Category Archives: Literature

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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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

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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Nikolai Gogol

1st April seems to be an appropriate date to celebrate the 200th birth centenary of one of the great satirists of all times, Nikolai Gogol. Human nature, that of con men included, hasn’t changed much since his days.

Gogol’s prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of the defects of human character, Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature. (more)

Watch the entire film based on Gogol’s The Inspector General starring Danny Kaye (1949). Here is the first part:

Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture

This year’s Nobel laureate Le Clézio gives an impassioned Nobel Prize lecture, in a sense taking off from where Doris Lessing had left it last year. He quotes a passage from Stig Dagerman that influenced him as a writer and touches on many themes including a call for re- claiming the word “globalization” as well as for reclaiming a place for literature in face of the audio and visual media. Among others, he dedicates his lecture to the Mauritian Hindi writer Abhimanyu Unnuth, Qurratulain Hyder (for Aag Ka Darya) and the Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.

A few excerpts from the lecture: (link via Literary Saloon)

How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.” (from Stig Dagerman’s The Writer and Consciousness)


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Wrong Heaven by Rabindranath Tagore

Continued from here:

That day, too, the workless man stood on a side.

The girl asked, “What do you want?”

He said, “I want more work from you.”

“What work shall I give you?”

“If you agree, I will make a ribbon for your plait by knitting together colourful threads.”

“What would that do?”

“Nothing at all.”

A ribbon of many different colours was made. Ever since, it takes the girl a long time to tie her hair into a plait. Chores are left undone, time passes by.

4

On the other hand, with time, big gaps started appearing in the working people’s heaven. Tears and songs filled those gaps.

The heavenly elders became deeply concerned. A meeting was called. They said, “Such a thing has never happened in the history of this place.”

The heavenly messenger came and admitted his mistake. He said, “I have brought a wrong man to the wrong heaven.”

The wrong man was brought to the meeting. His coloured headgear and waistband were enough to tell everyone that a grave mistake had been committed.

The chairman said to him, “You will have to return to earth.”

He tucked his bag of colours and brushes to his waist and with a sigh of relief said, “Off I go then.”

The girl came and said, “I will go too.”

The elderly chairman became a little abstracted. This was the first time he had witnessed something that had no meaning at all.

THE END

Image source: http://threadsofatattinggoddess.blogspot.com/

(Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

Wrong Heaven by Rabindranath Tagore

The man was totally out of work.

He had no occupation, just many different hobbies.

He would stuff mud inside small wooden cubes and decorate those with little shells. From a distance, those appeared as a haphazard painting with a bunch of birds within them; or a patchy field with cattle grazing on it; or undulating hills, out of which a waterfall or a trodden path peeked out.

There was no end to the chastisement he received from his family members. At times, he vowed to drop all this madness, but the madness never deserted him.

2

There are some boys who are lax with studies the whole year, but still pass the exam for no reason. The same happened with this man.

His entire life was spent without doing anything, yet after his death, he heard he had been approved to ascend to heaven.

But even on the way to heaven, destiny doesn’t forsake a man. The messengers put a wrong sign on him and took him to the working people’s heaven.

This heaven has everything except leisure time.

The men here say, “Where’s the time to breathe?” And women say, “I am going, dear, there’s a lot of work to do.” Everyone says, “Time is valuable.” Nobody says, “Time is priceless.” They all lament by saying, “We can’t take it anymore.” This makes them very happy. The music here plays to the refrain of the grievance “Oh, I am so tired!”

This man doesn’t find any space, he can’t fit in. On the road, as he walks absent-minded, he blocks the path of busy people. Whenever he he tries to rest by spreading his sheet at some spot, he learns seeds have been planted at that very place for cultivating crops. He has to always get up and move.

3

Every day, a busy girl comes to the source of the heaven to fetch water.

She darts through the path like the quick gat of a sitar.

She has tied her hair into a hurried rough knot. Even so, a few restless strands of hair bend down her forehead to get a peek at the black stars of her eyes.
The heavenly unoccupied man was standing on one side, still as Tamal tree standing beside a sprightly waterfall.

Just like a princess feels sorry for a beggar passing by her window, the girl felt sorry for this man.
“Aha, so you don’t have any work to do?”

