Saturday, February 27, 2010

roberto saviano: gomorrah

#18 Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, trans. Virginia Jewiss


I read stellar reviews of Gomorrah in the papers over and over again for two years, so I jumped at the chance to read it when it popped up. It took me almost three weeks to finish this 300-page book. I stopped every two chapters to go read another book. Why was it so hard? Whatever Gomorrah is, it's not news. Power stinks. Alternate power structures shadow everything that seems to represent truth and reality. Naples and Campania are run by crooks. Like everywhere else in the world, right? Maybe Saviano's reviewers in Anglo-American newspapers are so shocked by this book because they are not hardwired to think like that?

But as you read this hypnotic, reckless book, you realise that it is not a conspiratorial thesis. It's voice is neither that of paranoia nor of a persecution complex. It is highly specific to its time and place. Gangs mean different things to different societies. In many developed countries they are divorced from the mainstream public consciousness by time [gangs = fedora-wearing tax-evading Depression-era thugs] or race and class [gangs = pimping Soviet mobsters, gangs = black and brown drug pushers working in inner cities]. In Naples and Campania, no such divide exists. There is no parallel economy in Saviano's writing, no underbelly, no layer of society protected from the effects of the Camorra. The line between an illusion of normalcy and reality is non-existent. Crime is judged by our intangible notions of ethics, but in the freest-of-free markets where the Camorra operates, there is perfect elasticity - there are no ethics, only actions. Quite unlike the rigid hierarchy of the Cosa Nostra or other mythologised southern Italian criminal systems, the Camorra's existence hinges purely on its self-sustaining economic cycles. Murder [even murder committed to make a statement, and Saviano's chapter on the Secondigliano War is full of shocking examples] is an economic move; bosses going into prison is only a way for the economy to cleanse itself of old blood and let the new entrepreneurs rise to the top. The cycles continue.

Each chapter in Gomorrah deals with a specific aspect of the economic landscape here: from the collaboration with the Chinese mafia flooding Western Europe's markets with goods, to the couture sweatshops, to the role of women in the system, to Camorra control over drugs, construction and waste disposal. The style is high-gonzo - unflinching, incredibly visual and rich with analogy [but winningly delinked from the authorial personality. I hate that self-aggrandising shit nine times out of ten]. Throughout the text, literary artifice becomes the revealer - power can only be spoken of in terms of what it can be compared to.

The book's moving force is sheer, futile rage. It provokes both pity and terror, but the effects are anti-cathartic. Aristotle doesn't live here. Neither is this the Napoli of Maradona, a simple case of one poor, neglected part of a rich country generating its own mythos, its own power. That sort of creative order doesn't exist in the Campania of this book. Priests who protest against the Camorra are gunned down in their churches; women testifying in a murder case find themselves alienated and rejected by society; teenage girls who have nothing to do with the gangs die simply because they were in the way of a bullet, without the question of justice ever entering the picture. All of these would ordinarily be some sort of markers in the opposition between right and wrong, but in Gomorrah they are only illustrative of how irrelevant they are to the mechanisms of the power structure. Early on in the book Saviano describes going to the funeral of a 15 year old Camorrista [yes, that's fifteen years old], and reports the priest as saying, "Over here, the only thing you learn is how to die."

What sort of indictment is this against a society? Would it stand up in court? Would it even stand up as journalistic truth? Gomorrah was sold as fiction in its first printing in Italy, but marked as non-fiction to sell abroad. It evokes my biggest fear about about the Internet-driven inclination to narrative journalism and its many charms: how much of it is telling you a figurative truth? How much data is it replacing or representing anecdotally? It is easy to remember what a report may be leaving out [The Economist never seems to realise this], but much more difficult to assess what a story is not telling you. The stories of Gomorrah are chaotic, bereft of solutions, wholly caught up in the operations of the System. That is the book's explicit point. But in many reactions I have read that there is a whole system in place in Campania through which ordinary people fight the Camorra with ordinary weapons - cops, courts, civic administration. Some people say that Saviano's story has been receiving disproportionate attention [Napoli's police chief even recommended against increasing his security - Saviano has been living with armed escorts, in exile, ever since the book became a huge success]. Would a Proper Journalist write this book? But what Proper Journalist could have written this book? And in Saviano's favour, he never claims that Gomorrah is anything more than a personal testimonial, nor does he shirk his responsibility as a witness.

...The proofs are not concealed in some flash drive buried underground. I don't have compromising videos hidden in a garage in some inaccessible mountain village. Nor do I possess copies of secret service documents. The proofs are irrefutable because they are partial, recorded with my eyes, recounted with words, and tempered with emotions that have echoed off wood and iron. I see, hear, look, talk and in this way I testify, an ugly word that can still be useful when it whispers "It's not true," in the ear of those who listen to the rhyming lullabies of power. The truth is partial; after all, if it could be reduced to an objective formula, it would be chemistry. I know and I can prove it. And so I tell.


That's a very strange place for a story to occupy. But it does its job. It is a book that demands that its readers be aware of its context. It is not bystander journalism, not goal-oriented investigation and not social history. It can neither implicate, nor absolve you as a reader. There are no pay-offs. It would never have made a Rolling Stone cover story or a Hollywood movie. And in spite of its rootedness, it is the sort of book that could be written in many other cities. If you can remember that, and if you can stand that, then you should absolutely read it.

[And trigger warnings for extraordinary violence. I have a fairly strong stomach for on-page bloodshed, but this gave me nightmares.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

mohammed hanif: a case of exploding mangoes

#17 A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif

What broke my heart about this book? Was it the plot, that starts out in awesome break-neck, whip-lash, split-screen fashion and then starts to freeze up in the odd uncomfortable position near the end? Was it the occasional burst of my least favourite type of writing in this world, magical realism, spurting now and then across a page of perfectly adequate piece of prose? Was it the niggling inconsistency in tying up loose ends?

