Getting back to reading

“We like lists because we don’t want to die”, says Umberto Eco.

Not sure if that’s the reason I am writing this post but then the apocalypticaly tagged 2012 is also hanging close, so who knows what the subconscious mind may be cooking.

Anyhow, coming back to the title of the post, I actually didn’t read the whole year, save for the last two or three months. Part reason was the miserable business of life and also i didn’t much look beyond the few good writers I had read some years ago. A small opening, reading one or two previously unread but only heard voices led to a resurgence of sorts and am pretty glad for that. So without much further ado I’ll just list(Yeah, Mr Eco must be grinning now) some of the good titles.

Solo – Rana Dasgupta

Coincidence is what comes to my mind as I think of this book now. Though i read it now, I had in fact brought a copy some two to three years ago, when it was yet to be the winner of prestigious commonwealth prize. Going back home as I stayed over at a dear friend’s place, a book on his shelf caught my attention with its title and I decided to read a few pages. It was The Case of Exploding Mangoes and after having read some I decided to trade the book for Solo, with the intention of taking it back while coming back from home, though it never happened. Incidentally The Case of Exploding Mangoes later that year won the Commonwealth First book prize and Solo won the Commonwealth Best book prize the next year.

Solo is a story narrated by a hundred year old blind Bulgarian, Ulrich, who reminisces over his past and often daydreams. Overtly ambitious in its scope it tries to capture the life of a common man, an everyman, torn through the upheavels of the last century, which forms the 1st part of the novel, named – First Moment : Life. The second part, named- Second Moment : Day Dreams, takes few characters, with certain similarities to the cast of the 1st part, through the much changed landscape in the later part of the century, though the fate of these characters remains overpowered by the sociocultural and political forces of historical magnitude. A brilliant read.

Tokyo Canceled – Rana Dasgupta

It was imminent that after having read Solo one would seek his other novel, which is a collection of short stories, narrated by passengers stranded on an airport after their flight got canceled.  Though the tone and character of these stories remains the same through out, for which the author was pointed out by numerous critics, but nevertheless the inventiveness and imagination behind them sails the book through many a miles. The stories are often surreal imbued with elements of magical realism. A highly recommended read.

The NewYork Trilogy –  Paul Auster

The books contains three stories City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. All three are one of the initial works of Auster and were published individually, though they have been clubbed now as the Trilogy. Told in the form of detective fiction they are essentially existential tales of certain individual in search of certain identities, which often merge with their own identities blurring the lines of reality. I had some time ago read the Travels in the Scriptorium by the same author but it didn’t enthuse me enough to explore him further. I guess now I’l read few more of his works.

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

This book was another highlight of the year.I had never much liked detective fiction before, but after reading about Murakami’s inherent indulgence in his works, I was tempted to see what was being offered there and that check proved to be a rewarding experience. Its now easy to see from where the stylistic influence in Murakami’s fiction comes from.

The protagonist, Marlowe is the perfect hardboiled detective. He’s a tough, clever, contemplative chap who’s always ready with a wisecrack up his sleeve. Effortless in holding his own in any tough situation. A literary influence on many a crime fiction writers after Chandler. Another of the best thing about Chandler’s writing style is how beautifully things, places, faces or people are described.  A delight to read. Quite a savoury experience.

Lady in the lake by Chandler is what am reading now.

Will you be quite, please? – Raymond Caver

The obsession to check the writing influences of Murakami made me read Raymond Caver too. Will you be quite, please? is a shot story collection. These are stories of common people, of their everyday mundane encounters, bordering on some quirky, eccentric upheaval, though mostly the tension is built but never released. The stories end usually with a tantalizing feel.

One Last Story and that’s it – Keret Etger

After having read Caver and Dasgupta’s short stories, reading some article about contemporary short story writers got me to check out Keret Etger and what a delightful experience it turned out to be. Etgar writes in a playful, mundane manner. The stories are often 2-3 pages long. All starting with everyday people or situations that are ready to take sinister tragic turns. There’s a tragicomic hint to every situation. At times things have their dreadful fated ends, though on others times events unfold to leave a smile on your face.

While Mortal’s Sleep – Kurt Vonnegut

While on that short story reading spree I also tried this. A great Humanist as Kurt was, these stories too mostly serve the purpose of telling a moral or driving home some point, though this implicit push robs the stories of their sheen. These stories are from his early times and were published posthumously this year.

Open – Biography of Andre Agassi

Whatever was seen over the years on and off the court was filled by this book with a heart wrenching as well as uplifting story of a great human. If Tennis is music to some, then he’s the Jim Morrison who’s survived through. These stories are once lived and then only told afterwards.

Also read some literary essays from Stranger Shores by J M Coetzee.

