Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Archive for March, 2011

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 29, 2011

Some say we shall never know and that to gods we are like flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God —– Thornton Wilder

To a question on what literature meant to him, Julian Barnes, responded that it’s the “best way of telling the truth”. While I agree that of the available tools for human beings, fiction or literature is the most suited to tell the truth, how effective it is in telling the truth in its totality is in the realms of debatable. This is neither due to the inherent limitations in the craft of fiction nor due to any attributable lacunae in its practitioners. The problem lies in the amorphous, frustrating, perplexing and very often bewildering variety of human situations and paradoxes itself. However, what fiction or literature can do and which no other art form can do is pose right questions about the ineluctable truth in specific contexts in a mode that is understandable, appealing, joyous and purposeful. Successful endeavours in posing the right questions around human reality have always resulted in fiction of outstanding quality and universal appeal. Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge Of San Luis Rey” is a rare but yet another superb outcome of such sincere questioning

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below“….. thus begins this deceptively simple, exquisitely ponderable, stylistically written, wonderfully thoughtful, deeply moving and metaphysically grand book about love, the vexing entanglements it ensues and the idiosyncratic reconciliations that three people involved with it gravitate to and perish in an accident involving the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey. The collapse of the bridge is watched by a christian monk, Brother Juniper, who sets out to establish on a scientific basis if there was a method and higher purpose in this act of God. The chosen approach of Brother Juniper is to explore the past of the deceased to ferret and establish patterns in their lives which justifies this fate. The ones who die in the mishap are: Dona Maria and her maid Pepita – the former who after an extended, one sided and all-consuming love for her daughter realises the need for simplicity, lack of pride and vanity in a relationship – this realisation dawns on Dona Maria after she witnesses the plain, near guileless and soul consuming love of Pepita for her original benefactress abbess Maria del Pilar; Esteban who with the help of the reclusive and largely reticent sailor Captain Alvarado, comes to the conclusion that time will temper and even wither the passionate love he has for his dead but doppelgänger of a twin brother Manuel; Uncle Pio, who has a platonic relationship with his protégé and pygmalion Camilla – a famous but a growingly disinterested actress, whom he tries to get back to commit to her craft driven by the sheer impulse of his love for her, her talent and a passion for theatre. It is after these personally profound realisations about the nature of love and the painful decisions to re-start their lives on an accommodative note that these pivotal characters plunge to death along with two other innocents due to snapping of the bridge of San Luis Rey. And in the process of telling this story, Wilder places a handful of troubling questions in front of his reader: does divine retribution have an associated rationale at all and if so what is it? Is it explicable? How should love be viewed and what place should it have in human existence? The answers to which Wilder tells his readers is not only hard to articulate but also difficult to conclude definitively

Wilder employs an omniscient narrator (he is watching Brother Juniper who is watching the other characters in the book) to tell the story and this narrator expresses his thoughts with a clarity that is illuminating. The objects he illuminates are material and external, non-material and internal. His prose brings an extra-ordinary vividness to objects under observation which is rare and impressive. The vivification is on account of a sharp focus on detail which a busy reader looking for the greater meaning in a good book is wont to ignore but is purposefully jolted to sudden cognizance. This happens in the book time and again. Consider brother Junito’s casual raising of eyes into the horizon and the unexpected observation of the collapsing bridge:

“…….. and at that moment a twanging noise filled the air, as when the string of some musical instrument snaps in a disused room, and he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below”

….. or….. Dona Maria’s seemingly matter of fact juxtapositions

 “I was able to follow the activity of a coterie of ants in the wall beside me. Somewhere behind the partition they were patiently destroying my house. Every three minutes a little workman would appear between two boards and drop of grain of wood upon the floor below. Then he would wave his antennae at me and back busily into his mysterious corridor. In the meantime various brothers and sisters of his were trotting back and forth certain highway, stopping to massage one another’s heads, or if the messages bore were of first importance, refusing angrily to massage or to be massaged. And at once I thought of Uncle Pio. Why? Where else but with him had I seen that very gesture with which he arrests a passing abbe or a courtier’s valet, and whispers, his lips laid against his victim’s ears “

The comparison of falling human beings to “five gesticulating ants” is the one that brings to the reader a sense of the distance of the observer from the scene, the relative scale, the panoramic quality of the occurrence and the zoom-out nature of the vision. Similarly, the clarity within the miniature of processioning ants comes from the zoom-in and precise focus on” stopping to massage one another’s heads” and then comparing this to the idiosyncratic gesture of Uncle Pio. Similar is another wonderful passage portraying the personality of archbishop of Lima:

 “There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop. Between the rolls of flesh that surrounded them looked out two black eyes speaking discomfort, kindliness and wit. A curious and eager soul was imprisoned in all this lard, but by dint of never refusing himself a pheasant or a goose or his daily procession of Roman wines, he was his own bitter jailer. He loved his cathedral; he loved his duties; he was very devout. Some days he regarded his bulk ruefully; but the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting and he was presently found deliberating over the secret messages that a certain roast sends to the certain salad that will follow it. And to punish himself he led an exemplary life in every other respect”.

