Monday, May 31, 2010

khashoggi, eggers

Having looked at the calendar and discovered ALARMED that there are only 11 days to the World Cup, which means eleven days until the sleep of reason [and the sleep on the train commute, which is where I do most reading currently], I have decided to clear backlog as comprehensively as possible. Presenting two whole reviews in this post.

#58 Mirage, Soheir Khashoggi [re-read]

I read this book many many years ago in high school, in the halcyon days before everyone began to care about the veil as a political issue, female genital mutilation and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when all anyone cared to know about the Middle East was that it was full of fabulously rich but cruel sheikhs and fabulously beautiful but terribly oppressed women. Mirage is an excellent thriller about a woman on the run from the evil prince she has married, full of edge-of-the-seat stuff about whether the life she has built for herself in America under an assumed identity is going to collapse or not. As titillatory glamourised adventures riffing off real world problems go, it's pretty good, really!

Treading the high/low barrier, it aims to be a serious novel about the status of women in the Middle East, and it tackles an astonishingly broad range of issues in a complicated plot, ranging from the denial of formal education and extreme discrimination between sons and daughters, all the way up to forced marriage, domestic abuse and that awful staple of made-for-the-West narratives, death by stoning for adultery -- and chases the threads through to explore violence against women in America. The author has little time for cultural relativism: through her protagonist, she makes it clear that anyone who is not outraged by this is deluding themselves. But all of this seems a terribly casual approach to the detached reader. Soap-operatising the experience of one woman and applying it as the political framework for a wholesale rejection of a certain history and values -- I'm clearly no one to say that this is not justifiable, but can it truly be seen as definitive? Because, um, this book is also weirdly autobiographical. The main supporting character, for example, is a mind-blastingly wealthy arms dealer who got his start under Aristotle Onassis.

*looks at you*

*looks at author's last name*

*looks at you*

I know Slate and Feministing and other American websites love to talk about how soap operas in countries with poor human rights records empower women. I have no personal experience with female foeticide and child marriage, two subjects Indian soap operas linger over ultra-lovingly, and perhaps I am no one to judge whether these disgusting productions have been more or less helpful to women who do have to confront these issues than the tireless but not very sexy work of generations of women's rights advocates and workers. But I do judge these calcifying, fit-to-pattern narratives, anyway. I judge fiction in a way I would not judge biography [and I'm not sure if Hirsi Ali's books, for example, fall into this category -- stating upfront that I've never read them, but I've heard her speak about them and read her magazine writing, and in spite of her calling her books memoirs, they are also clearly doubling up as prescriptive scholarship, in which case they are outrageous, no matter what Tunku Varadarajan thinks]. The autobiographical strain in Khashoggi's novel apparently does extend beyond the Operation Diamond Racket brother, and I sympathise with the sincerity with which this book carries its message against violence, which I think salvages the book to a great extent. It just chose a wrong-headed medium in my opinion. And I wonder how Khashoggi herself feels about it in the wake of the deluge of concern trolling about veils, FGM and Ayaan Hirsi Ali that have succeeded this novel into the next decade.

#59 What Is The What, Dave Eggers

So carrying that thought forward -- is intent a necessary criterion by which to judge a novel? If yes, I suppose I'm glad to have put down money for What Is The What, whose proceeds go towards an education facility in Marial Bai, the Sudanese village from where the book's central figure, Valentino Achak Deng, originally hails. Deng is one of Sudan's Lost Boys, a child who saw his village ravaged by civil war and walked through the desolate war zone of South Sudan to get to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and thence to a new life in America.

