Archive for June, 2012

June 28, 2012

A Complaint about books (e- and otherwise), #thirdworldproblems, and Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death

I had never heard of Nicholas Blake until a my friend K demanded my help in combing the crime section of a secondhand bookshop in Dublin. I became a fan very quickly and began to look for them for myself – honour demanded that I also help K complete her own collection, so until very recently I only owned four of the books myself.

Vintage recently reprinted the first four books in the series (annoyingly one of them, A Question of Proof, is one of the four I already owned) and I have added these to my collection. They’re nice editions, though for some reason the back cover of my copy of Thou Shell of Death has Georgia Cavendish (an important character in the series) as “Georgina” multiple times.

I was hoping that Vintage would also be republishing the rest of the series. Apparently, though, they’re only making them available as ebooks or via print-on-demand. This is disappointing because I’d prefer to own the paper books but cannot justify to myself the added expense of shipping – the POD means that I can’t order them from local Indian booksellers. Ebooks it is, then, and the choice seems to be between the format of my choice (epub/pdf/mobi) on the publishers’ website, or the Kindle. This isn’t even a choice – Amazon have ensured that I don’t feel secure in my ownership of things I buy from the Kindle store. Epub it is, then – at which point the website informs me that ebooks can only be purchased by UK users.

Then again, if I was in the UK I’d be buying the paper versions anyway.

#thirdworldproblems

 

My column last weekend was on the Blake/Day-Lewis books. The original version below; let no one say I cannot fangirl.

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A lifetime of Agatha Christie has made me the most tedious sort of reader of murder mysteries. I want country house parties well stocked with the rich and aristocratic. The detectives in these stories are rarely affiliated with the police; they have friends in high places and perhaps a title or two. Perhaps the only thing that might excuse my endorsement of these (usually hideously classist) stories is that most of them involve at least a few members of the upper classes being found lying in pools of their own blood.

Some of the best detectives of this stripe have been written by people with considerable literary success in other fields. Dorothy Sayers, the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey books, for example, translated Dante’s Divine Comedy and wrote at length on Christianity. Less well known are the detective novels of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis.

This being the twenty-first century, Culture is dead and most readers of this column will be more familiar with the works the writer’s son Daniel. However, Cecil Day-Lewis was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968-1972. Under the name Nicholas Blake, Day-Lewis began to write mystery novels in the 1930s. Most of these featured Nigel Strangeways, a young man who takes to solving crimes as the logical career for a person with a classics degree.

If the Nicholas Blake books are relatively obscure this is probably because most of them have been out of print for years. People who know about film (I don’t) might perhaps know that the French director Claude Chabrol’s Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die) is based on The Beast Must Die, the fifth Strangeways novel. I had never heard of the books until a few years ago when a friend demanded my help in combing secondhand bookshops for them. I read one; I was hooked. People discovering Blake now will have things far easier. Vintage are now reissuing the books, and four (A Question of Proof, Thou Shell of Death, There’s Trouble Brewing and The Beast Must Die) are already out.

My favourite thing about the Blake books is how connected they are to the literary world to which Day-Lewis belonged. Strangeways in the first book is said to have been based on the author’s friend and contemporary, the poet W.H. Auden. A major character in Head of a Traveller is a frustrated poet, and all the action of End of Chapter is set in a publishing house. Many of the titles are literary references. The book that I most recently finished (title concealed to avoid giving away a vital clue) has its solution rest upon the detective’s (and perhaps the reader’s) knowledge of a particular play.

The other thing that makes these books so wonderful to me are the characters, particularly the women. Thou Shell of Death introduces us to Georgia Cavendish, who later becomes Nigel’s wife. Georgia is an explorer and an adventurer, she’s not conventionally attractive, and is (the book doesn’t make this clear, but it seems likely) a few years older than him. She comes into his life already her own person – she’s made a name for herself in her own field and she has a romantic past. Nor does she cease to be wonderful in subsequent books, and in The Smiler With The Knife she is the real protagonist, putting herself into danger while her husband can only look on. It seems patronising to talk about how amazing all this is for a series of novels written in the 1930s – especially since quite a high proportion of today’s fiction still has trouble creating well-rounded, interesting female characters.

