Archive for May, 2012

May 26, 2012

Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam, Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand, Bhimayana

As is probably obvious from last week’s column (reproduced below) I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I love that the book resists attempts to simplify it entirely, and that it forces its reader to negotiate and struggle to learn its visual language. This is one of the reasons I disapprove of Anand’s explanatory afterword; I object simultaneously to the idea that it needs explaining and the idea that we should be allowed the option of not struggling with it a little. This is a comparatively minor quibble, though, and it really is worth reading.

 

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Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability begins in “the recent past”. A young man waiting at a bus stop complains about his unsatisfactory job and blames his lack of advancement on the system of reservations that ensures job quotas for people from the backward and scheduled castes. As a young woman waiting at the bus stop responds and engages in the debate, this man trots out a series of arguments that will be familiar to those of us who have had this debate before. That caste has been abolished; that his own merit has been unfairly overlooked; that in arguing with him the woman is talking “like one of them”. It’s almost a parody of the ignorant and privileged, and it works only because we have all met people like this. It is at this point that the unnamed woman sets out to educate him about the continuing violence perpetuated against Dalits, and she does this with reference to B.R. Ambedkar.

This framing narrative provides us with a context in which to read the main body of the text. First, it is explicitly, openly didactic. This is not a criticism of the text; simply a statement of its form. Secondly, Ambedkar’s story here is told specifically in terms of how it is relevant to present day caste discrimination.

With art by Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, Bhimayana is physically gorgeous. The artists here have chosen to eschew the traditional panel style of the graphic novel (in S. Anand’s afterword they describe this as “forc[ing] characters into boxes”), and the pages are open and free-flowing, divided in places by traditional dignas. Durgabai and Subhash Vyam are working from the Pardhan Gond tradition, and each page is filled with details that act as clever signifiers.

There are the animals, for one thing. Nature is all over this book – fortresses are fierce beasts; trains are snakes; the road is a peacock’s long neck. The handle of a water pump turns into an elephant’s trunk. The first section of the book, which deals with the right to water, is full of water-based imagery – when the young Ambedkar is thirsty his torso turns into a fish, and when he urges a crowd to stand up for their rights the speakers morph into showers sprinkling water into the audience. A section on shelter has the recurring imagery of the banyan tree and its many twisted roots. Even the speech bubbles have significance – harsh or prejudiced words are given a tail like a scorpion’s to evoke their sting. Gentle words are encased in bubbles shaped like birds, and unspoken thoughts are given an icon to denote the mind’s eye. Trying to work out what each of these symbols mean is part of the joy of the book. With this in mind it’s rather a pity that the afterword should explain everything –this assumption that we need a translation makes me feel rather as if a layer of separation has been placed between the reader and the book.

The text itself, by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, is workmanlike, serving mostly as a background for the art. Bhimayana doesn’t attempt a comprehensive biography of Ambedkar; what we get instead is a selection of important scenes from his life. At no point does Bhimayana attempt (or claim) objectivity. We are allowed to see the justifiable bitterness against the Hindu religion – at one point the text even makes a flippant comment about the priests’ attempt to “purify” water touched by Dalits by using cow urine. The scorpion speech bubbles are occasionally applied to comments that are well-meaning, if ignorant and harmful.

Yet none of this is evidence of any kind of simplistic reading of caste. It’s clear throughout that caste oppression is a complex, many-tentacled beast – Bhimrao faces discrimination from Muslims, Parsis and Christians as well as Hindus. If it’s possible to draw from this book a child’s narrative of good versus evil, this is because the simplest narratives are the most politically expedient. Bhimayana is always conscious of that, and of the sort of book it aspires to be.

 

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May 25, 2012

Stanley Kenani, “Love on Trial”

When I started to read “Love on Trial“(that link’s a pdf), my first thought was that it read like one of Teju Cole’s “Small Fates”. For those unfamiliar with these, Cole has been taking snippets of news, first from the papers in Lagos, more recently from old New York papers, and turning them into elegant, tweet sized reports. Cole talks a little about these here. Some examples below:

Children these days. Frank Oriabure, son of the deputy superintendent of police in Onitsha, would rather be a robber. (from the link above)

Tourists Neyes and Kistinn, at the Broadway Central and the Capitol Hotel, by revolver and defenestration, respectively, committed suicide.

Mysteries of the female sex: merely because women are not allowed to vote, Miss Belle Squire, of Chicago, has refused to pay her taxes.

The reportage in Kenani’s story is has a similarly heightened, ornate feel to it; Mr Kachingwe’s stomach “was terribly upset beyond what he could bear”; with the popularity of his story, being his friend “has become a lucrative undertaking”. These early sections are hilariously exaggerated – people actually travel to the village to hear this man’s story. There’s the recurring and endlessly deferred question of how the two men had sex, which seems of more interest to the public than the supposedly immoral nature of the act. And there’s certainly a bit of mocking the media.

