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There is nothing, I say, quite like a Wicked Man. Capital letters and all. And nobody writes them quite the way Georgette Heyer does. I don’t mean evil men, true villains; what I’m talking about here are the Regency bad boys, the ones who do everything they ought not to do by the social codes of the day but have a certain unshakable morality, alternative though it may be. Perhaps it’s just Heyer’s settings, several hundred years away from us, that give them their dash and excitement, the thrill of men who are dangerous and bold. To be sure, a Wicked Man is so much more delectable on a horse, with a sword, and wearing a powdered wig… even the foppish fashions of Heyer’s period romances, presented in loving detail, never make her heros seem anything but all male.

And it’s with those very fashions that she introduces her Wicked Man in These Old Shades. Justin, the Duke of Avon strolls along one evening in Paris, wearing a costume of incredible magnificence. We have just enough time to digest the fact that he is no ordinary passerby when he, and we, are thrown off balance by a red-headed urchin who races out of the shadows. The boy, Leon, is running from his brother, who follows soon after. The Duke looks into Leon’s face, observes his brother for an instant, and decides that he will buy the boy, “body and soul,” for a diamond pin.

The boy is introduced into the Duke’s household as his page; he goes everywhere with the Duke, who he plainly worships, for having rescued him from the sordidity of the existence he had living with his brother. All is not quite as it seems, and a few weeks exposes the truth — Leon the page is actually Leonie, a girl dressed as a boy. But that isn’t the only mystery about Leonie, and nothing will escape the Duke’s sharp eyes and long memory…

This is one of the first Heyers I ever read and I still enjoy it tremendously. It has a plot that is insanely dramatic and has more than a few sharp twists, but it is, ultimately, a search for justice and cannot but drag you in and make you cheer lustily for the side of the right. The book’s hero may not have the purest of histories (with a nickname like “Satanas” this is no surprise), but when he seeks out vengeance, it is much more for somebody weaker than it is for himself.  And if, by the end, he isn’t convinced of his own worthiness, we definitely are. Justin, Duke of Avon, is indeed one of Heyer’s most swoon-inspiring Wicked Men. Just as Leonie, the urchin turned beauty, is an intriguing, brave, and proud heroine, and also one of Heyer’s naughtiest creations.

Still, Justin and Leonie aside, I do think one reason I love this book is because of the supporting cast. Justin’s friend, the kind Hugh Devenant, almost as antithesis to Justin’s Satanas persona; his sister, the vain and silly, but tender-hearted Lady Fanny; his brother-in-law, pompous Edward Marling, who nonetheless has the capacity to be charmed; his brother,  the reckless, handsome, courageous Rupert; his neighbours, who aren’t on speaking terms with him, the Merivales; the wise old priest who has known Leonie since her childhood; Heyer writes them all in most lovingly, and gives them things to say that are charming, funny, delightful, memorable and even occasionally insightful. Even the fringe characters are memorable; for my part, I always grin when I recall Lady Fanny’s maid, Rachel, and her cry of “Lawks!” when she first realizes Leonie is a girl dressed in boy’s clothes. And Heyer’s chief villain here is, in some ways, her most dastardly.

Heyer chooses not to go into any detail on Leonie’s past and her life before the Duke buys her, and this is perhaps the only real stumbling-block. The book loses a certain emotional power by completely omitting any deep discussion of what Leonie may have faced, though it does, in passing, mention these “horrors.” Still, there is something to be said for the fact that we, as readers, and every character that encounters Leonie and loves her, all end up wanting to protect her and hoping that the villain gets his comeuppance. There may be an outward frivolity to the conversation, but these are all people who not only love Leonie but also are outraged by what her life has been made into by villainy before the Duke rescues her. Social justice this isn’t, but, to be fair, that’s never the point of a Georgette Heyer novel.

What this is, is a bit of highly pleasurable nonsense. Everybody larger than life and twice as wonderful — or evil — but with enough good storytelling to make it into a good book. Heyer shows us that a romance needn’t be stupid or boring or predictable; it can actually be full of wit and a grand amusement.

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Sometime last year, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a non-fiction reconstruction of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, a young man who chose to drop out of life as most of us know it and lose his identity and background in a new sort of life, one more “authentic” and “closer to nature,” wandering through the USA until his death in the Alaskan wilderness.

