A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia

Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. Before I knew it, 10 years of writing the book annual digest on this blog had passed. Reading them makes me nostalgic and occasionally rekindles my interest. At times, my own words sound surprisingly unfamiliar. Taking a view of a decade gives me a perspective that is not discernible when I look back at the end of each year.

Quite a lot of my reading has been at the blurry edges of literature and politics, between paradise and labyrinths. These labyrinths traverse across many lands and times. They have taken me to to places made familiar by past reading- Russia, Hungary, various countries in South America — all places I have visited only via books. In the last decade, a few new countries surfaced on my literary map — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Norway and Bolivia.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

But nowhere feels as familiar a home as Russia does when it comes to literature. The universal themes of Russian literature make us feel Russian at heart. For me, this started during adolescence and continues to be of interest, though less intensely, in the decades since.

The reason isn’t too far to seek; the classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature. More often than not, it was a means for communicating ideas and philosophical reflections. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes, what with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and forging ahead on the trail. .

If Latin American literature is an Amazonian river, Russian literature is like a constellation providing direction to lost voyagers– as we all are at some point or the other.

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During the last decade, I have journeyed through 20th-century Russia through some of its novelists of this period. Some of the more significant writers that I read in the last decade are Andrey Platonov, Vasili Grossman, Evgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Boris Akunin. What follows is a digest (once again) of this journey through my reading lens, however limited in scope. Continue reading

The Year Gone by- 2014

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2014 for me was the year of reading long e-books, on Kindle as well as books borrowed from the local library using Overdrive. I finished not one, but 3 books, each more than 300 pages long. For someone who has struggled for the last few years to use an e-reader, it is a feat in itself.

The most important book of the year was undoubtedly “Kanshiram” by Badri Narayan, and the first long book read on the kindle app.

The biography was long overdue about the man who single handedly was responsible for changing the face of North Indian politics and bringing Dr BR Ambedkar to the center stage. The lingering image that I have carried from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar is when he spent a night under a tree because, despite his appointment to the court of the prince of Gaikwad, no one in the town was willing to rent out a house to him because of his belonging to the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste.

The image that I carry from Badri Narayan’s book is that of Kanshiram sitting on a stack of the paper that he brought out and carried around on trains scouring the length and breadth of the country.

On a related note, “The Chamcha Age” by Kanshiram (available as a free pdf), was an eye opener. This is the closest to a ‘theoretical’ tract that Kanshiram ever wrote and provides a glimpse into his critical take on contemporary Dalit politicians and the subsequent praxis of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

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Now, who will tell the tale

My obituary on Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6, 1927- 17-April-2014), at DNAIndia.

My Nobel is in the pocket of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” (Carlos Fuentes) said, adding, “the prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez was for my whole generation. We celebrated. We will go on celebrating it.”

With Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death last week, a day before Good Friday, the world lost the most well-known Spanish writer after Miguel Cervantes. Gabo to his admirers, Marquez was the star of the Boom generation of Latin American literature of the 1960s and 70s. At the age of 40, his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude was published. This book catapulted him to world fame, selling 50 million copies worldwide since.

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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]

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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