Hell no. All that I can handle. But I can't handle how one day, I am in the middle of a nice life with a nice job and an issue of Tehelka to read on the train, when suddenly I start to care about Under Officer Ali Shigri and his Oedipal obsession with his dead father and the military dictator who may have had Daddy killed. When I say 'suddenly,' I mean somewhere halfway down the first page. Books. They can really kill you sometimes.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes runs along two parallel tracks. In the last days of his life, General Zia-ul-Haq, who wants to be remembered as a good Muslim and a great ruler, is suffering from increasing paranoia. His readings of the Quran are warning him of terrible tragedy ahead. In this great country of Pakistan that he has rescued from a bunch of whiskey-swilling cravat-wearing sybarites through his military coup, people are conspiring to murder him. Somewhere. Possibly everywhere. In the other corner, we have a sturm und drang show from Ali Shigri at the Air Force academy. Ali is young, intense and perpetually bitter. His scramble down the rabbit hole begins when he reaches out to wake up his roommate and best friend Obaid one morning and finds that 'Baby O' isn't there.

General Zia is trying frantically to shape his political legacy into the Cold-War-ending, Nobel Peace Prize-winning piece of history he knows it is. Ali is trying to survive the battle with a military establishment punishing him for a crime that he hasn't committed - and which Obaid has disappeared trying to protect him from. So what is Ali doing in the TV footage of General Zia's final moments, captured on camera just before Zia ascends the plane that will blow up in mid-air four minutes off the ground, killing him and everyone on board? This is what the elaborate plot of Mangoes is about.

Hanif pulls out all the stops as a storyteller. In this compact 350-page novel he constructs a full-masala plot, throws in a dozen sideshows (not all of which tie back in to the main narrative one hundred percent neatly), remakes real-life characters in an angry, ugly comedy, and creates a handful of complex, layered original characters who somehow manage to hit all the piteously familiar sweet spots of fiction (a dude with a dead father, come on) and make them all work excellently. Some of it teeters on the edge of is outright melodrama - there's an extended sequence in prison that is caught somewhere between Dumas and Bollywood - and it is absolutely absorbing if you like that kind of thing. I do. I laughed and I cried through the book. The women on the train thought I was mad because I kept putting my face into it and guffawing. Or shutting it and going 'Oh, Obaid.'

Hanif's style is less miniatures in ivory than hammer-on-nail, which I like; it keeps the book rumbling on in a dry, busy voice. It's not self-consciously literary (the magical realism is easily forgivable) and manages to evoke the perfectly accurate but ineffably awkward rhythms of subcontinental English very well indeed. The Zia sections are great satire; Hanif's Zia is a more raw, rough-cut version of the dictators in Louis de Bernieres' novels. But I like Ali best. Zia's character may loom large over the novel, but Ali's arc, smaller in scope (he's not ruling Pakistan, after all), is inscribed much wider.

Photobucket


Ali is a boy trying desperately hard to be funny - and he succeeds. He brings with him a half-deadpan, half-slapstick approach to the awfulness of military life, a deep, delicate friendship with Obaid, and the memories of Colonel Shigri hanging from the ceiling fan by his own bedsheet. All these preoccupations are potentially deeply annoying, but Ali is not one of life's bullshitters. Ali lives -- and I can't tell you whether that's a spoiler, or a character review. It was this, my friends, which broke my heart.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

arundhati roy: listening to grasshoppers

#16 Listening to Grasshoppers: Fieldnotes on Democracy, Arundhati Roy

This book is a collection of Roy's essays and sketches, written at various crisis points in India's public life over the last decade. (Regular readers of Outlook Magazine will be familiar with most of its contents.) Roy's style blends some testimony with some reportage, but her primary literary position is that of a polemicist, not a journalist. The title of the book is taken from its longest and I think its most philosophically representative piece, a talk Roy delivered in Istanbul in January 2008, on the first anniversary of the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. In this, she traces the world's history of linking genocide with progress in a freewheeling lecture that touches on the historic - race genocide in North America, Nazi camps in Europe - and elides it with the contemporary, specifically with India, and particularly in relation to the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. This will probably make a lot of people unhappy, starting with political moderates in India and going all the way up to those students of the Holocaust who view it as a unique and ahistorical event. But Roy has a way of upsetting even liberals who are ranged on her side of the field. Her writing is a notable departure from the way liberals in India communicate with each other, at least in between magazine covers. We hate the thought that someone might be talking down to us without first establishing their appropriate authority to do so. Roy's style regularly stands out in the corpus of resistance writing as an exclamation mark on a page where the other punctuations are commas.

Since this does not invalidate her opinions, sadly for the legion of anti-Roy trolls on the Internet and prime-time TV news, let me try and stick to my mandate, which is to describe my experience of the book. As I said, I think the titular essay is central to the collection in more ways than one, and pulls together almost all the ideas contained by the more time-bound 'feral howls' [Roy's words] that Roy produced for magazines on several devastating occasions: the carnage in Gujarat, the dubious investigative and judicial processes that surrounded the state's prosecution of Mohammed Afzal for the Parliament attacks in 2001, and the Mumbai attacks in 2008. While the decision not to 'update' any of this writing leads to a substantial overlap between pieces - readers who've never come across Roy before may find themselves very thoroughly acquainted with her talking points before the third essay is out - I think it will stand as a good record of Roy's decade in opinion writing, successful in its shocking immediacy and the consistency of her commitment to the egg and not the wall. In some cases, the atmosphere in which her criticisms were delivered was far less comfortable than it may seem to us now, and she has written, argued, harangued and - yes - shrieked at volumes that not many people with quite such carrying voices did.

However, I don't enjoy the self-conscious juvenility and the handwaving that marks her style. Catastrophes occur in 'our wonderful democracy'; an observation about the Hindutva characterisation of Muslims as 'outsiders' contrasts it with the government's signing of development aid contracts with Britain, 'a government that colonized us for centuries.' This is bad rhetoric and logic. The Afzal piece is completely successful in transmitting Roy's concern for and horror at the way the Delhi Police and courts handled the trial of the main suspects in the Parliament bombing, but framed as it is in the language of conspiracy theory and secondary-source reportage, it's also confusing about what form it aims to be judged by. There is a satirical sketch written on the even of Bush Jr's visit to India that imagines a speech he might make, written in 'voice,' peppered with "Innia"s and "jus' kiddin'"s. Her refusal to take a solutional approach anywhere in her essays (apart from Azad Kashmir) severely limits her and our capacity to expand on her criticism. All of this throws regularly me out of her narrative.