Reach Out and Touch is a programme on MBC television which reaches out to, and touches the hearts of millions of viewers. Ordinarily the programme is designed to bring rare human-interest stories to the nation’s attention, so that those who are touched to the heart might also be touched to the pocket to help the victim.*

Most of the central portion of the story is taken up with Charles Chikwanje (the young gay man) and his televised debate with the host of Reach Out and Touch. This is the driest bit of the story – everything about this debate has the feel of going through the motions. Bible quote, check; the Greeks, check; we’re just like you, check. Other people have read this as earnest issue-based fiction but I find myself unable to do so; I don’t see it as trying to convince or argue for its side in any way, but instead taking for granted that we’re all on Charles’ side here. And yet how convenient for the story that the first young man to be publicly exposed as gay should also be so eloquent, so well-educated, and so able to defend himself. These social markers are at work within the text, and do more than his actual arguments to get people on his side. “By the time he walks out, Charles has reclaimed much of his lost respect. Many people are talking about how eloquent he is”. As important as it may be to the world as a whole and to Malawi, in many ways the homosexuality angle is pretext rather than subject here.

 

Because we’re reading this set of stories specifically in the context of the Caine Prize, there’s a level of meta commentary involved. What do these stories say about Africa and African writing (and the idea of such a thing as African writing), yes, but also what do they say about the sort of stories that are chosen as representativeof Africa and African writing? Those who read the list of links at the end of my “Bombay’s Republic” post will remember that some people read it as partly being about this subject. I find myself wondering if “Love on Trial” does not contain an element of this as well.

At the beginning of the story Maxwell Kabaifa tells Mr Kachingwe that to continue spreading this story will ruin a young man’s life. Mr Kachingwe continues anyway, because “among the qualities of a good citizen of any state on earth, telling the truth was of great importance. He was reporting the truth as he saw it. The consequences of the truth were none of his business”. The consequences of the truth turn out to be very much his business; the arrest of Charles Chikwanje leads to international outrage, leading to a cutting off of aid to Malawi. Mr Kachingwe, who has recently tested positive for the HIV virus, finds that his ARV drugs are now cut off, and at the end of the story he has been coughing up blood for a while and seems close to death. This could be a mere aside, a horrible throwaway authorial punishment upon the character who, in a way, started this whole mess. But we’re not allowed to see it that way. Maxwell Kabaifa (who seems a nice, sympathetic man until we learn that he’s only trying to convert Mr Kachingwe to his own particular brand of Christianity before he dies) hammers the point in further with a fable that I’m not going to relate here. In beginning and ending the story with Mr Kachingwe, and by the use of this story, Kenani shifts the focus from what happens to Charles to what happens to Mr Kachingwe; it makes him the point of it.

By now everyone who is commenting on these stories has read Bernardine Evaristo’s call for stories that “move on” from the “familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa”. JP had a post responding to this in which he talks about the dilemma that he faces as an Indian writer when the truth of his experiences corresponds to stereotypes of the country. He asks: “if I am to reflect my own experience accurately, how do I ‘move on’ from the reality that the odours of slums and the aromas of incense both actually happen to be things I have extensive experience of?” I think Kenani’s story addresses this dilemma in part, though I don’t think it provides any clear solutions. I don’t think one can draw the simplistic conclusion that one should only write a particular sort of account of Malawi/Africa, or that certain truths need to be hidden. Charles Chikwanje goes to prison but he goes defiantly, he protects the man he loves (we never hear his name), and professes relief that it’s all out in the open. But there is at least an understanding that narratives of Africa have real world consequences.

 

*Insert Aamir Khan joke here for Indian audiences.

 

Other people’s thoughts on “Love on Trial”:

Method to the Madness
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Cashed-In
aaahfooey
Black Balloon
City of Lions
Ikhide
Loomnie

May 21, 2012

The hats of Immortals

People who were following me on twitter on the day I first watched Tarsem Singh’s Immortals will know that I fell in love with the film, for values of love that involve huge amounts of laughter, utter bewilderment and genuine aesthetic appreciation. I watched it for the second time today, and those feelings have intensified. It’s a beautiful film, and also a ridiculous one. And it contains much in the way of headgear.

I mention this because Mickey Rourke’s helmet (he plays Hyperion, the villain of the piece) is one of the things most people notice about the film. It is a remarkable item.

Hyperion has just killed someone. He does not intimidate.

 

But the film is aware of this. Early on, as Henry Cavill’s Theseus teases his mother Aethra (Anne Day-Jones) about her religious beliefs, pointing out that their priest wears a silly hat. He does. It has multiple little lights on it.

Like a miner's hat, but before batteries.

Silly hat representation is skewed towards the men, but Freida Pinto and her sibylline sisters get personalised red chandelier headdresses at one point.

