Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: July's People by Nadine Gordimer

First published:- 1981

Star rating:- 

The 5 stars you see flashing at you are not just any 5 stars. They were the end result of a whole day of deliberation. 
I happen to be one of those people who are not stingy with their ratings. If a book manages to bestow equal importance on both the prose and the message contained within in such a way that neither overshadows the other and both meld into a single entity of an unforgettable work of literature/fiction capable of whisking the reader away to a special place, then it can take my 5 stars right away.

But July's People had me dawdling back and forth between a 4 and a 5 star rating for the longest period of time. 

What happens to a middle-class family of white liberals in South Africa fleeing the horrors of a large scale violent agitation started by the blacks in the city? They find a safe haven in their black manservant July's village. 
Away from the amenities of an upscale, urban neighborhood in Johannesburg, away from all known civilization, in the heart of the formidable great South African wilderness, among people whose lives are different from their own as chalk is from cheese, Bamford and Maureen Smales and their 3 children become witnesses to the spectacle of humanity, stripped of all its materialistic props.

They become mute spectators to their own struggle for survival in the harshest of conditions and are left with no other option but to fall into the same pattern of weed-gathering, mealie-meal consuming, wart-hog slaying daily activities of the native Africans. They are also forced to accept this drastic role reversal with July, who had so far been at the receiving end of their patronizing 'kindness' and occasional thoughtfulness.

When July becomes their savior and protector, they finally start to realize how it must have been for July all this time to have been reduced to the status of dependence on a white family, to be considered human but still never judged according to the same criteria used to evaluate a white man's worth. 

Thus in the middle of the intractable African countryside, in the constant presence of buzzing mosquitoes and other poisonous bugs and in an environment redolent of decay and rotting animal corpses, all the hitherto insurmountable barriers between Maureen, the mistress, and July, the servant, are dismantled by the tide of circumstances. Maureen and July assume their true roles as mere humans in a symbiotic relationship where the nature of the dependence of one on the other may vary with a change in the scenario. 
And herein lies the poignancy of this story which relies much on the Maureen-July equation to lend the plot its true substance.
"We can go to my home - July said it, standing in the living-room where he had never sat down, as he would say 'We can buy a little bit paraffin' when there was a stain to be removed from the floor. That he should have been the one to decide what they should do, that their helplessness, in their own house, should have made it clear to him that he must do this - the sheer unlikeliness was the logic of their position."

"How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing there was to say between them that had any meaning."

"Of course, 'July' was a name for whites to use; for fifteen years they had not been told what the chief's subject was really called."

"She was unsteady with something that was not anger but a struggle: her inability to enter into a relation of subservience with him that she had never had with Bam."

Oh I could go on quoting such brilliant lines, fraught with underlying implications of life-changing proportions. 

Thus, July's People is not just a fantastic meditation on inter-racial tension but also an attempt at acknowledging the humanity of the ones considered less human. 
Gordimer doesn't merely highlight the ambiguity of the South African socio-political situation against the backdrop of the Anti-Apartheid movement or this imperfect intermingling of two cultures so disparate and alien to each other. She also poses a few fundamental questions which go far beyond the limits of a topic like racial discrimination. How do we live together in harmony? How do we come to terms with the differences(social, economic or racial) we perceive in others? 

As I write this, I am repeatedly struck by my own inadequacy as a reviewer and the fact that a few measly passages in a review cannot even come close to recording the experience of reading this book. I am fumbling around for the right words to present to the future reader, all the vivid images and the indescribably complex human emotions that Gordimer has stitched together with the gift of her skillful yet subtle story-telling in this narrative.

At times I forgot I was reading this in an air-conditioned room and found myself in Maureen's shoes - having to wash the unhygienic dirty rags she uses in the absence of sanitary napkins to soak up her menstrual blood or squatting down together with the women of July's family and plucking edible vegetables. I could almost imagine myself living the same nightmare as the Smales family in that stifling atmosphere rife with Equatorial heat and humidity and taut with the tension between July's black people and his white employers.