Whether benefits should be predicated on the pleasures of a good book or not is a difficult matter. This is our culture now, the giving of benefit dinners and the purchase of DARFUR tee-shirts; who might even have heard of Marial Bai in this imperfect world, had Deng and Eggers not found each other and this much-discussed and extremely popular book come out of it? But I will say that if I could give the book back to be sold a second time, I would, because this is really not the book about Sudan I wanted to read. I don't mean to say it's a bad book -- it's not. It is an agonising, saddening novel, that nonetheless manages to imbue its characters with tremendous dignity, and it narrates a situation that defies the imagination in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone that does not pretend to reportage any more than it makes obvious attempts to provoke or titillate. But it is not Valentino Achak Deng's story. It's Dave Eggers' story, for which Deng has provided material. I spent a long time trying to figure out what was real about this book - since it helpfully advertises itself as a novel - and what was not. What is a 'fictionalised memoir'? Was Deng even real? Was this money really going to a real school in a real village? And if it wasn't, just what did Eggers think he was doing?

Clearly Deng is real, and I apologise to him for doubting it. But I can scarcely be more aghast at how completely someone would appropriate his identity to write this book. Why would you do that? Why wouldn't you want to stick to the standards of truth -- and the separation of the authorial voice from the voice of the subject -- expected in a straightforward work of non-fiction? If you were dedicated to Deng's educational project, why wouldn't you take the questionable but easily less fraught path of an 'as told to' story? Of course, Eggers may well have gone in the other direction and written a completely fictionalised work based on a bunch of imagined or composite characters, with names changed and situatons suitably cast to exercise the sympathy of the novel-reading class. But then he may have had to answer questions about how he succeeded in writing a novel about a human rights crisis without actually having spent time there. [And had he travelled through Southern Sudan, surely, he may have had to answer questions about why he chose to write a fairy story instead of reporting hard straight facts in a newspaper. I know. But if these questions are never asked, then who determines the standards of truth to which we hold the written word?] If the book is supposed to be a testimony, how can it have the name of a person who did not live through the events of the testimony on it? Surely that completely obscures its primary purpose?

Set against a civil war, a literary quibble over a single African's identity may not seem like much. But to a reader like me, who has so far only known what it's like through the eyes and voices of others, it reads like a tremendous betrayal, even with the consent of the person whose story it is -- it casts a shadow over the whole book. I was so, so glad to stop reading it when the end came.



Coming soon on Book Munch:
Longitude
A Very Strange Man
Madame Sadayakko
Inverting The Pyramid
Split
The Demon's Lexicon

Sunday, May 30, 2010

paretsky, sayers

#56 Fire Sale, Sara Paretsky
#57 Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers


In spite of having read both books at a fair interval from each other, they struck me with an important thing they had in common apart from the obvious -- crime novels, female protagonists, female writers -- which unites them in my eyes.

In Fire Sale, VI Warshawski returns to the neighbourhood where she grew up, a grim, eroding part of Chicago's beleaguered South Side. What starts out as a temporary assignment to coach her old high school's basketball team becomes a dangerous entanglement with the neighbourhood's only significant generator of employment, the department store conglomerate By-Smart [that is exactly what you're thinking it is in real life] and the shady family of Christian fundamentalists who own the company. Warshawski is very aware of the privilege she has earned, having been one of the few kids who has succeeded in getting away. Her involvement in the fallout of By-Smart's crimes is both debilitating and thankless, but it is also a matter of conscience - not an obligation, but a moral stake in the fortunes of her childhood home.

Warshawski is the dogged, upstanding, quick-tongued, tirelessly proactive detective that washed-up shamuses who defined and been defined by urban American literature only wish they could be. She really is a hero -- not because she has the privilege of being always in the right, but because she takes that stake of hers, that responsibility to her world, very seriously. It is intensely personal in Fire Sale, but also, from the only other Warshawski novel I've read so far, inclusive of the wider community of which she consciously retains a membership. If the detective is the principal literary figure to embody the values of the enlightenment, it is also true that she or he is a chief figure in the twentieth century's creative engagement with identity. But Warshawski is never content to take up the Charon role that other detectives can sometimes smugly assume, bridgeing the unbridgeable and speaking the unspeakable. She has the Marlovian sense of duty and Marlovian notions of honour, but I think her sense of humour stretches a little further than Marlowe's, and her pragmatism strikes a note very different from the Golden Age's disappointed romanticism. Reading this very Bush-era novel in the years of Obama [that other South Sider-come-lately whose engagement with his adoptive Chicago are such a crucial element of his books], I find it striking how Warshawski also acts as a bridge between two corresponding eras of hope, cynicism and activism.

