Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists (edited by Victoria Zackheim)

First published:- February, 2015

Star rating:-


There was a time when I was still an optimistic seeker of doctrinal wisdom blissfully entertaining the certainty that there would at least be one religious doctrine fashioned by humans in the whole wide world which would not delight in depriving members of one half of the human race of any political and social standing. I was naive then. My ardor in this regard cooled considerably once I came across information that even Buddha helpfully classified seven kinds of wives (as recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya found within the Sutta Pitaka) of which the wife who meekly takes a beating from her husband, never argues back and remains as slavish as possible is defined as the ideal one. 

So is there any organized religion in the world which does not cheerfully preach, propagate and advocate misogynistic ideas and practices? If there is, do let me know. Meanwhile, I delight in evolving my personal belief systems to deal with pangs of short-term nihilism and remaining as religion-free as possible even though, to my dismay, every time I'm required to fill a government-printed form, I am hard-pressed to tick the 'Hindu' box. 

Organized religion has all the elements of organized crime, except for compassion. If you offend a crime boss who has no compassion, he will have you beaten up and sometimes killed. If the crime boss wants you to go to hell, he will have you killed after you have committed a sin so you have had no time to repent (i.e. you get yours as you leave a whorehouse or have just eaten pork, or have neglected to kill a female relative who has disgraced the family). Organized religion, however, does show some compassion. Still, in my mind, crime bosses and the guy called God have a lot in common: revenge, rage, and punishment are essential to their mission.

I requested this collection on Netgalley expecting to discover other, disparate ways of viewing faith and institutional religion and maybe challenging discussions on the intersection between religious philosophy and recent developments/intelligent speculation in the domain of astrophysics and the cosmo-sciences but nope. Instead what I got was a collection of maudlin musings on life and its trials and tribulations. It doesn't help either that most of the writers were raised in a Judeo-Christian tradition which means most of the articles lose their sheen of novelty after a while with similar anecdotes of childhood rites of initiation into a state of knowledge about organized religion re-appearing time and again. Catholic school, baptism ceremonies, obsession with collecting Virgin Mary statues, bar mitzvah experiences, traumatic memories of having to endure indoctrination at an early age and so on and so forth. A majority of the believers narrate experiences of dealing with life-threatening situations and losing loved ones to cancer and other terminal illnesses which is perfectly understandable because nobody really seeks out 'God' unless hardships and despair wrestle their way into life but after a while these reminiscences just wore me out. 
And then there are the more ridiculously cringe-worthy interpretations of faith - one contributor literally going on and on about her miserable love life and the fact that no man wants to be with her for the long haul. 

For believers, Faith is a remedy; for atheists, it's a smoke screen obscuring as shameful the essence of being human: our fallibility.

The only essays which made any impression were by Tamim Ansary, Amanda Enayati, and Aviva Layton. All of them are secular humanists/decriers of institutional religion of course but that does not mean their writings do not showcase a keen interest in giving the benefit of the doubt to all sides of the debate. Ansary, who identifies as a secular mystic, refreshingly does not go into saccharine-flavored tales of personal woes and triumph, instead choosing to recount a simple anecdote about a few moments spent in the heart of nature with his youngest daughter which helped him appreciate the fact that to be alive, for however brief a blink in the unending spiral of time, is to be close to the mystery of all creation. Amanda Enayati's touching piece documents her tryst with a most harrowing period in the history of Iran in an almost Marjane Satrapi-ish fashion except her voice is devoid of the latter's signature humor. Another plus was getting to know about the surprisingly liberal tenets of the Bahá'í faith, a minority monotheistic sect whose members were ruthlessly persecuted during the Iranian Revolution of '79. Aviva Layton's ruminations held nothing special unless one counts her wonderfully unsentimental description of the aftermath of personal loss and her logically argued repudiation of superstitious ideas about heaven and hell.

To conclude, it's not like all the other remaining essays were completely unpalatable or anything but the very fact that I scarcely remember anything about them speaks for itself.


