Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Book for Easter: Resurrection by Lev Tolstoy

How does one react when one comes face to face with one's crime? Does one fake ignorance and turn away or does one accept one's wrong-doing and try to atone for it? This is the theme of Lev Tolstoy's last novel Resurrection, first published serially in 1899.

"All this happened,...because all these people... consider that there are circumstances in this world when man owes no humanity to man." 





Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, a wealthy, aristocrat about to make a fortunate alliance with the Princess Missy Korchagina is summoned to the court for jury duty. Three people - a man and two women - are being tried for the murder of a businessman. Dmitri is shocked to see that the younger woman amongst the accused is somebody whom he had known in his youth.  Katyusha Maslova was a ward of his aunts with whom he had once fallen in love but then had shamefully seduced and abandoned her. Now she stands before him as a prostitute accused of murder.



Dmitri's first instinct is to hide lest she recognise and accuse him and thus destroy his reputation. But as the Public Prosecutor flays Maslova, Dmitry feels that it is he whose crimes are being brought into the light. Already troubled by the aimlessness and cynicism that has become the defining feature of his life, Dmitry decides to help Maslova and through it regain his youthful idealism. He can go to any lengths to achieve it, even sacrifice himself by marrying this 'depraved creature'. The very thought makes him feel good about his exalted self. How noble he has become! But Maslova would have nothing to do with it: "You had your pleasure from me in this world, and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come!"

This rejection is the awakening for Dmitry and this gives Tolstoy the perfect opportunity to depict what Scottish poet Robert Burns called 'Man's inhumanity to Man'. Law, institutionalized religion, the prison system, the unequal distribution of wealth, the hypocrisy of the advantaged, the humiliation of the dispossessed, the efforts of the idealistic... the novel becomes one big comment on the human condition.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed the novel too much. [In fact, I had forgotten about having read it before and it was only mid-way that it started coming back to me]. It read too much like the portrayal of all the sufferings in the world with characters being introduced ceaselessly to depict one misery or depravity after another but there are certain scenes that stood out. One of them, the innocent, pregnant woman running after her seducer has almost become an archetype with the girl abandoned on a rain-drenched platform while her seducer speeds away in a train which disappears in the dark:

"Gone!" She screamed.

"He is sitting in a velvet arm-chair and joking and drinking in a brightly-lit carriage and I, out here in the mud, in the darkness, in the wind and the rain, am standing and weeping...."



*

First Line: Though hundreds of thousands had done their very best to disfigure the small piece of land on which they were crowded together, paving the ground with stones, scraping away every sprouting blade of grass, lopping off the branches of trees, driving away birds and beasts, filling the air with the smoke of coal and oil - still spring was spring, even in the town.

Title: Resurrection
Original Title: Voskreseniye
Original Language: Russian
Author: Lev Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Publication Details: Moscow: Progress Publishers: 1977
First Published: 1899
Pages: 585
Source: College Library (891.733 T588R)
Other books read of the same author: A few short stories.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Remembering Marquez and His Chronicle


Throwback Thursday is a new meme @ Peggy Ann's Post  in which one shares 'old stuff': books, pictures, movies, T.V. shows. Lovely concept, isn't it?

I have just heard the news that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is no more and so I thought that it'd be fitting to look  back at the first book that I read of him.




My introduction to Marquez was rather late in the day. He was already a renowned, much-translated, Nobel-prize winning author when I first heard of him. Everybody, but everybody, swore by his One Hundred Years of Solitude. Interested, I picked it up... and gave it up. The multi-generational story about the Buendia family which effectively narrates the history of Columbia written in a magic-realist style was beyond my comprehension. So though my brother-in-law and some of my colleagues were his ardent fan, I wasn't enamoured. He was one of those authors whom one 'must read'... but hardly ever did.

All that was to change when I read Chronicle of a Death Foretold. A non-linear narrative, multiple-points-of-view, an anonymous narrator, suspect reliability, a murder and its re-construction had me spell bound.






 “There had never been a death more foretold,”


A small coastal-town in Columbia is abuzz because a bishop is to arrive that very day to bless the union of the local beauty Angela Vicario to the handsome, wealthy outsider Bayardo San Roman. The marriage however, ends the first night itself when Angela is sent back to her parental home by Bayardo. After being beaten by her enraged family, Angela reveals the name of her seducer:
She only took the time necessary to say the name. She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly with no will whose sentence has always been written. ‘Santiago Nasar,’ she said.

This puts her twin brothers Pedro and Pablo in a dilemma. Their code of Family honour demands that they kill Santiago. But he also happens to be their friend and, in fact, had been celebrating the wedding with them in a drunken revelry at the local whore-house. Keen that somebody should stop them from carrying out the murder, the twins go on broadcasting it to the whole town. A death this foretold surely would not occur, but it does...