Thou Shell of Death, which I reread today, has moments that date it – the cringeworthy attempt at portraying colloquial Irish accents (Day-Lewis was Anglo-Irish, which makes it worse) is probably the most glaring of these. But it’s easy to forgive Blake for this lapse when the sheer quality of his writing shines through almost every other page. This is some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

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June 15, 2012

Daisy Rockwell, The Little Book of Terror

My review of Rockwell’s book appeared in the Sunday Guardian last weekend. Here’s the original version of that piece, complete with some art stolen (with permission!) from Rockwell’s Flickr page.

Colleen LaRose

Self-radicalized Woman with Small Stuffed Bear

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As an artist, and one of a family of artists, Daisy Rockwell understands how crucial images are to the way we understand things. Her grandfather Norman Rockwell was responsible in his day for some truly iconic imagery. In The Little Book of Terror, a collection of essays and art, Rockwell considers the iconography of terrorism in America in the decade or so since 9/11.

Early in the book, Rockwell presents the reader with a series of portraits of her friend (and co-blogger at the website Chapati Mystery) ‘Sepoy’. This series is based on the nine rasas of Sanskrit aesthetic theory –Rockwell holds a PhD in South Asian literature- and the extent to which tone affects a picture is immediately obvious. The bhayanaka (fear) and raudra (anger) paintings are familiar in an uncomfortable way – Sepoy is a brown-skinned man with a beard. But then we flip to hasya (humour) and shaant (peace), and everything changes; the man we see before us here is not the man from the earlier pictures.

Photographs of terrorists in newspapers usually appear after the fact. We get an endless parade of mugshots and passport photographs; no one is smiling. No one looks like a person with human emotions, interests, or family ties. At no point are we asked to confront the idea that people who do smile and who do have lives and interests are also capable of killing people, or of blowing up buildings. And so, conveniently, at no point are we forced to ask why.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa with his cat, Tuna Princess

In her “Rogues Gallery”, a set of portraits at the end of the book, Rockwell explores the idea that these people, suspected or convicted terrorists, are human. She is working from photographs, but in most cases these are not the sort of photographs likely to show up in the newspapers. So we see Umar Farouk Mutallab (the “underpants bomber”) trying on a new hat; Mohamed Mahmood Alessa (arrested while attempting to join a militant group in Somalia) with his cat Tuna Princess. Accompanying all of these are little notes about their subjects – Alessa’s mother would not let him take the cat with him (he took instead a bag of sweets which was later confiscated by the FBI); Aafia Siddiqui has a PhD in neuroscience; Abdulmutallah’s picture was taken on a school trip to London. Next to a portrait of John Walker Lindh we have the deadpan “His Arabic is reportedly quite good”.

As she draws attention to these unfamiliar images of terrorists Rockwell also questions familiar ones. A picture of Osama bin Laden has become iconic over the past decade and it seems significant, given the cultural power that his face still holds, that there was so much secrecy attached to his body after his death. Another chapter examines a picture of Saddam Hussein undergoing dental care in custody. This is a startling piece of propaganda, Rockwell contends. On the one hand, the picture shows a detainee receiving top class medical treatment (the chapter, titled “The Best of All Possible Care”, begins with a smiling picture of the Abu Ghraib torturers Charles Granier and Lynndie England). On the other, a trip to the dentist has more immediate associations with excruciating pain for most Americans than anything the word “torture” can conjure up.

A chapter titled “Little Green Men” seems at first oddly out of place. Yet so much of this book is about facing our alien others. “They all look the same” is the caption of one picture. Rockwell is democratic about who her aliens are: her Indian neighbours in Allahabad at one moment, and dog-walkers in Chicago (viewed by a visiting Indian family) at the next.

The title of this chapter also seems appropriate for the style of Rockwell’s art, in which the realism of the photograph is combined with a riot of improbable colours. This too is a making strange of the familiar and making the familiar strange – some of her men are literallygreen.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar continues to enjoy a pastoral existence somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, despite the drones’ best efforts.

“The state […] is a makeup artist”, declares Amitava Kumar in his introduction, and it’s true that the narratives served by these pictures tend to further the state’s ends. But what are we to do with the story of Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square? Shahzad read out a prepared statement, explaining his reasons. Yet no one seems to have listened, the media more intent on creating its own narratives of how he was “radicalized”. “Radicalization” comes from outside; it is not how we describe people who have arrived at their own motives. The first picture in Rockwell’s book is captioned “Self Radicalized Woman With Small Stuffed Bear”. Rockwell is willing to be a makeup artist too, and a far more colourful one.