It appears effortlessly observed, complete, focused in its detail on both internal and external aspects and a pleasure to read

Another appealing quality of Wilder’s writing is his ability to portray various aspects of human love with words that are elegantly strung and in a way that is deeply insightful with a deep ring of truth to it. Sample the following two examples:

“Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that one love one another equally well”

 Or the portrayal of the platonic love between Uncle Pio and Camilla

“They loved one another deeply but without passion. He respected the slight nervous shadow that crossed her face when he came too near her. But there arose out of this denial itself the perfume of a tenderness, that ghost of passion which, in most unexpected relationship, can make even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream”

There is explicitness in this which is moving and truly remarkable

Wilder’s writing has a quality that matches with the genius of Herman Hesse and especially like in Hesse’s Siddhartha is full of simple and beguiling prose employed to express the inner turmoil and a particular reality of human life. Yet, for all the mature understanding of the subject under treatment, Wilder never even remotely hints that he has answers to all the imponderables and it is this that forces him to conclude the novel in a way which is at once deeply insightful, brilliant and zen like:

 “……but soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”

It is this soul hugging felicity in writing that makes this book one of the finest I’ve read so far and one that I will read over and over again

Posted in Book Reviews | 1 Comment »

Ship Fever – Andrea Barrett

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 6, 2011

Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literallyshort and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two — Annie Proulx

Inspite of my genuine love for fiction, I struggle with books. Essentially it appears to be a problem of acclimatization. Unfailingly, the first few pages are always an effort. At the start of every book and for an irritating period of time, I simply fail to get a grip on the style, characters flit in and out of focus at their will and elude my grasp, the progress with pages is slow, the need to revert to previous sentences, paragraphs, pages and sometimes even to chapters is high. To add to my despair, I start to question the choice of the book on hand itself. But I labour on. Gradually the scenario changes to the opposite. My focus on the characters becomes sharper and they start to assume flesh, blood and a life of their own and everything starts to gain coherence. The narrative style starts to become palatable and familiar. Added to all this is a healthy hunger and curiosity to carry on with the reading, get to know the story and see the end. While I cannot pin-point the exact timing of the turn of events, once I am on this transition path, I genuinely start to enjoy the book and begin to treat it with a sense of reverence for the pleasures it has to offer me. While this rite of passage is uniformly true with all the novels that I have read so far, with short stories the struggle is more intense. The reason for this, I believe, is that in short stories the topography of the narrative terrain is subject to more frequent alterations than in a novel or novella. Despite the general jagged ride, I love short stories more than any other form of writing. So any good collection of short stories is always welcome with me and I happily accepted a gift of Andrea Barrett’s “Ship Fever” given to me by a well meaning friend. That he meant well for my reading pursuits was amply evident after I read the book

Barrett is a gifted story teller. She is not a science fiction writer but her stories are full of characters who are scientists, discoverers, men of medicine, accidental associates and many others who are on the fringes of the world of science. The backdrop of all her stories is steeped in science or some aspect of history of science and medicine. Against this backdrop, she cleverly weaves her stories of human struggles, misfortunes, triumphs and defeats with imaginatively mingled threads of fact and fiction. The weaving is done so cleverly that the reader tends to pleasantly confuse between the real and the unreal.  In general, women in her stories are accorded a special place. They come across as brave, vulnerable but tenacious and trying to elbow their way into what had traditionally been treated as an exclusive zone for men. There is a deeply observed sense of history in all her stories and it is this that provides the richness and authenticity that is captivating. The story “The Behaviour of Hawkweeds” is the inward migration, settling, growing up and acclimatizing to the life in USA of a east european emigrant family. What makes the story absorbing is the intertwining of the life of the narrator’s grandfather with that of the life of Gregor Mendel who discovered the world of plant genetics. The story “The English Pupil” is told as glimpses into recollections of a stroke ridden memory of Carolus Linnaeus (the father of botanical nomenclature). Immobilised by a severe paralytic stroke, but desirous of being in open air, Linneaus requests his driver to take him to his manor house where lying by a comfortable fireside, he reminisces the various quests and travails of his students sent forth by him for botanical explorations. Linnaeus’s thoughts are feeble, fleeting and failing yet paint a rich picture of the age and times when Linneaus was at the top of his profession. Linneaus is so deteriorated that he is not even in shape to recognise his own daughter who has come to take him back home. In the story “Rare Bird” an english woman suffocated by the conservative customs and mores of her rich English family makes her escape out of England to be free to live a life on her own and possibly pursue her interests in science. While doing so she also challenges Linneaus who it is told held a belief that swallows as against migrate hibernate in lakes during the freezing winters of north as against the emerging proof of migration. What dawns on the reader towards the end of the story is that the woman herself is a rare bird given her circumstances and not the swallows. Subtle and well told tale. “Birds With No Feet” is a tale of a disappointed, unlucky but doughty explorer who collects rare biological specimens driven by a desperate need for financial security. What lends gravity to the story is the glimpse into the hardship of such specimen gatherers during the early part of the twentieth century when large part of the world existed as colonies. “The Marburg Sisters” is the story of growing up of two sisters and progressing on two different life trajectories in the 60’s America which was full of liberal ideas and drugs. “Littoral Zone” is a passionate lover story of two married marine biology academicians narrated as a recall during their sunset years. However, the finest of all stories is “Ship Fever” dealing with the appalling developments during Irish famine resulting in a mass emigration to Canada and the tribulations of kind hearted Canadians and the unlucky Irish to find a meaningful response to the entire predicament. Told with a great sense of passion, control and authentic background, the story will remain as one of the finest I have read so far

Barrett brings out the romances, risks and adventures that existed at the turn of the previous two centuries in the world of science. She tells all her stories with a sense of gentle poignancy and pathos that is truly endearing and the enhanced authenticity to her writing comes from the historical detail she uses as a backdrop. It is this clever approach that appears to elevate the otherwise good stories to truly great and memorable ones

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a Comment »