Category Archives: Books

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]

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.

Eric Hobsbawm: An Uncommon Life

Eric Hobswam (1917- 01 October 2012) is no more.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were the years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Hobsbawm’s writings, particularly his 3 volume trilogy  formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

It was the late Mohit Sen who introduced me to Hobsbawm’s works. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to Hobsbawm- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen over the decades.

Both went on to recount those years in their respective biographies, though Mohit must have felt very crestfallen on discovering that Hobsbawm had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, while Mohit  spent considerable ink on his former teacher.

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Switching to an ereader

Having prevaricated about using an e- book reader, I switched over to one recently, albeit with an initial skepticism which was soon belied. The Barnes and Noble’s Nook turned out to be quite a charmer.

For one, the Nook enables one to read the numerous books available as pdf files, particularly the ones that are out of print or those for which copyrights have expired. Even the ebooks that are available for purchase are cheaper than the printed ones- a random check at Amazon and BN.com shows that the average price tends to be around $10. Using the calibre e-book management software, converting different formats to the ePub standard is a breeze. Given that a number of newspapers are also available for download, one can read the news without the distracting advertisements.
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Mario Vargas Llosa’s Exasperatingly Long Wait

Five years ago, when the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa was asked his opinion on the possibility of his winning the Nobel prize were, he replied:

“Let us not even think of it…”

Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa’s turn at the Nobel has come in exasperatingly late, when not only him, but many of his admirers had given up on the honour coming his way.

In the words of Carlos Fuentes, when Garcia Marquez (Gabo) won the award in 1982, he won it ‘on behalf of all writers of his generation from Latin America.’ Twenty-eight years later, the Nobel to MVL is a restatement of the recognition that the Amazonian flow of literature from Latin America- during and after Gabo’s generation so richly deserves.

Llosa’s relative lack of recognition in the English-speaking world is probably the reason that I came so late to his writings, a decade after discovering and relishing Gabo’s writings.

A few years ago, while on a short visit to the US, I came across a book on the Zapatistas. In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, the masked Marxist leader Subcommandante Marco explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, despite his ideas.

This last observation flummoxed me. How can an author influence one’s mind despite his ideas?
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End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.