Belated Happy Birthday, Gabo

During the early, celebratory tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, thirteen writers were invited to spend some time in India for a literary rendezvous.  The event, like its godfather Rajiv Gandhi, is hardly remembered – not even Google finds anything on the event, and you have to trust my memory.

But even then, the event was hardly noticed, though this seven-word-poem captured the attention of a local newspaper, and it remains imprinted on my mind ever since.

United States,

Where liberty is a statue

A person called Gabriel Garcia Marquez quoted these lines penned by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

A few years later, thanks to the attentive eyes of a friend, I got to read a novel by Marquez himself. My friend had found the book in a used books shop in Mcleodganj near Dharamsala. I devoured the book with a raving ferocity. His books were rarely known in India at that time, except perhaps in some highbrow intellectual circles.

To say that I was impressed would be an understatement; I had never read anything like that before. I made notes, the only ones that I ever made on a typewriter, and they appear below, untampered. My enthusiasm has not waned since then.

I went on to read all of Garcia Marquez’s published works, and though I haven’t read any work of fiction by him in the last decade (unless one counts his autobiography as one!) , I must admit that I continue to be fascinated by Gabo, as he is known in Colombia, his native country from where he has lived in exile for many years now.

The next Latin American writer that I read happened to read was Mario Vargas Llosa, whose passing mention in an interview that Garcia Marquez had with the Mexican revolutionary Subcommandante Marcos, invoked my interest. It turned out later that there was an infamous altercation between the two. The Mexican journal La Jornada published a picture of Garcia Marquez with a black eye, apparently taken immediately after the altercation.

Recently one heard, with suffused elation, that the two had made up. Marquez’s agreeing to a new edition of his magnum opus One Hundred Years to have an introduction by Llosa, has been cited as a literary thaw in Latin America.

Belated Happy Birthday Wishes, Gabo. (March 6 was his 80th birthday)

A wonderful site on Gabo that has been around for longer than I can remember.

(Image acknowledgement: Journal Peru)

***

(Notes on One Hundred Years of Solitude, I read it in 1991)

This is a masterpiece of a novel by a foremost Latin American novelist in contemporary literature. The story is woven around a family which moves over two centuries of pain, suffering and ecstasy and shares them with the town of Macando founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia and who is the first head of the family. Despite the extrovert nature of most of the family members, the successive generations in the family continue to suffer a strange and an almost nauseating feeling of being alone and embracing solitude.

Through the family line, there are two discernible strands of personality symbolized by Arcadio and Aurelanio- the former typifying the extrovert self coupled with an adventurous spirit and the latter embodying a rebellious and subtle spirit. The novel evolves through the contradictions and struggle between the two strands of nature through five generations.

The recurrence of the Arcadios and Aurelanios makes one feel that history is moving in a circle and out of which there seems to be no way out. Yet that is not the case. For the novel is not about a family in the far- off jungles of South America. The family and its experiences are only a metaphor.

The tale that Marquez wants to tell is about our own selves. The trials and tribulations of the family are not new and unrelated but part of our existential set of problems. Arcadio and Aurelanio are not two separate beings but very much the dual personalities within ourselves. Solitude is perhaps the pinnacle of the existential predicament. And as Marquez warns the discerning reader, no race of people is fortunate enough to experience its past again. No man is reborn.

If one has to break the cyclical, aimless wandering of the spirit, it has to be done in the now. In this sense, this novel is a call to action, not a mere novel to be read and forgotten. It is an elixir that has to be absorbed inside the body so that it becomes a part of the Self.

The narrative of the novel is not straightforward but moves through a maze of subtle and often innocuous looking images and metaphors so that one finds ghosts and phantoms of the dead and the forgotten moving and interacting with the living and the real. The transmission of  ideas and inventions from the world outside to the remote village of Macando takes place through wandering gypsies so that what reaches them is
a bunch of scattered and seemingly unrelated ideas.

The formation of the world view of the founder Arcadio Buendia and his successors is expressed using a mixture of myth, fantasy and science that evolve through the corruptions of the spoken word, mingled with songs and tales. Flying carpets and disappearing acts are a part of the hazards.

The untiring and fruitless efforts of  alchemists and the dreams of the pioneers of flying transport one to the times of struggle and hope. Of ecstasy and excitement.

