There are books and books and then there is Coetzee!

As may have gathered I am a book worm – if that means one who will read anything rather than nothing! Of course, I do not have to do that often and I do not read indiscriminately – I am partial to fiction and travel – but also popular science, some biography, history etc..In the recent days I have read Sylvia Plath, Ratna Kalpish, Indira Goswami (translation of the Assamese original), Paul Doherty, Eli Shafek, Jeffrey Archer, MG Vassanji, Gopalkrishna Gandhi etc… How do I pick these? Some from reviews, some are familiar authors (Shafek, Archer) and others are random picks while browsing through a bookshop.

And following all these I picked up a JM Coetzee on my first visit to he British Council library. The author was familiar, I had really enjoyed the earlier books of his I had read, especially ‘Disgrace’. ‘Slow man’ was a book I had not read before. It’s not a happy theme – Paul Rayment is a 60 year old divorcee, a loner who has an accident and has one leg amputated. His relationship with the Craotian care giver and her family is the central theme of the book. The loss of the limb is symbolic of a deeper loss – a deep, introspective probing into the mind of a ‘loner’ – who recognizes that his very nature has led him to this state with no children, the prospects of facing ageing and death alone!! His inability to take the leap and grasp friendships that are offered, his rejection of  helping hand  held out to him by Elizbeth Castello, who enters unannounced into his life, is beautifully potrayed. You are with Paul all along the way, feel sympathy for him and yet understand his rejection – or almost do!!

Such ability rests only with a master story teller – and the sheer pleasure of reading Coetzee is paralleled by few others. Of course, Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker twice and is the Nobel winner 1993. He must have legions of admirers around the world and needs no endorsement from me. But for an avid reader, who reads the many books that come my way, it is  a special delight when the book is a Coetzee!!!


My romance with historical fiction

At the very outset let me admit that I am a fan of historical fiction  – a genre that weaves fictional accounts around historical events, and characters.  ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves, ‘Desiree’ by Annemarie Selinko were among my early favorites – but the vast majority of the historical fiction I read was based from events in English history. This was probably because my early access to books was either my father’s collection or the Delhi British Council Library (then housed up the spiral stairs of AIFACS on Rafi Marg). There were the novels on the crusades by Arthur Conan Doyle ( he wrote stuff besides the Sherlock Holmes novels),  about  the court of King Arthur and Merlin by Mary Stewart, novels of Walter Scoot (yes, I read them unabridged) etc… I am not sure if these books were the motivation for reading all the volumes of Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking people’ but with a better overview of the history, I savored these stories around courts and intrigues, prime ministers and priests and the politics of religion and conquest. There were the many novels around Henry VIII and his wives, of Richard II and Cromwell, of the Napoleanic wars and the Regency period (including  the light romances of Georgette Heyer) and of course Victorian England and the exploits of the Raj.

It is good for me that over the last 5 decades the genre has only thrived, as seen by the double Booker for Hillary Mantel for her novels  “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the bodies”  based on the life of Cromwell and his role in the ascent of Anne Boleyn and the demise of the Catholic church, followed by her descent and execution. And after a gap of almost  5 decades, I recently renewed my British Council membership. And there in my random selection from the Fiction section I picked up “The poison maid” by an author I had never heard of, Paul Doherty. It turns out that he is a prolific writer, and has published almost 100 books. Many of them are historical  thrillers, as is the “The poison Lady”. This is set in an earlier England, in 1308 just after Edward II became King. It is full of court intrigue and murders, in the times when the Catholic church and the French Kings were trying to dominate England, through marriages, treaties and manipulative diplomacy. It is an easy read, the suspense is not very suspenseful and although I learn that this is the second book in a three book series, I was left with no urgent desire to find the  other two.

In fact, as I read the book, what drew my interest more than the plot  was the detailed description of the life on the London streets, the hustle bustle, the strays, the inns and hostelries……’hawkers, hucksters, chapman, free fruiterers and pedlars sold tarts, fresh eels, meat pies of every description, mousetraps, birdcages, shoehorns and lanterns. Tipplers with their upturned casks offered stoups of beer to passers-by. Water-beareres staggered along with ladles and buckets of ‘pure spring water’. Stalls in crooked lanes, built for the wheelbarrows rather than carts, forced the crowds to pause’. The description would well fit equally well today for the old cities of Varanasi, Meerut, Old Delhi – except for the nature of the wares on sale!!