Decades later, the narrator, a cousin of Angela, a callow youth at the time and now a journalist, tries to reconstruct the events of that particular day, interviewing the surviving members of the drama, trying to guess at their intentions, pointing out the unreliability of both memories and motives.... and comes to no concrete conclusion, only to the image of a town unwilling to face its own complicity in a murder which had made of the town an open wound.



Adieu Marquez. Thanks for the books. May you RIP.



*

First Line: "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on".

Title: Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Original Title: Crónica de una muerte anunciada




Original Language: Spanish
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
First Published: 1981

Other Books read of the same author: One Hundred years of Solitude, Of Love and Other Demons.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Forgotten Book: One of Us Must Die by Anna Clarke

After a tiring day at the hospital, Dr. Dorothy Laver reaches home only to find a note from her husband stating that he is taking his own life. Does Dr. Laver react hysterically? No. She merely goes searching for him and after having found him up in the bathroom with a few superficial cuts on the wrist, stitches them up... and soon Gerald Laver is propped up on the bed with a glass of whisky in one hand, a newspaper in the other, and joking around. All in a day's work.




Anna Clarke's One of Us Must Die is a terrifying look at what it means to live with a psychotic. The Laver household is a living hell. Dorothy - more successful than her husband - has not only to bear his poisonous barbs regarding her professional success and 'lovers', she also has to patch him up after each carefully staged suicide attempts:

He tortured her conscience with these fake suicide bids as an experienced kidnapper or hijacker played on the conscience of a civilized society.

But what hold does Gerry have over her? Why can't Dorothy just walk out of her marriage? Does the answer to this lies in an incident fifteen years earlier when their infant daughter had died of an overdose? Is it a feeling of guilt that binds Dorothy to Gerry?

As things reach boiling point with Dorothy thinking how easy it'd be to be free of all the mental trauma and emotional anguish -You can have your freedom from him, (her thoughts) kept telling her. It is terribly easy. All you have to do is to let it happen next time. Not to come to the rescue. To arrive home too late - new factors intrude upon this hellish situation. Dorothy finds herself seeking the company of a young man Peter in order to unburden herself; a young girl, Nina, enters the household as a help; and Dorothy's ailing father comes to stay.... And a death takes place. But can death always resolve an issue or does it give rise to another set of complications?



Clarke's book is terrifying look at mental and emotional abuse. The first half of the novel is brilliant in what it means to live with an emotionally unstable person who knows how to push your buttons but the later part seems to have been written in a hurry with the novel losing much of its steam. But all in all, here's an author I am glad to have discovered and whom I'd like to read more of.

*

First Line: "Gerry! Where are you?"

Title: One of Us Must Die
Author: Anna Clarke
Publishing Details: London: Collins, 1978 (The Crime Club)
First Published: 1978
Pages: 193

Other books read of the same author: None

*

A rather late entry for FFB @ Pattinase. Please head over there for the other entries.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Forgotten Book: Murder at the Pageant by Victor L. Whitechurch

Being a member of the clergy and a writer of mysteries might seem two very different callings but Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch (1868-1933) was both: attached to the Church of England as well as a prolific writer and member of the Detection Club. He is best known today for his stories featuring the Railway Detective Thorpe Hazell. (A review of it can be read @ Pretty Sinister Books). But he also wrote a number of other books including Murder at the Pageant.



Frimley Manor is in a state of excitement. It is an evening in the year 1929 and a pageant is being held in its grounds in order to collect funds for a hospital. In 1705, Queen Anne had visited the manor and had been carried over in a sedan chair. Now two hundred and twenty four years later, the same scene is being enacted with the highlight being the same sedan chair that had been used to carry Her Royal Highness:

It was a very handsome old chair, lacquered in black and dark red and overlaid with brass filigree-work. The poles, also, were similarly ornamented. One of the bearers lifted the roof, which was hinged, slightly, and tilted it back, while another opened the side door. Queen Anne rose from her seat, stepped out, and graciously accepted the hand of her host. They led the way, followed by their respective retainers, to the entrance of the house, into which they disappeared. 



The scene is well-received though there is a slight feeling that Mrs. Cresswell, who is playing the role of Queen Anne, should not be flaunting her pearls so:

 "Don't you think Mrs. Cresswell is a silly ass to sport those pearls of hers all over the place?"

"Why?"

"Well, they are frightfully valuable, you know. I think she's simply asking for trouble."

"Oh, you mean it's a temptation?"

"Well, you don't know who there might have been among the crowd we had in here today. I know one thing, and that is that her husband would be perfectly hectic about it if he knew she'd been wearing that necklace. He's most awfully particular about it—family heirloom, and all that sort of thing. They say he only lets her put the thing on when he's present, or at shows where detectives are engaged."