Read some in poetry too. Currently half through Rumi’s Selected Poems, Penguin edition. Also got hold of The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtormer and Charles Bukowski’s The pleasure of the Damned.

There were few currently half read, ready to be finished ones also. Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist and Coetzee’s Elisabeth Costello top that list. Though there were few other’s too but i don’t see my self completing them except these two.

Currently reading Murakami’s 1Q84,  apart from few mentioned above.

Lets see what 2012 has in store.


Waiting for the Barbarians

For Coetzee there are no absolute truths, but several small, big, convenient, not so convenient, approachable truths. And these seemingly approachable truths support, contradict, elevate, and undermine each other. All having their share of doubts and conflicts, further muddled by our human lives, the beliefs, the situations within. Take any fictional work of Coetzee, whenever there’s some emotion, stand, call, belief, conformation, rumination, acceptance taking form, we see a flurry of questions, doubts following it. May be this act of ripping things apart, questioning every existence is an act of laying bare the basic truth devoid of any convenient hinge, free of any so called moral malice. No doubt that he never overwhelms the readers but leaves them stoically empty.

Waiting for the Barbarians“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a political novel telling the story of an imaginary empire which is at loggerhead with the Barbarians living at its edges. It’s an allegorical tale about the oppressor and the oppressed. And at the center there’s an old magistrate who has been silent for most of his life but is now reeling under his wreck of moral confusions and eccentricities. But this is not where Coetzee’s ambition stops. The story is also, at another level, an inquiry about pain in the most humanistic terms. He lays the question bare open at the beginning by saying, “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt”.

The magistrate is no critic of imperialism but like every one he has his own share of opinions and view. As he once says, “…How do you eradicate Contempt, especially when the contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of eyelid? Shall I tell you what I sometime wish? I wish that these barbarians should rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them….”

But the Magistrate is all the more content with his peaceful lazy existence, collecting old metals which he thinks are historical remains, reading classics in the evening, or fulfilling his eccentric sexual appetites. Things slowly start changing as empire intensifies its ever-present quest against the nomads or rather the so called barbarians. One day few Barbarian captives are brought to the post and then tortured. A girl among them, whose father dies during torture, is left behind and is then taken in refuge by the magistrate. He takes that girl to his house, nurses her with all his care, cracks jokes never understood by her, broods over his actions, on the relationship he’s wishing, trying to start. Slowly moral confusions start surfacing, which later pave the way for his revolt.

Coetzee also explores how difficult it is for one human coming from a totally different reality to understand the reasons, desires, and emotions of another one coming from a starkly opposite reality. As for the Barbarian girl he says, “She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself that she submits because of her Barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of Barbarian upbringing? What I call submission may be nothing but indifference. What does it matters to a beggar, a fatherless child whether I sleep by myself or not so long as she has a roof over her head and food in her belly…”

Later as he is imprisoned the themes of pain, revolt, freedom, struggle are explored. As the Magistrate says, “No one beats me, no one starves me, no one spits on me. How can I regard myself as a victim of persecution when my sufferings are so petty? Yet they are all the more degrading for their pettiness. I remember smiling when the door first locked behind me…It seemed no great infliction to move from the solitariness of everyday existence to the solitude of a cell when I could bring with me a world of thoughts and memories. But I begin to comprehend how rudimentary freedom is. What freedom has been left to me?……I am now no more than a pile of blood, bone, meat that is unhappy….[..]…I walked into that cell a sane man sure of his righteousness of my cause however incompetent I continue to find myself of what that cause might be. But after two months…I am much less sure of myself..what is the point of suffering when I am no iron-hand in my certainty….I am running away from the pain and death…I am simply seeking ease, if truth be told, fleeing to the only soft bed and friendly arms I have left to me….”

But this still isn’t where Coetzee stops. He probes even further, even deeper. It all becomes a harrowing quest of what it to be human when any shred of certainty leaves you, when one is felling prey to feeling one doesn’t have strength to pursue or even have clarity of, being merely a puppet of one’s own whims and eccentricities, being overtaken by events one once thought one was in control of.

In all a rewarding read, of the same league as Disgrace and Life and Times of Michael K. were.

Reading this year

It was a very good year in terms of amount of reading done, though the amount of reading dwindled in the second half. Below are few lines about the authors and the books.

Orhan Pamuk – Snow, My name is Red & Other Colors: Essays and a Story:
Unlike booker, with Nobel Prize one definitely gets to know a very good writer. So I took up Snow initially in the year, which was a compelling read. Pamuk in “Snow” weaves a beautiful setting whereby he shows struggles, confusions and conflicts of a nation at one place clutching its tradition, its past and on the other hand trying to move towards modernization, read westernization. After Snow I read “My name is Red” which again beautifully presents the divide between east and west. Here the central theme was the conflict between Traditions Islamic art style of miniaturists and the emerging western influences and styles. And over the top of it is a beautifully woven murder mystery and a unique and dense writing style. Then during the year end came “Other Colors: Essays and a Story”, which is a collection of some of his nonfiction work. He writes bout his own reading, his life, his literary influences and other writers (Dostoevsky, Bernhard, Borges, Nabokov etc) his city and also on the books he has written. Quite a delightful read.