The description of the food served at court (honey coated dates, juschelles stuffed with eggs and herbs, boiled and spiced veal, oat-stuffed pike, white broth with almonds, leg of mutton in lemons) and in the eateries (beef broth with freshly baked maslin bread, venison stewed in ginger, chicken boiled and stuffed with grapes) was also interesting. It almost sounds inviting – something not connected with English food today. Are these descriptions authentic? Was trade brisk enough to take dates and almonds to UK? and when was all this lost – with the loss of the French connection?

I am sure that there is a lot of documentation available of the times and with enough research the picture painted maybe authentic. But how do we know? As readers, do we accept that the author’s research is authentic or does artistic liberty give the right to sketch it as the author envisages it? But in spite of these thoughts, the genre does not pall – and while I will take the descriptions with a generous dose of salt, the stories will continue to bring to life the romance of times gone by.

Terrorism is not new!!

I had  written earlier that i have been trying to  trim my  book shelf ! In this process, i had put aside  books that “were to be read and discarded”. Of these an old paperback edition of   Joseph Conrad’s “The secret agent” struck me – partly because Conrad was an author I had enjoyed reading oh-so-long-ago in my teen years and it also brought to mind images of the handsome Peter O’Toole in dashing white uniform in the film “Lord Jim” based on another Conrad novel.

The copy of ‘The Secret Agent’  that I found is a browning Pan Classic, a 1975 edition, probably bought by a ‘Meliwali Itiazi’ – as this is what the signature on the first page in pencil looks like. But on page 3, my daughter’s signature is clearly present with the inscription ‘Sunday market, Delhi, 10th January, 1999′. I wonder if Pan even exists today! The book itself was originally published more than a century ago, in 1907 and is dedicated to H G Wells. Joseph Conrad was Polish, who started a seafaring life at a young age and is best known for his stories set around the far East and South Seas.

Conrad’s “Secret Agent’ is of a completely different genre from his seafaring tales and maybe termed a ‘thriller’. But it is much more than that.  It describes events around an actual aborted attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. So blowing up things is not as new as we seem to think. Only the scale has changed. Late 19th century London was a haven for political exiles of all sorts – refugees, partisans, anarchists. Verloc, the protagonist made his living  by spying for the Russian government,  while simultaneously passing on information to the London police, specifically Chief Inspector Heat. In response to the demands of a  new Russian ambassador  that he prove his worth or lose his salary, Verloc sets off a tragic chain of events.  These involve his pretty young wife Winnie and her retarded brother Stevie, and ‘ Professor’, who has a fascination for explosives and destruction and thus the person who Verloc contacts when makes when  needs to make a bomb.

Conrad writes with a wonderful feel for the language and the characters he sketches have so much flesh and blood to them.  You  feel that you may run into one of them down the street. The emotional trap that each is hiding in, their the day to day interactions and relationships all go to make this a gripping tale. And of course the description of London, the dark streets, the foggy days are all evocative. For us, reading it in the present, the tools of espionage and policing are interesting – for instance the communication across London (and this London of 1894!!) is by runners!! THe story has an interesting climax – justifying the thriller tag to a point.

But what kept me arrested to the book was how the moralistic questions raised by Conrad in an understated and ironic way are as relevant today as it was then. Is not the  world we live in now is  much filled with perceived enemies, groups that think they have the ‘right’ way to solve the problems of the world,  that every one should be converted even if by ‘hook’ or ‘crook’ and the host of those in the periphery who get drawn in for reasons that have little to do with these philosophies as it was then?   So, really terrorism is not so new at all!

The book cover

The book cover

The inside title page

The inside title page

On reading

There has been some buzz in the ‘books-reading’ related sites that pop up in my inbox (of course, I must have signed up at some point!) about the death of Scottish novelist Iain Banks. From these I learnt that he had lived only a few weeks following his announcement that he had cancer on his website. It was also ironic that the book he had been writing (to be published later this year) is abut a middle aged man diagnosed with cancer. He was just 59 and appeared to have been fairly well read and popular in UK. So I did a bit of looking around (not literally,  of course!) and learnt that he had been fairly prolific in his 3 decade long writing career. He wrote 2 genres of fiction – novels with an interesting twist as Iain Banks and Science fiction as Iain M Banks.