“I don’t believe Rockwell is interested in convincing a viewer that even terrorists can be forgiven”, says Kumar. “There is too much irony in her paintings, and often, also glitter”. The book begins with the question “Why Do They Hate Us?”. I think Rockwell’s contention is that anyone who wants to begin to even ask that question honestly (and this is in some ways a deeply moral book) must be willing to see these aliens as fundamentally human.

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June 14, 2012

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

This weekend’s Left of Cool column was on Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

I shrink instinctively from, yet am intrigued by Mason’s research: he claims he is “interested in scientifically [...] understanding thought with computational precision” (from here) and his thesis appears to have to do with computational linguistics and metaphor (the introduction to the video below elaborates a little on this).

The Lost Books of the Odyssey blew me away. Since I read it I’ve been looking for everything by Mason I can find – David Hebblethwaite pointed me to his story (a retelling of the Narcissus and Echo myth) in the inaugural issue of Night and Day and Guernica published “The Machine Edda” some years ago. Apparently Mason is now working on a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Too often books that are this clever (and I wonder how computer scientists feel about the term ‘postmodern’?) get characterised as rather cold and heartless, and those of us who love them find ourselves making excuses, showing how human the characters are, how moved we were. And there are certainly moments in The Lost Books of the Odyssey where I was moved. But what is more important is this- the implication that the exhilaration that comes with brilliance isn’t unfeeling and detached, a product of our uncommitted times; or if it is, that it’s also old and primal and something that humans have been doing (and loving) for centuries.

 

A version of the column below.

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 “Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.”

Nothing about Homer’s Odyssey is straightforward. The poem tells of Odysseus’ voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan war, yet it does not start at the beginning of his journey. Homer opens the story after Odysseus has spent several years on the island of Calypso. We only learn what has happened so far when he escapes to the court of the Phaeacians and narrates the story of his own adventures. It is Odysseus’ account of his own journey that takes up most of the poem.

Meanwhile, his son Telemachus searches for news of his father. In doing so he hears of other Greek heroes who had fought at Troy. As a result the Odyssey is a story made of stories – stories told by Odysseus, stories told to Telemachus.

It is entirely fitting then that Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey should be a meditation on how stories work. The premise of Mason’s work is that Homer’s Odyssey is the only surviving account of a much more widely written story. “Nearly three millennia ago a particular ordering of these images crystallized into the Odyssey as we know it, but before that the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” The Lost Books of the Odyssey claims to be a recently discovered set of forty-four variations on the story.

What Mason presents us with, then, is a series of remixes and “what if?”s. It’s a brilliant conceit for this particular epic, and Mason unrestrained in what he does with it. One story, which takes place in a sanatorium, reads almost as science fiction. One has Achilles fighting Asian gods (“white-tusked demons” and “mad-eyed devas”). Another has him as a golem, and there’s an entire chapter about the history of a chess-like game in which Mason may be comparing Kshatriya war tactics to Sanskrit grammar.

Many of the stories take stories themselves for their subject, thus creating a kind of meta-meta-narrative. In some, as in the fragment above, Odysseus himself is the storyteller, knowingly or unknowingly manipulating his own story. One piece deals with a Phaeacian belief that we are all characters in somebody else’s tale. In another Odysseus exists almost outside the narrative—he has read the Iliad, and while the story of the fall of Troy repeats itself over and over, only he and Helen remember its past cycles. A piece entitled “The Book of Winter” plays brilliantly on Odysseus’ ruse of renaming himself “nobody” to escape Poseidon’s wrath; here, to escape the sea god once and for all he obliterates himself completely. The narrator of this section has no name and no memories—occasionally he reads an account of his own life and remembers who he is for a brief moment.

Most of these stories have footnotes which add to the conceit. At one point Mason’s compiler offers a scientific explanation for stories of Cyclopes; at another he comments on the probable age of a fragment. It’s easy to forget that the whole thing is a fiction; this account of how a story might develop over time is utterly plausible. Sometimes it feels as if Mason is tapping into our vast, shared reservoir of Story – and making of this reservoir is a tangible, knowable thing.

There’s beauty here, and heartbreak. An account of Medusa, who craves company but finds only an increasing collection of statues. Achilles, who has defeated the gods in his search for a worthy opponent and now sits on their throne wishing he had never been born. Yet what you really take away from The Lost Books of the Odyssey is the exhilaration that comes from something really clever. Odysseus would know the value of that feeling.