One also shares the rigors and defeats of the Auriliano Buendia, who fights thirty-two battles and loses them all. Naturally, he fights on behalf of the revolutionary forces. But ultimately, his craving for solitude overpowers him, and he surrenders–both in the field as well as spiritually. He ends up a lost man with a lost cause. By the time he realizes his error, it is already too late, and his friends are no more to start a fresh war with the Conservative government. But he, too, leaves behind a rich legacy which his nephew tries to carry forward–with equally disastrous results. And then, the town relapses into obscurity again. Auriliano Buendia, the once legendary hero, too, is forgotten, remembered only by the only great grandchild who survives.

 ***

Update : Gabo takes a walk with Fidel on his birthday last week.

“This morning I had a visit with Gabo, who showed up here. He’s here.”

Link via John Baker.

The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos

The Book of Lamentations51ZXl5Fj7ML._SL500_AA300_[1]

Translated by Esther Allen, Marsilio Publishing 1996 pages 400

Exactly twenty years ago, the world became aware of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Though the immediate reason for the revolt was the NAFTA treaty that opened the floodgates for US-manufactured goods into Mexico, it was one among a series of previous revolts in the area since the 18th century. Rosario Castellano’s farewell novel before her death at the age of 49 in 1974 is based on these revolts and located in the early 20th century. The title of the novel recalls the Jewish text also called The Book of Lamentations,a collection of poetic laments about the destruction of Jerusalem.

The proclamation of land reforms by the PRI party in early 20th century forms the background to the events depicted in the novel. Spurred on by an honest and gritty land inspector, Fernando Ulloa and the millenarian prophecies of an Indian woman, Catalina Diaz Puilja, the indigenous Tzotzil-speaking Mayan people of the region rise up against the Ladinos, the landowners of Spanish descent. The end is a bloody defeat of the rebels and Fernando’s calamitous death at the hands of the Ladinos- led by Leonardo Cifuentes, the devious representative of the land-rich ranchers. These three characters form the fulcrum of the story, though there are at least a dozen important characters in the novel.

Continue reading

The Year Gone By- 2013

2013 is the year when I discovered Mo Yan- who won the 2012 Nobel prize for literature. (Shifu , You’ll do anything for a laughLife and Death are Wearing me out, and Red Sorghum). Red Sorghum, the Nobel winner’s first novel is somewhat a let down compared to the other two later books that were reviewed earlier this year on this blog.

Everything Flows by Vasili Grossman, one of my favourite 20th century authors did not disappoint. It is at least as brilliant, if not more than his longer and more well known Life and Fate, considered to be the War and Peace of the 20th century.

Khrushchev on Khrushchev, a chance discovery at a down town used books sale, was a wonderful find. The first part that dealt with the days of Nikita Khrushchev are well described by his son, Sergei, giving a human touch to a very significant part of the Soviet and world history. The events leading to the secret speech against Stalin and the subsequent overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev by the neo- Stalinist brigade are described from a keen memory that remembered small and significant details all through the intervening decades. The book was published in 1990, towards the end of the Soviet rule.

The mediocrity the of the Stalinist gang that overthrew was well represented by the sullen face of Brezhnev. But, as Nikita Khrushchev on the eve of the coup observed- there had been a fundamental shift in Soviet society by the time he was forced out of office.

I have done the main thing. Relations among us, the style of leadership, has changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore, and suggesting that he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear’s gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.

The levels to which the administration went to bug the Khrushchevs’ house and movements look both ludicrous and naive-  particularly as the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s snooping were coming out at the time I was reading this book. The Soviets did the same thing – just more clumsily with a primitive technology.

Down and Out in London and Paris by George Orwell was a failed attempt at re- reading a book that I had enjoyed a lot the first time but did not find it to be the same on a second reading.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an accidental and interesting find, did not hold much interest after a few pages. I would have liked to read it when I was a teenager, and perhaps in Urdu rather in English in which the language is far too ornate. The long and bulky work is considered to be the Indian equivalent of the Thousand Nights.

I read a lot more online this year but reading on a screen is not the easiest mode for the long form- there is too much of a temptation to read shorter articles.

Unfortunately, these don’t make for an annual review of reading, they are easier on the twitter river on the side bar or the face “book”. Yet, I would like to single out these two review essays (both on contemporary Chinese literature) to end this post:

Prison Notebooks and Chinese Whispers- Contemporary Chinese literature through an Indian lens.

