Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

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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.

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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

Knowing the Turf

During the last twenty years, there has been a parallel discourse on the economic and social developments in India. On one hand, the votaries of economic ‘reform’ do not tire of singing paeans to what they perceive to be an economic miracle that has transformed India into an economic power. This hunky dory narrative has been consistently challenged by numerous counter narratives, in the shape of numerous studies and in a more accessible manner, by journalists, activists and writers who have reported heart wrenching stories from the ground- P. Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought (1996), Siddhartha Dube’s Words without Freedom (1998), my friend Rahul Banerjee’s ‘A Romantic among the Bhils‘ (2009) readily come to mind.  To this literature Annie Zaidi’s Known Turfis a welcome addition.The book has seven sections, dealing with bandits in Chambal, chai, poverty in Madhya Pradesh and UP, contemporary Punjab, Sufism, the writer’s ruminations on what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary India and ending with the writer’s activism with an urban feminist group and an understanding of what feminism means for her. It is interesting that the the book should begin with fiction- the story of the Chambal dacoits, take the readers from fiction to fact as it were and end with the author’s discovery of her what she calls her turf.
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Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone- a review

Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone by Satnam, translated by Vishav Bharti- a review.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté (a local drink) and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’

- Che Guevara, describing the life of a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata. (The Motorcycle Diaries)

At the age of 23, Che undertook a journey on a motorcycle across South America and wrote a journal based on it. The journal was published in a book form titled The Motorcycle Diaries a decade or so back. Satnam’s Jangalnama could well be a sequel to that book, written in the context of the Red India, as the Maoist controlled belt has come to be known.

There are differences, of course. Che was young, fresh out of medical college. He rode a motorcycle and was essentially on an adventure tour during the course of which he got to see the underbelly of South America and about which he wrote so eloquently. This journey was part of his education in becoming a revolutionary soon after.
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Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography by Francis Wheen

Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen (2008, Manjul Publications, India, Rs. 195)

Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx, published in 2001, was probably the first one to be published after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ‘existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe. He has now written a ‘biography’ of Marx’s magnum opus Das Kapital. Wheen’s central point is that Capital needs to be seen, above all, as a work of art.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorized as a work of economics, Karl Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations of underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world that they inhabit- a world in which humans are  enslaved by the monstrous power of inanimate capital and commodities. (page 7)

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‘Same Same but Different’

peeppeep-fullcoverPeep Peep Don’t Sleep
Author: Ajay Jain
Kunzum
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 350, US $19.95, UK £11.95

Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

By Bhaswati Ghosh

We thought travel was about visiting places, soaking up the atmosphere of new territories, and relishing the journey. Who could have known Road Signs could be part of the travel entertainment package as well? Yes, Road Signs, those inevitable pointers along the way that we take no more seriously than empty coke cans strewn across the terrains we travel through.

Welcome then, to the world of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian agency responsible for construction and maintenance of all roads in areas along India’s borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. For, BRO, with its BROtherly (even fatherly at times) attitude, can turn the toughest of driving trips along India’s edges into the funniest. Many a traveler journeying through these often rugged stretches must have enjoyed a smirk or four reading BRO’s imaginative Road Signs. Author-journalist Ajay Jain has, however, done a favour to those of us who are yet to grab the fun for ourselves. With his book, Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep.

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Indira Goswami: Out of the Shadow of Kamakhya

It is very heartening when writers in Indian languages receive international recognition. The award of the Principal Prince Claus Award to Indira (Mamoni Raisom) Goswami (link via Aruni Kashyap) is therefore quite  a joyful occasion. My own reading of this outstanding Asomiya writer goes back to her major novel The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker, located in the Assam of the 1950s. Another one is Pages Stained with Blood that is a pretty courageous short novel in the backdrop of the 1984 anti- Sikh pogrom. My admiration for her literary power is highest , however, for the collection of short stories The Shadow of Kamakhya, that was reviewed in an earlier post and re- appears below. Continue reading

The Assistant by Robert Walser

The Assistant was first published in 1907 in German and has been translated for the first time in English by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions last year.

