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Archive for July, 2008

Cross Channel — Julian Barnes — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 28, 2008

Driven by the heightened interest generated after reading Julian Barnes’sArthur & George“, I picked up his collection of short pieces titled “Cross Channel”.  I was amply rewarded.  “Cross Channel” could pretty well have been “Across the English Channel” and is essentially about the experiences of people from various walks of life from England who in a variety of contexts get to see the idiosyncrasies of living in France or interacting with the French people

England and France have had a chequered relationship over the last 500 years. They were friends, foes, partners, neighbours and fought each other on their home soils and jostled as suspicious colonial powers else where in other parts of the world. They have had their times of peace and times of war and mixed periods of time between these. Despite their proximity, they are astonishingly different culturally and tempermentally. Whatever be the ups and downs in the relationships between the countries, people exchanges have remained quite strong and vigorous. If one were to move away from the conventional histories and focus on the experiences of people who have been part of these people interchanges the picture changes quite a bit and gets fascinating and interesting. “Cross Channel” is a mosaic of 10 wonderful pieces depicting precisely this

I thought the best way to document my impressions about this book is by writing about some of these pieces. So here are a few chosen ones

Interference: The final days of a cantankerous and brilliant English music composer – Leonard – who for reasons of percieved hostility of England to foster artists, relocates to a remote French Village with his wife four decades back. The piece is a reminiscence of a life gone by and the small demands of the dying (in the present) set in an environment and circumstances where they are difficult to meet. Towards the end, Leonard wants to listen to his own composition “The Four Seasons” — which BBC plays on his 70th birthday as he is breathing his last. But interference of electrical signals do not allow him to listen to it.  And even the records of his own music that he ordered from the music company located in Britain arrive into the  hands of his despondent partner after his death.

Brilliant. I would rate it as one of the top 10 short stories that I have read so far

Junction: A wonderful sketch of the life and times of English railway contractors and the navvies who work for them building French Railways – as viewed from the eyes and prejudices of a resident french family. It came to me as a surprise that the English were instrumental in building some of the key railway lifelines of the French with labour imported from England around the 1740s. The prejudices reveal a whole range of cultural differences and customs. That a not so popular slice of history covering the construction of railways can be built into a delightful piece of reading is a testimony to Barnes’s strength in coherent story telling. Consider the common opinion about railways during 18th century in France: “Finally, the Fanal reported, without coming to its own judgment on the matter, that some authorities likened the building of the European railways to the building of great medieval cathedrals. The English engineers and contractors, according to such writers, resembled those wandering bands of Italian craftsmen under whose guidance local worksmen had erected their own glorious monuments to God

Through the book one gets to see this studied and loving grasp of history on a variety of things that a writer needs as his raw material to build stories 

Experiment: Is a baudy piece about the attitudes of the French and British towards sex.  It is a series of reminscences of a widower who has been part of a sex experiment conducted by a group of french and narrated to his curious tongue in cheek nephew… Thoroughly enjoyable

Evermore: Battle of Somme has been one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the English in WW I in France and the casualities for them were unimaginably large. This piece is a recollection by a sister the loss of her brother (Sam) in Somme and a resigned but gradual diminishing of the pain of her bereavement (within herself and in the eyes of public) with the passage of time. For her the greatest war ever fought was WW1 and she resents WW II as it replaced the importance of WW I in public consciousness. Consider the following thought that sums up the attitude:  She felt no rancour towards these Huns; time had washed from her any anger at the man, the regiment, the Hun army, the nation that had taken Sam’s life. Her resentment was against those who came later, and whom she refused to dignify with the amicable name of Hun. She hated Hitler’s war for diminishing the memory of Great War, for alloting it a number, the mere first among two. And she hated the way in which the Great War was held responsible for its successor, as if Sam, Denis and all the East Lancashires who fell were partly the cause of that business. Sam had done what he could – he had served and died – and was punished all too quickly with becoming subservient in memory. Time did not behave rationally. Fifty years back to the Somme; a hundred beyond that to Waterloo, four hundred more to Agincourt, or Azincourt as the French preferred. Yet these distances have been now squeezed closer to one another. She blamed it on 1939-45

Dragons: A touching piece on religious persecutions of the English in France and the stubborn French adherents who lose everything to retain their faith. Ironically some of the soldiers who perpetrate these gruesome acts are hired Irish soldiers

Tour De France has come to represent the acme of physical endurance, grit and determination in modern day athletics. Brambilla is a delightful piece involving stories around Tour De France and some heroes like Sean Kelly