No two are alike!

I’m not even touching the Minotaur helmet that plays quite a big role.

The Gods get the best hats, though. Here is a representative sample. Note that Athena’s is the least interesting.

             

 

 

Then again, this means we can have scenes like this. Which would make everything worth it, even if the hats were not an end in themselves.

Zeus versus -we think- Ares

 

[This next bit is possibly a spoiler. Be warned.]

At the end of the film, we’re treated to a series of artistic representations of the events of the film, the idea being that some version of them will pass into myth (hence the guy-with-bull-helmet turning into the Minotaur, see?). So what aspects of Hyperion does Singh predict will pass into legend?

He's probably right, too.

Yes, the bunny ears.

May 20, 2012

Hergé, Flight 714

Last week I discovered that Erich Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? and Hergé’s Flight 714 had been published in the same year. Naturally this led to great silliness.

 

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At some point in school, when we were about twelve or thirteen, some of my classmates discovered Chariots of the Gods?, a book by Erich Von Däniken. I suspect the discovery of this book, or of others like it is a teenage ritual of sorts. I suppose one could pontificate about the teenager’s attraction to finding his or her place in the world, to questioning ideas that were previously taken for granted, and how this book might seem attractive to someone in this position.

Von Däniken’s book points out strange phenomena found in ancient cultures across the world and suggests that they might be explained by the ancients having access to advanced technology. This is not a particularly new idea – even now one encounters people who cite the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as evidence that ancient Indians had flying machines and nuclear weaponry and that therefore Our Culture is Better. But Von Däniken’s theory was that the gods and other supernatural figures of myth and legend were in fact alien visitors to the Earth.

Chariots of the Gods? was published in 1968. Another book published in 1968 had probably been read by most of the classmates who were so taken with Von Däniken. If so, their enthusiasm is rather surprising since this other book would already have introduced them to some of the same ideas. The book I’m referring to is Flight 714, one of Hergé’s Tintin adventures.

A strange book need not necessarily be an obscure one. The Tintin books certainly weren’t short of sheer weirdness – consider the dreamlike scenes at the beginning of The Shooting Star, in which the end of the world seems inevitable. Yet Flight 714 is one of the less popular books in the series, and I’ve occasionally had to argue with people who had forgotten its very existence.

Tintin, Haddock and Calculus are on their way to an astronautical convention in Australia, when they fall in with the unscrupulous billionaire Carreidas. Finding that Calculus is the first man in years to make him laugh, Carreidas invites the travellers to fly to the conference with him in his personal plane. Unfortunately, a plot is already afoot to hijack this plane. The travellers are taken to a mysterious island in the Lesser Sundas where the evil Rastapopulous attempts to extract information from Carreidas regarding his considerably large bank accounts.

Thus far, this all sounds like a typical Tintin adventure. Until the travellers escape through a cave, down which the native Sondonesians refuse to follow, claiming (in broken English, obviously) that it is not allowed, and that “gods” who “come from sky in fire lorries” will punish them. Meanwhile, Tintin appears to be receiving instructions telepathically from some force. It turns out that the island is a centre of human-alien interaction; its temples built to resemble the space suits and ships of visitors who arrived thousands of years ago.

An earthquake, some explosions and a volcanic eruption later, the island no longer exists. Our heroes are hypnotised into forgetting the whole story, and apart from a few puzzling memories and a piece of metal never seen before, the whole thing might never have happened.

Which brings me to the title of the book. Flight 714 is the plane that our protagonists would have caught had they not become mixed up in Carreidas’ adventure – and the flight they are seen boarding in the last panel. Yet this flight is mentioned only twice or thrice in the book; it is never seen by the reader. So why this title? Perhaps we’re meant to think about what would have happened if Tintin and his companions had taken the original flight. Perhaps, like the characters themselves, we’re meant to forget that the entire story ever happened; this would certainly explain the confusion exhibited by some Hergé fans when the book is mentioned to them. I suspect that aliens are involved in some capacity.

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May 19, 2012

Billy Kahora, “Urban Zoning”

“And I would put it to you that it is actually a lot easier for non-Africans to talk about “African” writing — both insightfully and not — than it is for non-Kenyans to talk about Kenyan writing.”

The quote above is from Aaron Bady’s post on “Urban Zoning” at The New Inquiry. I find myself more insecure about my lack of context for Kahora’s story than I was for “Bombay’s Republic” last week.And so I’ve waited for other people to write about the story, simply so I’d have something more to bounce off. Stephen Derwent Partington’s post, for example, was really useful; he provides some more background for Kahora’s position within Kenyan literature as a whole. Whereas Bady’s piece (linked above) teases out the implications of “African” writing and “Kenyan” writing, the general and the specific. This is in many ways the question at the heart of the Caine Prize itself, and central to Bernardine Evaristo’s essay here - what does African writing mean, what narratives of Africa are we seeing, what narratives of particular countries, particular districts within those countries, particular social classes; and I’m not sure where I stand on any of it. Which is maddening.