Also posted on Goodreads & Amazon.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review : So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

First published:- October, 2014

Translated by:- Euan Cameron

Publisher:- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

Star rating:- 

Call this a book of mirages and mirrors that distort the contours of visible reality all the time. Call it a lament for the inevitability of change that erases all the landmarks to a place that anchors one to a past self. Call it a psychological thriller, a faux-noir in which people materialize out of thin air to serve as clues to lead the joyless protagonist to a truth too terrible for him to comprehend all at once. (Faux noir because Modiano ingeniously deploys its signature leitmotifs to subvert the genre. The token crook is merely a shady character, the token gangster's moll/seductive siren becomes a sympathetic confidante and the token mystery transforms into a disconcerting odyssey through the maze of time and memory.) But an adroitly spun yarn as this one transcends the imposed boundaries of any such labeling with ease and surprising grace.

One can tell the Nobel committee usually doesn't mess around at least when it comes to this greatest of honours reserved for literary achievement. Only pure artistry could have produced something as perfect as this - a combination of strategically placed expository bits, a dreamy, sublime narrative voice reflecting both a subconscious longing and antipathy for lost time, a melding together of reality and delusion, an overlapping of the worlds of 'was' and 'is', and a cautious but sure-footed unravelling of plot. The last time something this unambiguously postmodern in tone and form had brought me such pure reading pleasure was when I happily surrendered before Ali Smith's rhetorical playfulness in There But for The.

There, on the pavement, in the light of the Indian summer that lent the Paris streets a timeless softness, he once again had the feeling that he was floating on his back.

Author Jean Daragane's world is populated by ghosts - ghost-like individuals who hover over his reality to lead him to places and people he has forgotten and, in all likelihood, does not want to recall, the specter of self-written words that elude his feeble grasp on memory, ghost of a city's turbulent past intruding on the equanimity of the present, ghost of those nauseous years of the Occupation that one cannot shake off despite best efforts. And these myriad ghosts proliferate at the back of his mind to warp his sense of time, creating a stark dissonance between reality and memory that usher in a renewed sense of dislocation. In a way, he seems like a vagrant spirit himself, adrift in life like flotsam after a devastating tsunami, alienated from the rituals of work, love, relationships. But this deceptive placidity of the surface of his consciousness is disturbed by a phone call out of the blue which sets into motion a chain of fated meetings and ridiculous coincidences which eventually allow him to find a way back into his past, a journey he undertakes with considerable reluctance and disguised trepidation. I'll leave you to summon the curiosity to find out where this journey eventually leads him.

It would appear, he often used to say to himself, that children never ask themselves any questions. Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.

Like a true master of the craft, Modiano only ever mentions the War in passing, subtly inserting roadsigns which point to the ineffaceable marks of damage on a Paris which itself appears like a figment of Daragane's imagination at times, as if it might flicker out of focus any moment to reappear in a pale imitation of an unrecognizable former avatar. But the memory of war lingers on in the desolation of rue de l'Arcade and the boulevard of Champs-Élysées witnessing the flow of time like a dispirited sentinel, in Daragane's uneasy perambulations through the courtyard of Louvre and the mist-laden autumn air of the rue de l'Ermitage. An amnesia sets in when the currents of time gradually whittle down the tangible reminders of a tragic event into unfamiliar forms but reality forgotten is never reality expunged. 

...And yet he now wondered whether he had not dreamed this journey, which had taken place over forty years ago.

Daragane's Paris is tied inextricably to the past just as he finds himself colliding with the vision of an abandoned, forgotten child navigating the unfamiliar nooks and corners of an unknown neighborhood, perhaps, pained and relieved in equal measure to have finally remembered that which he was so intent on forgetting. I could not have wished for a more befitting sense of closure for our traumatized narrator.

**with thanks to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an ARC**

Also posted on Goodreads & Amazon.

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

First published:- 2014

Star rating:-

The problem with this book is that none of it rings true - the characterization, the narration, the atmosphere, the dialogues, the relationships, even the emotions. Everything seems so fake and overwhelmingly dramatic that at times I cajoled myself into reading on in the hopes of spotting some noticeable evidence of parody at work. But nope. Sardonic self-deprecation isn't the objective here. These people are all serious and want me to take them seriously. 