This sprawling, somewhat rambunctious, knock-down-drag-out story is very different from the classic Gaudy Night, the first Sayers novel I have had the dubious pleasure to read. It is a classic from-chaos-to-order mystery starring the stately, clever Harriet Vane and the somewhat fey genius-level Renaissance man Peter Wimsey. I might have been very struck by Wimsey had I not earlier read Dorothy Dunnett's The Lymond Chronicles [written considerably later than Sayers' books, I note] before this. The Lymond Chronicles feature a fey, genius-level Renaissance man, who actually dates from the Renaissance, in their starring role. I hate Francis Crawford with a passion -- somehow these gorgeous blond imperialists just don't do it for me -- and I credit Dunnett's great talent for creating a lovable supporting cast and her scholarly/swashbuckling style for keeping the books readable. Similarly, Gaudy Night is fantastically readable for its own style, and for the character of Harriet, but is too airless, and too classist, to be otherwise tolerable. In Sayers' book people are always saying what they ought to say. Ideas are always explored fully in dialogue in a way that you would only expect from a novel set in a serious-minded ladies' college in Oxford, and there are perpetual glimpses of a living world that, alas, reverts to type the minute conversations are over. There's something very satisfying about Gaudy Night as a romance, where two characters dancing around each other say things like:

"...However. should you characterise me as a heart or a brain?"

"Nobody," said Harriet, "could deny your brain."

"Who déniges of it? And you may deny my heart, but I'm damned if you shall deny its existence."


which I love, and would have put in a romance novel had I thought of it [and if I were writing a romance novel]. As a mystery, though, it starts out brightly articulated within Harriet Vane's own mind, and then unravels as she loses its threads, delivers them into the hands of Wimsey, and resigns herself to the role of courageous sidekick as the dreary, distasteful revelation comes about.

Yet there is one important tack to Gaudy Night that Sayers manages skilfully, if repressively. This crime, and this mystery are also primarily a way for Harriet to redefine her relationship to a a place central to her own identity - Oxford. The resolution of the crime is a way for Harriet to return control of itself to the social hierarchy of those dreaming spires. Across an intellectual and geo-political gulf so wide that they may seem almost to be working across different genres, both Vane and Warshawski are returning home; not just to bridge the unbridgeable, or speak the unspeakable, but to repay the unrepayable. In the ironclad conservatism of her Oxford, Vane is nonetheless part of a pioneering generation of women for whom their duty to their education is paramount. Warshawski recognises both the futility and the discomfort of having to be grateful for one's roots. But both of them end up shouldering that a burden traditionally appropriated by men - of a love for city and community that transcends the personal, and that both Sayers and Paretsky successfully manage to root very deeply in the personal. As someone who keenly feels that love -- that sense of the unrepayable debt -- to the city I live in, this is even more meaningful than the wittiest of romances.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

trapido, ozick

#54 Temples of Delight, Barbara Trapido [re-read]

Trapido's give-and-take with the world of classical drama extends to a playful, brainy, subversive [when is Trapido not subversive?] engagement with opera -- here it is The Magic Flute that becomes the basis for the story of Temples of Delight, as well as a thread that runs through the novel itself. Her shy, somewhat remote and masochistic heroine - Trapido's protagonists are heroines - must pass through a cave of horrors in search of her lost and very true love -- her childhood best friend, the clever and evidently disingenuous Jem McCrail. Alice loses her before a school year is out, and when she finds her again, does so in bizarre and tragic circumstances. Trapido explicitly connects the improbable conventions of opera with the dream-logic of unconsciousness. The jealous and repressed ex-best friend can turn up in a moment of absolute triumph that -- well, that actually reminds you of that bit in Amadeus where Mozart's mother-in-law is raging at him about his irresponsibility and is transmuted in the blinking of an eye to the Queen of the Night shrieking Der Holle Rache. The gifts are invariably poisoned. Love is outright bizarre - as are lovers. In comedy, of course, one can cut across lines of status and identity in a way that would be unthinkable in the rule-bound world. Trapido talks to us, not only through Alice, but also through Mozart [with whom one doesn't need to be familiar to find this a superb read - I'm hardly so, for starters] to persuade us of something many English students have grown accustomed to believing after having read too much Shakespeare: the destructive power of the emotions is balanced out well by the human heart's capacity for survival; forsaking one means forsaking the other; embracing both is the best way forward.