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Mason reads from some of his stories in the video below:

June 12, 2012

Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

I was going to write a long, self-indulgent thing here about how I read romance novels, but a few hundred words in, even I couldn’t be that interested anymore. Sarah Wendell’s most recent book did make me think about what I do as a reader of this genre, though, and some of this thinking was quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless.

I wrote about Wendell’s book for last Sunday’s Left of Cool column. The mysterious book in question is Sarra Manning’s Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend (whether it is a Romance Novel is up for debate); my fellow readers will doubtless out themselves in the comments if they feel like doing so.

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A few months ago a new book by an author I like was published. For days afterwards, as we read in our separate cities, two friends and I would text and email one another constantly. Between the three of us we have multiple English degrees and two of us are professional reviewers. Our comments to each other did not reflect this; we were entirely caught up in the heroine’s bad relationship decisions and our own concern and frustration with them.

The whole experience made me think about whether we read differently when faced with certain genres. I was reminded again of this set of interactions by Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels.

Wendell is one of the founders of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which takes an irreverent but loving look at romance novels. Wendell had previously collaborated with the blog’s co-founder, Candy Tan, on Beyond Heaving Bosoms, a guide to the genre. For all its ostensible purpose as a primer, this was clearly a book for the romance fan. Its flow charts, extended snarking at cover art featuring Fabio, and exasperated fondness for hackneyed plot devices were all addressed to an audience who know and love these books for all their ridiculousnesses.

On the surface of it, Everything I Know About Love … is more of the same sort of thing. Once again we have the irreverent tone. The alarming alpha males of some earlier romance novels are stigmatised as “rapetastic assclown heroes” and the phrase “sword o’ mighty lovin’” appears – strictly in a what-not-to-do sort of sense. But something else is going on here.

The central thesis of Wendell’s book is that readers of the romance novel learn from it valuable lessons that help them to negotiate real life romance – though, as the author hastily informs us, this does not mean that they -we- are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. This isn’t a contradiction but there is a tension here throughout; is romance just another genre that happens to take human relationships for its focus, or is it unique in the way its readers engage emotionally with it?

Part of the problem is that it’s not very clear what these lessons are that readers are learning. Wendell herself admits that most of these valuable lessons are learned in kindergarten (fitting, since the book’s title is a nod to “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”). Chapters are headed with glib lessons of the type “we … know our worth”, “we know how to ask for what we want”, “we know that happily-ever-after takes work” (Wendell ruefully acknowledges where these spill over into self-help clichés. What about more specific lessons? A reader says she learned “that sex can and should be good for the female,” and I am simultaneously happy for her and saddened that this needed to be said. Another claims “I finally know what a butt plug is for.” This is great, but it’s not exactly an apologia for the genre.

Romance, arguably, does not need to be defended – though the level of kneejerk dismissal it inspires in many makes it very tempting to do so. But the book is framed as a defence; its argument is that the genre is worthwhile because it provides its readers with something useful. Yet this is ultimately a bit pointless. It’s hard to imagine that non-fans would buy this book, and certainly only fans will know the joy of arguing with Wendell’s list of the best romantic heroes. In any case, a spirited defence of a genre needs to do much better than “reading and thinking about relationships leaves people better equipped to handle relationships”. Yet as ultimately toothless as it is, Wendell’s book does have me thinking about my own strategies of reading, and my sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with the Romance. If Everything I Know About Love … needed a reason to exist, (and as with the genre itself, why should it?) this would be a good enough one for me.

 

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June 9, 2012

May Reading

Bit later than usual, but here is what I read in May. I have a horrible suspicion that I’ve left something out.

 

Drew Magary, The End Specialist/ The Postmortal: The last of the six books on the Clarke award shortlist, and the one that I finished on the day the winner was announced. I wasn’t very impressed with this one – I quite enjoyed it , but it felt strangely inoffensive in the end. Perhaps I would judge it more generously if I had not read it in the context of a major awards shortlist. One expects these books to be remarkable in some way and all of the others (except perhaps Hull Zero Three) were – though in the case of the Sheri S. Tepper book I could have done with a little less remarkable. The Postmortal isn’t stylish enough to stand out as Literature, nor is it original or fully thought-out in ways that would make its sciencefictionality particularly interesting.