Tunnel: An aged man recollecting the changing perceptions of French about the British over the long stretches of history while travelling in a train in Channel Tunnel. It turns out that the old man is none other than the author himself.  Consider this brilliant passage: Tommies they had been called a hundred years ago, while France was being deforested for trench props. Later when he had taught at Rennes, he and his companions were known as Les Rosbifs: an affectionate tag for those sturdy, reliable if unimaginative islanders of the north. But later still a new name was discovered: Les Fuck Offs. Britain had become the problem child of Europe, sending its half hearted politicians to lie about their obligations, and sending its civilian guerillas to swagger the streets, ignorant of the language and haughty about the beer. Fuck off ! Fuck off ! Fuck off !. The Tommies and the Roastbeefs had become Fuck offs…… why should he be surprised? He had never much believed in the melioration……Oh! Forget it… Or rather, take a longer view: it hadn’t always been jolly old Tommies or Roastbeefs, had it? For centuries before, back to Joan of Arc…they had been Goddems, Goddamms and Goddons…. blaspheming ravagers of the happy land to the south. From Goddem to Fuck Off: not very far. And in any case old men grumbling about rowdy youth: what a tired leitmotif that was. Enough complaining

Overall, “Cross Channel” is a delightful book with elegant and beautiful prose interlaced with accute observation of differences that distinguish the people of two countries. With rich insights into stretches of history and a wide variety of human emotions it is an enlivening output of one of the finest writers writing in English today. Barnes does a wonderful job of painting a coherent picture of the French in light of English while carefully avoiding the typical traps of stereotyping

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Arthur & George — Julian Barnes — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 18, 2008

It is my view that there is no such thing as pure fiction from a sense of it being a product of pure imagination or a creation of mind which does not have an approximate precedence. However tenuous it may be, all fiction has to be rooted in reality. Some hook, link or connection has to exist between a writers imagination and what plays out actually on the ground. The only exception for this can be some extreme form of the genre of science fiction. Probably that explains my limited appetite for the SF genre. Real life incidents, events and people – all past and present — have been the most preferred raw material employed by writers for their writing. Infusing this raw material with a writers imagination in terms of providing a structure, narrative style, pace, characterisation has been an age old approach to writing novels. As an approach to writing  this will never go out of fashion. Nor it should. If it does, then reading will become a much less enjoyable passtime than it is now. In that sense all fiction is a form of peeping and knowing more about someone else’s life – as it is or augmented with degrees of imagination

Julian Barne’sArthur and George” is one such novel based on real life events and people involving the famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George T Edalji. George is the son of a christian parishoner who is born a parsee. George’s mother is a scotswoman. The parish itself is located Greater Wyrley (near Birmingham). George goes onto become a provincial solicitor and makes a minor name for himself by writing a monograph on Railway laws. He is also about ensconce himself into a comfortable life of a provincial solicitor. It is around this pivotal period that he and his family become victims of a focused hate mail campaign. George also gets accused of horse mutiliations in and around Greater Wyrley. After an extensive but farcical trial, George is sentenced to 7 years of rigorous imprisonment. George’s incipient career is in tatters and this has a huge impact on the fabric of the family which stands by him though the difficult period. This is one parallel thread of the narrative in the novel. The other thread is that of Conan Doyle’s life itself — his own formative years, training as a doctor, sports, literarture, rise to fame, knighthood, dabble with spiritism, death of his first wife Touie and his affair with Jean Leckie

The book gains real momentum once Arthur and George’s paths intertwine and Arthur spurred by the dual needs for action and snapping out of bereavment of Touie’s death, decides to take up the cause of George to set right the wrongs done to him. The book in essence is a brilliant reconstruction of the case of George Edalji. A historical equivalent to Edalji’s case was the case of Dreyfus in France where Dreyfus is accused of treason in an elaborate set up and his case too is championed by another giant in world literature – Emil Zola

As a book “Arthur and George” has many wonderful aspects to consider. First and foremost is Barne’s meticulous research to reconstruct the whole episode and England of the time of Conan Doyle. Barnes leads the reader into an England that was throbbing with vitality, energy, advancement. It is also at the same time an England where there are shameful instances of official apathy, miscarriage of justice, race bias and class taking precedence over equality of ordinary citizenry