(I freely admit that this probably means that my inner self is a morally comatose real-estate developer with a side-business in arms-dealing waiting to break out.)

So I guess you could say that in spite of my profound agreement with the spirit of this book, I am not its ideal reader. Since Roy is not India's only vocal critic of the state, even if some newspapers abroad seem to think so, and since I read Outlook regularly, why did I read this book? Frankly, because of Penguin's deliberate attempt to mislead readers about its subject - in fact, this ought to be an object lesson to editors and publicists on how not to characterise a political anthology. Listening to Grasshoppers is produced to look like a meditation on democracy. The back cover text reads:

Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?


Underneath the blurbiness, this is a very good question. Is there a political system with the potential to be more just and less prone to breakdown than democracy? There is almost nothing in this book that even approaches this practically, much less philosophically. Roy's main arguments are about the abuse of state machinery in India, and about the failures of nationalism. But the faults of the state are distinct from the faults of democracy - which is why Roy herself repeatedly uses the word 'fascism' to describe institutionalised oppression. If there's anything evident in her essays, it's that the ideal has not failed its people and its institutions: it's the other way around.

Friday, February 19, 2010

maria misra: vishnu's crowded temple

#15 Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India After The Great Rebellion, Maria Misra

[Caveat before I start: I'm a very casual reader of history.]

The faux-exoticist title is justified on the first page: Misra opens the book with a short account of the Guruvayur temple in Kerala (incidentally, my family's hands-down bestest and most favourite ever place of worship bar none) and the struggle over making it open to lower-caste Hindus in the years before and after 1947. The one-step-forward, two-steps-back process of this achievement, Misra suggests, is illustrative of the entire process of India constructing its modernity (which Misra has to make clear for her largely non-Indian audience). The stated goal of this book is to trace India's self-construction of its modernity through the years after the Mutiny. This project is divided into three interlinked parts - the heyday of late 19th-century colonialism, the Congress-led change in India's image leading up to 1947, and the country's successes and failures in negotiating modernity, both in relation to its past and to the global present, in the years after independence.

So I kind of forgot all about this underlying thesis because Misra also does, for long stretches of the book: she just likes to tell the stories, and she's good at that. She goes full throttle through her first two excellent chapters on British imperialists and their creepy racist obsession with royalty and the caste system, and their interference in these structures to rigidify and oppress an originally more fluid society. I'm always amazed that the government didn't cram all this into our history books in school - Misra retells a lot of stuff Indian kids learn at a young age, but she gives them a life and depth that the state-board texts don't really provide. Of course, this is nothing compared to what they will hide from you about the beginnings of the nationalist movements. The Maharashtra Board will tell you that the public celebrations of Ganpati were started by Tilak in the interests of Indian nationalism and self-image. But it can't admit that to do this, at least in Bombay, he crushed the public celebrations of a festival that already had a long tradition of multi-faith celebration and subversive native pride: Muharram.

Misra puts all this together in a layered, dense narrative. She avoids cultural history for the most part, unless it ties in directly with her exploration of the political process. This is probably a good thing - two of the weakest bits in the book are her (short) digressions on British-era cricket and Sholay. Mercifully, she plays to what I thought was her main strength in the middle chapters: political biography. There is Gandhi, whom Misra plainly finds a little distasteful, but whose work and philosophies she assesses scrupulously. There is Nehru, whom Misra obviously thinks is the bee's knees*, but whose failures she reports without flinching. The only jarring note in her superb chapter on the Nehru years (called 'The Last Viceroy') is her concluding paragraph, in which she writes that Nehru, although he is now popularly seen as a tragic hero with a fatal flaw - excessive idealism - he was really a fighter; just one who was betrayed by the system he hoped would support him. This is a pretty self-defeating argument - and let's not forget how many people (Rajagopalachari and Ambedkar, among others) legitimately felt let down by him. My grandfather and I were talking about him the other day, and he said what I have heard from many people who lived through the early years of Independence - that Nehru was a great man, and his one fault was that he refused to be a dictator. Misra's saving grace from that puzzling final contention of hers is that she obviously disagrees.

The third person, of course, is Indira Gandhi. Here Misra gives up some of the authority that characterises her analyses of Gandhi and Nehru and prefers a more dispassionate, declarative tone. Her view of the Emergency is by and large that of the commentator who said that it was a failure of a dictatorship, that its opponents failed to overthrow (Contentious, I know). On the other hand, her criticism of Operation Blue Star and Sanjay Gandhi is scathing, and her assessment of Rajiv is unsentimental and brusque. Then she spends about half a page on the '84 riots. It escapes me why Misra, throughout the later portions of the book, chooses to spend so little time on what has been one of the defining conditions of urban India and its own grappling with modernity: institutionalised political violence in the form of riots. She sees them as part of the pathologies of the State, effects of its cultural process. But they are also the causes in some important ways.

LALALA OMG TALKING A LOT. Quickly, two other things about the book I liked: 1) her potted history of the facts, opinions, benefits and fallouts of liberalisation, and 2) her frequent running comparisons of how South India has developed political and social modernity differently from the North - in fact, I wish there had been more of this in the book. I also have two major quibbles. The first is objective: my edition of the book (a yellow-coloured paperback that I can't find an online link to right now) is riddled with elementary editorial errors. No one should let stuff like 'Champaram' for Champaran or 'Lakshmi' for 'Lakshman' pass by, and I hope other editions are better proofed.

My second major quibble is a bit of Hollywood criticism*. It is her general indifference to challenging the popular status quo (I'm less sure about the academic one). Why not talk about subaltern voices? Why not tackle how the lives of women or children have changed through the years? Why not examine the changing dynamic and rhetoric surrounding the relationship of urban and rural India? I understand that it may not be in the scope of Misra's project to challenge a mainstream consensus: we may at least generally agree that independent India's expectations of modernity have been shaped by the objects of her focus on this book. She aims for balance as well as decisiveness, accessibility as well as depth. I will stick my neck out on her behalf, and say that she writes as fairly as the somewhat self-selecting inclinations of her thesis allow her to do. This book definitely isn't a people's history; but I think it can justifiably argue that it tells a nation's history.





