Over the last few days, the lawn outside my window has alternately been painting itself in green and snow white. As I get down to write this post, a few names conjure up. There is no immediate reason for this. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the green grass gives away temporarily to the snow. Some writers and writings are like that.
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra was without doubt the most invigorating book I read this year. It’s a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. All the stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile, the characters being usually unsuccessful men. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see how Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired by the experience. The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. (longer review here)
After-Dinner Declarations Nicanor Parra
I had not read Nicanor Parra before so it was quite a revelation to read the works of perhaps the oldest living poet who advocated “anti- poetry”.
Here are a couple of poems from the collection:
What is poetry
Existence based on the word
Poetry are you
Everything that moves is poetry
What doesn’t change places is prose
But what is poetry
Everything that unites us is poetry
Only prose can keep us apart
Yes but what is poetry
Life in words
An enigma that refuses to be deciphered by professors
A bit of truth and an aspirin
Antipoetry are you
– Nicanor Parra
A poem that begins several times
And never stops starting
A majestic unfinished cathedral
The skeleton of a cathedral
In the opinion of opposing sides.
– Nicanor Parra
Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century is the last collection of essays by Eric Hobsbawm who passed away four years ago. This is an eclectic mix, most of which seem to be talks delivered by Hobsbawm. There are interesting and insightful observations peppered with statistics as is his wont. He points to the emergence of public literary and cultural events in the latter part of the 20th century, the role of Jewish intellectuals over the last two centuries as harbingers of a cosmopolitan (mainly European) culture, and the exponential growth of girls’ education in countries like England and France in the forty years before the First World War. I particularly liked the two essays on J.D. Bernal and Joseph Needham, both of whom have fascinated me.
Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa
I would recommend reading just the last essay “Final Thoughts” where Llosa raises some pertinent questions about the emergence of the digital book and the decline of the printed word. Much of the rest of the book is just one long rant after the other — against the emergence of mass culture, smartphones, internet activism, and immigration. The only thing the essays convince one of is that that the writer is unable to come to grips with a world that is not to his liking.
One of the most ironic sections in the book is one in which Llosa rants about the “leakages” by Julian Assange and others of what he considers a breach of confidentiality. He terms it as “information licentiousness”- an assault on public and private freedom. In light of Llosa’s own name being listed in the Panama Papers, this is funnily ironic.
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King is written with self-deprecating humour on the otherwise dark theme of the history and condition of the indigenous peoples of North America. I hope to write a longer review of the book. Suffice to say that it has revived my interest and attention to the condition of the victims of what has been practically a genocide of an entire continent.
Postmarked Moscow by Lydia Kirk
A book supposed to be about the daily life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, written by the wife of the then US ambassador. Unfortunately, there is little that stands out. It consists of mostly inane observations about one or the other official being posted at the embassy. It is surprising how one can fill up an entire book without conveying anything substantive.
Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul, was a disappointing work, more a work of opinion rather than anything else. I found the section (much later in the book) on the state of the contemporary novel worth more than the rest of the book. Perhaps it has to do with Saul himself being primarily a novelist.
Rohith Vemula’s suicide note was not a book, but made for one of the most poignant readings in the year:
I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.