I am letting Ms Gordimer take over from me again- 

"On this night alone - Saturday - were the people awake among their sleeping companions, their animals; in the darkness(Drawing away, up from it, in the mind, like an eagle putting distance between his talons and the earth) the firelight of their party was a pocket torch held under the blanket of the universe. Heat and dark began to dissolve and she had to go in. There were no gutters; the soft rain was soundless on the thatch."

"It was the first time there had been rain since they came; the worn thatch darkened and began helplessly to conduct water down its smooth stalks; it dripped and dribbled. Insects crawled and flew in. They were activated by the moisture, broke from the chrysalis of darkness that had kept them in the walls, in the roof. She knew that the lamp attracted them but she kept it on. The flying cockroaches that hit her face were creatures she was familiar with."

And so I give July's People all the 5 stars. Because Nadine Gordimer excels at what she sets out to do here - dissect the human predicament with precision and deep sympathy, remove layering upon layering of man-made fabrications and reveal the crux of a human relationship as simple and complicated as Maureen and July's.

And if one thinks about it, she has titled this book ingeniously as well. What does she mean by July's people? July's own kith and kin, the anonymous and indistinguishable (to the white people) blacks of his own village? Does she mean July's white people who are also an indispensable part of his existence? Or is she referring to both at the same time? I think she left it as an unanswered question, left it for us to decide who July's people are.

And one has to admit, that it is certainly a question worth pondering.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

First published:- 2006

Star rating:-

Terror. Stark naked, clear as the day and indelible in its intensity. Terror that turns its unflinching gaze on you, commanding you to quake in your boots and disintegrate into pieces. This book is that kind of cold dread that seeps into your blood like insidious venom and drains away your strength in a steady, agonizing trickle as you read along. The horror of being stranded in a world, where the living live on either to become sustenance for other survivors or to hunt and feast on fellow brethren to survive, becomes as real as the morning sunlight pouring in to your room through the gauzy curtains.

The trouble with dystopian fiction (literary and otherwise) is that if you have read one book from the genre you have pretty much read them all. And the rather unabashed confession I have to make in this regard is that I have read quite a lot of them - this is the 'guilty pleasure' I am not really guilty of indulging in once in a while. But when the focus of the discussion on dystopias shifts to a universally read book like 'The Road' then opinions range from acerbically negative criticism, a patronizing, reluctant pat on the back to disappointed neutrality and effusive praise. Cormac McCarthy's prose has also garnered less than enthusiastic responses from quite a significant number of reviewers. I suppose some thought his metaphors to be too flowery for their taste. While the rest have found him to be repetitive and dull. 

Fair enough. But I did not.

To bring to life a world, where there's nothing left to do except scrounge around for nourishment, it is obvious the author will be hard pressed to elaborately detail the act of unscrewing a jar top and drinking from it. The monotone adopted while chronicling these trivial actions conveys the chilling truth of how much gravity is being accorded to affairs considered undeserving of even a passing mention in a former way of life.

Thus, I refuse to join in the chorus of complaints. The very visceral and undiluted reaction the narrative elicited from me as a reader, caused me to refrain from belittling McCarthy's gift for utilizing the same old genre tropes to offer such insightful commentary on the human condition. And despite its bleak and nihilistic leanings, 'The Road' surprised me with its deft handling of a subject as sensitive as a parent-child relationship, a theme that is often explored in many fictional narratives but with varying degrees of success. More than any tear-inducing gimmickry, the relationship depicted here bears a frighteningly close resemblance to how things are in reality. 

Our two unnamed vagrants, a listless father-son duo, who move down this seemingly endless road strewn with the debris of a world long gone and the echoes of a way of life no longer preserved, seemed to me to be representatives of a large majority of humans. The father acts as a kind of misery-sponge, enduring the brunt of all the vicissitudes of fate that await them on this cruel and unforgiving peregrination, while shielding the son from the same. And as the toil of this godforsaken journey wears the parent down to the point of no return, the child is familiarized with the brutalities of the world at large and gently shown the ways in which one can side-step all the unpleasantness and maintain an existence without challenging authority in any form. Isn't this what a majority of humans have been seeking to accomplish on an infinite loop? 'Survive and don't ask for trouble in any form.' is the motto etched onto the blank slate of our minds since childhood. 