Although once I persuaded myself to go with the flow and obsequiously accepted the narrative's palpable delusions of grandeur and omnipotence, the reading experience became a lot more bearable. Because sometimes even if a book manages to irritate me with its undisguised self-admiration, I can gleefully read on if it contains an intelligent discussion on the human condition. And the good thing is 'The Blazing World' is blazing with new ideas, bursting at the seams with complex concepts on neuroscience, memory, phenomenology, perception and gendered identities which require careful, prolonged contemplation. Additionally, Siri Hustvedt can rustle up a wonderful turn of phrase and a syntactically elegant, lexically succulent sentence. So the negatives and positives are fairly balanced. 

Much like its protagonist Harriet Burden's creations, The Suffocation Rooms or Beneath, the book is like an elaborate contraption, a labyrinth of contrasting worldviews and allusions to arcane texts designed to aid the reader in comprehending the mess that lies outside clearly demarcated boundaries defining human existence. Friends, family, therapists, gallery owners, art reviewers, journalists, expose layer after layer of prejudice, personal contempt, vague conjectures, hollow biases while projecting their own image of Harriet Burden as an artist who had to use male pseudonyms to get attention in the art world. In posterity, Harriet is only reconstructed as a montage of other people's opinions and her journal entries, as a widely learned woman whose talent is overlooked by her rich, influential art collector husband and the male-dominated art world in general. Desperate for recognition, she decides to pull off an intricate con on the artworld by showcasing her work using three male artists as her 'masks'. But her plans derail when her last front aka Rune Larsen, an eccentric, manipulative artist, refuses to play along and takes credit for her work.

All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls (odorless, of course). The pecker and beanbags need not be real. Oh no, the mere idea that they exist will suffice to goad the crowd into greater appreciation.

Women artists are less appreciated than their male counterparts, viewed with prejudice, treated with contempt, rarely allowed entrance into the hallowed halls of fame.... yada get the picture. Except something about the way Hustvedt delivers this feminist-y rant left me a little cold. I blame the highly unconvincing multiple perspectives and Hustvedt's general disregard for the 'show don't tell' device. This is where I prefer Margaret Atwood's deconstruction of the mind of a female painter/artist (Cat's Eye) because Atwood knows how to fashion a blistering denunciation of male chauvinism without being overt about it and she can recount a believable story like nobody's business. Hustvedt, on the other hand, seems rather intent on creating opportunities within a text to insert esoteric references and paragraph length footnotes which scarcely add anything to the world which our characters inhabit. 

Long story short, I want to remember this as an intellectual exercize, or as a corpus of interesting ideas.


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Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Middlemarch by George Eliot

First published:- 1872

Star rating:-

First read:- April-May, 2015

Take this for granted. Middlemarch will haunt your every waking hour for the duration you spend within its fictional provincial boundaries. At extremely odd moments during a day you will be possessed by a fierce urge to open the book and dwell over pages you read last night in an effort to clarify newly arisen doubts -'What did Will mean by that? What on earth is this much talked about Reform Bill? What will happen to poor Lydgate? Is Dorothea just symbolic or realistic?'
And failure to act on your impulses will give rise to irritation. The world all around you will cease to matter and you will be forced to perform everyday tasks on autopilot mode, partly zombified, completely at the mercy of this wonderful, wonderful book. Even hours after you turn over the last page, Middlemarchers and their manifold conundrums and self-delusions will maintain their firm grasp on your consciousness. What I mean by these not at all far-fetched generalizations, is that Middlemarch is engaging, suspenseful and readable. Profoundly so. 