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars: I’d never read anything by John Green before, but I thought this was rather excellent. It’s a love story, but its protagonists are both terminally ill. I can only speak as a TAB person here, but I think Green gets a lot right. Despite the infinite potential for a plotline like this one to go wrong The Fault in Our Stars rarely falls into mawkishness, and this is its biggest strength. If this seems rather lukewarm praise, it’s worth considering how few books, presented with characters who would fit so easily into tropes, manage to make of them something like actual people.

Grace Burrowes, The Soldier: I’m a very conservative reader of the romance novel. I know exactly what sort of stories I want, and I read little else. So when I read Burrowes’ The Heir last year I was rather startled. Burrowes writes Regency Romances, but they don’t feel like anyone else’s Regency romances. In many ways they seem deeply improbable (though considering my idea of ‘authentic’ Regency behaviour is almost entirely from Georgette Heyer please feel free to ignore me) and there are occasional Americanisms that jar horribly for me (“fall” for “autumn”). What makes up for this for me is how Burrowes’ men depart from the archetype of romantic hero. She gives her men something usually provided only to women in fiction – close-knit groups of friends and family who are openly, unashamedly affectionate. In The Soldier men can cry together – in The Virtuoso, which I read yesterday, they are comfortable with tactile affection, things like resting a head on a friend’s lap. Perhaps Burrowes’ books are set in an alternate universe in which men are encouraged to have supportive, loving relationships with each other; I would not grudge such a universe the season “fall”.

Jessica Langer, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction: I’ll be reviewing this elsewhere, but I thought Langer’s book was a solid beginning for an area in which there doesn’t seem to be that much academic work, despite the obvious analogies to be made between science fiction and empire. If I have a real complaint (I had lots of tiny ones, argued out in the margins) it’s that it is broader than it is deep – for an introductory work this is probably useful, but there’s less to get one’s teeth into.

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Peter Duck, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, Coot Club, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Secret Water: My exposure to this series was patchy as a child, and this was the first time I’d read the books (the first eight – I don’t have the rest) in order. It’s probably a good thing that I stopped there,because the next in the series appears to be the extremely racist-looking Missee Lee. But the ones I read were wonderful – I can think of very little more recent children’s fiction that is quite as interior as this- it seems to have rather gone out of fashion. ‘Perspective’ usually just gets used to mean ‘point-of-view’; here things are magnified or made smaller in accordance with how the child characters (and Ransome prefers to get inside the heads of the youngest children) see them. Looked at purely at the level of plot these are rather silly countryside holiday stories, but they really are much more than that.

Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam, Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand, Bhimayana: I wrote about this at length here. Gorgeous art, clever politics; I am very much in favour of this.

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love: I wrote about this here. Not a very positive review.

Pamela Cox, Malory Towers continuations/St. Clare’s fillers: I’ve mentioned this before (probably in the context of Sweet Valley Confidential) but the most interesting thing to me about a sequel to something written years after the first/by a different author is how it works as a critique of the thing it is based on. Hence my interest in Pamela Cox’s riffs on Enid Blyton’s two major school series. I’ll be writing about what I found in a few days.

Jo Beverley, An Unlikely Countess: My second Jo Beverley book, and I am a bit underwhelmed. It was a pleasant, fun read but that’s about it. I know a lot of people are very enthusiastic about Beverley, so I suspect I may just be reading the wrong books. Recommendations are solicited.

Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels: I wrote about this in last week’s column and will be linking to it as soon as it is posted on the blog. I loved Wendell’s first book, with Candy Tan, but this felt like it was going nowhere. I am unimpressed.

Daisy Rockwell, The Little Book of Terror: I reviewed this at length for the Sunday Guardian and will post a link when it’s up. Rockwell’s book is made up of her art and a few essays; it’s very slim and I am completely ignorant about Art (I know what I like! she says, defensively). And yet I spent more time editing that review down than writing it, and I didn’t say half of what I wanted to. There’s so much here.

Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death and There’s Trouble Brewing: I’ll be writing about the Nigel Strangeways books elsewhere, but know that they are a delight.

Herge, Flight 714: I wrote about this (and was a bit silly) here.

Shalom Auslander: Holocaust Tips for Kids/Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown: It’s probably cheating to include what is basically a pair of very short stories here, but I did write about it.

