casts about for some kind of foothold on society, she meets attractive, middle-aged Martin Gibson who is married to an invalid. She is immediately attracted to him, and believes she has a chance at a life when Martin's wife passes away: all the more important to her, as the store is sold off and her job disappears. However, in this also, Claire is disappointed - making her realise that it is time to stop grasping at shadows and take charge of herself.
This could have been a great novel of manners. The characters are all well-drawn (even the dead St Collier, the father of Claire's employers, whose articles she is editing), the relationships complex and the language, superior. However, all the effort is wasted because of the meandering pace and the endless self-reflections of the singularly unlikeable protagonist. The author may have made Claire flawed to make her all the more human, but she ended up being such a whimpering, self-pitying dishrag that I wanted to poke her one on the nose! The excruciatingly slow pace of the novel also did not help. In the end, when the big "revelation" comes, it is something which would be clear to any discerning reader about halfway through the novel - still, Claire says, "this was one connection I failed to make". Shows what a jackass she is, IMO.
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me... She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sI once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me... She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere, So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh. I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood.
- The Beatles
Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood is a love story: on author’s own confession, “a straight, simple story” quite unlike the type of fiction he is well known for. Murakami claims the novel was a challenge to him, a test of his capability to write a “straight” story; many of his fans see it as a betrayal of what his works had stood for until then. Not having read any of Murakami’s works so far, I had the advantage of approaching it with an unprejudiced mind. And I found that while the story was straight, it was anything but simple.
The novel is one bunch of impressions. The prose is sensual, even voluptuous: descriptions of landscapes and weather are done in long and loving detail. There is very little exploration of inner mental states, other than as broad description of emotions, even though we are listening to only one voice throughout the book. It is rather like stream of consciousness turned outward.
I have been trying to do a traditional review of this book for quite some time now, but have been finding it impossible. So I will give you my impressions of reading the book.
Reading Norwegian Wood (for me) is like sitting on the porch at twilight during a rare break in the rains during the monsoon, watching the golden rays of the dying sun light up the rain-drenched earth, and filling your lungs with the smell of the rain.
Reading Norwegian Wood is like waking up on a winter morning, opening the window and getting hit in the face by an invigorating blast of icy East Wind.
Reading Norwegian Wood is like staying up late, listening to the harmonious cacophony of drums at our local temple festival, inhaling the aroma of the burning lamp wicks and incense.
**spoiler alert** Room by Emma Donoghue is an extraordinary book. It is not literary, despite the Booker nomination: the first half reads like a thril**spoiler alert** Room by Emma Donoghue is an extraordinary book. It is not literary, despite the Booker nomination: the first half reads like a thriller of the darker variety and the second half like a tear-jerker. The whole story seems contrived, and one part (the escape of Jack from the Room) stretches credibility almost to the point of breaking. Yet, the novel is strangely compelling and once taken up, hard to put down. Why?
I believe this is because of the psychological and mythical depth of the narrative. The author herself has said two things prompted her to write this novel. One, the extraordinarily limited world of a person forced to stay in close confinement for an extended period of time: the second, the bond between the child and the mother, especially in the early oral stages where they are scarcely two entities. Let us examine each in turn.
Jack's Ma (she is never named in the novel: she exists only as the Mother) has been confined in a soundproof, eleven feet-by-eleven feet shed in his backyard by a psychopath (known only as Old Nick) for seven years. She has been abducted by him and kept there as his sex slave since she was nineteen: Jack has been born in captivity, her second child by Nick (the first had been a stillbirth). Jack has never been outside the shed. He calls it Room, and it is all the world to him: a living, breathing entity. What is seen on the TV is a myth, and all the people inhabiting that world are unreal. The only other real (or semi-real) entity is Old Nick, whom Jack has never seen, as his mother hides him in the wardrobe as Nick comes for his nightly visit. Nick is known to Jack only through the creaks of the bed as he rapes his mother.
Jack's world is claustrophobic, but he does not know it, as it is the only world he has known for the five years of his life. For him, the existence is idyllic, a composite entity composed of only he and his Ma. All the toys, books and collages made from junk by his mother are living entities for Jack. We see Room only through his eyes: Emma Donoghue has done a fantastic job with the kid's POV. He is very advanced in certain ways but extremely juvenile in other. His language is a curious mixture of portmanteau words, grammar mistakes, and long phrases picked up from TV. It is the brilliance of the author which makes us feel the claustrophobia of the atmosphere for Jack's mother even when he himself revels in it.
Coming to the curious relationship between Jack and Ma, the Oedipal suggestions are very evident. Ma still breast-feeds Jack, even though he is five (it is called "having some" - I found that terminology vaguely vulgar, therefore effective): his penis always "stands up" in the morning. This is the "mythical drama played out in every nursery", as Joseph Campbell said: the urge of the son to kill the father and marry the mother - and the father here deserves very much to be killed.
Jack is the hero of all the fairy tales his mother tells him, like the eponymous hero of most English fairy tales. His birth in captivity, escape and rescue of his mother also parallels the story of many a Godchild (Krishna comes to mind immediately). It is highly significant that Jack prays to the Baby Jesus, and also that the villain is known as "Old Nick" - the name of the Devil.