Second is the characterisation. Both Arthur and George are the central characters and they are no doubt marvelously done. Both are diametrically opposite personalities. Arthur — full of energy, modernity, daring, courage, intellect and industry while George is meek, diligient, honest, conventional and introverted — the texture of both these characters is well maintained till the end. In this world sometimes one gets to meet people who have varied capabilities and interests, know precisely what their capabilities are and relish in employing these capabilities in helping others. These are beautiful people spurred by the love for action and cause. Barnes portrays Arthur Conan Doyle as one of those beautiful larger than life people. One is never bored to read more about these characters. Consider the portrayalof Conan Doyle:  Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth, instructed in the faith of Rome by Dutch Jesuits. Arthur has become English  ………..In this modern world of Birmingham factories and billycock hats the notion of chivalry often seemed to have declined into one of mere sportsmanship. But Arthur practiced the code whereever possible. He was a man of his word; he succoured the poor; he kept his guard against the baser emotions, he treated women respectfully; he had long term plans for the rescue and care of his mother

Third is the control on language: Barnes is clearly a master and makes every paragraph pleasurable to read. The language flows like a gurgling stream of clear water – cold, sweet, refreshing and evoking the freshness of a time where it was uncontaminated and pure. Consider some of the gems: “He had begun to find, during his medical training, there was often much promise in the faces of the dead – as if the strain and tension of living had given way to a greater peacefulness. Post muscular relaxation was the scientific answer; but part of him wondered if this was the full explanation. The human dead also bore in their gizzard pebbles from a land the maps ignored” or talking about Charles Doyle father of Conan Doyle : “He had been weak and unmanly, incapable of winning his fight against liquor. Fight? He barely raised his gloves at the demon. Excuses were occasionally made for him, but Arthur did not find the claim of an artistic temperament persuasive. That was self-indulgence and self-exculpation. It was perfectly possible to be an artist, yet also to be robust and responsible” or It’s plain as a packstaff,’ he is saying ‘The fellow’s no more guilty than that typewriter of yours. I ask you Woodie!. It’s a joke. The case of the locked room in reverse – not how does he get in but how does he get out? Its as shabby as shabby can be”  (one gets to see shades of Sherlock Holmes here)

Fourth what I found quite arresting through the book was Barnes depiction of Conan Doyle’s philosophical flights. On a trip to Egypt he at one time says ” Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on. Everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, how it was and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency which people went on with… with what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and thing made perfect sense to them………………The demolition of antique faiths had been fundamental to human advancement; but now that old buildings have been leveled, where was man to find shelter in this blasted landscape? How could anyone glibly decide that the history of what the species had for millenia agreed to call the soul was now at an end? Human beings would continue to develop and therefore whatever was inside them must also develop…. Egyptians had indubitably raised the arts and sciences to a new level, their reasoning powers were in many ways contemptible. Especially in their attitude to death. The notion that the dead body, an old, outworn coat which once briefly wrapped the soul, should be preserved at any cost was not just risible; it was the last word in materialism. As for those baskets of provisions placed in the tomb to feed soul in the journey; how could people of such sophistication be so emasculated in their minds? Faith endorsed by materialism: a double curse. And the same curse blighted every subsequent nation and civilization that came under the rule of a priesthood” . The book is sprinkled with many such passages

Lastly, Barnes manages to give some glittering brushes of the character of British nation (I doubt if such a thing as a nation’s character exists and can be easily defined). I found two of those brush strokes especially wonderful:  “But more than this, he suspected that his obscurity was something to do with England itself. France, as he understood was country of extremes, of violent opinion, violent principles and long memories. England was a quieter place, just as principled, but less keen on making a fuss about its principles; a place where common law was more respected than Government statute; where people got on with their own business and did not seek to interfere with that of others; where great public eruptions took place from time to time, eruptions of feeling which might even tip over into violence and injustice, but which soon faded in the memory, and were rarely built into the history of the country. This has happened. Now lest us forget about it and carry on as before. Such was the English way… This was England, and George could understand England’s point of view, because George was English himselfor  “Ofcourse. But I disagree. The money is very important. Not just as a compensation for three years of your life. It is also symbolic. The British respect money. If you are given a free pardon the public will know that you are innocent. But if you are given money as well, the public will know that your completely innocent. There is a world of difference” 

In summary, “Arthur & George” is at once a biography of a great writer, adventure, reconstruction of a long forgotton historical incident and a love story. I think that above all it is a truly delightful and entertaining read

It was nominated for the 2005 Booker and sadly did not win it. This is sufficent enough to infer the quality of talent writing in UK and CommonWealth countries today

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Heat & Dust — Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 6, 2008

