Friday 22 January 2021

A Reading Retrospective on 2020

A Reading Retrospective for 2020 should have, ideally, been put up in 2020, or at worst in the first week of January this year. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the best laid plans of mice and men, go oft aft agley, or something like that, and so here we go, twenty-two days later, or however many it will be by the time this goes up.


Thankfully, this won’t be very long; I did not read all that many books this year, which, I suppose, has at least this silver lining.


So here it goes, in no particular order:


Romantic Guerilla, by DS Kumar 


You know how you sometimes get this inexplicable craving to eat a vada pav? But you’re miles away from your regular vada pav guy (everyone has a vada pav guy, right?). It’s hot, you’re in an unfamiliar corner of some godforsaken suburb, and there’s a chap you can see selling the stuff. It’s greasy, messy and there’s no other customers.  You don’t really want to, but you know you’re going to do it anyway. And so you shell out the money and take it in your hand and take the first bite, hating yourself already and—it tastes like vada pav. Not particularly good vada pav. You wouldn’t want to confess to your regular guy that you ate this. But it…is kind of all right. There’s potato. There’s besan. There’s a pav. The chutney has a tangy taste. You eat it all in a daze, knowing you may suffer unfortunate digestive after-effects, but in that moment, you know you could have done worse. 


I guess I could have done worse than ‘Romantic Guerilla’, an unfiltered outpouring of wish-fulfilment fantasy that occasionally borders on pornographic. And that’s because the writer is quite unabashed about it. There is a plot. The characters, such as they are, are consistent in their behaviour. Even the misogyny is undisguised and unapologetic, it’s just…there. 


It’s the story of a start-up founder who gets into a corporate battle with a billionaire, and predictably loses. However, putting together a rag-tag team of people the billionaire has hurt in some way in the past, he exacts increasingly ridiculous retribution. Ultimately, when it’s over, you know you need not have read it, and probably should not have, but for what it is, it…just is.


Beren and Luthien, by JRR Tolkein


Granted, it's more of an editorial commentary in parts than a single coherent narrative, and weaves back and forth between earlier and later drafts and poetry and prose, but this is still a shining showcase of JRR Tolkien's near-magical ability to transport a reader to an alternate universe using nothing but the written word.


The tale itself should be familiar to anyone who's read the Tolkien works beyond the most obvious two. Even if not, this story is referenced in Lord of the Rings by Aragorn on at least one occasion.


This is, then, that story—of the first union of High Elf and Man, of the renegade Beren and the half-Maiar Luthien and their chance encounter among the hemlock flowers in the realm of Doriath. Of Thingol's impossible task, which Beren dared to do for the love he bore for Luthien, and how she defied her father to go after him, how they, together with Huan, Prince of Dogs, faced and threw down no less than Sauron (in an earlier draft Sauron is a Huge Cat, by the way. Make of that what you will), and their confrontation with Morgoth himself.


It's a story of bravery and love, of pride and betrayal, of the shifting tides between good and evil and though the fact that it hops between drafts and formats would make it difficult to follow, it remains a stirring work of art; one of those whose beauty is often in what it doesn't explicitly say as much as it lies in what it does.


And some images, indeed, stay with me—


Of Luthien on cat's back, jumping from terrace to terrace of the Cat-castle;


Of Beren entering Nargothorond, his father's ring held high,


Of Luthien's song in Morgoth's Halls, one elf contending against the mightiest creature on Middle-Earth,


And of her dance in the silvery moonlight among the hemlock-flowers, which set in motion, in-and-out of the fictional world, the events that led to the War of the Rings.


Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes


Of Don Quixote itself, I shrink from saying too much. This was my third time reading this masterpiece, and each time, I think, the book told me different things. The first time I read it, back when I was twenty, it told me of a madcap Knight and his ridiculous squire going from one ridiculous adventure to another; the second time, it gave a social commentary on Spain at the time as well as the noble and plebian people who inhabited it; this time, it told me a near-tragic tale of a world that laughed at idealism that seemed to work as well in this century as it did when Cervantes wrote it.


I did not much like the translation I read this time, however, and would suggest either the Edith Grossman version or the classic Wordsworth Editions translation.


The Plague, by Albert Camus


Reviewed in detail, giving this classic the space it deserves, here


Albert Camus’ chronicle of a plague breaking out in a coastal Algerian town might have felt too topical a book to read during the Covid pandemic, in Mumbai, but perhaps it was the only time such a book could be read without realising it was meant to be an allegory for fascism.


Or, given we live in a country where comedians are jailed for jokes they might have made; where film-makers are prosecuted for creative choices, and every person who has the guts to call the reigning government what it is, is held guilty of treason by an online lynch mob (if lucky), but an actual lynch mob, if not, perhaps it will be the perfect time to read The Plague at any time while we remain under its thumb.