[Read posts from past years in this series]

An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan

Long novels tend to wear out the reader, and this one was no exception. Yet I ended up reading Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. In the process, I came to not only respect Mo Yan’s talented writing, but also gained a view of China through the second half of the long 20th century. On a side note, it is quite ironical that what is a very long read, took Mo Yan just 42 days to write, that too by hand since he doesn’t use a computer.

Mo Yan’s writing is humorous as he recounts the ups and down of Chinese history–starting with the Revolution on 1st January 1950 and ending the novel on 1st January 2000. It is not only the turn of the millennium but also a time when China firmly and decisively, veered towards a capitalist future.

Mo Yan’s writing is a page turner, as he gallops through a very grim part of China’s recent history. The writing is marked by a humorous, even comical touch. The style is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Especially in the long middle, the narrative is quirky, marked by tangential diversions and exaggeration. While Garcia Marquez’s style came to be known as magical realism, I would term Mo Yan’s as “comic realism” (I couldn’t find the term on Google, so I may claim some originality for coining it!), given the humour with which the novel bustles. Continue reading

Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, is the nome de plume of Guan Moye- the name “Mo Yan” literally means “Don’t Speak.” Apparently, Guan  Moye was so talkative as a child that his mother repeatedly commanded, “Don’t Speak.” So, when Guan Moye decided to become a writer, he adopted Mo Yan as his nome de plume.

It says much about today’s China when Mo Yan explains why he decided to become a writer. He was once told by a student sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution that writers make a lot of money, so he decided to put his gift of the gab to a profitable use. That is how Mo Yan became one of China’s most loved living writer.

The collection of stories in the book under review, Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh, contains 7 of the writer’s stories written over several decades.

The title story is about Ding Shikou, a worker who has been fired from his job just a week before his retirement. In the new capitalist China where making money by hook or crook is as acceptable as for a worker to be laid off close to retirement, Ding Shikou finds opportunites to make money in an abandoned bus  hidden among the vegetation near a beach resort. Observing that young couples often do not have enough privacy at the beach, he starts to rent out the bus after furnishing it with a bed and providing cold drinks to couples- young and not so young. Soon, he has a roaring business. Towards the end of the story, his conscience comes back to gnaw at him. This is by far the best story in the collection, marked by touches of magical realism.

Continue reading

The Year Gone By- 2012

This post should really have been titled The Seven Year Glitch, for the continuous lack of anything worthwhile that this blog had to share for this reading year. But if it isn’t titled that way, it is because just as I was contemplating this year’s “Gone By” post, snowflakes were falling outside my window, and there was a book that was warming me up. Hope was springing.

But first, here is the small list of the books I read, or attempted to read this year:

The Walk by Robert Walser: Though barely 90 short pages long in a pocket sized edition  I haven’t reached the halfway mark yet. The style is familiar, and though it isn’t as tepid as The Robber that I read last year, it is yet to give the same feel The Assistant with its exquisite prose.

The Dream of the Celt by Llosa, Mario Vargas. This book makes it to the maiden review at this blog  in 2012 though I must add that it is because of the blogger’s devotion to Mario Vargas Llosa rather than the quality of the book. Continue reading

The Dream of the Celt

The Dream of the Celt, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel published in Spanish in 2010, and whose English translation appeared earlier this year, recounts the life of Sir Roger Casement in the earlier part of the 20th century. Born of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Casement served the British Empire well enough to be honoured with the title of ‘Sir’. His life, however, ended tragically when he was executed by the same British state in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland.

As a 20-year-old, Roger Casement joined the International Congo Society’s (AIC) operations in the Congo in Africa. A fervent believer in the idea that the West was spreading civilization across the world, his ideas underwent a transformation when he was exposed to the brutalities the AIC–owned by the Belgian King Leopold II–was committing to further his interests in the extraction of rubber in that part of the world.

Roger Casement prepared a report strongly indicting the rubber company and hence the Belgian monarch. This report led to Roger Casement’s recognition as a great liberator of the Congolese people. He was subsequently sent to South America to investigate the treatment of natives. His report had a devastating impact, and the Peruvian Amazon Company that was responsible for the atrocities was forced to close down.

His fame had, by then, spread to all echelons of British society, and Sir Roger Casement was offered a diplomatic post as the British ambassador to Brazil. It was then that he made a surprising decision. He turned down the offer and instead decided to return to Ireland and dedicate his life to the freedom from the very colonial power that he had served until recently. Continue reading