The “Raj Literature” has always held a fascination for me and there are reasons for that. Firstly, the British rule has been an important interlude in the long history of India and influenced the institutions, practices, approaches to many facets of Indian way of life. How would India have been if there had not been an interjection like this is an interesting question I sometimes surmise about. Secondly it gives a glimpse of a fascinating social setting and the ferment therein: alien rulers subjugating native populations and overwhelming them, the intermingling of different cultures, the osmosis on account of it and the quaint rules of engagement (It is indubitable that imperialism is unambiguously immoral and in the case of India extremely debilitating yet unwittingly it also may have left its traces of positive influences. There is a substantial amount of writing and legitimate anti podal positions with respect to this aspect. But from an angle of pure fiction or story telling that may or may not add or delete to my interest). Above all The “Raj Literature” evokes the smell and sounds of a bygone era which has touched the lives of people in generations that are and were known to me. The bits and pieces that I have heard from them also appear to have contributed to this interest

However, despite the fascination, my exposure to this genre/era of literature has been limited. The prominent writers that I have come across (not necessarily read) in this space are Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet) and most recently William Dalrymple (The Last Mughal and White Mughals). With the desire of initiating myself into this genre of literature I took up Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’sHeat & Dust“.

The first thought that struck me after I read this book is that for all its deceptively smallness, it is a complex piece of a narrative with 2 strands of stories running in parallel and touching upon various aspects of the lives of people in India pre and post British rule. The narrator whose name is kept anonymous throughout the book comes to India with the curiosity of tracing a piece of family history relating to the life and times of the first wife (Olivia) of her grandfather Douglas. Olivia is married to Douglas who is high up in the ranks of British officialdom and is incharge of the Khatm which is ruled by a Nawab. The Nawab is a typical ruler that we get to hear in Indian history of British era — given to all pleasures of life and located in a setting where the powers of ruling classes was increasingly constrained by the do’s and dont’s imposed by the British rule. To defray for his expenses the Nawab is in cahoots with a gang of dacoits who plunder the residents of Khatm. This turns out to be a headache for the key officials of the British setup of which Douglas is an important element. Given this Douglas keeps a distance from the Nawab. However, Olivia gradually gets attracted to the Nawab and their amorous relationship is also aided by Henry who is a friend of the Nawab. Henry is ill regarded by the British officaldom and treated as a hanger-on of the Nawab. Besides the financial problems the Nawab is also troubled by his own wife (nicknamed Sandy) who hails from the powerful clan of Cabobpur nawabs and is considered to be mentally ill. Living behind the purdah Sandy does impact the life of Nawab in lot many ways. Olivia gets pregnant on account of the Nawab but aborts the child with the abetment of Begum  – the Nawab’s mother. Towards the end Olivia decides to live with the Nawab and moves to Simla where the Nawab provides for her upkeep. The Nawab gets deeper and deeper into a financial mess and tries all that he can to get grants from the British but which are of no avail. Towards the end the Nawab dies in the arms of his mother who has relocated to New York for good. Olivia continues to stay in India and dies there after six years after the Nawab dies. A minority of the British officials who have been the dramatis personae during the unfolding of the event decide to stay back in India after India gets liberated

The other strand of the story is that of the narrator herself. Although she comes with the intention of finding more about Olivia she realises that some parts of the history are buried in the dunes of time forever. What the reader gets to read about Olivia is a careful reconstruction that the narrator manages to build from the letters that Olivia has written to her cousin and alterego Marcia who stays in Paris and bits and pieces of in person narration by Henry who relocates to London during the last stages of Nawab’s life.  The narrator herself gets involved with Inderlal the owner of her house and has a baby with him. As a reader what I found a little unusal is that the narrator treats this development as a matter of fact. Towards the end she says “I still don’t think there was anything special about Olivia; I mean, that she started off with any very special qualities. When she first came here, she may really have been what she seemed; a pretty young woman, rather vain, pleasure-seeking, a little petulant. Yet to have done what she did – and then to have stuck to it all life long – she couldn’t have remained the person she had been. But there is no record of what she became later, neither in our family nor anywhere else as far as I know. More and more I want to find out; but I suppose the only way I can do is to do the same she did – that is, stay on” — with this thought in mind she also decides to stay back in India and looks forward to a life in an ashram of Indian monks in Simla

Broadly this is the plot of “Heat and Dust” — so why is this book considered to be one of the finest pieces of Raj Literature? First and foremost is the brilliant job that Jhabvala does in the evocation of a bygone era. Whether it be the life and times of the Nawab or the British officials or the people of India, Jhabvala’s narration is like a eastman colour movie. Jhabvala takes the reader gently into a world that he has only heard of and will never be able to see again. It is a touching portrayal of an interaction of two different peoples coming from different cultures, worldviews, civilizations, motives and power structures