I love this book, though not as much as Brother of the more Famous Jack. Trapido is never quite safe, never quite celebratory, always ready to pull you back from the brink because there's something even more questionable behind you. There is even something quite cynical about Temples of Delight, towards the end - but in a Trapido book it is always evident that philosophy is a mechanism, and all mechanisms are interesting and even useful, in pursuit of survival.

#55 Heir To The Glimmering World, Cynthia Ozick

I began this book eagerly because Ozick is often mentioned among the greats of modern Jewish-American literature alongside Grace Paley. I don't know anything about modern American literature, but I think Grace Paley is great, and following on that affection, I assumed that no one mentioned in the same breath as Grace Paley can be anything but awesome.

Now since Ozick is a major novelist I cannot decide whether she is awesome or not on the basis of one book, particularly since it left me cold. She is obviously a magistra - Heir to the Glimmering World is as much the work of a thinker as a writer. It is the story of rootless young Rose Meadows, who ends up as nursemaid and secretary in the newly-established house of a refugee family, intellectuals who have fled to the edge of New York in the 1930s to form a family singing troupe, led enthusiastically by their governess-turned-stepmother from Nazi Berlin. Their benefactor is a half-crazed, immensely wealthy Christopher Robin figure [explicitly based on the son of A A Milne] himself a floater on the tides of the world. Ozick retreats behind a detached voice to let her protagonist assemble - begin to assemble - the tragedy of their alienation: a dreary, disturbing, but never simple state of affairs.

Ozick, too, is concerned with survivors, and her protagonist - again a slight, blonde lost girl - is a resilient one, as are most of her acquaintances in the novel. But resilience in itself has no value - it would be stupid to say so under the circumstances. Often a story begins when we try to assemble something out of wreckage, with the assumption - spoken far too often for its own good - that we are still fighting, or that there is some victory still to be won, or that not to react resourcefully would be to 'let them win'. It's just as true that 'they' have already won. Ozick does not reach for the comfort of salvaging, even though the novel closes on the promise of marriage and birth, and the beginnings of Rose's own coming-of-age. The novel itself evokes a purgatorial stage - where the Mitwissers, Rose, and James A'Bair are all grappling with the loss of the past and coming up empty-handed time and time again.

Yet, it does not work. Rose and the Mitwissers are complex organisms, but there is too much echo to James, who is unfortunately far too important to the novel to be dismissed. He is also an exile, as is clear in the text, but he is a flat character where the others live - fretfully and resentfully, but live. Elsa Mitwisser's scholarship, lost forever to her, is vivid to the reader, but Rudolf's work on the philosophy of the Kara'ite Jews - supposedly more central to the novel and to Rose - does not live in the same way, in spite of Ozick's treatment of it. Ozick is also wonderful at calling up the dream-logic of unpredictable relationships, of strange connections and even stranger, and grotesque, dissolutions, but the disengagement of the authorial voice becomes static in these circumstances.

And it takes me aback that someone so obviously scholarly as Ozick, who can let philosophical theory adrift in her book in such subtle and shapely ways, who can formulate learned and genuinely absorbing, complex conversations on the connections between the Bhagavad Gita and obscure branches of Judaism, can be so remiss in her research as to leave in an Indian character called Gopal Tandoori. Tandoori is what one calls the product of a particular roasting process in the kitchen. I don't deny that there may be Indians living in the US who are calling themselves 'Tandoori' right now - in fact, I'm sure I'll find people calling themselves that in Bombay right now if I look hard enough - but this is contextually wildly inappropriate. It's like how most of us don't name our children Taj Mahal. Ozick may have a reliable explanation, but it certainly wasn't evident in the book, and it puzzled me enough to throw me out of the novel almost completely, once it appeared.