Letting out a sigh, the workless man said, “There’s no time to work.”

The girl couldn’t understand any of his words. She said, “Do you want to share some of my work?”

The unemployed man said, “I am standing here only to share your work.”

“What work will you take?”

“If you can give me one of those earthen pots you bring to carry water…”

“What will you do with the pot? Will you fetch water?”

“Nah, I will paint on it.”

Irritated, the girl says, “I don’t have time, I am going.”

But how could a working person beat a workless one? Every day, they meet at the waterfront, and every day, the man makes the same request, “Just give me one of your pots, I will paint on it.”

Finally, the girl accepts defeat and hands him a pot.

The man began encircling the pot with layers of different hues and strokes.

When it was done, the girl lifted the pot and looked at it from all sides. With a raised eyebrow she asked, “What’s the meaning of this?”

The workless man said, “It has no meaning.”

The girl returned home with the pot. Hiding from others’ glances, she viewed it by moving it at different angles and shades of light. At night, she would get up from her bed to light the lamp and look at the painting. At her age, this was the first time she had seen something that had no meaning.

The next day, when she came to the waterfront, her brisk feet seemed to have hit a pause. As if while walking, the feet were carelessly thinking of something–something that had no meaning.

…To be continued

(Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

Wang Anyi’s Short Story on China’s Cultural Revolution

At the time, young wives in our village didn’t have regular names. Add the word “xiao”–young–in front of their maiden names, that’s how they’d be called: “Xiao Qian,” “Xiao Sun,” “Xiao Ma.” After they had borne children, it would then be all right to call them “so-and-so’s ma,” such as “Xiaomei’s ma,” “Liu Ping’s ma.” Only Wang Hanfang, everybody called her by her own name.

At Words Without Borders read Wang Anyi’s short story Wang Hanfang about life during the cultural revolution. WWB’s April issue has a focus on China.

Literature from the Evil World

The London Book Fair this week celebrates Arabic literature. As Ahdaf Soueif states, there may be a crisis in the Arab world, but there is no crisis in the Arabic literature as such, though I must admit that I have seen very little or read very little of the same. Perhaps this has to do with the relative lack of availability of its literature in translation. The US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has, if that is any consolation, turned some attention to Arabic literature.

My own limited excursions are confined to some early readings of the Lebanese- American poet Kahlil Gibran and Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz‘s Cairo trilogy. Here is a poem from Gibran’s most well known work The Prophet.

Children

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

source

60 years of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus

One of the very dark modern novels, and understandably so, is Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus written in 1947 and first published in English in 1948. Based on the medieval myth about Dr. Faustus and his pact with the devil, Mann trans creates it in the backdrop of Nazi Germany’s “pact with the devil.” A thick, dense novel it also uses music as an allegory. The novel is in the tradition of German writers and their fascination with philosophy. What I did not know till I read Urich Grothus’ review of the novel on its 60th anniversary is that it was based on Adorno’s book Philosophy of the New Music and that Adorno himself reviewed the manuscript of the novel “that makes you believe to hear music that actually has never been composed.” Also insightful are the reviewer’s observations on the place of philosophy and music in contemporary Germany where its fascination with irrational- ism seems to have vanished and interest in philosophy declined.


This is a novel about music. Mann’s main musical advisor in writing the novel was Theodor Adorno, one of the founders of critical theory, who had studied composition with Alban Berg, one of Schönberg’s first followers. Adorno saw atonal, dissonant, and polyphonic music as the only progressive way for the further development of musical material and as the adequate musical expression of the contradictions of advanced capitalist societies. Adorno was less convinced of the constraints that the twelve tone system imposes on the creative process, in that it prescribes literally every tone that may be used at a given place in the composition.

When I read the novel again last summer, I was thinking: What has remained of the Germany that Mann described in so desperate and still so loving terms, and what has changed? Germany is very different today, it would seem to me. Of course, the unparalleled crimes committed by Germans under the Nazi regime, are, and will forever be, central to the German collective memory. Any sign of renascent racism there is taken more seriously, at home and around the world, than in most other countries, and rightly so.