* - You're never liberal enough for everyone.

Friday, February 12, 2010

guha on verrier elwin

Wrote in detail, so only one book in this post.

#14 Savaging the Civilised, Ramachandra Guha

I have wanted to read this book for ages in spite of the fact that I knew almost nothing about Verrier Elwin until I finally cracked it open. I was dimly aware that he had loomed large over the early years of the Anthropological Survey of India and the government's tribal policies, and that he was some sort of English eccentric who'd decided to take off and live in the jungles of the Central Provinces with the adivasis, when the rest of his compatriots on the subcontinent were oppressing us brown people and falling in love with Jawaharlal Nehru.

This much is true. Verrier Elwin was one of those chaps who went native quite thoroughly - much like white men have been known to do throughout the modern history of European empire. But he was not an explorer, or an adventurer, or even an artist like Paul Gauguin [someone Elwin once deplored as the primary reason for the Western world's phony fascination with 'the primitive' and 'the elemental']. He was a lapsed missionary turned Gandhian freedom fighter, turned social worker, turned hedonist, intellectual and anthropologist; someone who dedicated his life to documenting and chronicling the culture of several Indian tribes, promoting their welfare throughout a nation that seemed to have alternately no clear idea, or several bad ones, about how best to integrate the First Peoples of the subcontinent into the new, independent India.

...skeevy, right? An Oxonian priest travels down to the Raj to bring the love of Christ into the hearts of heathen natives and suddenly chucks it up for wine, women and song in a tribal ghetto. Spontaneous blech from post-colonialists ensues. But Guha writes a supple and beautifully readable biography that recasts the appearance of Elwin's orientalism in subtler lights. It becomes a scrupulous history of some of the cultural transactions that underscored the end [as they did the very beginning] of the British Raj. Elwin's love for India is the love of an enthusiast. He is also, in Guha's biography, a man given over to transforming the evils of Empire - and the majoritarianism of the nationalist project - into something that would benefit the people with whom he made his home, and whom he was committed to serving.

It is a story of multiple transformations, and Guha controls that narrative extremely well. He builds an especially vivid background for the early chapters of Elwin's life in India, when Elwin rebelled against the English religio-imperialist mandate [in itself a fascinating and nuanced thing, since Christian missionaries and their supporters back home were by no means all on board with the un-Christian exploitation that was the Raj's raison d'etre]. He became first a disciple and a foot soldier of Gandhi, and then a private sceptic of Gandhi's own hyper-religious agenda. Already ensconced among the Gond people in present-day Chattisgarh, his missionary hut became a secular centre for education and healthcare, and his own interests turned to the lives and culture of the Gonds and their neighbours, the Baigas, about whom he wrote several books, and among whom he married. His work took him further afield over the years: through Orissa and then, to his great delight, to the North-East Frontier Agency [present-day Arunachal Pradesh].

As a public intellectual with tremendous clout both in England and in India, he advocated fiercely at first for protecting tribal culture, arguing that there was no 'civilisation' that could truly offer tribal people a social order that would even integrate, if not outright destroy, their own ways of life with those of the urbanising world. This earned him many enemies among sociologists who disapproved both of his methods and of his perceived commitment to hobbling the notion of a united, unilaterally forward-focused India; but it also won him friends in high places. It is amazing today to read of the philanthropic endowments for Elwin's cause from men like JRD Tata, who consolidated the corporation that is currently, among others, closing in fast on the resources of tribal land in central India. Elwin's views were moderated over the years, partly because of the necessity of staying on the right side of the Indian government, but his studies influenced the upper-est echelons of New Delhi - Nehru looked on him as a friend and an advisor, and his work with government agencies and the Anthropological Survey of India, Guha demonstrates, set benchmarks for the administration and understanding of tribal areas.

This book is not an unproblematic read. It is one thing to disengage from orthodoxy for its knee-jerk characterisation of Elwin as a white man playing at being Indian. It's quite another to ignore the question of how Elwin's trailblazing work and his wide circle of influence was even possible; Guha is certainly aware of the forces at work there, but touches on the symptoms without ever acknowledging the system. In other words, Guha scuppers tender pinko expectations as always. [The things we put up with.] But he doesn't let his fondness for Elwin get in the way of thorough - although never sensationalist - reportage, and his ability to balance out the story of an individual life with glimpses at the complex larger history makes this book a very valuable record of a certain period in twentieth-century India.

Savaging the Civilized came out in 1997. I would very much like to see a present-day assessment of Elwin's policy-related work, and the ways in which it may have impacted tribal life and administration over the decades. Guha writes that Elwin [who spent years near Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada] would definitely have been on the activist side of the national divide over the Narmada dam. Would he have solutions to offer to Chattisgarh now? A lot of Elwin's early predictions about the impact of the state running roughshod over its first peoples seem to broadly prefigure the current situation in central and eastern India. It doesn't take an unreconstituted Gandhian to condemn violence - a disgruntled one could still do that. What are the odds that an anthropologist, even if he was an inspired lunatic like Elwin, might have known how to address it? These may seem like unfair questions to ask, but historians do so all the time. This is a book that invites engagement with the present in many ways. In some ways, it ought also to provoke people to read it in spite of that.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

french graphic novel, last m&b, bhutanese travelogue

#11 Kabul Disco, Nicolas Wild

'AFGHAN COMMUNICATION AGENCY NEEDS COMIC BOOK AUTHOR TO WORK IN KABUL. CONTACT: VALENTIN SPIDAULT, ZENDAGUI MEDIA AND COMMUNICATION.'

*In Kabul? You'd have to be desperate to take a job like that*.

'Oh, by the way, my real roommate is coming back next week. You got somewhere to go?'

'Uh, I might have somewhere to crash.'