The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag


My grandfather gave me my first Corbett when I was about 11, and I’ve read nearly all of the hunter-turned-photographer’s writing since then. Perhaps this is because Corbett never wrote like a hunter, but rather like a naturalist. His joy never seems to be in the hunt itself, nor is there any exultation about the kills he makes. As far as I could tell, Corbett took a stand early on that he would hunt only man-eaters, and even that he did with a resigned forbearance.


But whether he was a good hunter, or a great one, as a writer about hunting and the Indian forests, he is hard to match. And in Rudraprayag, he writes some of his best work. The story unfolds almost like a horror novel, with the titular man-eater’s impact on the people of Kumaon meticulously documented and portrayed. Corbett does not shy away from documenting his own several failures either, freely conceding that the leopard outsmarts him, and indeed there are occasions when he is lucky not to have become one of his victims himself.


Given that he could not have written all that he did if that had happened, I suppose we should consider ourselves very lucky as well.


Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola


Emile Zola's 'Therese Raquin' is one of those novels that reminds you that not all literature written in the 19th century was, well, like what you imagine it to be.


Over it's relatively-short length (under 250 pages), Zola writes a psychological study of crime, sexuality and passion.


Madame Raquin is a widowed shop-owner who has spoiled her sickly son, Camille, and married him off to her orphan niece, Therese.


Their married life is marked by a general lack of passion and extreme repression on the part of Therese, while the mollycoddled Camille lives a blissfully oblivious life. The appearance of Camille's old schoolmate, Laurent, inflames passions in Therese and Laurent is only too pleased to reciprocate, and they embark upon an affair that leads to disastrous consequences.


Through the course of the novel, Zola examines, under a harsh light, the impact of repression, guilt, and psychological deterioration. And yet, a lot of the work seems to be written in a hurry, with the characters being essentially placeholders for their passions, doing what the plot requires them to do in order to prove Zola's theories about his subject matter.


The descriptions are superb, and in the translation I read, (Penguin, 1965) the literary style is bold and unabashedly natural, touching on female sexuality in a manner that must have been unusual even for the French, back in the 1860's when the novel was published.


The ending feels rushed, almost as though the author, having completed the dissertation, and made the points he needed to make about his subjects - the urban middle class of France, adultery, crime, guilt and passion - decided to wrap things up so as to get it to the publishers in time to start his next novel (the rather more celebrated series, Les-Rougon Macquart).


Red Birds, by Mohammed Hanif


What would have been a clever, perhaps even well-appreciated book had it been written by someone else, ends up being a disappointment because it comes from someone of Hanif’s calibre and track record. It is not that the writer of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and The Case of Exploding Mangoes has not written a good book; Red Birds has some fine passages and touches upon the very pertinent question of America’s culpability in perpetuating terrorism and insurgency throughout the world. But the lyricism, the sensitivity, and sheer beauty of prose and thought that Hanif demonstrated in his earlier works is missing from Red Birds, leaving it feeling like a work of anger that ends up lacking impact.


Red Birds is the story of an American pilot who crash-lands on the Af-Pak border, an entrepreneurial Pakistani kid growing up in a refugee camp, and the latter’s pet dog. The three narratives intertwine as the pilot waits to be rescued, the kid tries to rescue his brother, and the dog looks to do dog things. The mystery at the core of Red Birds is of a vanished US Air Force camp, and while there is a lot of writing about the clashing world-views of the refugees and the Americans, it simply does not have the impact that I know a writer like Hanif can give his work.


Maybe he was rushed by a publisher, or the manuscript ravaged by an editor, but in the end result, it ends up being a disappointment. 


La Reine Margot, by Alexandre Dumas


If Dumas lived today, he would have sold more books than Stephen King or James Patterson. Of this, I have no doubt. Sure, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are considered part of literary canon, but they are also rollicking, entertaining tales written to please an audience. Margot is no different. An out-and-out potboiler of a historical fiction, it portrays the end days of the Valois dynasty in sensationalist, often sordid, tones. Every woman is a beauty, and every man a rogue, swordfights and poetry, poisoning and faith, are all jumping off every page, as the large and varied bunch of real historical figures, held by Dumas’ puppeteering hands, dance across the Louvre and other parts of Paris. 


Keeping track of the characters can be a challenge (apparently, every noble in France at the time was named Henri) and Dumas doesn’t bother to make his characters likeable either, but they are definitely not boring. Never boring.


Ahsoka, by EK Johnston


(Star Wars nerdiness ahead; you have been warned)


In creating the character of ‘Ahsoka Tano’, a padawan learner for Anakin Skywalker, Dave Filoni, the showrunner for The Clone Wars had to know he was taking a risk. The Star Wars fandom is famously toxic and puritan, and indeed the early response to the character bore this out. 