I put those quotation marks there quite deliberately and maybe even rather sardonically. Initially, I found the premise of the book fascinating, but somewhere along the way, McCandless lost any possibility of seeming heroic. He was ill-prepared for what he was trying to do and apparently lacking in the most basic common sense — who walks into the wilderness with no maps and no compass?  Krakauer, I’ve read, defended McCandless, saying that he just wanted to explore “a blank spot on the map” and therefore did not acknowledge any existence of a map. That’s one view; but I found McCandless supremely lacking in respect for either the wilderness or those who have struggled over the centuries to live in it and have accumulated knowledge to pass on, and Krakauer’s argument seemed equally so. Either which way, whatever your opinion on McCandless, it seems as if Into the Wild had a certain compelling quality, a resonance that came from McCandless’ aim, whether sensible or not, to transcend the ordinary life he was living at the point when he dropped off the radar and started on his wanderings. For is it not human to fear, in our hearts, that we are ordinary, mortal, forgettable, incapable of achieving anything more than the most mundane of drudgeries in our existences?

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (I have not seen the 2009 film) takes this fear of mediocrity and transplants it most skilfully into a suburban American front yard in the 1950s. Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple, with two children, who suffer from one of the ills of our time — they have the luxury of space and time to move beyond mere seeking after food, clothing, and shelter but without knowing quite what to do with it, the capacity to see that their lives could be extraordinary but not the capacity to actually be extraordinary.  “Between the conception / and the creation,” as T. S. Eliot said, “falls the shadow…” April is beautiful and once was hopeful of being an actress before smart, smooth-talking Frank fell for her and they got married. When the novel opens, April is performing a lead role in a local amateur theatrical production that, unfortunately, falls flat. It is telling that it’s not a disaster or open to broad mocking — it simply fails, not spectacularly so. And her discontentment and restlessness come to a head, so that she and Frank persuade themselves and each other that they have to move beyond this ordinariness, beyond April’s housewifely and motherly duties and Frank’s dull, plodding, paper-pushing office job and live the dream — they decide that to truly make the most of their lives, they have to move beyond the sameness of suburban America and go to Europe.

What follows is told quietly, with a hint of wry, ironic humor and a good deal of attention to the detail of negotiation in the communication that comprises a marriage, but is bleak and uncompromising all the same, with a blunted edge of dead hopelessness to it. Just when their plans are laid, April finds that she is pregnant; and Frank finds that he is finally getting somewhere at work and begins to be unexpectedly comfortable with what is.  Yates isn’t going to give us an easy ending; the novel descends into a place of muted horror when April Wheeler takes a drastic decision that ends in tragedy.

Yates’ writing is, as I said, quiet. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here and his style is purely realistic, in a story told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint of Frank Wheeler; April, thus, is always something of an enigma and this makes the trajectory of events all the more shocking when it is finally completely revealed. That descriptive style, verging on blandness, and the ordinary rhythms of conversation pinned down so accurately by Yates seem faintly nightmarish, as if all the potential for newness had been sucked out of them, leaving an infinite hollowness. It is a writing that underlines the sheer futility of the Wheelers’ dreams and plans for being extraordinary and brings a deeper psychological dimension to the reading of the novel, with a capacity to silently discomfit.

1950s suburban America is, to some extent, a staple of texts that mock conservative values and point to inauthenticity and the idea of there being better ways to live. But the Wheelers, with their desperate attempts to reject banality of existence, surely do not belong to that oft-damned milieu. Theirs is a story that has continuing relevance and can still wreak a certain inward havoc on a reader because the Wheelers are the seekers after a life less ordinary that all of us are or might have been, to some extent or another. They believe that they are different from the commonplace people around them, but we, all-knowing readers, can see that they are not, and it puts an uncomfortable mirror up to our own ideas about ourselves. Yates grants them no redemption and us no comfort.

But this book, oddly enough, considering how disturbing it is, has a certain spiritual and philosophical value that is hard to pin down but is somewhat akin to that of suffering. It can’t be defined because it is bound to be different for every reader that sees himself looking out of the eyes of Frank and April and for some, it won’t even be there at all. But it is Yates’ truly remarkable achievement that this book is not a facsimile of depression or a sentimental, romanticised banging against the sky; it never manipulates, it constructs a recognizable reality around its reading and becomes a true experience of despair. And why would anyone want to read a true experience of despair? Perhaps because it is so delicately crafted. Perhaps because it resonates anywhere where there is the dread of banality. Perhaps because it is part of the nature of life itself.