"Well, he isn't here today, anyway. And the thing's all over now. If any motor bandits were about they'd have had the bally pearls by this time."

However, before the night is over the pearls go missing, a murder occurs, and the chair assumes a sinister significance. Now, it is up to the police (who are thankfully, shown as pretty competent) and ex-secret service agent Roger Bistrow, who is one of the guests at the manor as well as Master of the Pageant, to solve this double mystery.

This is an easy read which well captures the English countryside.

*

First Line: "The sedan-chair used in this scene is the chair in which Queen Anne was carried on the occasion of her visit to Frimley Manor in 1705."

Title: Murder at the Pageant
Author: Victor L. Whitechurch
Publication Details: London: Collins, 1930 (The Crime Club)
First Published: 1930
Pages: n.pag.
Other books read of the same author: None


*

Entry for FFB @ Pattinase

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mount TBR: March Checkpoint

It's March and time for the first check-in as we climb the mountains of books that always seem to be spilling-off the shelves.



Well, I am not aiming too high. All I have to do is to read 12 books in order to scale my small Pike's Peak. And I seem to be making adequate progress, having already read 3:

From Sawdust to Stardust by Terry Lee Rioux
 Kartography by Kamila Shamsie
To Make the Deaf Hear by S. Irfan Habib



Of these my favourite cover has been this:




The two men are Indian revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt. They got themselves clicked before they went and threw bombs in the legislative assembly. Though the bombs were manufactured in such a way as not to kill anyone, this dare-devilry was sure to get them either hanged or incarcerated. I have often wondered what must have been passing through their minds as they sat facing the camera.

The Urdu couplets on top are from the Jail Notebook of Bhagat Singh. The first one reads thus:

Give me a heart of such temperament, O Protector
That it may pass the hour of sorrow also as a happy hour.  

*

If you want to go mountain climbing (and be rewarded for your efforts), click here.





Friday, March 28, 2014

Forgotten Books: Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham.

It's strange that soon after going through Margot's post on novels with a compressed time span, I should find myself reading a book which spans just two days with the main action taking place one night when things simply spiral out of control, changing lives forever.



William Somerset Maugham's Up at the Villa begins with a description of almost unbearable loveliness: The villa stood on the top of a hill. From the terrace in front of it you had a magnificent view of Florence; behind was an old garden, with few flowers, but with fine trees, hedges of cut box, grass walks and an artificial grotto in which water cascaded with a cool, silvery sound from a cornucopia.


Who wouldn't want to stay in such a place, especially if you could lounge about the garden and read books? Mary Panton, a young widow, is staying in the villa, recuperating from the physical and emotional trauma endured during years of marriage to an alcoholic, wastrel, wife-beater, womaniser of a husband whom she could not leave because of his emotional dependence on her. His death in an accident frees them both and her lawyer sagely advises her to marry next time for position and companionship. At that time Mary had found the advice absurd having no desire to get married again but now having received a proposal from Sir Edgar Swift, she wonders whether she should say yes to a life that would offer her security and comfort. Edgar - years older than her and actually a contemporary of her father in the Indian Civil Services - has cared for her right from the time she was in her teens. And now he has been offered the governorship of Bengal and he wants to get married to her before taking up his new position in India. Touched by his long devotion to her and thrilled about being the wife of a man in such an important position, Mary is yet in something of a fix and asks for a couple of days to think it over. That night, even as Edgar leaves town for an important meeting, Mary goes to a party where there a few other English expatriates. Amongst them is Rowley Flint, known as something of a scoundrel with a bad record of loving girls and ditching them. He had been paying a great deal of attention to Mary but even she is shocked when he proposes marriage to her. Two proposals in one day! Mary who thinks Flint is simply being odious, sobs out the story of her wretched married life and makes up her mind to marry Edgar.

On her way back, she runs into a young man who had been playing violin at the restaurant they had dined in. He is a wretched player yet Mary had given him a hundred lire note in a burst of generosity. Now seeing him standing forlorn, hungry, and tired, and being in an overwrought condition herself, she takes him to the villa and quite before knowing it she finds herself cooking for him, waltzing with him, and finding herself in bed with him. Karl (that's the name of the violinist) tells her that he is the son of an Austrian policeman who shot himself when the Nazis marched into Austria. He himself rebelled against their rule and was put into a concentration camp from where he escaped later and made his way to Italy where he barely manages to scrap along. Sometimes, he says, he wants to end it all the way his father did. Full of pity for the young man and yet desirous of seeing him leave before dawn breaks, Mary offers him money.


It is absolutely the worst thing she could have done and soon enough there is blood spilled and the villa changes from a place of sanctuary to a haunted place of dark deeds.