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Age of Reason:
It’s Sartre’s first installment in the “Road to freedom” series. The book attempts to elaborate the existential aspect of Freedom in absolute sense. All the drama in the novel takes place in 4 days, revolving around the Life of Mathieu, a Philosophy professor, and few people around. An absolute gem of a book.

J M Coetzee – Life and Times of Michael K., Foe & Disgrace:
Some how Coetzee is slowly become my one of the most fav. authors. Read “Slow man” last year and it didn’t ring much inside my head but it did leave something, something bit obscure, something direct, bit more fundamental. And I have been coming back to this author since then and with each book my respect for his work is growing more and more. First read “Life and Times of Michael K.”, here’s a bit I posted about it. Then read “Foe” and then “Disgrace”. These are few of Coetzee’s lines about the theme that he explores in it:

“There was something ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish the dog, for an offense like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.”
“What was ignoble was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself..”

Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase, After Dark, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”, “Dance, Dance, Dance” & The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:

Read a lot of Murakami this year, though the books were not quite of the standard of “Norvergian Wood” or “Hard Boiled Wonderland & the End of the world”. Nevertheless the satisfaction and pleasure of reading Murakami was all present.

Also read “Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words” by Jay Rubin, who has translated few of Murakami’s novels

Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov & “Crime and Punishment”: Great Russian sensibilities and depth. Absorbing reads.
Milan Kundera – The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts & The Unbearable Lightness of Being
George Orwell – Animal Farm & 1984
My God Died Young – Sasthi Bratha
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje: Almost like a dream.
Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino: Mesmerizing.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s: A Short Novel and Three Stories – Truman Capote
Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes
No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jim Morrison’s Biography
Styles of Radical Will – Susan Sontag
The Moon Is Down – Steinbeck
Memories of My Melancholy Whores- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins: It’s good in the beginning but then he keeps moving around the obvious.
Anton Chekov’s Short Stories

Few Disappointments:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – You Know Who
The Myth of Sisyphus – Albert Camus: Not exactly a disappointment, but I sort of expected a lot form it. May be I will read it again some day.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – R Prisig: Not as good as it looks, quite limited in scope.
The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch: Too much muddled drama
Travels in the Scriptorium – Paul Auster: Donno why I picked it up.

Life & Times of Michael K.

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them; or even to look over the old day-books of the merchants, to see what it was that men most commonly bought at the stores, what they stored, that is, what are the grossest groceries. For the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence; as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.

This passage from Walden – Thoreau, in context to poverty, just sums up all that Coetzee wanted to say in Life and Times of Michael K.

Slowman is indeed a slow affair

Slowman – by J M Coetzee

What happens when you see yourself standing at some point where you are not sure where to move and no path is visible to you, let go any goal or destination. You stand there muttering, cursing, lamenting and at times assuring and reasoning yourself. And then suddenly out of nowhere as if the long cast mist has cleared you see some path, some road to set foot to. And suddenly without thinking, where the road leads, one is thrust on it by the weight of the past’s over burdened feelings. And imagine your conscience waking up after some time when you have starting moving on that path. And since your conscience is at loggerheads with your desires the only motion left of you is skidding and slipping. And amidst this skidding and slipping someone just one day stands up and calls you Slowman.
Such is the story of Slowman, which J M Coetzee showcases here.

The novel begins with Paul Rayment waking up form an accident and realizing that he has lost a leg. Lying on his bed he thinks about his life questioning everything and anything. The novels moves as if some existential saga is unfolding but then suddenly with the arrival of a new nurse everything changes and a trite longing story of an amputated old man starts which goes on for some time and when the proceedings become too boring the novel is revived by the arrival of Elizabeth Costello. But the revival is short-lived and the story then meekly and despairingly keeps on continuing b/w Paul, Elizabeth, the Nurse and her family.

One reason for the story becoming despairingly banal is that a lot of questions are being asked, which in the beginning look great and the reader also ponders with them but then it becomes apparent that the only thing author is doing here is just asking them without exploring any of them.
Looking from another angle the story is a crude representation of old age noting that Paul and Elizabeth are in 60’s and 70’s and the storyteller Coetzee himself is in 60’s. So the author presents a story where one keeps questioning everything as the life is in quandary and also not going too deep into the questions as only reality thr is that life is standing on its last legs.

In all not a very entertaining read though it begins very nice but gets lost in the oblivion of questions and triteness.