--Mister Spidault, my name is Nicolas Wild and I would like to know more about...--

'The Internet and electricity bills have just come. Did you have time to pay the rent?'

--Mister Spidault, my name is Nicolas Wild and I have had a burning passion for Afghanistan since I was little...--


And that is how Nicolas Wild, impecunious French comic-book artist, ends up in Kabul, with a job illustrating a series of comic books that explain the Afghan constitution to young children. Some of these are reprinted at the end of Kabul Disco [Kaboul Disco in the original French], the first in a series of graphic novels about Wild's life in Afghanistan. The blurb calls the book 'the first in a brilliant series of graphic reportage,' which is fairly misleading. What the book does well is to provide a string of solidly illustrated, warm-hearted and self-deprecating vignettes of the expat life in Kabul. Afghanis live in constant danger, their lives under threat from terrorists, occupiers and a corrupt government, but on the posh streets of the capital, the villas of UN officials vie with the grand homes of the drug lords. For expats like Nicolas, a job in an international conflict zone comes with its considerable hardship allowances: the swanky restaurants, the chauffeured cars and the emergency snack boxes. Wild is fully aware of the trappings of his position. An anti-war, anti-Bush liberal [this plays off beautifully later in the book, with the arrival of a former Bush employee in their midst], he has neither the authority nor the desire to play native in any way at all. Neither patronising nor romantic, Wild is comfortable painting deflationary pictures of the hipsters he settles down with, lampooning himself above all others. He uses these to tell wry, perceptive stories of the beauties and dangers of Kabul, of his friendships with Afghanis and expats alike, and his occasional journeys outside the city, into starker scenes of strife and occupation. He is at his best when he nails the constant moral trade-offs that his work entails. The more I think about this novel, the more I like it.


#12 The Virgin and his Majesty, Robyn Donald

Dear friends, to our mutual relief I can report that I have come to the last of the mills&boon MODERN titles in my current possession, and I will hopefully avoid any more for the rest of the year, having already read more of them in the last month than I have in my whole life. Only a sense of duty kept me reading this one until the end. That's about an hour of my life I'm never getting back. Anyway, I consider it my duty to warn you off this particular MODERN title. Whether because it comes well after the unstoppable charms of the Serrador Express or because of its own demerits, I cannot say, but it induced intense boredom practically from the second word of its title. I know complaining about the virgin fetish in m&b novels is like complaining that pizza has cheese on it, but I have to wonder why it is so strictly enforced. Surely most readers would actually be more inclined to like stories about girls who've had sex before and could therefore appreciate the singularly manly manfulness of their electrifying epitomes of manliness better? It's amusing when you come up against the ordinary-in-every-way-except-for-vestal-virginity template of m&b novels ONCE. Twice, it's annoying. More than that, it's just saddening. I know there are those among us who find the feisty! template for fictional heroines just as unfulfilling and annoying in their own way, but I gotta tell you, if I had to pick between Bella Swan and Elizabeth Swann I know which one I'd want.

Other than that it may interest you to know that the hero's name in this novel is Gerd Chrysander-Gillam. Okay, probably it won't, but I felt impelled to throw it out there.


#13 Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, or "Her Maj" to the people of Bhutan, heads up the Tarayana Foundation in her home country, which 'adopts' Bhutanese who need medical, educational or social care, and provides for them. In her spare time, she writes books like this one, which doubles up as an introduction to Bhutan, as well as an account of her walking tours through the country to meet people in its remote regions to sound out their problems, and help to resolve them.

Now obviously, there's not a whole lot you can deviate from the party line when you're married to His Maj, aka Jigme Singye Wangchuck, aka Hottest King Ever - or King Father [what's the equivalent of Queen Mother?] as of 2008. He has an apparently impressive record to begin with. We know he's been working to democratise the country, just as we know about things like his Gross National Happiness parameter as a way to measure social welfare, and his cautious approach to modernisation [the Internet was allowed into Bhutan in 1999, and TV not too long before that, because of the royal concern for measured, carefully-regulated progress: tourism is still relatively expensive because of the country's strict policies limiting the number of tourists every year]. Her Maj takes the storybook approach in introducing the country to foreign readers, peppering chapters of stories about her childhood and family with anecdotes and data about the nation's religious history and intense spiritual life, which is connected to another major theme of the book: Bhutan's environment, and the people's relationship with nature and conservation. Both make for great reading, especially the latter. In the second half, as the author takes up her queenly duties and travels by car, mule, horse, yak and on foot to reach areas of Bhutan far-flung from the temperate-zone urban centres [understandably for a Himalayan nation, Bhutan's topographical diversity belies its overall tininess] and has almost anthropological meetings with a prodigious diversity of people and tribes.

Of the problems and challenges faced by a country in Bhutan's position - facing a steep upward curve on its modernisation program, nestled between India and China in an extremely politically sensitive region, particularly susceptible to global warming - there's not much in the book. The author prefers to keep it storybook, and a charming story it is; I suppose the whole point of it is to leave you wanting more. I nurture faint ambitions of going to Bhutan someday, and before I do I would love to read something more about it, so I'm open to suggestions for further reading if anyone has any.

Monday, February 08, 2010

mantel, more m&b, peer

#7 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

A book perfect for everyone who hated A Man For All Seasons, loved A Man For All Seasons, and also for those who have no idea what A Man For All Seasons is about. In short, yes, it is worth all the hype. There aren't even a few novels that I like wholly or even primarily for their style, but this book is really unusually good -- it is original, thoughtful, musical, and very clever. I foresee several trips back into these pages over the year.