 

June 6, 2012

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love

I had a short review of Kishwar Desai’s new novel in Saturday’s Indian Express.

Aruni Kashyap has a piece in the  Assam Times that is partly about his journey away from, and back into writing as an Assamese writer. Among other things he speaks of writing to an imaginary audience to whom he felt the need to explain Assam.

The thing that interested me most about Origins of Love (otherwise not destined to be one of my favourite books this year) is this question of audience. Who does Desai think she’s writing for? At times I suspected the book of doing something rather clever in centring the Indian experience; the white British characters are reduced to cultural stereotypes. Kate, for example, got pregnant in her teens: “She didn’t want to drop out of school or be stuck at home juggling milk bottles and living off benefits like so many of her friends. Besides, Terry (or Jack?) had disappeared quite soon after their evening together”. (Tuhin Sinha, author of That Thing Called LOVE would probably refer to this teenage sexing as “the domain of the prurient West”) The audience is expected not to know, for example, that “the different communities were quite divided in London. The Indians in Southall, the Bangladeshis on Brick Lane…”.  (Useful tip: apparently if you are a lady sitting in pubs in Southall locals will be scandalised, but you can charm a bartender into pouring more generous drinks by swapping stories of “back home”). Shops and labels are namechecked (Agent Provocateur and Harrods, anyway). Parallel to this treating the British as aliens that need explaining, there’s a sort of India Shining narrative. Subhash and his wife Anita are an “elegant couple – certainly a far cry from the gruff and often crumpled doctors he had dealt with in the NHS back home”. The sperm bank in Gurgaon is far more impressive than the one in London. The old empire has declined, everything about Britain is a bit tawdry.

But then suddenly we’re doing things the other way round – the tourists are wearing FabIndia clothes, cows are eating plastic bags on which they will choke to death, ‘locals’ take autorickshaws and there is a completely unnecessary explanation of the Ambassador car. So who is this for?

The other interesting thing about the book is that for five minutes I thought it might be science fiction.

None of these things serve to make the novel any good though.

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A child conceived via in vitro fertilisation is found, mysteriously, to be HIV-positive. Her parents are dead, her family untraceable, and the surrogate mother has mysteriously disappeared.

Origins of Love consists of multiple individual plotlines woven together. There are the Pandeys, proprietors of a hospital in Gurgaon offering assisted reproductive technologies; Kate and Ben, an English couple who desperately want a child, though for different reasons; Sonia, one of the surrogate mothers and Diwan Nath Mehta, a customs officer who becomes embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos.  Tying all of these plots together is Simran Singh, the social worker who formed the focus of Desai’s earlier, Costa winning novel Witness the Night. Simran’s is the only thread of the story to be told in first person; it is she who, with the reader, pieces together these stories to work out what is going on.

And there’s a lot to work out. Origins of Love attempts to be both an exploration of a social issue (that of surrogacy in India) and a rather crowded mystery/thriller. But it soon becomes obvious that Desai is more interested in the issue than the story. Subplots that might in other circumstances have been entire novels are gestured at and then rather half-heartedly wrapped up; such as that of Ben, whose guilt and curiously over an ancestor’s actions in India lead him into perpetuating the same set of dynamics, or Renu, a rising politician who plans to use her child for her political ends. The couple around whom the mystery revolves, Susan and Ben Oldham, barely get any page time, making the various revelations about them rather lacking in impact.

As a discussion of the various issues around surrogacy, the book is more thorough. The lack of agency of the women who agree to become surrogate mothers is a point constantly made – even when characters make the original decision for themselves (Sonia thinks that the money will help her to escape an abusive boyfriend and return to her family), control is almost immediately wrested from them. The upper classes are not let off – the Pandeys may be sympathetic characters on the whole, but we are still treated to uncomfortable scenes in which Dr Subhash Pandey evaluates potential surrogates who can be most easily fobbed off as middle-class on ignorant foreigners. Occasionally Desai is too heavy-handed in the effort to make the reader see the point of this, and puts together the evidence of what the text has already shown us into convenient expository paragraphs.

This is a problem throughout. Show-don’t-tell is perhaps the most hackneyed literary criticism there is, but there is some truth to it. Unfortunately, Desai explains everything. Characters are reintroduced as if we had forgotten them in the last fifty pages, and Subhash’s discomfort with homosexual couples having children is something that must be told to us again and again. This need to explain is at its worst when it comes to the international aspects of the plot – it’s hard to tell who her intended audience is when the author is at one moment explaining London’s racial divides to the reader, and at the next explaining that ‘locals’ in Delhi would travel by autorickshaw, and that Ambassador cars with red lights on the top indicate an important person.