The description of his books in the Observer Obituary further fueled my interest and since Flipkart is my usual shopping destination for known books or authors (as against bookshops for the spontaneous buys) , I did a quick search. They stocked a fairly large list of his books, (listing 85 items) but was surprised to see that these were all imported ones and cost was in the range of  Rs 700+. So I looked around other online suppliers and found that Gyan Books of Daryganj had many of the titles in the 400 or so range. This got me looking around for some information on books and their publication. The statistics are quite fascinating and I felt well worth sharing. As per latest available figures, close to a million titles are published annually,  of which the Us (2010) accounts for one third, UK for about 0.2 million with China a close third. India is at 7th position after Russia,  Germany and Spain, and the last available figures are about 82 thousand in Hindi and 20,000 in English with no mention of any other language. So, if one includes the 25,000 or so published in other English speaking countries such as Canada and Australia, more than half the books published in the world are in English. These figures are very approximate, but gives a fair idea of the per capita book status and puts UK way ahead of all others in this area. India on that score is a very poor performer indeed!!

These numbers, of course, refer to books of all genres. By some convoluted logic, the figure of 100,000 has been arrived at for the number of English fiction titles published annually. There is an  increasing  productivity by Indians writing in English from across the diaspora – and these always reach us. But I suspect that  the large majority of the titles published around the world do not  reach Indian book stores. This scenario may have improved slightly with the growth of the e-book stores such as Filpkart.

We Indians  have an advantage that many titles are  locally produced and printed, allowing us to get them at prices far cheaper than their US/Europe editions. However, there must be some economics logic  involved in deciding which ones do see an Indian print!! While the Dan Browns,  Jeffrey Archers, David Baldaccis and Ken Follets are the prima donnas, the Booker and similar prizes push those who make their long and short lists into some sort of nine-day wonders!! However, since  all  these awards lists are not without some prejudice, and  as a serious reader of English fiction, I wish I had a wider access to  contemporary writing and could make some judgement for myself as to who I liked! Will Amazon in India bring in a wider selection?

Coming back to Iain Banks, from the prices at Gyan Books it seems to me that he has been published in India, but why does Flipkart have only the imported ones?  Landmark did not have them at all in their stocks. Gyan did not indicate the publisher or have a picture of the book. Anyone out there who has read Banks? (Not the sci-fi, a genre I never read) Feed back welcome!

How many years of solitude?

All book lovers would have read “One hundred years of solitude” by  Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was saddened to read a recent news item that  he was suffering from dementia and has not been writing for some time. His brother said that he phones him frequently to ask the most basic questions.  “He has problems with his memory. Sometimes I cry because I feel like I’m losing him,” he said. Gabo, as he is affectionately known, is 85 years old and it is not clear how long he has been suffering.

This news struck me at many levels. The book itself … I have read it  3 or 4 times and enjoyed it each time. There was a haunting quality to the story. Having no other exposure to Latin American history or culture did not make any difference. I wondered how much more magical it would have been in its original language! The book has been universally praised and topped most of the lists of the ‘most significant books of the 20th century’ polls. It continues to be on every ‘Must Read” list that floats around the e-space.

The style of writing has been described as ‘magic realism’, a style with strong Latin America roots. It  has inspired a whole line of others to venture into this genre and notable books that come to mind are  “Midnight’s Children” ( Salman Rushdie) and “Beloved” (Toni Morrison), both of which are wonderful books. More recently and closer to home, you can enjoy elements of it in Rana Dasgupta’s “Tokyo Cancelled”. Having just shifted house, my books are all stacked in a cupboard awaiting the arrival of appropriate shelving. But, I feel like struggling through the haphazard piles to find my copy of the “Hundred years”. And those of you who have not read it, I would strongly recommend it.

Reading about Gabo’s condition, I wondered how many years of solitude he has been condemned to? Tears spring to my eyes, when my brother (who is just 60!), who too is losing his memory, calls me across the continents to ask the simplest of questions. Without  memory, I am sure it is a state of  permanent solitude. And I wonder how much longer he will be calling me at all…..

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