The novel is about Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer and politician who facilitates Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn and England's schism with the Catholic Church. Like the writing, the title is both simple and allusive on multiple levels: Wolf Hall is historically the seat of a family that is characterised only in a very minor way through the book - the Seymours. We know what history makes of them. It also articulates what Cromwell knows about the court and how man is wolf to man [a maxim wearyingly familiar to the Harry Potter fans reading this]. England is a horrible place in this book, a country where corruption and dogma are at war with each other, and the caprice and stupidity of the leaders of the nation have destroyed its government's moral fibre. The otherwise saintly Thomas More is a deeply repellent man in this book, someone who would not only die for his beliefs, as was made much of [and well, I thought, since I like the play and Paul Scofield] in A Man For All Seasons, but one who would lie, trap and kill others for it without hesitation, too. This book is for Cromwell what Bolt's play is to More -- it sets him up, and pushes him unabashedly, as a hero; not a martyr or an ideologue, but a clever, caring man with a distaste for murder and an infinite capacity to negotiate, charm, cajole and bully. His own politics are clear -- he is an admirer of Tyndale, a believer in commerce, and a prime mover in keeping Henry VIII happy at all costs. In creating a 650-page argument for Cromwell as truly a man for all ages, in his rationalism, his survivalist instincts, his sense of humour and his broad, humane intelligence, Mantel makes no bones about trying to win us over.

'And you have a son,' the cardinal says. 'Or should I say, you have one son you give your name to. But I suspect there are some you don't know, running around on the banks of the Thames?'

'I hope not. I wasn't fifteen when I ran away.'

It amuses Wolsey, that he doesn't know his age. The cardinal peers down through the layers of society, to a stratum well below his own, as the butcher's beef-fed son; to a place where his servant is born, on a day unknown, in deep obscurity. His father was no doubt drunk at his birth; his mother, understandably, was preoccupied. Kat has assigned him a date; he is grateful for it.

'Well, fifteen...' the cardinal says. 'But at fifteen I suppose you could do it? I know I could. Now I have a son, your boatman on the river has a son, your would-be murderers in Yorkshire no doubt have sons who will be sworn to pursue you into the next generation, and you yourself, as we have agreed, have spawned a whole tribe of riverine brawlers - but the king, alone, has no son. Whose fault is that?'

'God's?'

'Nearer than God?'

'The queen?'

'More responsible for everything than the queen?'

He can't help a broad smile. 'Yourself, Your Grace.'

'Myself, My Grace. What am I going to do about it?


The style is sweepingly charming. It's left to the reader to allow themselves to be swept away, or try to find a break in this cascade of enthusiasm. The whole project leans outwards in service of this literary persuasion -- you enjoy slipping into its skin to see what England was really like at the beginning of the modern age [and you can smell it], you admire its finesse and appreciate its humour and suppleness and kindness because they all work in service of Thomas Cromwell. It lost me in the last third of the book, as perhaps is inevitable, because its impossible for anyone to appreciate the historical situation uncritically. Perhaps just why a man as intelligent and capable of iconoclasm as Cromwell suddenly loses his inner life when it comes to Henry VIII is a subject Mantel will address in her upcoming sequel - if there are answers, I would like to hear them.

Nonetheless: the nearest effect I can describe is that of one of my favourite novels, Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold, which is also a literary argument in service of an overlooked, reviled man, to rescue him for our sake as much as his own. In that novel the protagonist is the husband of Mirabai, the Crown Prince of Chittor, and while Mantel and Nagarkar could not be more different as writers -- as different as Henry VIII and Mirabai -- the effect is the same. It works to convince us that maybe our ways of being modern are timeless, no matter what transpires in history and what forces govern its propulsion. As the faults of politics are constant, so perhaps are some of its virtues.

Absolutely worth a read.


#8 Wanted: Royal Wife and Mother, Marion Lennox

Another gem from the Mills & Boon stable, this time a classic [which means no sex anywhere, so not a feminine heart or sensitive core in sight]. An Australian archaeologist and equestrienne makes a disastrous marriage with the Crown Prince of the European kingdom of Alp de Ciel, gives him a son and is cast out of the family and divorced unceremoniously. Five years later, the evil royal hubs is dead and the little boy is capable of speech, movement and fitful charm. Inevitably, his uncle, the dashing Prince Regent, takes little Mathieu to Australia to find his Mummy, and bring her back to Alp de Ciel. As you might imagine, romance ensues.

I got through all the way to the end, which counts it a success in my book, so you can take this as a recommendation, although nowhere near the level of the Serrador Express.

#9 Ideas of a Nation / Selected Speeches, Jawaharlal Nehru

Penguin India is putting out a series of tiny volumes called Words of Freedom, anthologising select speeches of some of the leaders of India's political freedom movement. I got this selection of six of Nehru's most famous speeches as a gift for my granddad, who of course heard them on the radio at the time etc., and I thought I'd log it here just to applaud the sheer pleasure of Nehru's rhetoric, a lot of which stems from the literary inclination of his intellect. One of the most endearing things about Nehru's style is that he starts with the default assumption that he is making the most reasonable declarations in the room and everything else - his arguments, his demands, his outrage, his resolutions - is predicated on this unquestionable reasonableness. He is a bit of a Wodehousian figure in his Harrow handicaps; he is not free of the odd boyish literary handwave or the clunky cliche by any means. But he is refreshing and heartwarming. So often his rhetorical position was to be the lodestar, the conduit, the orator whose job it was to be presumptuous enough to speak for his time. It left a lot to work with.


#10 Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer

This is a memoir-cum-journalistic account of growing up in Kashmir with the explosion of militancy in the late '80s, the idea of independence and the horrors of military occupation. Narrative journalism comes with built-in pitfalls, but Peer's style here is so little the one of the pamphleteer, and so much one of the fabulist, that he unearths a reality that would absolutely have resisted any attempts at aphorism and slogan. This is a haunted, haunting book, full of stories about how much a village in Kashmir can be like a village anywhere else in India, and at the same time how little. It's about how defiance, dignity, and other ideas related to self-determination can become completely meaningless in war. It's about the unthinkable stories - husbands who don't return, sons whose bodies return, men freed from torture camps with their sense of self completely shattered, brides abducted away from their weddings and raped. It's a book that compels itself, one story following another as the years pass, as Kashmiris leave and return, as the false promises of violent resistance fade away and come to life with each generation. There is no 'hearts and minds' policy at work here from the Indian government, only a terrifying military presence and a persistent puppet-hand in the democratic life of the state.