If Desai finds her voice at any point it is with the Diwan Nath Mehta plot. Mehta is a fundamentally decent man caught up in larger matters that he never anticipated and there’s something rather exaggerated and larger than life about the world as he perceives it. This makes for great satire, in the conspiracy theories of Mehta’s boss and in the form of caste-obsessed sperm bank officials who inform us that they are “well stocked on Brahmins”.  But there are also hints of a touching romance. This is in sharp contrast to Simran’s overwritten sections in which we’re given plenty of details (down to the colour of her underwear) but little in the way of feeling.

The problem with issue-based fiction is always going to be that it’s more about the issue than the fiction. As a book about surrogacy in India Origins of Love does exactly what it needs to. As a novel, however, it is incomplete, half-hearted and seems to think very little of its readers.

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June 3, 2012

Shalom Auslander, Holocaust Tips for Kids and Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown

Last week’s column, on knowing and innocent children.

 

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In George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, much of a plot revolves around something that a young child witnesses but does not understand. Filtering this incident through the child’s perspective means that the text doesn’t yet have to come out and say what’s going on, while making it possible for the reader to work it out. Another story that relies on the difference in awareness between the child narrator and the adult reader is Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”.  This narrator serves an eminently practical purpose – since she doesn’t have the words to explain what’s going on under the blanket, the author could deny any accusations that the story portrayed sex between two women. In 1945, when a charge of obscenity was brought against the story, this was exactly the defence Chughtai used.

And then there are the stories in which the power of the child narrator lies in his or her understanding things too well.

A few years ago, Picador came out with a series of “Picador Shots” in order to promote the short story as a literary form. These “shots” were individual, slim volumes, each containing one short story. They were cheap (less than the price of a magazine), attractive, and showcased the work of a number of exciting authors. Like magazines, they were also apparently meant to be disposable. Yet six years later I still have my copy of Shalom Auslander’s volume. Unlike most of the books in the series, this one contains two very short pieces instead of one longer one; “Holocaust Tips for Kids” and “Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown”.

“Holocaust Tips for Kids” (originally published in the collection Beware of God) begins with a letter from a school, informing parents that children will be learning all about the Holocaust in the following week. The rest of the story consists of notes from a boy, ten years old, who is using what he learns at school to prepare himself in case the Holocaust should happen again.

Auslander brings together historical facts with scraps of information that the child has picked up, to produce something bleakly funny.

“Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306, Hungary in 1349, France again in 1394, Austria in 1421, Lithuania in 1445, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497, and Moravia in 1744.

Some ballpoint pens have replaceable ink cartridges. If you take the cartridge out and put a sewing needle in, you can shoot it out like a Ninja blowgun.”

 

There’s some wonderful commentary here on how we teach children history (and specifically, in Auslander’s context, how Jewish children are taught to receive their cultural identity). Is it funny that the child doesn’t realise that the Holocaust is in the past, or tragic that he’s assimilated this level of acceptance of violence as a thing that can happen at any point? And as adults who know that awful things aren’t necessarily in the past, has he really misunderstood anything at all?

“Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown” was recently used as a title by another columnist for this paper. Like “Holocaust Tips for Kids” (the two stories work together very well) it deals with children working through big religious issues; in this case, the cast of characters of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comics. On its own, it’s less effective. This is partly because it does very little that Schulz had not already done. Auslander riffs off the religious controversy caused by “The Great Pumpkin”, a deity believed in by Linus, a character who has misunderstood Hallowe’en. He also turns Schulz himself into a deity, the creator who writes and draws the characters every day. (This allows for a wonderful pun, when people who aren’t sure of Schulz’s existence become “chucknostics”). Religious tensions escalate as you’d expect them to; people are injured. The worst thing that happens is that someone is (non-fatally) hit with a baseball bat. Yet the two stories together are surprisingly powerful. Something (and I hate to be so hackneyed as to say it’s “innocence”) has been lost here.

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June 3, 2012

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, “La Salle de Départ”

This is the fourth of the five stories on the Caine Prize shortlist.