 

And so to “Urban Zoning” (a pdf can be found here) which, without much context I genuinely liked. Kahora’s protagonist Kandle is a young man, currently in what he calls the “Good Zone” (achieved by 72 hours’ drinking and keeping the level of alcohol inside one stable). But there’s also the Bad Zone, a place of self-loathing. The Zone has inflicted damage upon Kandle and his friends – we hear of a cousin who died in a car accident as a result, a friend who cut himself badly and whose wounds became infected, a girl who is sexually assaulted while in the Zone and goes into depression. Kandle’s comment on this is that the Zone “was clearly not for those who lacked restraint” and that all these are “examples of letting the Bad Zone overwhelm you”. So what is this restraint in the context of the story, and what is the level of Kandle’s control over how he experiences the Zone?

From the first, this seems a tenuous thing. Kahora’s prose heightens this sensation – it’s a little slurred, all-over-the-place, as drunk as his protagonist. An early attempt to fend off the Bad Zone by focusing on pleasant memories of school is a failure, as Kandle finds himself thinking of darker things that happened in school soon after. And yet.

Kandle’s dislike of touch is connected within the story to an incident of sexual abuse. Yet that refusal to touch also connects with a larger sense of detachment from everyone around him – even inadvertently catching a whiff of someone else’s sweat affects him to a disproportionate degree.

The “Zoning” in the title is presumably a reference to the good and bad zones in Kandle’s head. But there’s another sort of zoning as well. Early on, Kandle thinks about how he has made a mark in the city, and made himself known.

In many of the younger watering holes in Nairobi’s CBD, he was now an icon.  Respected in Buruburu, in Westlands, in Kile, in Loresho and Ridgeways, one of the last men standing in alcohol-related accidents and suicides. He had different names in different postal codes. In Zanze he was the Small-Package Millionaire. His crew was credited with bringing back life to the City Centre. In Buru he was simply Kan. In the Hurlingham area he was known as The Candle.

As it turns out, Kandle is really good at shifting between registers, being different people in different places. At one point, even as he stares at his own reflection and feels the self-loathing that comes with the bad zone, the face changes to that of his father, and his dislike is displaced along with it. His natural instinct to cringe away from touch becomes the means to charm a woman in the street when he moves out of her way.

Kandle’s control of his multiple, changing identities becomes clearest of all in the final pages, in which he’s charming annoyed secretaries, playing on the emotions of bank officials, and you have to wonder how far his control over all of this, his restraint has to do with his basic dislike of touch.

“You could never really play well if you hated getting close. Same with life and the street, in the city—you needed to be natural with those close to you,” Kandle thinks, but perhaps he’s wrong. Of all the characters we see in the story, he seems the best adapted to the life of his city.

 

Other people who wrote about this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
Ikhide
Loomnie
ndinda
City of Lions
zunguzungu

May 14, 2012

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

It’s a good thing the Left of Cool columns aren’t technically reviews, because while I liked The Song of Achilles very much, I think I sound more overwhelmingly positive than I truly was. As I say in this weekend’s column, there are things that feel rather anachronistic – I wonder how much of that is due to the treatment of certain issues than the issues themselves, and also how much of that treatment is imposed upon the text by its being a novel.

The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, and at the end we discover that he has an audience in Achilles’ mother Thetis. I found it interesting to discover at this point that Patroclus has an agenda – he’s specifically trying to make the record of Achilles’ life not about the number of people he kills. And then there’s Homer with the wrath/rage/anger (depending on what translation you favour) and that’s the iconic opening line.

 

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Homer set his epic at the beginning of the end. The Greeks and Trojans have already been warring for close on a decade at the beginning of The Iliad, yet the outcome of the war remains undecided. The stalemate can only end when Achilles rejoins the war and kills Hector. “Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles”, begins my translation of the text. Achilles’ anger is at the centre of the epic, and it is strongest when he loses the man he loves most, Patroclus.

Reading Homer for the first time it’s rather disorienting to see how this love is taken for granted. Of course Patroclus is concerned for his friend’s honour; of course Achilles’ grief at his death should spur this destructive passion. The moment in which Achilles discovers his friend’s death is one of the most powerful in the epic and it transforms this rather unsympathetic man into someone who matters to us. It’s probably a bit ridiculous in the face of all this to debate how far the love between these two men (if indeed they existed) was romantic; interpersonal relationships have changed out of all recognition over the centuries. But if there’s a love story at the heart of the epic, surely this, rather than the Helen-Paris liason, is it.

