The unburnt one and other books

Flipping through 2009

The unburnt one and other books

It’s easy at first to choose between landscapes. Seaside, mountain, forest and hot plains. But as you pile up advantage and disadvantage, the memories of holidays and previous excitements — the push of salted breeze, the mix of sweat and cold as you climb, the delicious fear of unseen eyes beyond that drapery of greenery, the vastness of an empty land where the sense of your bearings gets gradually garbled — you wonder if it’s all that easy after all.

For preferences are coloured by memory and the current state of mind. By what we think we ought to like. And the subtle pressures exercised by others on our behalf.
The literary landscape is somewhat like that. List out your favourite 2009 reading material, and if you’d dared to go beyond the tried and tested, the popular and the chosen ones, you’ll find you’ve experienced the best you could find. Finally, all lists are personal; and they are confined to what we can get our hands on.

Having said that, let’s venture beyond. Let’s see 2009 in terms of what we did, and could have, read.

It was mixed fare this year. Coming in the wake of terror and violence, meltdowns of various kinds, this year too carried the stains and strains, the echoes of the year gone by. Literature was solace as well as reflection of a grim reality.

Two books — a translation of the Ideehya Mala, folklore from Kerala, translated by T C Narayan, and Paulo Coelho’s departure into Sheldon-Wallace territory, The Winner Stands Alone — registered the sort of year it was going to be. I enjoyed both. Kerala’s rich store of vocal history, a legacy of the real and the purportedly real, is tantalising stuff for any writer because its tales ride the entire spectrum of emotion and possibility. And Coelho feeling his way through the merry waters of popular story-telling, replete with signature panache and occasional dives into the inner life, is enjoyable because we soon become part of his explorations. The scene is Cannes, and the theme, murder.

Tolkien and Nabokov resurfaced during the year, bringing good cheer to an ardent world of readers. The former’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, a rough and tumble poetic retelling of the Norse legend, came with some background material as bonus. Vladimir Nabokov’s re-entry was tinged with controversy.

The writer had, on his deathbed, ordered all incomplete work to be consigned to flames. His wife dilly-dallied, and so did his son. The manuscript of The Original of Laura, his last effort, remained in a Swiss bank vault until this year. As the deadline for its publication neared, the excitement mounted. Being a perfectionist, Nabokov wouldn’t have wanted an unedited, incomplete manuscript out in print especially since the book was created from 138 hand-written index cards. So burn it, said some. Preserve and publish, said others. Suspense! Unburnt, the book is now out.
The bestseller list trembled in anticipation.

There was John Grisham with The Associate plus a short story collection, his first. And Dan Brown, back with The Lost Symbol, a sequel to The Da Vinci Code after six years. I held the book in my hand, courtesy a kind soul on the Brindavan Express, but expectedly the book outran the journey. John Irving finally released Last Night in Twisted River that had been burning his head for 20 years. There was also Edward Kennedy’s memoir True Compass which came out less than a month after his death following an eight-million dollar advance.

2009 heavyweights also included Michael Crichton (Pirate Latitudes, published a year after his death), Paul Theroux (A Dead Hand, rising to mixed, mostly lukewarm, response), and yes, Stephen King (with Under The Dome, that’s only 1088 pages long).

Reaching further, it’s worth taking a look at Lakshmi Holstrom’s translation (The Hour Past Midnight) of Salma’s Irandam Jamangalin Kathai, a nuanced novel that watched women being sidelined and persecuted, often in the name of religion. The Tamil Muslim world of women created here is as frothy as it is harsh, as life often is.

Also this year, we had Sara Joseph’s Othappu, translated by Valson Thampu from the Malayalam. Peopled with an outstanding cast of characters and tackling difficult situations in and out of religious (here, Catholic) conformity, the novel spoke in a clear voice about the true nature and price of freedom. Both these novels came with a feminist tag but were ultimately human documents.

And yes of course, William Dalrymple is back, stronger than ever. His Nine Lives is the story of nine people, their spiritual journey. With a cast of real characters as varied as a Buddhist monk, a devadasi and a prison warden, he sneaks into India within, even as the exterior continues to dazzle the world. Whatever else he may be, Dalrymple is certainly readable.

And no list would be complete without the year’s Booker winner which is why Hilary Mantel and her massive tome, The Wolf Hall, deserves special mention. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence appeared in translation in October, telling of the wealthy businessman Kemal and his obsessive love for the young Fusun. The novel reveals a few home truths about women and society as it traces a bizarre relationship.

Chetan Bhagat languidly reclaimed his nest on the bestseller list with 2 States, an oft-told but freshly animated tale of inter-state love. The Punjabi-Tamil sparks are interesting enough for a short fast read. And if you want to know why long-dead Jinnah could get Jaswant Singh ousted from the BJP, you just have to read Jaswant’s Jinnah, which would never have attracted all that attention without the attached controversy.

When I met Ali Sethi earlier this year, I didn’t imagine I would be adding his book to a year-end list, but here he is as well. The Wish Maker, his debut novel, captures refreshingly the rites of passage of a young Pakistani, mopping up along the way politics, love and the excitement of growing up. This year a book that interested me was Arzee The Dwarf by Chandrahas Chaudhary, an admirable debut that promises good fiction in the coming years. And another debut, this time nonfiction, is Sadanand Dhume’s My Friend The Fanatic, a sprawling, many-visaged account of the rise of Islamic influence in Indonesia, a book that entertains even as it piles up the facts.
The landscape, as I mentioned, is varied.

And we’ve had many moods and methods to negotiate. The year gave us several surprises and some disappointments. But like good, persistent travellers, we keep at it, storing our memories and looking forward to much more in the coming year: a seaside, a mountain, a jungle or the mystery of an unending plain. 

(Shreekumar Varma’s novel ‘Maria’s Room’, published by Harper Collins, will be out in January 2010.)

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