The nature of the Caine Prize makes it inevitable that we’ve all been talking about/dancing around the idea of Africa as a single literature-producing entity (as far as any place that has ever produced more than one book could ever be such a thing); Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is from Zimbabwe and her story “La Salle de Départ” is set in Senegal. Does that make this the most international story on this shortlist so far?

The story in brief: Fatima’s brother Ibou lives in America but has come to Senegal for a short holiday. Throughout his stay, Fatima has been trying to work up the courage to ask him to take her son to live with him next year. Most of the story takes place during the siblings’ rather fraught ride to the airport; Fatima struggles to understand Ibou’s refusal to take charge of her son, while Ibou in turn finds himself unable to explain his complex feelings about his own identity, and what his Americanisation has done for his relationship with his family.

I think, as Stephen Derwent Partington says here, that a large part of what makes this story interesting is its focus on Fatima, who was left behind and does not exist in two cultures, rather than Ibou, who does. We’ve heard Ibou’s story several times, we know that to be hybrid is a sort of never coming home – many of us know all this first hand. From the beginning Ibou does not come across as insensitive or heartless to me, because I’ve heard his story enough to sympathise with him. In some ways, though he is sympathetic, Ibou is more archetype than person for me.

Fatima is different. Partly because her apparent weakness is deceptive – the hints we get of her life indicate that her divorce was her choice, that she has built up quite a successful business on her own. She may think that her mind is slow, but we’re told that she finished lycée with high marks; high enough for her uncle to offer to pay for her university education. She is, understandably, a little bitter about the fact that this did not happen – women stay at home, men “fly”. But she’s also prone to stereotyping people (her remarks on the ‘loose’ Lebanese women). And her apparent depression is something that could make up a story in itself.

But at the heart of it this is really a story of two people who don’t know how to talk to one another despite (as the text makes clear) having multiple languages at their disposal:

“Je vous en prie,” she began in French and continued in Wolof, “Please.” Her voice was hoarse. “Only you can help him. Please help him to be like you. Do what Uncle Thierno did for you. Look how lucky you are, how successful. The success of one is the success of the whole family. Babacar’s future is the future of us all.” She clutched at him, her long ring scratching his wrist as she grabbed his hands, pulling him around to face her.

He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony.

 

To me the most obvious manifestation of this is in their differing perspectives over Ibou’s relationship with his partner Ghada. Ghada is Egyptian, and for reasons of class and income is comfortable with her family in ways that Ibou cannot be with his own. He sees her as an intellectual superior – he wishes that she could speak for him as she’d do a better job of explaining his feelings, he parrots her own words about her understanding of religion. It’s obvious that for all his estrangement from his family Ibou wants approval from his sister- when he gushes about his girlfriend he’s also waiting for a response, for Fatima to show interest or excitement over what matters to him.

“Ghada has read the whole Koran,” Ibou said aloud, echoing his long-ago letter. “Religion for her is something she truly practices rather than obeys. It’s something that she interrogates and interacts with, wrestling with its contradictions and inconsistencies, those within her and those within the religion itself. She is not afraid of them you see, she doesn’t deny them, she faces them head on. We can only understand God’s word as it is translated by and through men. God is great but all religions are man-made and are therefore imperfect.”

Fatima held her breath. Were these Ibou’s words or Ghada’s? He sounded like he was reading from a book but his hands were empty. She had never known Ibou to be either religious or philosophical. Not trusting herself to reply, she slipped the foulard off and then expertly rewrapped the thick, starchy material around her head. She lowered her arms and twitched her shoulders so that the heavy gold embroidery bordering her collarbone shifted to the side leaving her left shoulder bare in the preferred style. It was her most expensive boubou, the one she had worn for Maimouna’s fourth child’s baptism. This entire readjustment took almost two whole minutes yet Ibou’s gaze was still fixed on her expectantly. Was she actually supposed to respond to that speech? Her mind churned to no avail.

Finally relenting, Ibou looked away and pulled his red baseball cap further down on his brow and turned his iPod back on, jamming the headphones deep into his ears.

 

And so these two people cannot help but hurt one another.

I don’t think “La Salle de Départ” is particularly ambitious in what it sets out to do. But it’s a very human story, and one that is generous to its characters. It’s not my favourite of the Caine Prize shortlist, but it certainly deserves to be there.

 

Other blog posts on this story:

Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
bookshy
Loomnie
Ikhide
Ayodele Olofintuade