Despite its dense outlay of character arcs dovetailing into the politics of the community, subplots jostling against each other for primacy and the reader's attention, vivid commentary by an omniscient narrator who interjects often to shape a reader's perception, and the painstakingly detailed inner lives of its zealous hero and heroine struggling to hold on to their lofty ideals in the face of sobering reality and suffocating marriages, everything moves at a breakneck speed. I never knew when I ran out of pages to tear through. There are few happy coincidences here and certainly no deus ex machinas to bestow easy resolution on conflicts. Characters do not stumble upon gentrified fulfillment accidentally, those persecuted because of their 'lower birth' do not magically acquire status and wealth, thereby proving beyond doubt that Mary Ann Evans meant to contravene the most fundamental of tropes created by her more celebrated contemporaries. Instead they wrestle with their own conscience, hypocrisies, prejudices, mortal desires and fatalistic judgments. The day to day grind deepens their spiritual crisis, derails their noble mission of being a part, however insignificant, of the progress story of the world at large, makes them realize the futility of the individual's struggle against the forces that govern society. Some emerge victorious, able to cling to the passions and ardors that drive them ahead in life despite the inclemency of their circumstances. While others flail and flounder, succumbing to the tyranny of material wants and demanding, selfish spouses. If that's not bitter reality served up on a plate I don't know what is.

If I am asked to pick one flaw with the plot and characters, I must confess I had considered withholding a star initially because of the book's treatment of Dorothea and the infuriating Ladislaw-Dorothea arc which made me want to quit reading out of pure frustration. Evans' fascination with subjecting every character's mental makeup to her trenchant irony seemed to expire every time her beloved heroine came into the picture. Frequent comparisons with the Virgin Mary and St Theresa and references to her queenly grace made me skeptical about her credibility as a character of flesh and blood in a narrative otherwise populated with believable, fallible men and women. Is she merely symbolic then of a life dominated by a 'soul hunger', completely immune to the mundane concerns of quotidian living? Why must her womanhood be almost deified and worshipped? But thankfully Dorothea is salvaged and humanized in the end, when she lets her own romantic passions overpower her altruistic zest. 

...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Many may disapprove of the choice but if I had to name one book very similar to 'Middlemarch' in thematic content and in terms of a multiple-perspective narrative structure set against a modern backdrop, then Rowling's The Casual Vacancy comes to mind. In fact, it is hard not to figure out the connection after having read both books. If the slew of unfavorable reviews on GR and elsewhere nipped your interest in the bud, I urge you to give it a shot. Unworthy of literary immortality as it maybe, perhaps, it still offers an intricately detailed portrait of a small town and how individual choices shape the destiny of a society. Of course it is no Middlemarch as no book ever will be but it is where Rowling shows her true calibre as a novelist. And really, it is not as horrid as most reviewers made it out to be. Far from it


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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review: I am China by Xiaolu Guo

Publishing date:-September, 2014

Publishing House:- Doubleday Books

Star rating:-

Seldom do I rue the absence of the solidity of a paperback I can clutch to my chest out of an overwhelming love, memorize the feel of its pages against my fingertips. My priorities lie in knowing what I do not, the means to the end irrelevant in this instance. The advent of the e-reader has negated the problem of the steadily shrinking space on the book shelf and helped me horde books without a care. And yet sometimes a kindle copy just isn't enough. The last time I had felt this familiar pang of kinship with a book right after turning over the last page was when Adichie left me feeling the weight of Biafra's senseless wartime violence (Half of a Yellow Sun). I procured a physical copy right after. 

I will do the same with this one too. Because imperfectly characterized and contrived as it is, this is the story I would want to associate modern China with. This is a book I would want to read again someday. 

All the cacophony around censorship and forgotten square massacres and totalitarianism aside, Xiaolu Guo's globe-trotting, no doubt most ambitious work till date tries to reclaim the dignity of the individual from the clutches of state ownership - a theme I have been desperately seeking out in my pick of literature from the land with less than satisfactory results. 

So far what I have gleaned from the works of writers from the mainland is mostly an overarching sense of dejection and bitterness - a gloomy preoccupation with rubbing old wounds raw.

Outside the bar, the midnight sky was lit by a vast cascade of fireworks, illuminating the solemn and dark Long Peace Avenue, the featureless Heavenly Gate Park, the foreboding Forbidden City, the drumming Bell Tower, and finally creating a fake light of day in Tiananmen Square. A new century of amnesia had arrived on China's earth.