Madeline Miller’s Orange prize shortlisted The Song of Achilles retells the love story between the two men in Patroclus’ voice. An early incident in the book has a prepubescent Patroclus travelling to the court of Laertes to ask for Helen’s hand. It is here that Patroclus meets many of the major players in the war that is to come; Agamemnon, Menelaus, most importantly Odysseus.

But the war seems far away for a great deal of the book as Patroclus is exiled to Pthia, as the two boys are sent to Chiron for training, as they fall in love. For someone unfamiliar with the source texts Miller’s lyrical prose would still be a revelation, but there’s a particular delight in noticing how its cadences and many of its metaphors echo Homer. Achilles’ eyelids are the colour of the dawn sky; Zeus’ thunderbolts “still smell of singed flesh and patricide”.

In keeping with the traces of Homer in the prose, the book is full of people telling stories of other heroes. We who know Achilles and Patroclus’ fates see a number of ominous parallels – Hercules’ guilt over the death of his wife (is it worse to be the one who dies or the one who must live on?); Meleager’s wife Cleopatra who convinced him to put aside his pride and fight for his people (“Cleopatra, Patroclus. Her name built from the same pieces as mine, only reversed”). “Name one hero who was happy”, demands Achilles early on, and the burden of his greatness hangs over the relationship thoughout. This is as much Greek tragedy as it is Greek epic – with immortality comes early death, but Achilles could never have chosen otherwise. Related to this is his contentious relationship with his divine mother Thetis, whose ambitions for her son are countered by her bitterness at the shortness of human life.

The greatest tragedy of all is war itself. The Song of Achilles drives home just how young some of these soldiers must have been – Achilles is sixteen or seventeen when he fathers his son and barely eighteen with thebeginning of the war. Patroclus speaks of Chiron’s students, “boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder”. Perhaps there’s a little too much applying of modern ideas here – Homer describes the horrors of war in moving, awful detail, but there’s an underlying sense that war is an inescapable way of life that is absent in Miller’s work. Some of Patroclus’ ideas on the rights of women, though distinctly welcome, also feel rather anachronistic.

But at its best The Song of Achilles manages to combine the immersive, character-centric structure of the novel with the music of the epic. It left me elevated and grieving.

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May 13, 2012

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Certain People have suggested that my susceptibility to this book has something to do with a general fondness for metaphorical hedgehogs more than any inherent merit.

I wrote this a while ago for the Sunday Guardian.

 

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7, Rue de Grenelle is a posh address in Paris, its floors occupied by the wealthy and privileged. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is narrated by two of the inhabitants of this building. Paloma is the brilliant, twelve year old daughter of a politician, and is planning to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. The concierge, Renée Michel, is an autodidact who carefully conceals her intellectual achievements from her tenants. These women’s lives intersect with the arrival of a new tenant, a Japanese man named Mr Ozu.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this book is that it is funny. This is particularly true of the early sections of  that deal largely with class. Renée’s acidic observations about the people in the building are interspersed with tales of her attempts to keep up the façade of the bovine, unintelligent concierge. These are frequently absurd – putting on the T.V. in the front room while watching Japanese films in the back, hiding gourmet food and academic books under turnips in her shopping bags, and cooking hearty, comforting meals to fill the hallway with their smell before feeding them to the cat. The residents of the building bear out Renée’s contempt with their willingness to un-see and un-hear anything that might detract from their impression of the dull Madame Michel.

Renée’s interactions with philosophy are no less entertaining. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been widely praised for this, yet its engagements with different schools of thought are never particularly profound. Instead, it’s a novel that is utterly flippant about philosophy –one that, refreshingly, (the section satirising Transcendental Idealism and Phenomenology is marvellous) assumes a basic understanding in its audience of the subjects satirised by it.

Simultaneously we have the journal entries of twelve-year-old Paloma. We’re invited to see a number of parallels in the two women’s narratives. Both mock the pretensions of the other residents of the building; both profess a fondness for jasmine tea and Japanese art; Paloma mocks upper-class naming conventions for pets and questions the need to have a pet at all, whereas Renée names her cat after Leo Tolstoy.

Barbery’s narrators are not immune to a certain amount of affectionate mocking, but it’s hard to say to what degree this is meant (if that were ever a valid question to ask of a text). Both narrators seem, for instance, to invest the Japanese with a special insight into the human condition. Renée’s conviction of her own uniqueness is undercut early on by the text when she discovers she’s not alone in liking both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. And it seems likely that Paloma’s uncomfortable relationship with her older sister Colombe is as much the product of an ordinary sibling rivalry as it is that of a vast philosophical gulf – particularly when it is punctuated by claims that Colombe plays music too loud and is too picky about cleanliness. What is less clear is how seriously we can take Paloma’s philosophical ventures. There is enough similarity in the intellectual narratives of Madame Michel and Paloma that when Paloma’s thoughts occasionally begin to sound a little too Catcher in the Rye, it becomes hard to see Renée as particularly brilliant either.