Not a good experience, all in all. Time to go back to Paley.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

penelope fitzgerald: human voices

#53 Human Voices, Penelope Fitzgerald [re-read]

I returned to this slim novella early in April after I had run through some tiresome reading, and I did so because if you held a gun to my head and asked me to identify my favourite novelist Fitzgerald might possibly be her. Sorry Jane Austen, Helen de Witt, even - gulp - George Eliot. I have read all these novelists far more often and extensively than Fitzgerald, even thought more about them, and for what it's worth, know more about them [I love your blog, Helen]. But I love Fitzgerald with a love that is actually painful: I almost can't bring myself to open a book by her because I know just how delightful it will be. There are other novelists whose mastery over their work is complete. They can bowl you over with their braininess and learning. They can provoke you to thoughtful and sustaining laughter. They can even, admittedly, tell you stuff about life that's quite close to the real thing. But somehow, Fitzgerald manages to harness all these literary qualities to the narrative in a way that they nourish the story from beneath the surface, inviting you to dig in deep without offering map, neon sign or even, really, a tourists' guide that warns you of the pleasures ahead. Fitzgerald's novels offer the closest approximation of a sensation that poetry openly provokes and short stories are perhaps best structured to give: delight. Although I don't suppose she ever achieves it in a way that rises above the limitations of the form, Fitzgerald does come close to offering a novel that does not mean, but is.

That she does it in the hidebound and quite unfashionable mid-twentieth century staple of the tragicomic love story, in the registers and structures generally favoured by the English girl-novelist, is even more moving. I don't think anyone who reads Fitzgerald will come away with the idea that they are reading anyone but a highly intelligent and even deeply scholarly person, but her pleasures are never the pleasures of, say, Iris Murdoch. Her sympathy for vulnerability is immense. But when you read Virginia Woolf you enter into the torture of the vulnerable soul and emerge wracked and enlightened; when you read Fitzgerald you are aware that it is not at all separate from the life, not only of your body, but of the world around you. It's not about enlightenment. It's about illumination.

The amazing thing is that all of this is true even of a minor, slim and relatively less accomplished novella like Human Voices, a story about the BBC during World War II. Men and women of all shapes and sizes are trying to keep it together. That's really about it. The novel is only about war in the sense that the truly mundane things in life persist in spite of it. Somehow things come to their expected conclusion more often than not: if someone has to inconveniently give birth, they will, and if someone hs to fall inconveniently in love, and then even more inconveniently have it reciprocated, they will. Fitzgerald never contrives to make this seem extraordinary or dramatic. Through a delicately hilarious exposition, through the matter of fact authorial voice [one that in this novel veers identifiably, if never uncomfortably close to the stiff upper lip] Fitzgerald allows these things to take their own course. Of course, she seems to say, it's not extraordinary. It's not dramatic. But it's not sordid either - and it isn't purely comic simply because it happens to purely ordinary people. One of Murdoch's famous dictums, that art is tragic but life can only ever be comic, seems always to find an indirect contradiction in Fitzgerald's writing. She values the comic so highly that arguments about whether tragedy > comedy et cetera become irrelevant. But tragedy itself is never allowed to wither on the vine. When it does occur, it is heartbreaking - and it provokes not the aching individualist self-awareness of canonised tragedy, but the humility, solidarity - and maybe even the wisdom - of human grief.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

lampedusa and lucy maude

I have so much backlog I can totally NOT read anything new until I clear this up. * hides What Is The What under the table *

#44 The Leopard, Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa, trans Archibald Colquhoun