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Cover of 'after the quake' A few pages into this slim book of short stories by Japanese writer Murakami, I was uneasy. It was Murakami’s style that was puzzling–it was just too easy to read. Verging on boring. Very simple sentences, very little dialogue, none of the visual detailing that can draw me into a book. This was a realistic telling of a fairly ordinary story. Almost a sketchy treatment for a screenplay. I wasn’t sure I was going to have anything to say about it–all I could see in front of me was a blank.

I read on.

As I went on through the extreme simplicity of Murakami’s writing, I began to see what I couldn’t before. In this book, his is a style that is stripped down completely, made bare, with starkly contoured outlines suddenly visible. Like a line drawing, a very basic line drawing. It was simply a language so restrained, so minimal that it was conserving everything, telling more in what it wasn’t telling, in its silence than in its words. You have to read very slowly, taking in the slightness of each sentence, understanding it and then moving on, to actually grasp at the almost untellable emotional weight they convey; there is much more in suggestion than in description. There are no short-cuts to reading and comprehending these stories.

And they are a curious set of stories, all hearkening back to the quake of the title (the Kobe earthquake) in some way or another, though without their characters being directly affected by that event. A man whose wife has just left him ferries a mysterious parcel to another city. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl spend time with each other lighting bonfires on the beach. A young man who has been constantly told that he is the Son of God follows a stranger who he thinks might be his father. A woman bitter after a divorce takes a vacation in Thailand and comes to a recognition of her mortality. A collection agent is visited at night by a giant frog who insists that the two of them together have to go into battle to save the city of Tokyo from an earthquake. And the last story traces the topography of a novelist’s long-term friendship with a married couple and their baby, and how they are his family.

If I were to liken this sequence of storytelling to anything, it would be to a piece of music. The first four stories make up one part for me, each of them dealing, in some way, with the aloneness of the human being, and all written realistically. They are abrupt, almost interludes in the lives of their characters, and allow for one or two scenes in which the action takes place in an unfolded present. The background is told quickly, years of the past condensed into a line or paragraph. The characters are separate from each other, vast spaces between them. In these stories’ sudden ceasing, their ambiguity at the end, they are unnerving, very disquieting.

The fifth story, with the surreal element of the giant frog, manifests a drastic shift. Now, suddenly, superimposed on the style of the first four stories, there is this creature out of a nightmare, something leaning out of the subconscious mind and imposing itself on the story’s reality. It seems to jar, odd for the sake of oddness, and nothing really comes of it in any sense that can be easily understood or related in terms of human relationships, though it can be said to achieve a sort of dream-like closure for its protagonist.

And then, there is the final story, ‘honey pie’, perhaps the only one that can be called beautiful, the only one that carries in that strongest of emotions, love, and its sometimes-corollary, loyalty. ‘honey pie’ follows three friends, two men and a woman, through university and youth, through the marriage of two of them and the birth of a child, and then through a divorce. Junpei, one of the two men, finds himself on the verge of erotic fulfillment with Sayoko, the woman, who is no longer with Takatsuki, the father of her child and Junpei’s friend since university. But at this climactic moment, the sexual impulse sublimates into another kind of love–that for a family, a tight unit to cleave to and to protect. And yet, it is a story that ends with Junpei as another human being alone–only he is a human being courageous enough and strong enough to be both alone and one with those he loves.

As I read that last story, I could not help but feel that I had finally read a story that was complete. Not neat, or tidy, or stilted, or overly-symmetrical, but complete. That is what Murakami achieves as he closes out the sequence of intensity, of intense humanity, that is after the quake. He wrote this, I gather, after the Kobe earthquake as part of an effort to consider the reality of Japanese society more deeply. Whether it speaks to the Japanese I do not know;  nor whether it speaks to most readers; but it  has the capacity to speak to that place inside each of us that makes us fundamentally, individually, bravely human.

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Cover of 'Monkey-man' At one point in Usha K.R.’s new novel, Monkey-man, one of the protagonists, Neela Mary Gopalrao, is vetting correspondence addressed to her boss, deciding what will actually reach him and what isn’t worthy to.

National Trust College, she thought, had become very ambitious of late—there were two proposals from them. One from a film studies person, a Shrinivas Moorty, asking for funds to upgrade their equipment—which she threw into the dustbin without a second thought—and another from the head of their Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies suggesting a collaborative workshop—which was a cleverer way of asking for money—that she put into the Important pile.