Nevertheless, he persisted.


The fact that today, Ahsoka’s character is so popular as to have a toxic fandom that fights internet battles over whether she was accurately portrayed in her only live-action appearance so far, speaks volumes for what Filoni and the Clone Wars team accomplished over the course of seven seasons.


The novel is a tie-in of sorts, telling the story of how Tano survived Order 66, her first encounter with an Imperial Inquisitor (Spoiler Alert: She curb-stomps him), and how she realised she could not remain in hiding but needed to do something constructive to try and help the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. 


Told in a low-key style that really gets so much right about both the character and the ethos of the Star Wars world, Ahsoka is a nice addition to the Legend that is building around the Togruta who may have left the Jedi Order, but never compromised on its principles.


The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton


In 2019, I was left astounded by The Age of Innocence, it’s sheer beauty and almost hypnotic ability to sink the reader into the whirlpool of New York’s High Society around the end of the nineteenth century. 


In 2020, I was left heart-broken by how Wharton could, in the space of a few words, drag me back there, into a story even of even greater violence and desolation.


The House of Mirth is less about love; and mirth there is even less than in Innocence, but Lily Bart’s story is impossible to put down. I read it in under three days (an achievement for me in these degenerate times), and though it was nearly a month ago, have not really gotten ‘over’ it, if one really ever does get ‘over’ a book like this.


The story of the beautiful but poor socialite who is never asked to, or expected to, be anything but an ornament, and how that fault in her and those around her dooms her, of how a character’s strength can work against them, is heart-rending, and every page exposes a facet of human nature that is as guilt-inducing now as it was a hundred years ago.


Of all the books I read this year, The House of Mirth is perhaps the one I am most likely to keep in mind for the longest, though it is also the hardest to recommend, for it is not for the faint of heart.



Book Review: The Plague, by Albert Camus

 The Plague, by Albert Camus


In an unremarkable, mid-sized coastal town in colonial Algeria, rats start dying in the streets. Dr Bernard Rieux, a conscientious General Physician, is concerned, and when the first human casualties take place, tells the town's municipal authorities that they are likely in the early stages of the plague. His diagnoses is treated as alarmist, the name, 'plague' is suppressed and official notifications remain mild, advising only 'caution' and not taking more concrete steps.


Within weeks, the town is gripped by an epidemic and has to be shut down, the doctors are overworked, supplies are low, the authorities are flailing, makeshift isolation centers have to be made, and people are dying faster than they can be buried.


The town, named 'Oran', remains isolated from the rest of the world. Families and lovers are separated, the town guard assumes the status of keepers of the peace, quarantines and isolations mean that even when a loved one dies, they are buried, and later cremated, alone.


There is heroism too, in the efforts of Rieux and his fellow-doctors, in the army of volunteers that helps, from the acerbic Priest, Father Paneloux, to the journalist Rambert whose first instinct is to smuggle himself out. The Plague comes for young and old, rich and poor, and as months pass, Oran is under a pall of gloom that isn't sorrow so much as hopelessness. The newspapers print a daily death count, which is observed with morbid interest. The theatres show the same pictures shows over and over, and the people watch anyway.


And the people lose their sense of self, and find that even waiting seems pointless, and hope is gone, and there seems nothing to live for. They burn their own dwellings and defy the lockdown, they run to the gates to get shot rather than endure the confinement. 


The writer brings out all this through the eyes of characters at the forefront of the battle against the plague, but without a hint of sentimentality. Rieux and his friend Tarrou, love-lorn Rambert and ageing bureaucrat Grand, firebrand preacher Paneloux and profiteer Cottard. Each has his part to play in the travails of Oran, and they do play it as humans do; some heroically, some cowardly, some forced into it and some standing up to be counted when it matters the most.


The language (as translated) reflects the subject material, alternating between bursts of dialogue and emotional depth and passages of torpor, as though his words too should be in consonance with the course the Plague takes and the emotions of the people of Oran under their 'imprisonment'.


And finally, if that all sounds familiar, that's because it is; and Albert Camus, who wrote 'The Plague' in 1947, was writing about more than an infectious disease. 


'The Plague' is a chronicle not so much of a sickness but about humanity, about dignity and about the innate value of hope, however dormant, however deeply-buried. It is about invisible enemies of all kind, whether Gods or monsters, real or imaginary. It's about the Nazis, and the dictators, about police oppression and the power of the wealthy, about inequality and cowardice, about bravery and faith.


It's about the importance of ploughing on, in whatever little way we can, even when the cause seems hopeless.


And Camus, who knew only too well that evil had not ended with the defeat of the Nazis any more than disease had died out with the end of the last pandemic, gives us a chilling warning through the last lines of the book:


"He knew what these jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and book-shelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city."