It caught my eye when I saw a reference to Kafka in a blurb about the novel. Apparently Kafka admired Robert Walser, and looked forward to his writings each week. After a spate of novels and short stories, Walser’s writing career ended quite grotesquely when in 1928, he was admitted to a mental asylum, where he was confined till his death in 1956. He is supposed to have remarked to one of his visitors that ‘I am not here to write, but to be mad’, a statement that to my mind makes his madness suspect. As in the case of all those who blossom early but are then ill fated, he leaves behind a sea of mournful conjectures of smothered possibilities.The Assistant is marked by a minimalist plot. Josef Marti- an alter ego of Walser when Walser himself worked a similar job once- joins an entrepreneur to work as his assistant. A veritable Man Friday, he helps out in the household chores as well. The novel follows Marti’s days as the entrepreneur falls into decrepitude, and his enterprise fails to take off. Marti is not paid for months but lives with the family and shares their bourgeois lifestyle, even if it is lived on borrowed money.The novel is an ode to the little man, the minor character of the everyday wage worker, a clerk in Walser’s time but could be anyone who works for a living and has someone or the other for an often domineering boss.

If the plot is minimalist, the action is still more so. Indeed, the lack of action in the novel might have been nauseating were it not for Walser’s exquisite prose peppered with insights into human behavior that transcend a century between when it was first published and now. I was constantly reminded of Anton Chekhov’s deep humanism while reading the book, especially of a story called The Clerk, though there are obvious differences between Chekhov’s short story and Walser’s novel. Chekhov’s clerk Ivan Tchervyakov is a self- effacing and apologetic character who tragically dies when he is unable to get a forgiveness from a general on whom Ivan had inadvertently sneezed in a theater. Marti, on the other hand, has a series of intermittent and hesitant bouts of rebelliousness, ending in his parting of ways with his financially ruined employer.

Yet, the concern for the small man and the travails of everyday life are the same in both the stories. Vasiliy Grossman, in one of the more unworthily obscure novels of the last century, Life and Fate, had remarked that Chekhov was the most democratic writer among the Russian classic writers. Walser, at least in this work, certainly shares a similar honor.

“Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice”, Walser observes at one point when describing the children in his employer’s household. Elsewhere, when Marti’s employer Tobler is presented with yet another bill that he cannot pay, Walser describes it quite imaginatively thus:

The steep amount presented in this bill was so clearly expressed in the furrows on Tobler’s brow, expressed with almost mathematical precision, that one might have been asked to read the exact figure presented there.

Marti has, at one time, even had a brush with the most modern and provocative ideas of his age- socialism. They, however, hardly spark his imagination or make any impact on his mind and life. Great ideas, great movements of history, even great moments in life bypass the inhabitants of the Tobler household, yet there is a magic of life that weaves itself through the routine banter and the changing seasons.Cross Posted at desicritics
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Read an excellent review here, and via the same site, a wonderful blog dedicated to Robert Walser.

Dr. Ambedkar: “Our very own Buddha”

Janhavi Acharekar reviews the autobiography by Dalit writer, Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke: The Autobiography of a Community, “a feminist critique … and sordid memoir of a cursed community.” The book was first published in Marathi in 1986 and is recently translated into English.
The Prisons We Broke is a graphic revelation of the inner world of the Mahar community in Maharashtra. “We were just like animals, but without tails,” she says, describing in lurid detail a world of lice-infested rags for saris, feasts comprising maggot-ridden innards of diseased carcasses, the tearing hunger of starving new mothers, babies cleaned with saliva instead of soap, and intestine-damaging cactus pods consumed to quell hunger.