It’s a quiet but telling moment in Usha’s narrative, contrasting two approaches to making connections and getting something done. And, arguably, this moment operates as a reminder of how urban India has changed in the last twenty years and continues to change, how the route to success has changed. No more does achievement come from assuming that power is concentrated in somebody else’s hands, that one must work, be recognized for one’s work, and accept what the power bestows. Achievement is now in setting oneself up as a centre of power, an entity with much to offer, a collaborator—even if the Neela Mary Gopalraos of this world recognize that this is just ‘a cleverer way of asking for money,’ the fact is that, sooner rather than later, the money, the success, the achievement, the greater power does come. In the new urban India, there are more opportunities than ever before, for the taking—but only the confident can take them.

And it is this new urban India that Usha is concerned with, setting her novel at the beginning of the new millenium, a few days into January 2000. Four people have encountered a strange, savage beast the previous evening on Ammanagudi Street, Bangalore. Now, three of them are at a radio station’s studio with an RJ, Bali Brums, ready to talk about that they saw and what it might have been. Monkey-man is not a thriller—it’s not about what or who the monkey-man is and the process of hunting it down. Instead, it traces the stories of these  people–Srinivas Moorty, lecturer in History at National Trust College, a man who realizes how far his friends have drifted and how much he has not achieved, and whose marriage has become the mere sharing of a house; Neela Mary Gopalrao, personal secretary to the head of a research institute, who uses her power to play with the lives of her colleagues, but has once secretly opened herself up to another person and been humiliated; Pushpa Rani, who has risen from living in a one-room home on the edge of the city and earning a daily wage to become a Team Leader at a call centre, a girl who has turned her family’s fortunes around and is finally able to pay for the care of her ailing father. And Bali Brums (whose name is actually Balaji Brahmendra), the RJ, who dropped out of engineering college to take up one of the opportunities he came across in the changing India, a man who lives at home with his parents, even though he and his father disagree all the time, a man who trades on, in both personal and professional life, his ability to talk — not so much talk with people as talk at them — and to keep women, especially, swooning. Monkey-man is about each of their stories until that brush with terror on Ammanagudi Street and about how their lives have changed in the new India, along with the new tensions, negotiations, and opportunities that accompany these changes in what they might have thought of as immutable.

With a third-person narrative that speaks from the perspective of each of the main protagonists in turn, Usha perceptively constructs each of their lives. She has an eye for observing and describing the abstract and concrete minutiae of ordinary life–signboards on the street, the titles of public lectures, the colors and style of apparel, food preferences, passing encounters, smells, and so on–that her characters engage with every moment of the day, and it is through these minutiae that she painstakingly puts together a picture of how they live. This is a narrative that is deeply concerned with the internal, the life of the mind–not as it philosophizes or reflects on the abstract, but as it processes the constant stimulation from the material world around it—successfully chronicling some of the many facets of middle-class urban Indian life.

Usha’s prose is not without humour–it has a certain dryness, a subtle wit, in dealing with these minutae, that manages to simultaneously invoke both amusement at any evident pettiness in her characters’ existences and a strong feeling of sympathy for them, perhaps, most importantly, a feeling of recognition. This is what makes her work such a pleasure to read, as it helps the reader enter into these other lives, not in a voyeuristic sense but with the potential for deep understanding.

The journeys of her main characters take in several broad swathes of life in urban India. With Srinivas Moorty, the long road of boyhood friendship, the slow alteration of the street on which he lived, from semi-rural to urban, college days, the introduction to philosophy and politics with Marxism, to social life, to arranged marriage, all the way up to the sense, in the novel’s fictional present, that he might not have made the most of his life, as the world moves on around him and he is unable to quite keep up. With Neela Mary, the hierarchies and pecking orders of society, the ways in which they are reinforced and subverted, the confusion of women who have never been fully conditioned to professional ambition and yet never have an opportunity for marriage or partnership, because social mores stand in their way. And with Pushpa Rani and Bali Brums, the young, the hopeful, the way in which new technology has led to new employment and new optimism in urban India, even spaces where young people can engage in ways previously closed to them, while superstitions die hard and the burgeoning modernity is not of the European, individualistic, irreligious sort.