The problem carries over to Renée’s relationship with Mr Ozu. This is an almost check-the-boxes romance (it may be a platonic one, but it is a romance nonetheless); they attract each other’s attention over a shared literary reference and wincing at someone else’s bad grammar; they have an awkward moment of toilet humour; he is wealthy enough to buy her pretty clothes and take her to exciting restaurants. It is more literary than Mills and Boon but this plot, and this genre, are unmistakeable. This is in part its undoing. The meeting of minds here is rather undermined by the fact that the quote over which the characters recognise each other is one of the best known in the Western canon. We’re told over and over again that the inhabitants of 7, Rue de Grenelle are well-educated, and that they have a superficial understanding of art, literature and the other markers of culture. Are we really to believe either that none of them could have recognised the line “happy families are all alike”, or that the act of recognising it could be a sign for such complete congruence of tastes? Had any of the other tenants attempted such a romance, Madame Michel would despise it for its triteness.

And yet I do not despise The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renée’s engagement with Anna Karenina will eventually move beyond these superficialities to provide some of the most moving passages in the later parts of the book. For all its flirtation with intellectualism, the book is strongest when at its most unabashedly sentimental; Renée’s last movie outing with her husband (they watched The Hunt for Red October), a troubled young man who finds solace in camellias, Paloma’s final decision regarding her own death. With its coy chapter titles (“The Poodle as Totem”, “The Travails of Dressing Up”, “The Rebellion of the Mongolian Tribes”) the book is almost too self-consciously charming. Yet it is graceful, and warm, and won me over completely.

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May 11, 2012

Rotimi Babatunde, “Bombay’s Republic”

I am blogging about the stories shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, alongside a number of people. There’s a list of links to their thoughts on this story (I’ll be adding to it as more people publish their pieces) at the end of this post. Babatunde’s story is available here, and there’s a discussion at the twitter hashtag #CainePrize.

 

Midway through “Bombay’s Republic” a white soldier explains to Bombay why the Japanese soldiers have been dicing up the bodies of the fallen black soldiers but leaving the white ones intact.

The Japs are convinced black soldiers resurrect,  said an officer, so they dice the corpses to forestall having to kill them twice.

Bombay was incredulous. You mean… they believe it is possible we rise up to continue fighting them after we are killed, he asked.

Yes, the officer replied, chuckling.

Every one of us?

Yes.

Just like Lazarus?

Why?

And like Jesus Christ, your saviour?

A scowl had replaced the smile on the officer’s lips. Yes, he said.

 

I think this exchange is crucial. We’ve already learnt that the Europeans have purposely spread stories about the Africans for their own benefit. “We fuelled those rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper.” In addition, it’s clear that the officer’s amusement is in part meant to wound. Bombay turns the exchange around by comparing himself and his people not to undead monsters, but to the central figure of the white man’s faith – “your saviour”. It’s the first time we see him using stories to his own advantage.

People who read this blog regularly will probably roll their eyes now, but for me, “Bombay’s Republic” is very much a story about stories and how they are told, and the relationship between stories and the world. In the beginning, Bombay (I’ll return to the issue of his name later) appears to take the world pretty much at face value. The narrative itself shares some of this naïveté.  When attempts to get the young men of Bombay’s town to volunteer for the war fail, reports follow claiming that Hitler himself is at the border. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that these reports are false, other than the reader’s own knowledge of how propaganda works.

Bombay is one of those who volunteers to protect the country. The pages that follow find him constantly coming across new ideas and greeting them all with a sort of innocent-abroad-ish, wide-eyed acceptance. “Bombay’s discoveries of the possible would come faster than the leeches in Burma’s crepuscular jungles”, says Babatunde; he learns that white men can be as vulnerable to death, sickness or madness as any others, that other people manipulate truth for their own gains and that he can do the same. There are a couple of very deliberate literary references made – one of them to H. Rider Haggard, whose stories of Africans are compared to the tales of African savagery that have been fed to the Japanese. The other reference is to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Bombay is reminded of “his countryman Okonkwo whose story would become famous some years after the war”. In referring to the subject of a novel that has not been written yet, Bombay (and Babatunde) claim Okonkwo’s story as history and bestow upon it the status of truth.

It is after he returns from the war that we really see Bombay applying his newfound expertise with stories. In the first paragraph we were told that Bombay went to war a man and came back a leopard (“Before Bombay’s departure when everything in the world was locked in its individual box,  he could not have believed such metamorphosis was possible”) and now learn that the leopard-like rosette-shaped marks on his chest come from leeches. In his accounts of his journeys, he claims to have been stalked by an obsessed jinni. He has wrestled crocodiles with eyes of diamonds and gold in the Irrawaddy. He has been to the Black Hole of Calcutta and found it a bottomless pit, and gives the city of Bombay a new etymology – its streets are littered with bombs.