But unlike the defeated, anguished voices of other contemporary Chinese authors, Guo's brims over with a valiant hope. Her Mu and Jian face the consequences of their political beliefs with an understated courage, hop across geographical boundaries to embrace the challenges of a hitherto unknown world outside their beloved China, even if to find themselves thwarted at various junctures. Driven out of their homeland by forces beyond their control and comprehension, they plunge headfirst into individual journeys of self realization, only their letters to each other tethering them to their shared reality in Beijing. And yet the same restlessness of being, the same grim disillusionment and feeble optimism color their evolving worldviews as they grapple with both hostility and acceptance in the humdrum heart of Europe and America. Experiences dismantle their prejudices about the west and the reckless abandon of youth gradually gives way to true wisdom. While Mu comes to acknowledge the purpose in Jian's subversive punk rock concerts in Beijing and his revolutionary zeal, Jian discovers merit in Mu's pacifist stance, her unrestrained love of life, art and literature. 

Art is the politics of perpetual revolution. Art is the purest revolution, and so the purest political form there is. A great artist is a great revolutionary.
Revolution = art, and art = perfect freedom. Right now, we have no revolution, no real art and no freedom.

As a lonely, unsociable Scottish translator unspools the many different threads of their past and present from a collection of letters and journal entries in her London flat, Mu and Jian's discordant voices harmonize in pitch and intensity across the barriers of time and space to meld into a symphony of human triumph. Their unbridled zest for life and liberty comes to symbolize the individual's quest for emancipation, to disentangle oneself from the myth of a national identity. Time, place and circumstances recede into the background. History's tenacious grip loosens. Mu and Jian's enduring love for one another finds its truest expression in the dream of a new China - one freed from the shadow of oppression.

I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.

May this very dream survive.

**ARC received from Doubleday Books through Netgalley**

Also published on Goodreads & Amazon.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: Broken Homes & Gardens by Rebecca Kelley

To be published:- April, 2015

Published by:- Blank Slate Press

Star rating:-

It is nigh impossible to banish the specter of sky-high expectations for a book which proudly advertises itself as the When Harry Met Sally for the millenial generation. That movie has been comfort food for the lonely and the lovelorn and the ones navigating the treacherous waters of friends-and-a-little-morerelationships for decades now. 

So potential readers and Nora Ephron fans, better be forewarned that the central characters here are not even pale imitations of Harry Burns and Sally Albright. Neither does Malcolm possess Harry's infuriatingly self-assured persona nor does Joanna manage to embody Sally's quirkiness and emotional vulnerabilities. More often than not they come off as people with no discernible character traits - they flicker in and out of focus like shadowy silhouettes in a hazily lit room. Their friendship is never fleshed out for the reader's benefit. In fact the only conversations they have are completely devoid of any wit or substance and merely border on good-natured flirtation.

Malcolm and Joanna meet at a party and make out without even exchanging proper greetings first. Malcolm flies out to Kazakhstan the very next day for 2 years with the Peace Corps during which time they maintain a correspondence through hand-written letters - yes you read that right - not emails or the phone because nothing puts a dampener on romance like modern technological innovations! When Malcolm shifts back to Portland after the designated time period, they keep hovering around each other, doing the mating dance without actually acting on their mutual attraction. They make bad decisions which would have been acceptable had they not appeared as deliberately manufactured unrealistic plot contrivances to delay their eventual union.

Long story short this is a bit like Harry Met Sally but not quite. It tries to sell the illusion of an unorthodox, fantasy love instead of conveying the truth of how relationships work in reality which brought Nora Ephron's creations universal adulation in the first place. However, on the plus side, there's no casual sexism here - Malcolm does not patronize Joanna like Harry aggressively dismisses Sally's opinions in the movie. (But then we are no longer in the 90s) It has all the trappings of a regular chicklit novel except without the mediocre writing and the abundance of idiotic cliches. And quite readable if not compulsively so.

As long as you are not craving for Nora Ephron-level insight into the quotidian comedy and heartbreak of relationships but light reading which does not require complete suspension of disbelief, Rebecca Kelley will keep you entertained.