Still, the strain of irrationalism that Mann describes and that was so fraught with disaster has all but vanished in contemporary German culture. It would even seem that the national obsession with philosophy has ceased altogether. In the former “land of poets and thinkers”, philosophy has become the specialty of a small profession. 95 per cent of German university graduates of my, or the younger, generation, have probably never read a philosophical book, and if so, it was mostly Foucault, Habermas or Marx. Most books by Martin Heidegger, Germany’s most influential and most compromised philosopher in the 20th century, are not even available in paperback, for lack of popular demand. The love and high esteem of music, however, seems to have survived. Nearly half of the world’s opera houses, I am told, are in Germany – and mainly play Italian opera. There are good reasons to believe that, finally, democracy in Germany has been the success that Thomas Mann, in Zeitblom’s words, had already hoped for during the Weimar Republic. “It was an attempt, a not utterly and entirely hopeless attempt (the second since the failure of Bismarck and his unification performance) to normalize Germany in the sense of Europeanizing or “democratizing’ it, of making it part of the social life of peoples.”

While on the theme of novels about (Western classical) music; here is the review of a more recent work; Romanian author Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Fugue.

Who was Akbar?

The central question that the Mughal emperor Akbar poses in Salman Rushdie’s recent short story The Shelter of the World is:

How could he become the man he wanted to be? The akbar, the great one? How?

At the start of the story the emperor is initially perceived as a terror in the bastis of Sikri, the city that he founded, only to be informed by his imaginary wife Jodha about the infamy that this brought him. He changes the rules and encourages people to speak up, announcing:

“Make as much racket as you like, people! Noise is life, and an excess of noise is a sign that life is good. There will be time for us all to be quiet when we are safely dead.” The city burst into joyful clamor.

That was the day on which it became clear that a new kind of king was on the throne, and that nothing in the world would remain the same.

The change, however, is not straight forward and soon the emperor is on one of his conquests, beheading an upstart, the Rana of Cooch Naheen. It is the remorse after killing the young Rana, that Akbar, like Ashoka after the Battle of Kalinga, faces the existentialist question on how to become great. It is certainly not by beheading small time threats to his growing empire.

The country was at peace at last, but the King’s spirit was never calm….

He, Akbar, had never referred to himself as “I”, not even in his private dreams.

Was this “we” a manifestation of his greatness as an emperor, as the man who conquered Hindustan, as a descendent of Genghis Khan and Babar, “the barbarian with a poet’s tongue?”

Evidently, jahanpanah, the shelter of the world, feels that it is not so. He feels that he is as lowly as any other human being who needs the love of the imaginary Jodha, who is not so much a person as an idea of Hindustan and tries to discover his greatness in ‘I’, instead of we. Only to discover that the ‘I’ does not exist, it is ‘we’, but this ‘we’ is the plural not of the brutal conquests that he has carried out to carve his empire, but the conquest of Jodha’s heart. It is the we of pluralism.

The story is certainly not without its faults. At places its is marred by an excessive wordplay and sometimes by unnecessary distractions and convolutions- typical Rushdie fare that is not unreadable, but certainly demands patience. A fascinating character in the story is that of Bhakti Ram Jain, Akbar’s stone deaf personal assistant. Also fascinating is the usage of the Akbar- Birbal anecdotes interwoven in the dense story less than 8000 words!

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“For Vincent Van Gogh”: a poem by Namdeo Dhasal

For Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers truly are
The self- expression of your
Experience
But, brother
You’ve forgotten to paint
One of the colours of the sun!

- Namdeo Dhasal from The Soul Doesn’t Find Peace in This Regime (1995)

Translated by Dilip Chitre in Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld published last year. A great book with some fine translations and an introduction to Dhasal and his works. The stunning pictures by Henning Stegmuller provide a visual introduction to Dhasal’s world. My only disconcert with the book is that Chitre entirely washes out Dhasal’s later shift to Hindutva politics. This poem can also be read as an expression of that disconcert.

Related Post: Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panther Movement

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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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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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“A mud hut, but full of books”- Doris Lessing’s Nobel Speech

Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech titled ‘A Hunger for Books’ is devastating to say the very least.

Read the full text here, or see the video of the speech delivered on her behalf (she could not attend the ceremony in Sweden). Windows Media Player required to see the video.

I reproduce the second part of the lecture where she makes her point with a beautiful, touching story. If you are in a hurry, at least read the last line, and come back later to read the entire speech.