Born to an entrepreneurial father, the author’s “privileged background” barely keeps her above the abject poverty suffered by her people. Her English-speaking aajas or grandfathers were butlers to European sahibs, far removed from their poverty-stricken and superstition-ridden Maharwada that lay on the fringes of society. However, for the author, it is a world of buffalo fairs and sacrifice, of people possessed by spirits and boys offered to the mother goddess as potrajas. She recounts vividly the people of Maharwada, their houses and customs, their joys and sorrows. Women, especially, occupy pride of place in the narrative.

Baby Kamble’s autobiography is unique because in critiquing Brahminical domination, it also speaks out for the women of her community, presenting an unflinching portrait of its women, subjugated by both caste and patriarchy (later, the same women become the driving force towards education). The younger women suffer the worst fate. Usually married off at the age of eight or nine, they are often physically chained or have their noses chopped off for incurring the displeasure of their husbands or in-laws. And it is in these circumstances that she embraces the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar, their saviour and messiah, their “very own Buddha”.

The Prisons We Broke is significant because it traces the evolution of the Mahar community from pre-Ambedkar days to its rapid transformation through education and mass conversion. It presents the seeds of a revolution through images of impromptu speeches and bold entries into temples, of poems in praise of the man who rescued them from the mire of Hinduism, their “Baliraja, Ravan, Buddha and Bhim”. However, she also contributes to the deification of Ambedkar (“…he is our God. Nay, he is even better; he is the god of gods…He is certainly superior to God.”) and is sharply critical of the current generation of educated Dalits that rejects its roots and drives Babasaheb out of its life.

Related Post: Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panthers

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Nazi Literature in South America and India

Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.

In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:

“YOUTH…YOUTH”
“GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH”
“LEARN FROM FIRE”
“Death is friendship”
“Death is Chile”
“Death is responsibility”
“Death is growth”
“Death is communion”
“Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.

Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.

The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.

Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.

To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.

Related Posts on Roberto Bolano

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How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira

First published in Spanish in 1998, Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun was received with critical acclaim. It’s English translation became available last year.

The novel is about the story of a six year old girl caught in the body of a boy, who tastes strawberry ice cream only to fall into a state of mental delirium emerging from it at the end by having to taste the same ice cream again, this time culminating in a macabre end.

Like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girlpublished earlier this year in its English translation, that too has got impressive reviews, I feel disappointed by Nun after having been bedazzled by Aira’s two previous works translated into English till now- An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare.

The only passage that I found noteworthy, however does not appear in any of the online reviews, that is where Cesar Aira (the six year old girl/ boy protagonist) listens to the radio broadcasts about the astrological predictions of the day.

If the short novella was intended to, as other reviewers have noted, explore the inner workings of the mind of an artist or a writer and their capacity to imagine, the novella is not convincing, even distracing at places.

Other
reviews. The one that I agree with is the one at NYT.

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The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel The Bad Girl is unlike the typical Llosa. The structure is linear and he avoids the interplay with time and space that he normally brings into the novel and that is his hallmark. Perhaps because it is meant as a kind of 20th century Madame Bovary, a novel that Llosa admires much and has written a whole book on (The Perpetual Orgy.)

Llosa’s The Bad Girl, unlike Flaubert’s immortal creation, is unlikely to be counted as among the most significant of own novels- part of the reason is that despite its occasional flashes of brilliance and a most dramatic and contemporary theme, the novelist expects too much from the reader to believe in the many coincidences in the story, and there are just too many pages of dark prose.

I read it over a weekend and it was only my fawning admiration and confidence in Llosa’s previous works that kept me going (this is the 18th book by Llosa that I read, not counting 2 incomplete ones.) The prose is good in the beginning of the novel and towards the end, and while it is rather dreary in the big middle chunk, he manages to keep the determined reader engrossed in dramatic- or perhaps over dramatic- sequences leading to its ominous and disturbing end.

Not bad for a weekend read.

Review of The Bad Girl at SFGate (link via SPLALit).

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P. Sainath on India’s Winter of Discontent

P. Sainath writes on how post- reform poverty differs from that of pre- reform era. Poverty is, after all, as much a relative phenomenon as an absolute one.