**with thanks to Blank Slate Press and Netgalley for the ARC**


Also published on Goodreads and Amazon.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

First published:-1980

Star rating:-

It is impossible to read this and not be reminded of an almost genetically programmed inferiority complex, the burden of history only the descendants of the colonized have to bear. Despite those smug pronouncements of the 21st century being an era of a fair and equitable world and the hard battles won in favor of interracial harmony, there's the fact of your friend barely suppressing a squawk of alarm when you express your admiration for Idris Elba - no female I am acquainted with in real life has learned to wean herself away from the fixation with a white complexion. Scrub your skin raw till it bleeds but never fall behind in the race to make it whiter because that's the color the world approves of. You can fawn over Simon Baker's blonde, light-eyed glory but not over Elba's hulking, ruggedly handsome perfection; heaven forbid you prefer the latter over the former. The 21st century is yet to cast its magic spell over the standards of physical beauty. 

So if I, a citizen of a purportedly newer and better social order, can still feel the rippling aftershocks of the catastrophe called Imperialism from across the barrier of decades and centuries, what would a man like Coetzee have experienced, stranded in the middle of the suffocating sociopolitical stasis of Apartheid? Moral anguish? A bitter impotence? A premonitory sense of doom? Anger? 

Fiction, I believe, must have been his preferred method of exorcizing these demons. And purge these emotions he did through the composition of this slim little novel which can be aptly described as a most heart-wrenching lament on the condition of the world of his times. 

It may be true that the world as it stands is no illusion, no evil dream of a night. It may be that we wake up to it ineluctably, that we can neither forget it nor dispense with it. But I find it as hard as ever to believe that the end is near.

An anonymous magistrate stationed at a farthest corner of an unspecified Empire witnesses the death throes of its reign while recovering his own humanity at the loss of his position of power and influence. In the beginning he is convinced of his righteousness as a dutiful servant of the Empire who oversees the welfare his subjects with moderation but with the arrival of a bluntly tyrannical figure of authority whose methods differ vastly from his, he begins to question his own collusion in the maintenance of an unnatural order. Unable to stand as a mute witness to the horrendous abuse inflicted on innocent 'natives' on the false suspicion of their complicity with 'barbarians' or armed rebels who threaten the stability of the Empire, he clashes with the aforementioned administrator who undoubtedly represents the true face of any oppressor when divested of its sheen of sophistication. And thus begins his fall from grace culminating in a kind of metaphorical rebirth through extreme physical abasement. 

I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.

In the fashion of Coetzee's signature didacticism the novel is rife with allegorical implications but as much as these can be deeply thought-provoking, sometimes they also resemble conveniently inserted contrivances. Like the pseudo-erotic entanglement that develops between the ageing magistrate and a young 'barbarian' girl who is left maimed and partially blinded after a violent bout of interrogation is amply demonstrative of a colonizer-colonized arrangement - the one bereft of power to drive the relationship in a desired direction becomes dependent on the volatile benevolence of the other party. Or the mounting paranoia about the anticipated attack of the 'barbarians' who, much like Godot, fail to appear and remain a myth till the end although emerging as the key factor hastening the impending demise of Empire. All the layers of meaning and symbolism could send a dedicated literature student into paroxysms of pleasure no doubt.

With the buck before me suspended in immobility, there seems to be time for all things, time even to turn my gaze inward and see what it is that has robbed the hunt of its savour: the sense that this has become no longer a morning's hunting but an occasion on which either the proud ram bleeds to death on the ice or the old hunter misses his aim; that for the duration of its frozen moment the stars are locked in a configuration in which events are not themselves but stand for other things.

Wary as I am of Coetzee's often stilted world-building, my 5-star rating was an inevitability given my obsession with narratives containing a discernible vein of literary activism in harmony with notions of social justice. Here he also seems to have successfully reined in his pesky habit of turning his characters into sockpuppet-ish mouthpieces to tout his own passage-length worldviews. The narrator does occasionally morph into a pedagogue but his inner monologues never seem out of place given his unique circumstances. Besides it takes courage to acknowledge the fact of white man's guilt in a world which is yet to discard the rhetoric of 'white man's burden'.

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