I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.

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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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A Novelist of Early Globalization

(On the 150th birth anniversary of Joseph Conrad that seems to have gone largely unnoticed today)

Joseph Conrad’s works written in the early part of the 20th century were unbelievably perceptive of his times and deeply insightful into the 19th century globalisation phase in world history that came to an end with the Great War.

Early twentieth century had seen an upsurge in the East West encounter in literature. This was caused primarily by the colonial expansion of the Western world over the East. Joseph Conrad was an outstanding author who wrote much on this from first hand experience.

Born in the Russian part of Poland, Conrad spent twenty years on sea before settling down in England. From the age of thirty eight, he wrote a number of novels that established him as a novelist of import in English and in which he wrote about the East- including the psychologically penetrating and prophetic Under Western Eyes about the Russian revolutionaries of the time.

He also wrote about Africa, the Far East and Latin America (in The Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo respectively) in which he painted a rather dreary picture of the East. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that Conrad’s perceptive insights into the limits and ability of Western ideas to break down the physical as well as mental structures in the East sound quite true. During those times, however, this truth was less visible, even as critical a thinker as Marx had expressed the hope in his famous phrase about British colonialism in India creating the world in its own image.

As we are drawn by the wave of renewed imperial expansionism under globalization, Conrad’s works help us to reflect again on the East- West encounter.

Conrad remained, with the influence of his father’s revolutionary ideals, a sympathetic liberal, though his works on Africa have been criticized by no less than the great African writer Chinua Achebe.

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”

His novel, The Secret Agent that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year was a study of anarchism and the psychology of its adherents. Conrad’s prognosis of his times was rather dark.

One of his finest works is Under Western Eyes, a prophetic successor to Dostoevsky’s The Devils that pre- empted the developments of the Russian Revolution by a couple of years (I think it was published in 1914, three years before the Russian Revolution.)

A large number of Conrad’s works, including the complete texts of The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are available here.

An appraisal of the writer in The Guardian and The Independent.

Update: A defence of Conrad’s allegedly ‘racist’ viewpoints by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian’s arts blog (and a very good discussion in the comments section).

Also check out ‘Conrad through the movies’ by James Hynes (link via Maud Newton)

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Don Quixote for the 21st Century

Don Quixote for the 21st Century is incarnated as Donkey Xote in this animation movie to be released next week in Spain. Do all great literary characters, like all great historical events, have to end the first time in a tragedy, and the second time in a farce? One will have to wait to see the movie but the trailer seems to indicate that this is indeed so.
Donkey Xote features stars of film, TV and radio as the voices of the eponymous hero, his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, and assorted animal companions as they set off to fight a duel in Barcelona over Don Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea del Toboso.

The adventures of Don Quixote may take up hundreds of pages in Cervantes’ classic, but the film’s producers have by necessity played fast and loose with the story in their adaptation. Squeezing the novel into 80 minutes, it gives starring roles to Don Quixote’s trusty steed, Rocinante, and Sancho Panza’s donkey, Rucio – who bears a striking resemblance to the donkey from the successful Shrek series, voiced by Eddie Murphy. (Guardian report)

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The Year of Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano’s posthumous onslaught on the US literary scene continues. Boston Review has published a poem My Life in the Tubes of Survival.

Dreaming
That the saucer and I had finished our ridiculous dance,
Our humble critique of Reality, in a painless, anonymous
Crash in one of the planet’s deserts. Death
That brought me no peace, so after my flesh had rotted
I still went on dreaming.read the full poem

The New Yorker has a superb short story about a fictitious Argentinian author:Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey.

It has all the elements of a Roberto Bolano story- fast paced sequences written in exquisite prose and an ending with a dramatic twist. A short extract from the story:

But the action of that sinister and eminently sardonic character Time has prompted a reconsideration of Rousselot’s apparent simplicity. Perhaps he was complicated. By which I mean more complicated than we had imagined. Or, there is an alternative explanation: perhaps he was simply another victim of chance.

Such cases are not unusual among lovers of literature like Rousselot. In fact, they are not unusual among lovers of anything. read the full story (about 10 pages long)

Related posts on Roberto Bolano on this blog.

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