We’re not told what about the city made Bombay adopt it as his new name. But I think it’s significant that at no point in the story are we told what Bombay’s name was before he claimed this one. Babatunde gives us no other name with which to associate this character and so forces us to accept Bombay’s adopted name as his “real” one, giving this story that he tells about himself the status of truth as well.  To name things is also to un-name them in some ways; if Bombay is to be properly, undisputedly “Bombay”, he can no longer be “*whatever he was called before*”. It’s tempting, as an Indian reader, to digress here and talk about the real city of Bombay, and the reasons behind its renaming to Mumbai. That is as much story about narratives and history and nationalism and authenticity as the one we’re discussing, and I wonder if Babatunde was thinking of this.

Equally, when the District Officer is called “Charles” instead of “The District Officer”, as Bombay stubbornly insists on doing towards the end of the story, he becomes not Important White Officer, but just another person with a first name.

There are other noteworthy things about this story. I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bombay’s complete innocence at the beginning of the story (surely people in Nigeria also knew how to manipulate the truth?) but I love the detached wonder with which he accepts each new revelation. There’s no outrage at his own misrepresentation (a valid response to one’s own misrepresentation, of course, but not the only one); there’s a sense that understanding that this can happen has given him tools.

The “Bombay’s Republic” of the title is an abandoned prison into which Bombay moves, and which he declares an independent republic, population: himself. It’s easy to read this section as either a reference to Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic (“Kalakuta” being derived from “Calcutta”). It’s probably also easy to read it as an allegory for statehood in general – where at first Bombay seems to be a conscious manipulator of his own stories, more and more one gets the sense that he’s succumbing to them as well. He gives himself a series of over-the-top titles, all of which sound like parodies of a certain sort of dictator: “Lord of All Flora and Fauna. Scourge of the British Empire. Celestial Guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars. Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem. Patriarch of the United States of Africa.  Chief Commander of the Order of the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean. Father of the Internet” (though- note that last one). But it’s hard to be sure – until his death Bombay makes a living out of being an independent state, so who knows?

 

What other people had to say about “Bombay’s Republic”:

Accrabooksandthings
Method to the Madness
The Oncoming Hope
Bookshy
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Zunguzung
aaahfooey
The Mumpsimus
Ikhide
Loomnie
To Make Poesis
The Reading Life
Inkdrops
Cashed In
ndinda
City of Lions
Black Balloon

May 8, 2012

Miranda July, It Chooses You

This was not included in the list of books I read in April because I didn’t finish it. I thought I’d talk about why, because this has genuinely baffled me.

In It Chooses You Miranda July reads a local classifieds booklet full of advertisements from people who want to sell things, contacts the sellers, and interviews them about their lives and the things they are trying to sell. My feelings on July tend to fluctuate – on the one hand she can be teeth-grindingly whimsical; on the other, she knows and acknowledges this and has moments of being quite wonderful. It’s possible that said moments of wonderfulness show up later in It Chooses You. However.

The first of July’s interviewees is the seller of a black leather jacket (valued at $10). July calls this seller first:

The person who answered was a man with a hushed voice. He wasn’t surprised by my call – of course he wasn’t, he had placed the ad.

“It’s still for sale. You can make an offer when you see it,” he said.

“Okay, great.”

There was a pause. I sized up the giant space between the conversation we were having and the place I hoped to go. I leaped.

“Actually, I was wondering if, when I come over to look at the jacket, I could also interview you about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears…”

My question was overtaken by the kind of silence that rings out like an alarm. I quickly added: “Of course, I would pay you for your time. Fifty dollars. It’ll take less than an hour.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, great. What’s your name?”

“Michael.”

And:

The door opened and there was Michael, a man in his late sixties, burly, broad-shouldered, a bulbous nose, a magenta blouse, boobs, pink lipstick. Before he opened the door completely he quietly stated that he was going through a gender transformation.

But then we get this:

Miranda: What was your life like before you came out?

Michael: I was trying to be the same as every other man, and hiding the fact that inside I felt like a woman. I knew that when I was a child, but I had this strong fear of coming out for a long time.

At this point I was really confused by the pronoun choices that the text was applying, and wondering if I or July (and McSweeneys, who had originally published the book, and Canongate, who had published my edition) had got something wrong. Perhaps Michael was  using a male name and male pronouns for reasons I didn’t understand. I’m a cisgendered woman; there are things I will oversimplify or get outright wrong even if I genuinely try.

Then a few chapters later there was this:

The PennySaver didn’t have quite the allure it once did, but I sat down with the latest issue and a pen to circle new listings. Andrew’s ad was still in there; the tadpoles had probably transitioned this week. It seemed Michael had sold the leather jacket; he was ten dollars closer to womanhood.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this. The few people I discussed it with found it as bizarre and offensive as I did; but if it was the result of ignorance (rather than a deliberate choice of words for some reasons I cannot fathom), it passed multiple levels of writer-editor-publisher to make it into print. The copyright page says that “The interviews and sequences within have been edited for length, coherence, and clarity” but that tells me very little.