A small, spellbinding book that recreates the best things about the style of the pre-modernists, sweeping and subtly ravishing, but built on the painful ironies that distinguish the bent of mind of the great European modernists. Everything about it is exquisite: exquisitely drawn out of real history, exquisitely thought out, exquisitely written -- and of course exquisitely ironic. In a great piece of luck, this Vintage edition I read also reconstructs the story behind the writing of Il Gattopardo in some detail, through the notes and meta published by Lampedusa's nephew and literary executor, Gioiacchino Lanza. It is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, caught up in the tide of socio-political change after Garibaldi's landing in Sicily, which is also the story of Lampedusa's own great-grandfather, Giulio Fabrizio. But it does not operate solely within the parameters of the fictionalised memoir, which is a thoroughly postmodern categorisation at any rate. Nor is it a historical novel in the trade sense. In spite of an epic scope - and it is astonishing how Lampedusa can achieve the grand vista through a few careful strokes - it clearly meant to articulate the narrowing of a life in a world made new, larger and more aware.

It is a novel about constraints, and about the fetters of the mind that history imposes on its subjects. Even as the prince attempts to cling to a way of life that is swiftly coming to an end, he is keenly aware that he does so out of expediency, and perhaps out of regret for the opportunities of a new world in which he can only always be out of place. While the novel can build this awareness in sweeps of love - for Sicily, its land and even some of its people, its sentimentality surfaces more often in a melancholy bitterness - perhaps a basic ingredient of most ironic novels in some degree. "We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who'll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we'll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth."

It may be too easy to dismiss this novel, for all its astonishing literary qualities, as just that - a sentimental, hidebound book that reaps all the benefits of having been written in the twentieth century, but relinquishes its attendant burdens. But I'm not so sure. I would reach back further, beyond the novel of Woolf and the novel of Eliot, to the novel of Austen, to explain its concerns and its effects. It is the work of someone deeply interested in in civilisation and deeply aware of its hypocrisies. If somewhat less determinedly sunny in its ending than an Austen novel, it answers to the same sense of righteousness; indeed, of an ironic righteousness. And then, there's the temptation of the studied detachment of its narrative voice, which makes one mark it out for a reflection on the life of Lampedusa himself -- a diminished nobleman, and a 'literary dilettante,' as the introduction calls him, who only ever completed one novel in his life and did not live to see it published. Perhaps a Visconti film in itself.

#45-52 The Anne books, LM Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Anne's House of Dreams
Rainbow Valley
Rilla of Ingleside
Anne of Windy Willows
Anne of Ingleside


[re-read]

I have loved these books with all the passion of my honest, simple, once-pious and possibly fey heart, but I really regret fishing them out of the boxes this time. Montgomery is a wonderful comic writer, and it's still great to open a book and find yourself able to laugh at the tribulations of someone falling through the roof of the duckhouse while they're trying to snoop around looking for a willow-ware platter. And Montgomery's eternal and constant love for Prince Edward Island in all its glories wears well. I'm sorry to say that Anne herself does not. Having re-read the Emily trilogy about a year ago I am able to report that those books escape that particular trap, although they may well fall into others. The worst thing about the Anne series is that it loses its integrity as it steams on, rolling on to predictable ends to little stories and then beyond. It flickers back into life in Rilla, briefly, but as a book about the Great War, this particular one becomes deeply saddening for other, unintended reasons.

Wearying. The jokes are what keep it going.


Coming soon on Book Munch:
Human Voices
Heir to the Glimmering World
Temples of Delight
Fire Sale
Inverting the Pyramid
Longitude
A Very Stange Man
Split

Thursday, May 06, 2010

nandy: striker, stopper

#43 Striker, Stopper: Two Novellas, Moti Nandy, translated by Arunava Sinha



There is a section in A Season in Verona where Tim Parks imagines how the average footballer's career seems to be encircled practically from the outset by a tightening noose. In the opening paragraphs of his chapter 'Lecce' [noting this so that those of you who own a copy don't have to turn pages for hours trying to find it, the way I totally did not of course] he notes:

... By seventeen or eighteen they are playing in Serie C, or sitting on the bench in Serie B. Solemn men in heavy coats gamble on their future. They are bought and sold ... shunted up and down the length of the bel paese, Treviso, Taranto, Palermo, Turin. They know no one outside the world of football now. They hardly know what to say to a person who is not a player or a manager or a journalist. Or at least a fan. Is there anybody who is not a football fan? ...