The idiom of the book is thoroughly Indian [or subcontinental, I should say], with its lyrical insistence on memory as narrative, its tone not so much of alienation as of loss, its emphasis not on history but on 'the past.' Peer is a sincere writer, and a forthright one. It's a cri de coeur as much as a scrupulous account of Peer's own journey through the decade trying to collect voices. It's deeply personal, and I thought of it as a book everyone who lives outside Kashmir should read at least once -- the sooner the better.

Friday, February 05, 2010

book munch: mills & boon modern, gretchen peters

At Aisha's place on a cold Delhi night, she pressed into my hands two books that took the edge off my despair at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. These were from that giant of modern publishing, mills&boon MODERN. Now I've read mills&boon MODERN titles before, and they have seemed to me grievous. Whether it was dehydration or stupidity that made these seem worth not only finishing, but also recording in a public blog, I cannot say.

I wish I could report that they were subversive, creative, or in any way interesting. Alas, they were not. Like potato chips, they were simply there, and easily consumed.


#4 Virgin Mistress, Scandalous Love-Child, Jennie Lucas

I quote from the synopsis:

In the sultry heat of Rio and its Carnaval Ellie succumbs to her dangerously charismatic boss Diogo Serrador. But, having taken her virginity, the Brazilian billionaire wants nothing more to do with her - until he discovers she's pregnant!


I quote at random from the text:

Three months ago, Diogo Serrador had taken everything from her. Her innocence, her faith, her courage in her dreams. Was she really such a desparate fool that she was willing to throw herself under the same train again, the Serrador Express that stopped for no woman? [bolding mine]


This is the sort of book that informs your intellectual development over a lifetime, not one about which you can write any sort of focused critique. But I'll say this, it was over quite quickly, that ride on the Serrador Express. Emphatically, also, I can report that the writing was a minor marvel compared to The Sicilian's Baby Bargain. For sure.

#5 Raffaele: Taming His Tempestuous Virgin, Sandra Marton

Round two. I quote from the synopsis:

Chiara Cordiano will not love her husband! She tries everything to avoid her fate, but in the blink of an eye Chiara is swept away from her quaint Sicilian town to New York! She wants to hate Rafe, but seduction is in his blood.


Well, all that seductive blood clearly got somewhere. This fell somewhere between Virgin Mistress, Scandalous Love-Child and The Sicilian's Baby Bargain in terms of quality - certainly without the instant appeal of the Serrador Express - but nowhere else have I heard pubic hair described as 'the delicate curls that guarded her feminine heart.'

Reading them as I shivered into my woollen clothing in a cold guest room in Jaipur, I could rue only that there were not more of them. I will be returning them to Aishwarya with reward untold for her friendship, needless to say.

#6 Seeds of Terror: the Taliban, the ISI, and the New Opium Wars, Gretchen Peters

All that poppy, handy in one place.

The central thesis of this book is that Afghanistan in the wake of the post-2003 resurgence of the Taliban is a situation analogous not to Iraq [well, obviously] or any of the globally influential conflicts in the Middle East, but the narco-state that was [is?] Colombia, an economy and a gang war fuelled by the illegal drug trade. Now this would make a great piece of writing by someone who had actually spent time in both countries. Peters is a broadcast journalist, who has been in Afghanistan for most of the last decade, and rather than write an experiential account of her research on the trade there, she chooses to create a historical and mostly second-hand account of the growth and effects of the opium trade over the last three decades. There is a lot that is interesting and informative at the level of fact for those who know very little about Afghanistan - but Peters is not very interested, and if one is pushed to say it, not very good, at drawing out the stories. She touches on al Qaeda and their profits from the Taliban networks, she touches on Dawood Ibrahim, she actually does a pretty thorough job detailing just how porous the border between Afghanistan and south-west Pakistan is, but this would have been a much better book from someone who not only aggregated some very horrifying and well-backed up hard facts, but also tried to piece together a big picture. Peters indicts the Great Game and its players pretty air-tightly, but I can see why there has been criticism of the book saying that she simply hasn't gone far enough in nailing the US policymakers whose short-sightedness has benefitted the drug smugglers and narco-lords of Afghanistan so greatly in the last decade. Her last chapter, dedicated to suggestions to cut the poppy trade down, are sound common sense.

But what is going to put pressure on the people currently moving soldiers to Afghanistan to treat symptoms, people who see no problem writing large op-ed pieces in the NYT calling Afghanistan 'ungovernable,' influencing possibly millions? Not this book, I don't think.

Monday, February 01, 2010

book blogging

On the advice of Aishwarya. Since January is already done, I'll finish logging the stuff I read so far quickly, and then try and take it up in a more measured fashion.

#1 The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti

I was annoyed within the first twenty pages of this book by the writing, which seemed to me to be bent on underselling its solid ideas to some ideal reader who is suspicious of reading anything that doesn't come wrapped around a fried snack. ['To map a footballer's ability, let's plot his characteristics by drawing an x and y axis (For those of you who weren't paying attention in geometry, this is a cross).'] It is a book that consciously positions itself in relation to the sort of football coverage we see in English tabloids, both in terms of what it tries to be (simple! breezy! smart!) and what it won't be (gossipy, prejudiced, sensationalist). Would Vialli and Marcotti have written the same book today that they did four years ago, post the blogular explosion, the broadsheets stealing a march over the tabloids in online brand-building, and the intensified debate over English football's gentrification?

I don't think so. More importantly because I can't see how they would now deal with the other side of its subject? Like the other major overviews on Italian football (John Foot, Calcio and Paddy Agnew, Forza Italia), it was written before Calciopoli, before the World Cup, before Filippo Raciti and Gabriele Sandri. I sincerely believe that had any of these books come out even six months after the trials we would be asking different questions about Italian football - and that's why, in spite of its many successes, the book already feels like its shaping an irrelevant argument. It's constructing an opposition that doesn't really matter. [I know that's not a bad thing, I'm just pointing it out.] But I appreciate Vialli's resistance to simply writing a charming out-of-the-ordinary travelogue about his career in Italian and English football. He and Marcotti are clearly geeks of the first order when it comes to soaking up opinions and facts, about the technicalities of training and attendances and television habits and stuff, and they lay it out really well in the book. The style gets less cutesy as the book goes on, and while they make the same points that Foot and Agnew do, they are far more interested in laying them out as journalistic arguments than in the style of the factual compendium [Foot] or the credible but subjective memoir [Agnew]. I don't think they are critical enough of either football culture: then again, it may be the gap of four years talking.