The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of the Indian farm household is a long way from Rs.15 lakh. And further from $115,000. It is, in fact, Rs.503. Not far above the rural poverty line. And that’s a national average, mixing both giant landlords and tiny landholders. It also includes States like Kerala where the average is nearly twice the national one. Remove Kerala and Punjab and the figure gets still more dismal. Of course, inequality is rife in urban India too. And growing. But the contrasts get more glaring when you look at rural India.

About 60 per cent of that Rs.503 is spent on food. Another 18 per cent on fuel, clothing, and footwear. Of the pathetic sum left over, the household spends on health twice what it does on education. That is Rs.34 and Rs.17. It seems unlikely that buying unique cellphone numbers is set to emerge a major hobby amongst rural Indians. There are countless households for whom that figure is not Rs.503, but Rs.225. There are whole States whose average falls below the poverty line. As for the landless, their hardships are appalling.

It is not that inequality is new or unknown to us. What makes the last 15 years different is the ruthlessness with which it has been engineered. The cynicism with which it has been constructed. And the scale on which it now exists. And that’s at all levels, even at the top. As Abhijit Banerjee and Thomas Piketty put it in a paper on “Top Indian Incomes 1956-2000,” “The rich (the top 1 per cent) substantially increased their share of total income [in the reform years]. However,
while in the 1980s the gains were shared by everyone in the top percentile, in the 1990s it was only those in the top 0.1 per cent who made big gains.”

“The average top 0.01 per cent income was about 150-200 times larger than the average income of the entire population during the 1950s. This went down to less than 50 times as large by the early 1980s. But went back to being 150-200 times larger during the late 1990s.” All the evidence suggests it has gotten worse since then.

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Palagummi Sainath: Reporting the Rural Poor

Madhukar Shukla has a collection of quotes from the writings of Palagummi Sainath, who last week won the Ramon Magsasay award for developmental journalism.

P. Sainath started his career with the tabloid Blitz and was groomed by the late Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who willed that after his death, Sainath would continue to write his column. He left the Blitz in 1993 when its proprietor BK Karanjia changed his political colours. Sainath’s book Everyone Loves a Good Drought published a decade back is a chilling indictment of the elite in India.

Excerpts from my own review of the book:

Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy.

Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.

The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, rinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

Sainath discovers that while there are schools without buildings and teachers, there are schools with buildings and teachers too. Except that while the ‘buildings’ are used for storing fodder and tendu leaves and the teachers teach non- existent students. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.

The book brings out the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyevsky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.

At another level, these are stories about the idiocy of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.

Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.

Sainath has given words to the adivasi in Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh (the role was played by Om Puri), whose tongue has been cut off and despite being the victim, is actually hauled up in jail.

Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.

The complete review of the book Everyone Loves a Good Drought
Alexander Cockburn’s profile of Sainath at Counterpunch.

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How the way to the Baba Log Economy was Paved

A Vaidyanathan, in a review of collection of KN Raj’s writings quotes a prophetic insight by the ‘pitamah’ of Indian economists on how state/bureaucratic capitalism can pave the way for private capitalism. This is all the more remarkable since the writings in the book are mainly prior to the 1990s, when finally the dream economy of Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘baba log’ arrived.
Raj was of the view that despite their various internal contradictions, intermediate regimes ‘keep going as a political reality” in several countries. This, according to him, is because the upper middle class and the capitalists are not strong enough to take over and even the radical parties prefer to serve limited sectarian objectives than work for genuine broad- based transformation of society. That this has proved true so far is a reflection of the resilience of the political class and their capacity to manage contradictions. But he did rightly apprehend that “failure to generate surpluses can blunt the growth of state capitalism but also help promote the development of private capitalism.” (emphasis by the blogger)

The name of the book reviewed is Inclusive Growth: KN Raj on Economic Development” edited by Ashoka Mody. Certainly a book I look forward to read.

Link

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