Churlish as it feels to level this criticism against such a finely written and imagined book, I have to say that, while I appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the telling of Srinivas Moorty’s story, I did not entirely see why it had to take up so much space. For, while Usha’s writing of college life is as nuanced as you could hope for, it is simply not compelling in the way that the rest of the book is compelling. It gives the reader a background, yes; but Srinivas, and his friends Geeta and Jairam, remain curiously concave throughout, gawky cyphers of youth. It is in the depiction of his marriage to Lily that Srinivas becomes a character to care about, not in that of his life before. Neela Mary and Pushpa Rani, on the other hand, are both strong, fascinating woman characters, and I do feel Usha would have done better to give them more time and space. Bali Brums, I have to say, was not a character I found myself drawn in by; somehow, he’s less sympathetic, less compelling than any of the others and that feeling doesn’t change by the end of the book. In sum, it does seem that Ushain this novel wrote her women far more confidently and fluently than her men—and perhaps that was an attempt to make a point.

That said, the strongest point of this novel, and Usha’s strongest point, is that she is genuinely interested in the journeys of each of her characters, men and women alike; as the words she uses to express Pushpa Rani’s thoughts say, “[E]veryone, she knew, had a story, a path down which they had walked, a journey that had formed them, that they were indistinguishable from.” This is a book to read for those stories. The new Bangalore, and urban India, has found in Usha a storyteller with a great capacity for compassion.

Edited because Harini pointed out that Bali Brums was missing from the first review I posted!

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Cover of 'The Miracle Game'Sitting down to respond to Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game, less than twenty-four hours after I finished reading it, I already feel that I have to refer to notes. And I know even notes won’t help me to explain that elusive point, exactly what this book is about, because it’s a behemoth of a comic opera; any plot summary seems to leave out as much as it puts in.

The fact is, this isn’t precisely a book constructed around a severely methodical plot. It’s a tough read–and a completely engrossing one–because it takes as its fulcrum one person’s experience and memory, and then pivots and pirouettes around that with one scene and event after another, leaping backwards and forwards in time, changing circumstances every few pages, and encompassing a vast selection of characters. It is readable in the sense that, even though it’s a first-person narration, it’s in clear, crisp, grammatical prose and upholds basic principles of narration. But the ordering of events is, in fact, quite near to chaos, and all the better for that.

There is a point to this narrative chaos–it reflects and evokes quite effortlessly a feeling of being completely unable to ever come entirely to grips with reality and circumstances. Just when you think you’ve got it, it twists around on itself and sends you in another direction. Whether this actually works in the author’s favor is debatable, but it did, in my opinion, for the greater part. There were bits of the book we could have done quite well without, making it a rather more manageable read, but they’re there and not about to be removed.

Which is why, I find, no plot summary I’ve read, whether the synopsis on the book cover or the publisher’s blurbs on Amazon.com, can quite do justice to this labyrinth of a story. Still, one can try. The fulcrum of the book is Danny Smiricky, a first-person narrator who is a thinly disguised version of the author Skvorecky himself. In the late 1940s, in Bohemia, Danny wakes up with a start during a service in a tiny chapel to find that he, along with Vixi, his student and lover, and a congregation that has gone into hysterics, has just witnessed a strange event–the statue of St. Joseph has moved, either by some divine power, as the villagers and their priest believe, or by the power of some human contrivance, as the Secret Police judges. For this is Communist Czechoslovakia, and Catholicism isn’t looked upon kindly, leave alone miracles apparently engineered by Catholic saints. The priest is arrested and dies while being interrogated, and this is all kept silent as far as possible. But it doesn’t get completely covered up–some twenty years later, during the Prague Spring, a journalist tries to reopen investigation into exactly what happened there, and Danny discusses the miracle with him, until they finally get to the bottom of it.

That is, ostensibly, the plot. It would be more accurate to say that this book traces the events that led to Danny being in the chapel with Vixi when the miracle takes place; and further, that another thread can be drawn through the scenes of the Prague Spring and its end, when Danny observes the counter-revolutionary zeal and reactions to events in Czechoslovakia in various settings in Europe and parts of the U.S.A., which he is visiting on a Ford Foundation grant.

Yet none of this captures what the book is about. What it is about is different people living in a Communist state, some simply going from day to day and either actiuvely trying or spectacularly failing to stay out of the headlights of the Secret Police and those in power, while others, driven by ideology, use any means to justify its ends. But Skvorecky, whose first book this was after emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s, makes a chaos of it precisely because there is no other way for people in a police state to understand the world around them and how it can suddenly crack because the ideology from which power stems is suddenly redefined or reunderstood or seems to be disrupted by somebody’s actions or words.

So this is a book about something so very serious and grave–but it is also probably one of the funniest books I’ve read recently. To the point that I laughed aloud every few pages. Skvorecky’s narration drips generous quantities of irony, is cheerfully bawdy, and even throws in some slapstick for our entertainment–and satirizes the Party and its machinations even as it warily describes them.