All the horrors lying in ambush for this father-son pair, starting from chance encounters with roving bands of cannibals to combating the evident threat of starvation and the bitter cold which freezes them to the bone, can be taken to be allegories of all the challenges of living that individually all of us have to contend with. The metaphorical road is just another minefield where one can never foresee the kind of evils one wrong step may unleash. All the lawless laws, by which the world is governed once the formerly established edifice of order and organization has crumbled to dust, are deeply reminiscent of the relentless cycle of injustices institutionalized by our so-called 'civilization'. Just as the weak are preyed upon and devoured alive in this dystopia, the downtrodden and oppressed are victims of a sort of economic cannibalism enshrined in the 'laws' of our reality. 

The scales are tipped ever in the favor of those who wield power in some form; in this dystopia it is the possession of a weapon, in ours it is the ownership of wealth. 

"The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all."

It disturbs me how near invisible the line of separation between an imagined dystopia and a real one is.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review:The Frangipani Hotel: Stories by Violet Kupersmith

First published:- April 1st, 2014

Published by:- Spiegel & Grau

Star rating:- 

What your mind dredges up from memory and consciousness upon the utterance of the word 'Vietnam' is wholly predictable. That naked girl child of Trảng Bàng fleeing a napalm attack in terror, her scream silenced by the stillness of the well-known picture you have glanced at time and again or the grotesque image of blood-soaked bodies heaped by the side of a rice field in My Lai that continued to burn like a stinging slap across the face of the American administration long after the troops had pulled out of Vietnam. But the sheer tragedy of a nation being whittled down to the status of being defined by an ill-famed proxy war and a trendy word with an 'ism' at the end, has its roots in our collective apathy. 

Marguerite Duras' Indo-China (as described in her fictionalized memoir The Lover) was a place inextricably linked to the abuse of her childhood years, a cultural melting pot, an eerie and exotic landscape which served to simultaneously heighten and assuage her mental anguish, a nation still resigned to being seen as just another jewel in the crown of Europe. But Violet Kupersmith's Vietnam is the hum of the life force coursing through her veins; the horror and beauty that this culture encompasses, a hand-me-down from her ancestors. And it is this Vietnam, we have not cared enough to know, which inhabits these short stories. The tinge of paranormal intrigue and the elements of suspense are merely there to help you keep turning the pages with ease but it is the landscape itself which towers above the set of native Vietnamese characters and the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S., metamorphosing into a humanly protagonist narrating a melancholic tale of personal woes.

The water nymph boarder of Hotel Frangipani, the ailing old Mrs Tran whose time on earth runs out while waiting for her now-American daughter and grand-daughters to visit her from far off Houston, the soldier-turned-calligrapher who cannot banish the horrifying memories of accidentally killing a civilian girl while serving the Viet Cong, the septuagenarian who involuntarily undergoes a morbid transformation into a giant python at times and ends up recounting the story of his life to a random Vietnamese American teen, the white girl who works at the American consulate in Ho Chi Minh are many among the imaginary guides that Ms Kupersmith designates to familiarize readers with an assortment of folktale-ish stories with elements of horror as the common running theme.

To quibble, some of the stories have been fashioned in an amateurish way in which character tropes such as the thoughtful, unattractive, fat sister and the insensitive, skinny one and the ignorant, condescending American tourist abound. But the structural and thematic integrity of the remaining stories made up for the flaws of the former and caused my 3 stars to be elevated to 3.5 stars.

Subtlety isn't Ms Kupersmith's strongest suit but her writing serves as a good example of potency of theme and plot surpassing the need for linguistic adornments at times and a rude reminder of my little to no knowledge of Vietnam sans the 'war', an oversight which needs to be remedied post haste. 