If this is the colossal pronoun fuck up it appears to be, I’m aware my shock is partly the result of naivete. People who have been paying attention to this for far longer than I seem to have learnt to expect this sort of thing. But as long as it appears July and her publishers have got this wrong, I don’t think I will be reading this book.

 

The Michael chapter is here. The Beverley chapter (from which that last quote is taken) doesn’t appear to be online that I can find.

May 6, 2012

April Reading

Here is what I read in April.

 

Tove Jansson, Tales from Moomin Valley, Moominpappa at Sea, Comet in Moominland: I continue to reread the Moomin books, they continue to be warming, complex, human things.

Sophie Kinsella, I’ve Got Your Number: I had to read one of the Shopaholic books a few years ago for a class, but had never read anything else by Kinsella. This was charming and fluffy and exactly what I needed on the day I read it. A bit too content with some of the cliches of the romance novel, but then it is a romance novel, so.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: The Green Pearl and Madouc: I reread the first Lyonesse book, Suldrun’s Garden, in March. I also randomly yelled at people on the internet and called them philistines for describing Vance’s work as less than perfect. Someone has to keep reminding people how great these books are, and I’m willing for it to be me.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce,  Dimsie Moves Up Again and Dimsie Intervenes: I read a Dimsie book last month and thought it was rather more self-aware and funny than I remembered. That must have been something of a one-off, because I saw no signs of that here. Despite this, these are some of the better traditional school stories. Someday I really must read the full set.

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again: I wrote about this for a column. I have little to add to what I said there- Lai’s book is just really, really good.

Lavie Tidhar and Paul McCaffrey, Going to the Moon: Lavie Tidhar writes a children’s book and it is adorable. Jimmy has tourette’s syndrome and coprolalia and someday he hopes to travel to the moon. Most of this is gorgeous – I love the way in which the unacceptable words Jimmy occasionally uses are highlighted in the text; this simultaneously makes them stand out and makes them not a part of the narrative, not real words (because words aren’t just sounds – they’re meanings that are meant and here we segue into a discussion of Embassytown?). Plus I rather like the paradox of the children’s book that most children would never be given to read because of all the swearing. My one concern is the equation of coprolalia with Tourette’s; from the little I know about it quite a small number of those with Tourette’s also have coprolalia, yet it tends to be the aspect of the syndrome that gets discussed and written about the most. For obvious reasons I suppose. Which isn’t to suggest that coprolalia should never be depicted, just a concern about imbalance.

Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island: For a piece on shipwreck fiction. Though Verne’s characters are really balloon-wrecked. I loved this; the Nemo backstory, the improbable competence of everyone (let’s build a foundry! let’s make blasting powder! let us train this ourangutan to be our servant and dress him in a comical white suit!); that this is one of Verne’s more realistic stories says a lot.

Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson: Pineapples.

Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up: Another one for the column. I wrote about this here.

Jo Beverley, A Scandalous Countess: My first Jo Beverley book. I’ll be reading more; my love for interlocking series of regencies has ensured this. It wasn’t Loretta Chase-ishly brilliant, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising: Next time I attempt to read the whole of the Clarke award shortlist I will try not to schedule a trip to another city for the same week. Tepper’s book took me longer to get through than all of the other three (I’d already read Mieville’s and Rogers’  books) combined. I tried to make sense of it here. I failed.

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three: When I’d finished Hull Zero Three I described it on twitter as “competent”. Maureen asked if I was “praising with faint damn”, and in a way she was right. Competent may not sound like high praise, and there’s nothing particularly innovative or special about Hull Zero Three. But there’s a pleasure in seeing a thing done well, and I think this book is. It’s not overlong, it manages (particularly in its early stages) to conjure up a claustrophobic feeling that is exactly right for the story. I don’t think it could ever have won the Clarke, but I enjoyed it far more than some of the other books on the shortlist.

Charles Stross, Rule 34: This, on the other hand, was a more serious contender for the Clarke award. I could imagine it winning the award, but I also absolutely hated it. I hope to get into why in a future post, about it’s been a while since I’ve had this kind of bone-deep dislike for a book. Clearly a book with many positive attributes, as other reviewers have pointed out. But I don’t think I’ll be reading Stross again unless I commit to reading other shortlists.

Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles: I wrote about this for this weekend’s column, so will link to it when I can post it on the blog. But I thought very well of Miller’s retelling of the Patroclus-Achilles relationship. I worry that the novel isn’t quite the right form for something like this and there are sections that simply don’t work, but on the whole this is lovely. I was a little underwhelmed by this year’s Orange Prize shortlist, so it’s nice to have something to champion.