Up at the Villa raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. How far should one play with the emotions of another human in order to exalt your sense of the self? The English expatriates, living in a blissful paradise, seem unconcerned about the happenings of the world as it slowly falls to pieces. (The book was first published in 1941 and depicts the period just before the second world war). The dismissal of Karl by the characters and the narrative seems ominously like what happens to little people in all grand narratives. More than the Empire-builder Edgar Swift, the stiff-upper lip Mary, and the lovable scoundrel (as only the British can be) Rowley Flint, it was the marginalised figure of the Austrian refugee who really made an impression on me.

This book had long been on my wishlist and I found it unputdownable, finishing it virtually in one sitting.


*

First Line: The villa stood on the top of a hill.

Title: Up at the Villa
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin, 1967
First Published: 1941
Pages: 95
Trivia: The book was filmed in 2000 by Philip Haas.



Other books read of the same author: Cakes and Ale, The Magician, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge, and Numerous short stories.

*

Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

23 March: A Remembrance in Books

Today is 23 March. A day when we remember the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, three young men who laid down their lives for the freedom of India. I thought this would be an appropriate occasion to talk about books related to them that I read recently.



Professor S. Irfan Habib's To Make the Deaf Hear discusses the ideological development of the revolutionaries of the HSRA, a secret revolutionary organisation that was formed in the 1920s. As compared to the earlier revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh and his comrades had progressed much beyond the usual 'we want to free India from the clutches of the British' refrain. These young revolutionaries understood that simply a change in political leadership was not going to usher in a new dawn for India. If social oppression and denial of rights continued in an India ruled by Indians than it was no freedom but just a different type of slavery:

We want a socialist revolution, the indispensable preliminary to which is the political revolution. That is what we want. The political revolution does not mean the transfer of state (or more crudely, the power) from the hands of the British to the Indian, but to those Indians who are at one with us as to the final goal, or to be more precise, the power to be transferred to the revolutionary party through popular support. After that, to proceed in right earnest is to organise the reconstruction of the whole society on a socialist basis. If you do not mean this revolution then please have mercy. Stop shouting "Long Live Revolution." The term revolution is too scared, at least to us, to be so lightly used or misused. (185)

 More than 200 pages long, one-third of the book is devoted to the writing and speeches of these young revolutionaries explicating their thoughts on various ills that plagued Indian society. Even if you have little idea about Indian history this book will hold your attention as it brings alive a time of great debates as India recovered her voice. Much recommended.



"How does one study the literary life of intensities?" is the question that Prof. Udaya Kumar asks in his Forward to Nikhil Govind's recently published Between Love and Freedom which analyses the image/ construction of the revolutionary in the novels of three Hindi writers: Jainendra Kumar, Agyeya, and Yashpal. The second chapter of the book 'Bhagat Singh and Gandhi: Competing moralities regarding the question of revolutionary sacrifice' discusses "certain similarities and divergences of their notions of the political practice of freedom" (76). 

I must admit I was very surprised while reading this book. Firstly, I never expected Govind to have anything to do with Hindi literature, but this book ( a published version of his doctorate thesis) demonstrates a love for the language that is refreshing. Secondly, I expected a book full of jargon and thus difficult to understand but this book is entirely accessible so much so that even though I have read but a few of the novels discussed, I enjoyed it thoroughly.



The third book is a play Kranti ki Laptain (Flames of Revolution) by Dr. Chandramani Brahmdutt. The author dramatises certain key points in Bhagat Singh's life, especially his trial at both Delhi and Lahore. The revolutionaries had themselves used the courts as public platform to air their views and indeed these scenes are the best in the play which otherwise does not impress much.

*

First Line: The rising of 1857 marked the beginning of India's struggle for independence.

Title: To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades
Author: S. Irfan Habib
Publishing Details: Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2007
First Published: September, 2007
Pages: 231
Other books read of the same author: None

*

First Line: The figure of the youthful revolutionary, on the run from the police, torn from family and love, isolated even amongst his peers, uncertain of whether he wold be able to live to see and share the future he was resolved to deliver, is an enduring image in the mid-century Hindi novel.

Title: Between Love and Freedom: The Revolutionary in the Hindi Novel
Author: Nikhil Govind
Publication Details: ND: Routledge, 2014
First Published: 2014
Pages: 180
Other books read of the same author: None

*

First Line: Ek hall mein halki si roshni ho rahi hai, ek taraf Lenin ka chitra tanga hai, kuchh kitaben ast-vyast si dikahi pad rahi hain.

Title: Kranti ki Laptain
Author: Dr. Chandramani Brahmdutt
Publication Details: ND: Kalawati Prakashan, 2009
First Published: 2009
Pages: 119
Other books read of the same author: None