Review also posted on Goodreads & Amazon.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

First published:- 1980

Star rating:-

I wonder what Carl Sagan may have thought of 9/11 and the world in the new millennium, a strife-torn place which is being shaken up and shaken out every moment. I imagine the civil but slightly horrified and slightly bemused tone he may have employed while talking about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the antics of the Bush administration which have become such excellent fodder for stand up comedians the world over. And I can almost detect the note of boyish enthusiasm in his voice while he may have spoken of the Higgs Boson and explained the reasons behind the incorrect observation readings of the 'neutrinos being speedier than light particles' experiment that had made the headlines a few years ago.

I can only imagine because he wasn't there to witness these watershed events and he isn't here to offer comment, criticism or share his inexhaustible repository of knowledge with us any longer. His time in the Cosmos had run out within two decades of the publication of this work - a testament to his own belief in the staggering inferiority of our evanescent lifetimes in the scheme of the universe(s). 

"Our familiar universe of galaxies and stars, planets and people, would be a single elementary particle in the next universe up, the first step of another infinite regress."

It would be nice if I could summarize each one of the 13 chapters of 'Cosmos' and give readers the lowdown on our painstakingly slow but rewarding crawl through the fabric of space and time, the civilizational hurdle race towards a finish line which we can neither begin to envision nor fully comprehend yet. 
I could write a review in the conventional format, leaving you with a gentle nudge to read this book as soon as you can.

Or, instead, I could simply write about how, despite being more than 30 years outdated, Carl Sagan's voice of reason rings truer than ever, cutting through the heart of all the din and chaos of our troubled times. I could just tell you how Sagan's deep and abiding love for nature and humanity reverberates in every page of this work and how our scientific endeavours across timelines and geographical boundaries, across the unending void which surrounds us on all sides, symbolize our collective pursuit of knowledge.

"There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised."

The Cold War is a now defunct appendage of our history, the Soviet Union is no more, America has achieved a milestone in its race relations by welcoming its first Black President. But turmoil in the world order persists - the nuclear arms race between the Americans and the Soviets has been replaced by a newer dance of dominance in the Asia Pacific region. The world is as much embroiled in a mesh of steadily growing list of challenges as it was in the past, if not more. Preposterous decrees issued by fanatical outfits, blatant human rights violations, infringement on freedom of speech and expression, diplomatic arm-wrestling, the ever-enthusiastic decriers of science, 'War on Women', the shouts of the global-warming deniers reign supreme still. The players may have changed faces but the game of petty one-upmanship in the arena of global politics still continues unabated.

Which is why Sagan's rousing call for all of mankind to unite under the identity of citizens of the Cosmos and not as citizens of a nation moves me to the core of my being. His recapitulation of our scientific advancements achieved against the tide of adverse circumstances, of the victories won in the face of persecution by religious authority, impresses upon us a sense of urgency - that with the exponential increase in the defense budgets of the global powers, the incentive given to the greatest minds of our times to devote time and energy to unraveling the mysteries of the Cosmos is reduced. As the concept of 'nuclear deterrence' receives a pat on the back, the global arms sales numbers continuing to soar despite hollow promises of arms control, more and more scientists are being engaged in improving weapons technology rather than validating the fact of our existence against the intimidating presence of the stars, galaxies and universes. The NASA budget cuts of recent times are proof of this ignominy.
Is it to this end that the ancient advanced cities like Alexandria, the destroyed civilizations of Ionia and the Aztecs and pioneers such as Eratosthenes, Democritus, Aristarchus, Hypatia, Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Christiaan Huygens, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein worked tirelessly for? To further intensify mutual national antagonism and increase our probability of complete self-annihilation?

Sagan thinks not.

"Our loyalties are to the species and the planet.We speak for the Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring."

This is why I can't help but agree quite heartily with someone who says 'If I had a religion, I would be a Carl Saganian.'

"If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."

If there is only one worldly diktat we must abide by with unquestioning faith, let it be this one.

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