The translator's dedication of these irresistible stories reads 'to East Bengal Club,' which satisfactorily answers the last question here. Parks came to mind as I read these novellas, written in 1970s Calcutta by Moti Nandy, veteran Bengali sports journalist - and novelist, and rendered into English beautifully and sympathetically by Arunava Sinha. One of them is about a young striker's future; the other hangs on an aging defender's past. And at what price? Football in the world of these novellas is not merely weighed in the balance against the civil opportunities of a regular life, like education and stability and honest relationships. No, what price the luxury of doing something you are born for, when families are starving - something Parks' young 21st century Italians have no notion of - and motherless children neglected for training? Nandy's stories evidently milked the problems of working-class Calcutta for all their worth, in narratives full of the drive and relish of great pulp. But those narratives also reflect a very Dickensian sense of righteousness and compassion for human dignity, and it resonates across the generations, across languages and cities.

But the sense comes by-and-by. Our heroes' stories are also full of screeching violins. The teenaged striker Prasoon refuses to buckle down to his little club Shobhabajar's demands, and so finds himself working a petrol pump on a night shift at one point, while he trains on his own in the hope of making it to a bigger club. And what should come rattling along the road one night but an Ambassador holding his teammates who have already sold out to the club's demands, now on their way to the India juniors training camp? Bring on the fricking orchestra, right? What about Kamal Guha's non-existent relationship with his teenage son, with the roots of its trouble in the fact that Kamal never made it back from a game on time to be with his dying wife? [And why not? The club held the telegram back because they needed him on the day. Oh yeah.]

The beauty of Nandy's writing is that it integrates these rather shopworn operatic conventions into a finely-wrought picture of the challenges of the sport: of how truly wearying and alienating the obsession can be, and how manipulative and traitorous the practice of it. Nandy's heroes actually do fight crime, in the form of Calcutta's abject football bureaucracy. Both novellas operate neatly within the real structure of the city's football: most of the action is set around two imaginary clubs, struggling relegation candidates Shobhabajar, and the mighty Juger Jatri, who are capable of running neck and neck with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Prasoon must lift himself from the scrabbling mediocrity of Shobhabajar to Jatri [a club where - drumroll - his father once played, and from which he was unfairly ejected after being accused of throwing a match]. Kamal Guha, who has descended from the heights of success with Jatri to a part-timer's role in Shobhabajar, must find a way to keep the club and himself afloat.

It is a corrupt world. The little clubs will fight to keep their best players from leaving, scrap and trade favours among themselves to stay up. The big ones will intimidate and bully the smaller ones for reasons of their own. Perhaps inescapably, the journeys of both young man and old mirror each other. If Prasoon, with all his ambition and integrity, must learn to be selfish - so selfish that he must eat even when his family cannot - then Guha's quest is that of a man who already knows that all things come to pass, and must sacrifice to achieve them anyway.

As someone says in Parks' book, 'How can you pay for something you hate so much?' But we know football can be grim - there's a living history that tells us so. We read it between the lines in stories of inflated salaries and dream moves. We may even experience it, in a minuscule way, when we participate in that grand ideal of suffering for the game from the stands. Melancholy and football joined hands, after all, around the first time someone decided to pass instead of dribble. Perhaps that is how the conventions of the happy ending in both novellas achieve a note of transcendence. Football still has the power to transform bitterness into joy - and it is extraordinary how steadfast that matter of belief can be. Perhaps the more mired it is in the sordid, the greater its evocation of romance, of a higher logic that can render all accounts balanced and all stories completed. It is a belief that can illuminate not just its honest and proud adherents, but the game itself. The joy of Nandy's stories is not the joy of winning a match - it is the deeper, steadier feeling that comes of looking at the league table at the end of the season, and finding your team where you want them to be.




* - I chose these pictures in spite of the fact there's a moment in one of the stories where a manager flies into a rage because a player suggests they play with a sweeper. 'You want me to play catenaccio!' he squawks. I thought it was sublime.