It’s an uncompromising narrative eye that skewers everybody and leaves them wriggling as we observe them, though it is kinder to some than to others. With the Party, it is savage, angry, but with the anger of a surgeon who knows how to wield a scalpel without too much mess; with most other characters, teachers, students, writers, most often women, it mocks, but more gently. It achieves all this mostly through fast-moving conversation and debate, sometimes reported, sometimes direct speech–Skvorecky certainly has a ear for dialogue (though I was uncomfortable with the translator’s decision to render the dialect of the Czech peasant in pure American hillbilly) and knows just how to time his characters’ speech.

Skvorecky and his wife, early in their marriage
Skvorecky and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarová, in the early years of their marriage

Skvorecky’s writing of a Soviet novelist, Arashidov, drunkenly telling Morris, a British author, the long and complicated way by which his translation of the latter’s book passed beyond all Party authorization and was made available to the public; a meeting of Maoists in California, horrifyingly blind to anything beyond the framework of the ideology they espouse; schoolgirls learning by rote a description of a subject for which the government has never provided textbooks, dragging that description out time after time during an oral exam, and then trying to first feed and then drug the examiner into submission; Danny attempting to flee Soviet tanks and ferry Sylva, his friend’s wife, two children, and a suitcase full of very sexy lingerie and birth control pills to safety in Paris; a small-town girl, dazzled by the glory of a city girl’s wardrobe, trying on one outfit after another in the steamy haze of a kitchen dotted with benevolently lecherous men… the memorable scenes in this book come in plenty, as do the brief anecdotes, little one-paragraph capsules of story that could be novels in themselves, strewn carelessly on the pages.

The prose turns lyrical and yearning at times, for instance, when Danny thinks about the cult of the Virgin Mary, when he traces his route through the U.S.A., and certainly, but certainly, when he expresses his desire for a woman. It did feel sometimes that Skvorecky had too many women in this book for Danny to lust after, but then again, the narrative does cover more than twenty years, which would equate to a lot of women for a single man. Yet he undercuts this lyricism sometimes, with the acknowledgment of how the passing of a moment is final, and a memory can sometimes reveal how simply ridiculous past earnestness was. Cynical, sometimes too clever by half, yet heartfelt, with a cynicism born of genuine disappointment and disillusionment–that’s The Miracle Game. And perhaps the only end to this story is that eventually, everything, absolutely everything, can be found to be at least, as Skvorecky and Danny see it,  not uplifting, but certainly comic.

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Bolden
Charles “Buddy” Bolden and his band–Standing, left to right: Jimmy Johnson (bass), Buddy Bolden (cornet), Willy Cornish (valve trombone), Willy Warner (clarinet); Seated, left to right: Brock Mumford (guitar), Frank Lewis (clarinet).

I have previously encountered the forms of Michael Ondaatje’s novel-biography, Coming Through Slaughter–in his memoir-novel, Running in the Family, a later work that employs many of the devices to be found in Slaughter. There are quick shifts in voice and perspective, sections consisting entirely of transcripts of interviews conducted, leaps in chronology, poems, and “found” print archival material–a photograph here, a newspaper story there–thrown together to tell not a story but many possible stories, the beauty being in the interplay of a plurality of voices and recordings of the past, with as much conveyed by the gaps between them as by what they say. So it wasn’t, presumably, all new–but the brilliance of Ondaatje is that it was.

Slaughter is a novel-biography; I am not sure what else to call it. It is neither fiction nor yet non-fiction. Its focus is a musician named Buddy Bolden, in early 2oth century New Orleans. Bolden is a cornet player, a barber, a collector of stories for a paper he publishes, called The Cricket, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend, a madman.

There was actually, historically, a musician named Buddy Bolden; he was acknowledged by most early jazz musicians as one of the fathers of jazz. His career came to an end when he was committed to an asylum after a fit of psychosis at the age of 30. There are no known recordings of him playing, and only one known photograph (the one posted above, which is also in Ondaatje’s book) but there are stories, many stories. Some of these have been corroborated with research and others have been found to be merely stories. Still, all of the stories apparently persist. Where the truth about Bolden separates from the legend is difficult to tell.

