Banquet of books

Banquet of books

From the world’s farthest corners — amidst political and economic upheavals and rethinks — there comes a fusillade of popular, serious and reflective writing to thwart our complacence over our literary edge these last two or three decades.

The 2013 platter was full, but cluttered; diverse to the point of confusion, yet showing clear patterns of populism and departure. As always, I also include selections from my own restricted reading. As always, we’ll remember a buffet cannot hold everyone’s favourites; and that the term “everyone’s favourites” is a myth. And just this once, I didn’t look too closely at translations or regional books; they simply deserve a separate sitting.

New kids on the block

I read two big books on my Kindle that seemed endless in their small page formats. Nights, with sleep rolling up and retreating like waves, I felt doomed to live among their characters forever. When confronted with a 450-page detective novel, it certainly comforts to know that Robert Galbraith, far from being a stranger, is actually a shy J K Rowling.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is dark vintage detective stuff, more or less noir, but also morally secure. Slow and settled, it relieves you from those breathless blockbusters. A hotshot model jumps (or is pushed) to her death. A hulk with one leg and a tattered personal life is given the case. We witness high glamour plus smudgy moments of the hoi polloi. Rather than gloss over the bleak and painful, we’re made to wince companionably; and that, along with humour, is Rowling’s hallmark. I guessed the ending, but the revelation still brought a thrill of recognition. Cormoran Strike and Robin are an item we’d want to revisit.

The second big one is 28-year-old Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winner The Luminaries. Set during the gold rush in Hokitika in 19th century New Zealand, it revolves around a young man who comes upon a secret conclave of 12 men discussing a mysterious murder and an unconscious hooker. “There is no truth except truth in relation —”. If you can imagine a story based on this observation, this is it. Knowing it’s wowed Booker judges and critics, it’s quite another thing to lie in the dark taking in homeopathic micro-doses of a finely described, booming large story. The mind needs to restfully savour this story in retrospect.

Two other books I read within a short span surprised with similar beginnings (regarding balloonists) and structures, their narrative and structural ingenuity. Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic was a pleasant surprise, both the concept, the zigzagging, crisscrossing passage of real and imagined lives, and McCann’s adventure with words. Julian Barnes in his Levels of Life describes with brimming heart and grim-set lips contrasting lives, including the tragedy in his own, almost a dismal celebration of unspeakable loss.

If you’re looking for a cocktail that will stir and shake you up, go for Unnatural Creatures. It’s an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman (you can hardly go wrong there), and features Saki and E Nesbit amidst newer writers.

And then there’s Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, which is less about Americanahs (America-returned, snobbish elite in Africa) than the brittle state of Africans living in America. It is considered one of Adichie’s best efforts and sure to resonate in most of us.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala is an unsettling, stunning book on the tsunami: the author calls her husband to show him something odd from their hotel window. That “something odd” claims her family that day, her husband and her parents, her two young sons, leaving her behind. “I didn’t stop for my parents — I held the boys tight by their hands, we have to get out,” she writes. Later, she’s with another survivor, a boy who’s crying out. “Stop blubbing,” she thinks. “You stayed alive in that water because you’re so fucking fat. Vik and Malli didn’t have a chance. Just shut up.” The book electrifies because it is written by a survivor who’s touched the raw flesh of loss.

The best & the worst

For variety, look at Manil Suri’s The City of Devi, recently in the news for bagging the bad sex award. Not only are we in chaos city, on the edge of Indo-Pak mass destruction, we also have vigilantes running around, random fires, a scenario from a post-apocalypse bleak-book. Here, however, we also have our own Mumbai “loony right fringe”, whose parlance turns Bugs Bunny into Khatmal Khargosh and Superman into Maha Manush. The story traces a triangle, jolly and gay, a man and a woman looking for their man. Suspend your disbelief, and you’ll need strength to un-suspend it. The characters include a fleeting someone in drag “who believes in married life, just to a different husband each month.”

Fuminori Nakamura plumbs Tokyo’s dark underside in his novel about a pickpocket known simply as The Thief. Emotionless at first, he finds himself mentoring a youngster, but soon gets caught in a vicious vortex of obligation. Written almost tersely towards an unexpected climax, the novel’s English translation reached us this year. You might then look at Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is about time and the if-ness of life, of being born again and again until you get it right! We also have a more mature and settled Khaled Hosseini revisiting relationships and shadows of the past in his latest, And The Mountains Echoed. I found the title of Meg Wolitzer’s novel interesting. It’s about relationships and values, about the “thick bodied, unusually ugly” Ethan Figman and his long-lasting friends. The book is called The Interestings.

Since it’s books we are talking about, here are two talking points: the sad demise of Doris Lessing and the case of the two Lolitas. Lessing, oldest Nobel Laureate for literature at 89, author of 50 novels, plays, stories and essays, was celebrated for her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, a seminal work with a strong comment on politics and women’s liberation. In an interview she once said, “I taught myself to write in very short concentrated bursts.” She adds: “I’ve noticed that most women write like that, whereas Graham Greene, I understand, writes two hundred perfect words every day! So I’m told!”

And the Lolitas: strange literary news surfaced this year. While Nabokov’s Lolita was doing some quiet rounds in manuscript form, Dorothy Parker, whose career wasn’t doing too well then, must have got her hands on it. Three weeks before the controversial novel hit the Paris stores in 1955, Parker’s short story appeared in The New Yorker. It was about a middle-aged man, a teen bride and her jealous mother, and was also named Lolita.

Ah well, literature’s always interesting, whether between the covers or not. And see, it’s already time for more, the voices of 2014.

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