The book is split in two: the first part in Room, and the second out of it (or "Outside" as Jack calls it). The author's aim in structuring the narrative thus is evident; to show that Jack and Ma have become a single entity almost, impossible to separate. In fact, Room has travelled with them. The invisible prison continues to suffocate Ma to such an unbearable stage that she tries to commit suicide.
Ultimately, Jack is partially rehabilitated when he goes back to the Room and says goodbye to it. We feel that finally there is a ray of hope. However, even with that upbeat ending, one has to say that the novel sort of loses steam in the second half.
Still I will give this novel four stars for the daring concept and the craft of keeping the child narrator's voice genuine through 400 pages (no mean achievement): also for the very real claustrophobia of Room and the mythical and psychological dimensions. The deduction of one star is for the rather insipid second half and the totally unbelievable escape.
There is a special category of movie in India, called "Family Film": these deal entirely with matters inside a big "joint" family (where all the sibliThere is a special category of movie in India, called "Family Film": these deal entirely with matters inside a big "joint" family (where all the siblings live together with their parents in their ancestral home, either matrilineal or patrilineal). In the first quarter of the movie, something will happen to disturb the tranqulity of its existence, and the whole of the remaining is spent in resolving the issue. The movie typically has a tragicomic ending, and leaves the audience with a gooey sentimental feeling inside (precisely for which they have come, anyway). It is something the grandparents can watch with grandchildren, passing the popcorn and soft drinks across the seats.
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler is such a "Family Film". The novel chronicles the life and times of the Bedloe family, after unexpected tragedy strikes them in the late sixties in the form of the "accidental" death of one of the sons, Danny. However, the tragedy is even more serious for Ian, his younger brother, because he knows that he has unwittingly caused his brother's death through some harsh words uttered in the heat of the moment.
The Bedloes are a picture-perfect family right out of a sitcom: they are always a "family" (as if the individual members didn't matter) and nothing "wrong" ever happens for them. Even when Danny marries Lucy Dean, a divorcee with two children, it is accepted after the initial shock. However, Ian begins to have serious doubts about his sister-in-law's character: he comes to the conclusion that she is sleeping around, her gentlemen friends are keeping her in riches and that his brother is nothing but a fall guy: worse, he is pretty sure that Lucy’s third child, Daphne, is not his brother’s. Things come to a head when Ian is kept away from a date with his girlfriend by being forced to babysit the kids while his brother is attending a stag party, and Lucy is ostensibly having dinner with a girlfriend (but Ian is sure she’s elsewhere). As Danny comes back late, Ian blurts out the unwelcome truth: Danny retaliates by driving his car into a wall and killing himself. Soon, Lucy dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Two deaths on his conscience, Ian’s world starts to fall apart. Plagued by guilt, he finds succour in an unlikely place: “The Church of Second Chance”, run by the maverick Reverend Bennett. He gives Ian a way out of his guilt: atonement, the hard way. He has committed a wrong, so he must do whatever it takes to set it right: which in Ian’s case means foregoing a college education, forgetting his sweetheart, and taking charge of his sister-in-law’s three children. Ian spends the rest of the atoning, even when the people around him lose conviction and faith, including the beneficiaries of his penance; but he does not find peace. Until one day, the truth is brought home to him by Daphne, Danny’s daughter:
”You think I don’t know what I am up to, don’t you,” Daphne said.
“You think I’m some ninny who wants do right but keeps goofing. But what you don’t see is, I goof on purpose. I’m not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe.”
“Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you’ve got!”
Ironically, Ian finds peace when he stops looking for it.
Novels about people trying to atone for that one mistake is common in literature: Lord Jim is perhaps the most famous example: Atonement is a recent one. What makes Ian’s story different from these is that it is not a tragedy. There is nothing grandiose about it: it’s just a piece of life. We get a feeling that, even if Ian had not done his penance, nothing much would have changed: life would have gone on, just the same. It is this realisation (“People changed other people’s lives every day of the year. There was no call to make such a fuss about it.”) that is Ian’s true salvation.
Anne Tyler writes well. There is a carefree, no-nonsense quality to her prose, even while describing tragic events, that get to you - there is no heavy-handedness. The structure of the novel, with almost each chapter shifting in POV, prevents it from being too focussed on Ian and helps highlight the fact that it is the story of a family which is being narrated, rather than that of a person. And the constantly changing Middle-Eastern students in the house next door (“the foreigners”) and their perennial craze with electronic gadgetry provides an effective counterpoint to the Bedloe’s unchanging stolidity. The novel literally flows.
However, after reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and this novel, I am starting to get a sneaking suspicion that Ms. Tyler’s subject and style can stale very fast. What is aimed at seems to be a “feel-good” story with some family values (like the films I mentioned at the beginning) rather any exploration in depth of the characters’ motives. There is nothing wrong in that: this is a well-written novel and a fast read. But I doubt whether it will stay in the mind for any length of time. ...more