Stuff I liked:
+ The whole section on referees, which intersperses observations on the culture of refereeing in England and Italy with interviews with Graham Poll and Pierluigi Collina, as well as the section on managing time in football - apparently there is a FIFA reco that states that matches must aim to keep the ball in play for sixty minutes: most matches today manage an average of fifty-two out of ninety.
+ One of Vialli's rare dips into his personal history as a pro: playing the 1990 semi-final against Argentina in Napoli. Amazing and creepy, 'like playing under water,' he says, because no one actually didn't cheer for Italy because of Maradona, they were just - muffled.
+ Jose Mourinho. No one gives interview as good as this man. Vialli and Marcotti gad about talking to a number of smart people: they get Capello, who is crusty and smart and Lippi, who is suave and smart, and Wenger, who is smart in his dogmatic way and Ferguson, who is smart in his totally calculating way. Mourinho is still the best.
+ The section on managers explaining tactics, which includes the gem of the fact that Luis Felipe Scolari apparently gave all the 2002 Brazil team copies of The Art of War. Cafu said it helped him win the World Cup. CAFU. DON'T YOU JUST LOVE FOOTBALL?
+ The sub-section on ultras.

I think the journalistic approach works weakest when they're talking about the fans [and why fandom is different in both countries, why fans are this here and so there]: this is where all their careful planning and their continuous battle against ethnocentrism breaks down in spite of their best efforts. There's a lot of guff from Wenger about the Anglo-Saxon temperament and the Latin temperament, and I hate that people actually think this sort of talk works outside of novels to prove anything. There's also a lovely little idea from one of the interviewees about the Italian fan worshipping the club in the abstract, as an article of faith, while the English fan supports the club as a part of his identity. While I don't think the binary stands culturally, I do think it's an interesting way to maybe categorise fans as a whole. The guy who says this says it's why the fan of 'the abstract' is much less inclined to defend their club, and much more willing to criticise, though, abd I don't know about that. I think faith in an abstract can also lead to a tolerance for its physical manifestation, no matter how un-ideal, that is quite durable. There's no reason why it wouldn't help you assume respect in the first place. I know a lot of people who, like me, weren't particularly interested in having Ronaldinho or Beckham play for their club, but who, once they came, imposed the same expectations on them as they would on other Milan players, and gave them the same presumptive goodwill.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. Would I rec it if you knew nothing about Italian football? Yes. Would I rec it if you knew nothing about English football? Questionable. It's written for English fans looking across to Italy. Would I recommend it if you are interested in history? Yes. Not in the way I would recommend Foot, who wrote an actual history, but to see how football changes, how its narratives change, and to wonder about how long it will last.


#2, Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon [re-read]

Is it really a good thing when the first reaction a writer elicits from a reader is, "That's so you"? I know that is a key point about genre fiction, satisfying expectations [eg. Raymond Chandler satisfying expectations just by writing like Raymond Chandler], but I'm not sure I want Michael Chabon to satisfy expectations quite so assiduously. There's a lovely line in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead where the protagonist says [I paraphrase], '...I am sure that there is a prevenient courage which allows us to be brave,' and really, that's it with Chabon: he has a prevenient literariness that allows him to be literary. He does such a thorough job with having fun in this little novel, with his swashbuckling heroes and adventure and romance, and he succeeds so well, that you end up admiring his gift for writing lovable flawed human beings, his good-humoured compassion for neuroses, his sympathy with literature's women characters, his light touch with history, and his sickening genius for mimicking language - everything, in short, that makes Chabon Chabon. Do you ever want to run around your house galloping on an imaginary horse, brandishing an imaginary sword?

Let me spoiler this short little gem of a novel for you: no.

#3) The Many Conditions of Love, Farahad Zama [review dated 13 Jan 2010]

I heard tons of people gush about Zama's first book, The Marriage Bureau For Rich People, so when I found The Many Conditions of Love, the second in what seems to be a planned series, I jumped at it. I discovered that The Marriage Bureau For Rich People is a matrimonial agency set up in the small town of Vizag in coastal Andhra Pradesh by retired gent and all-round good egg Mr Ali, who finds a lot of gentry coming in and trying to find eligible matches for their sons and daughters. It is a truth universally acknowledged that gentry looking to get their kids married off generally assume the attitudes of the deeply kooky. Gentle fun ensues. Meanwhile, Mr Ali's own son Rehman, an activist civil engineer [...I KNOW, right?] is falling dangerously in love with the totally unsuitable upper-class television reporter, Usha, whose family take drastic measures when they discover that she is engaged to a - gasp! - Muslim. Rehman's widowed cousin Pari is trying to make her way through the world. Mr Ali's assistant Aruna is trying to cope with having married into an unacceptably snooty family. What happens to all of them?

It kept me reading. Zama isn't a flashy writer. And if I were his editor I would really take stringent measures to ensure that he never tried to repeat the annoying habit of following every single non-English word used in dialogue with its English translation (f. e. "it's my favourite devar, brother-in-law" which translates as "it's my favourite brother-in-law, brother-in-law" !!!). But he finds his way into the story very nicely and unobtrusively, and as the novel goes on he really settles into that mild declarative style that will be familiar to anyone who's read Alexander McCall Smith's writing. In fact I think the whole point of the series is to be sort of like the Ladies No 1 Detective Agency, only this time not as a detective agency, and not set in Botswana? There's a sympathetic, non-judgmental eye applied to many of the clashes of character and belief that inform our lives everyday, trying to reconcile tradition and modernity, parents and children, husbands and wives. It was not at all the sort of thing I read often, but it was easy and quick, and sweet. I'm growing old, I would never have read a book with the words 'Marriage Bureau' in its title when I was 22.