That ambiguity is, I suppose, ultimately the nature of history-writing, which is always a tying together of fragments of the past into a narrative that seems acceptable and plausible in the present. And that ambiguity serves as the foundation for Coming Through Slaughter. It could be called a novel, but that would be ignoring those sections of it that consist entirely of archival material and summaries of archival material. It could be called a biography, but, a little further research informed me that some of the events Ondaatje discusses are purely fictional, while others are acknowledged as the stuff of myth. I don’t know what to call it, other than novel-biography.

But then again, labelling it is not really important. What is amazing is the vastness and the density of this slim book, which is only 156 pages long. Ondaatje’s prose is so full of adrenaline that it literally throbs against the temples as it races from scene to scene. Bolden in a barbershop, shaving customers, Bolden playing the cornet, Bolden and his children, Bolden leaving his wife and disappearing for two years, Bolden having an affair, Bolden sleeping with woman after woman, Bolden slashing a man in a fight, Bolden persuading the whores of Storyville to pose for his friend, Bellocq, the strange photographer, who in actual fact left behind a vast collection of pictures methodically mutilated. And finally, Bolden at a parade, going mad.

Ondaatje’s descriptive writing is textured and coloured; it smells good sometimes and bad at other times, and it reaches out and grabs at you with rough fingers, sometimes caressing, sometimes pinching hard and leaving bruises. It has a peculiar immediacy and sensual quality that comes from sharp detailing of minute particularities, to the exclusion of the settings and landscapes to position these details in. There is an improvisatory quality here, much like the form of jazz itself–in 10 pages we can go from a conversation to a third person descriptive section to what appears to be an interview to a poem to a dream. How do you read the silences between these narrative jags, how do you put them together? Each reading is a wildly imaginative act.

We are there; we are with Bolden; he can only have lived in and through us. And he is most alive at two times–when Ondaatje writes about his cornet-playing and when he writes about his episode of psychosis. Arguably, nobody has written about playing jazz, feeling jazz as evocatively as Ondaatje does; and undeniably, Bolden’s madness shouts through every few lines, until, at the last, it is shrieking as loudly as his cornet.

If this is a history of Bolden in early jazz, it is an odd sort of one. Factually, it seems it is practically bankrupt. There are only pieces here and pieces there to make a story out of.  But Ondaatje’s sometimes self-conscious phrasing works to remind us that this, like all histories, is a story, even as it drags us right into it.

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed… There was no control except the mood of his power…and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes — then you should never have heard him at all…

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot–see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing, he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as a springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number…

There are no known recordings of Bolden playing, but Jelly Roll Morton did base one of his pieces on an earlier one by Bolden. Listen to an mp3 file of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Jelly Roll Morton).

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Burnt Shadows… a time

to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all

that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.

First impressions can be deceptive, but this one wasn’t. When I saw the end of my favourite poem by Agha Shahid Ali in Burnt Shadows, as the epigraph to Kamila Shamsie’s novel, I knew: this I was going to feel strongly about, but it would not be a happy read, inasmuch as anything can be solely happy.

Reviews I read have, almost all of them, described Burnt Shadows as “ambitious.” I would have to agree. It is ambitious, indeed. This is a novel that starts off in Nagasaki, on the day America drops the Bomb, with the young Hiroko Tanaka and her fiance, Konrad Weiss. It moves then, out of a cloud of ash, to Delhi, 1947, where Hiroko has come to meet her now-dead finace’s sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and James Burton, and meets also Jame’s protege, Sajjad Ashraf. With the next large leap in time, we are in Karachi, in the early 1980s, with Hiroko, Sajjad, and their son Raza, and the Burtons’ son Harry re-entering their lives. And then, suddenly, it’s a post 9/11 world, and Afghanistan and New York are the arenas of tragedy, as the novel swings back to explain its prologue, in which an unnamed character, at the beginning of an incarceration at what (it is hinted) is Guantanamo Bay, wonders, “How did it come to this…” In the novel is the answer.

This sounds like an epic, like a grand sweeping saga, but it firmly isn’t. Shamsie’s novel is deeply concerned with a sweep of understanding rather than with spectacle. Her ambition is in finding her way into the hearts and minds of characters across the historical expanse of the last 60 years and telling their deeply personal stories of how their cultural, linguistic, and geographical differences collide, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes not. This is a world in which such sympathy is possible, but sometimes based on misunderstanding and often tenuous, and when it breaks down, it breaks into sorrow.