A second aspect that I was deeply impressed was Jhabvala’s ability to observe the minutae in the setting, understand and portray in a very vivid way — an ability which resides in a writer with an extremely special affinity for the subject on hand. Consider a few of her observations: Here is one where she introduces Inderlal’s mother into the book:”All the time she was studying me. She has a shrewd appraising glance – and I can imagine how she must have gone around looking over girls as possible wives for her sons before finally deciding on Ritu. Quite instinctively she was adding my points as well, and alas I could guess what her sum came to”  or

The portrait of a few rich peasants who have come to appeal to Douglas: They would sit on the verandah with their offerings which were baskets of sweetmeats and pistachio nuts. The rich men all seemed to look the same: they were all fat, and wore spotless loose white muslin clothes and shone in oil and jewellery. When Douglas went out to greet them, they simpered and joined together and seemed to overcome with the honour he was doing them that they could hardly stammer their appreciation of it. Olivia listened to them talking out there. Douglas’ voice firm and manly, rose above the rest. When he spoke the others confined themselves to murmurs of agreement. He must have made some jokes because everynow and again they all laughed in polite unison. Sometimes he seem to speak rather more sternly, and then the murmurs became very low and submissive till he made another joke whereupon they dissolved in relieved laughter. It was almost as if Douglas were playing a musical instrument of which he had entirely mastered the stops or

The narrator meets a missionary when she lands in Bombay, who  goes onto say “Oh! but I’ve seen some terrible sights in India. I’ve lived through a Hindu-Muslim riot, and a smallpox epidemic, and several famines, and I think I may rightly say I’ve seen everything that you can see on earth…..because you see dear nothing here means anything here. Not a thing”  or the view of Hindustani as a language

I just told them, in a roundabout way, that they were a pack of rogues”
“And they like being told that
If you say it in Hindustani, yes”
I must Learn !”
“Yes you must,” he said without enthusiasm.”It’s the only language in which you can deliver deadly insults with the most flowery courtesy

But what I think is the highest achievement in this book is Jhabvala’s portrayal of the the impact of India on the thinking of the British in particular extended to Europe in general. Consider the following where the narrator talks about the monograph written by Major Minnies on this subject: Later, during his retirement in Ooty, he had a lot more time to think about the question, and he even published… a monograph on the influence of India on the European consciousness and character … he said that one has to be very determined to withstand — to stand upto — India. And the most vulnerable, he said, are always those who love her best. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for — the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music and indeed the physical beauty of the men and women — but all, said the Major are dangerous for the European who allows himself to love too much. India always, he said, finds out the weak spots and presses on it. Both Dr.Saunders and Major Minnies spoke of the weak spot. But whereas for Dr. Saunders it is something, or someone, rotten, for the Major this weak spot is to be found in the most sensitive, often the finest people — and, moreover, in their finest feelings. It is there that India seeks them out and pulls them over into what the Major called the other dimension. He also referred to it as the another element, one in which the European is not accustomed to live so that by immersion in it he becomes debilitated, or even (like Olivia) destroyed. Yes, concluded the Major, it is all very well to love and admire India — intellectually, aesthetically, he did not mention sexually but he must have been aware of that factor too – but always with a virile, measured, European feeling. One should never he warned, allow oneself to become softened (like Indians) by an excess of feeling; because the moment that happens — the moment one exceeds one’s measure – one is in danger of being dragged over to the other side. That seems to be the last word of Major Minnies had to say on the subject and his final conclusion.  He who loved India so much, knew her so well, chose to spend the end of his days here! But she always remained for him an opponent, even sometimes an enemy, to be guarded and if necessary fought against from without and, especially, from within: from within one’s own being

In totality what I felt after reading “Heat & Dust” is something I find easy to explain in analogous terms and here it is: Imagine that you are invited to a dinner with a huge promise and as a conscientious guest you have gone there with a sharpened appetite. Instead of a normal course meal your host keeps offering a variety of dishes to taste and then expects you to order for a full course. However, the quantum of tasting itself is so large that you are satiated even before you begin on the main course. How do you feel? I for one would have been dissatisfied, frustrated but grateful to my host for having invited me. This is exactly how I felt after reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’sHeat and Dust“. It is a book that touches upon multitude of themes in a complex setting of a completely bygone era and that in itself lies the strongest appeal of this wonderful book. Does it surprise anyone that Jhabvala won a Booker in 1975 for this book?

An afterthought: On the topic of the negative impacts on Indian civilzation and the manifestations thereof in recent times, I think, V.S.Naipaul’s three books viz. An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India – A Million Mutinies Now may be worth exploring

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