Shamsie has a knack of picking on memorable and, indeed, haunting images–cranes on fabric burnt onto a woman’s back, a fish leaping in a silvery reflection seen from a bridge… the visuals do what her clear, but not particularly accomplished, writing can’t do–they bring in a certain poesy to the work. This doesn’t, unfortunately, last all the way through the novel, but is used more often with the older characters–Hiroko, Konrad, Sajjad. When we understand what a character sees, it somehow becomes easier to understand what they feel. The younger characters, our contemporaries, Raza and Kim Burton (Harry’s daughter) think and are written more literally. As the point of view in focus shifts to become theirs, the book itself loses some of its emotional weight, in odd contrast to the immediacy of the theme of terrorism, Afghanistan, and Islam and its discontents.

(Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead)

There is in these younger characters, Raza and Kim, a narrowness, an inability or refusal to think in broader terms and enter easily into the experience of others–something that is starkly in opposition to the importance of language in the book as a whole. Raza, the son of Hiroko who speaks four languages fluently, is another gifted linguist, whose skills are ultimately used by the CIA in its war for Afghanistan–and we see the shadow of Kipling’s Kim behind him, reminded of that by two lines in which Harry Burton thinks of that other boy with a gift of speaking in the tongues of the North-Western subcontinent. But it is Harry’s daughter who is named “Kim” and it is ultimately she who both fails miserably and unutterably in understanding someone vastly different from her–Abdullah the Afghan, who Raza knew as a boy–and yet manages to understand Raza at the end of the novel, bringing it to a conclusion that surprised me, though it was not a satisfying ending.

I thought I could see the point Shamsie was making about language–and yet it seemed that she was unable to show it as often as she spelled it out. There is much made of characters speaking different languages, of characters taking language lessons from each other, of characters actually avoiding certain languages–but it is, ironically, in the scene where Kim misunderstands not Abdullah’s words but rather his silence that the difficulty of speaking to each other really becomes clear. That’s when I realised that Shamsie’s point was, perhaps, that language alone, the symbols and their system, cannot help us communicate if we do not understand experiences alien to our own. Something that, without including any spoilers here, Raza does demonstrate, eventually.

It’s telling that I do have a lot to say about the themes of this book, even though it was far from pitch-perfect, because it does, ultimately resonate with a genuine desire to write the people who have been caught in the history of our times and it succeeds, up to a point, in making the reader aware of that impossibility of perfect communication that we must yet strive for. But its unevenness became a real problem towards the end, when so much happens so fast that it took me two readings to arrive at an understanding of why Raza does what he does. And then, there was a problem of probability–I can understand how Hiroko could come out of Nagasaki and be a witness to 9/11, but it was more difficult to see a character disappear into an Afghan mujahideen camp and yet emerge again, years later, apparently unscathed in many ways. What happens at the end of the novel is fitting, but not entirely believable in its symmetry with the past; Raza has a chance to make up for what he did to Abdullah by helping Abdullah himself, not just anybody who happens to cross his path.There are shades of melodrama here, in terms of the reunion of Raza and Abdullah, and I don’t think they are in the best of taste.

Considering what Abdullah goes through, I find him an incredibly underwritten character. He’s too good; he truly lacks the shades of grey that, for instance, Kim Burton and Harry and even Raza are all allowed by Shamsie. It’s actually hard to disagree with him. This is a good thing–I think it’s immensely valuable to be in a position of understanding how such a character must feel, though that might just be my leftist leanings talking–but it’s hard to believe that he’s quite as white as he’s painted. Especially when nobody else in the novel has that luxury–nobody.

This is where Shamsie really seems to oversimplify things and succumb to the pressures of writing Pakistan and Afghanistan in the times we live in, when international attention to them is at its highest and any text can end up being viewed as a sociological discussion. Under such circumstances, where one finds or doesn’t find one’s villains can become a point from which much can be extrapolated. I would be enormously surprised if I heard that Shamsie hadn’t been criticized in Pakistan for writing this novel in English, for the international audience, and for various perceived sins of omission or comission therein. And then  praised by other people in Pakistan for exactly those sins.

All of that being said, perhaps my favourite lines in the book are these, which made me chuckle aloud on a train journey from Bangalore to Bombay:

‘Do you think an Englishman will ever write a masterpiece in Urdu?’

‘No.’ James shook his head. ‘If there ever was a time we were interested in entering your world in that way, it’s long past. And you wouldn’t know what to do with us if we tried.’

It seemed to Sajjad that these were the kinds of things said so often that repetition made fact out of conjecture. He’d know what to do with an Urdu masterpiece written by an Englishman. He’d read it. Why pretend it was more complicated than that?

Touche, Kamila. Touche.

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