Archive for May, 2013

May 29, 2013

Jaishree Misra (ed), Of Mothers and Others

An anthology whose proceeds go to Save the Children. Am I cheating if I include this as a South Asian Women Writers book? There is only one man (Jai Arjun Singh) in it.

I quite enjoyed this collection, which I wrote about for this week’s column. The quality of the individual pieces was sometimes uneven, but those I liked, I liked very much. Nisha Susan’s “Missed Call” is excellent, as is Anita Roy’s “Eating Baby”. Urvashi Butalia’s lovely, nuanced piece on not having children can also be read here. Jai Arjun Singh’s piece contains the line “yeh machli meri ma hai” along with other great moments in Bollywood Ma-dom.

 

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I forget Mother’s Day every year until my social media timelines explode first with platitudes about how wonderful people’s mothers (most of whom don’t use the internet very much) are, then with people pointing out that the first set of people should be telling this to their mothers, rather than the world. (My mother, luckily, forgets Mother’s Day until I remind her).

The symbol of the mother is something to which we as a culture ascribe considerable value. Mothers are regularly presented to us in cinema and literature as devoted, self-effacing, angelic. Celebrities claim in interviews that their mothers are their best friends or heroes. Advertising depicts them constantly worried about whether they’re raising their children—are they buying the best toothpaste/detergent/malt-based drink to help their children get ahead in life? Our veneration of motherhood makes “ma” (or “yo’ mama”) an intrinsic part of our rich vocabulary of swear-words and curses, across a variety of languages. Motherhood means so many things that there’s often very little room left for the actual human beings who fill that position.

In Of Mothers and Others, a collection of short stories, essays and poems edited by Jaishree Misra, over and over we see women who defy, struggle with, or otherwise find limiting this image of motherhood. Prabha Walker’s “The Slap Flies Off My Hand” features a mother whose unhappy married life resolves itself in physical abuse of her child. Nisha Susan’s short story “Missed Call” has a mother whose difficult relationship with her daughter is rooted in genuine dislike. In “Determination” Smriti Lamech describes the reaction of a woman hoping for a daughter to the revelation that her child might not be all that she imagines. Sometimes motherhood drives women to do awful things, as is the case in Sarita Mandanna’s “The Gardener’s Daughter” and Kishwar Desai’s “The Devi Makers”. The “business” of motherhood is explored in “’Shake her, She Is Like The Tree That Grows Money!’” by Sarojini N. and Vrinda Marwah, an essay exploring surrogacy in India. Shalini Sinha writes movingly of her relationships both with her child and her own mother.

The “others” of the title are represented as well. Shalini Sinha’s “Amma And Her Beta” and Bulbul Sharma’s slightly saccharine “A Grandmother at Large” both explore the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. Urvashi Butalia discusses her own choice not to have children in an essay that affirms the many forms that motherhood (and childlessness) can take.

Of Mothers and Others often tries to unravel some of our glibly shallow portrayals of motherhood by displaying the darker sides it can have. Children who have died or disappeared, as in Manju Kapur’s  “Name: Amba Dalmia” and Humra Quraishi’s “The State Can’t Snatch Away Our Children”; children suffering through poverty or illness (Shabana Azmi’s introduction to the book discusses the shocking state of healthcare for mothers and children, a death toll she describes as the equivalent of 400 plane crashes per year). Children adopted or born to surrogate mothers. There is a whole range of families here, and none of them are as blandly immune to unhappiness as the two-parent, two-child unit who appear in televised ads.

But there are also moments of joy. Such as the very funny “Eating Baby”, in which Anita Roy describes the process by which feeding her young son began to take over her life.  Jai Arjun Singh’s “Milky Ways” discusses the figure of the mother in such classic Hindi films as Ajooba (in which Amitabh Bachchan is nurtured by a dolphin) and Disco Dancer.

“There are all kinds of mothers”, says Shashi Deshpande in her essay here; “loving mothers as well as unfeeling ones, kind mothers as well as cruel ones, protective mothers as well as possessive ones. The final truth is that we bring ourselves into all our relationships”. Of Mothers and Others’ great achievement is in its constant insistence that we first see its mothers (and its others) as themselves.

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May 23, 2013

Uday Prakash, The Walls of Delhi (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

I read a version of “The Walls of Delhi” in the Hirsh Sawhney-edited Delhi Noir a few years ago. I remember thinking at the time that it was the strongest story in the collection, though I get the feeling it may have been rather truncated.

The three stories that make up this collection are ‘about’ poverty and class; they’re angry, erudite, often sardonic, frequently quite chatty and self-reflexive. They’re brilliant. And the first in particular feels like it belongs to my city in ways that few Delhi books do.

 

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In his translator’s afterword to Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi, Jason Grunebaum discusses the difficulty of deciding how much to translate, with which words and concepts the reader can be expected to be familiar. In order to make Prakash’s work accessible to the widest possible audience Grunebaum chooses to assume a relatively ignorant reader, equipped with little knowledge of Hindi or of the society in which the stories in this collection take place.

The Walls of Delhi is comprised of three of Prakash’s works, the titular short story and two novellas. I read Grunebaum’s afterword before I began on the rest of the work, which is why I was particularly struck when, a couple of pages in, the author referred to Fellini and Antonioni. Clearly the author himself wasn’t too worried about readers lacking cultural context.

I kept coming back to this as I read. The three stories that make up The Walls of Delhi all focus on individuals, and are all set among India’s poor. The protagonist of “The Walls of Delhi” is a sweeper who commutes to Saket every day to clean out a gym. The family at the centre of “Mangosil” live in an impoverished neighbourhood in Delhi, next to a fetid open drain that may be the primary mover of the plot. “Mohandas” tells of a man who, unable to get a job, struggles to support his family in the face of both bad luck and corruption. All three stories have struggling protagonists trying to get ahead and being constantly beaten back. And yet these stories of individual struggle take place against a wider backdrop that is stunning in its scope. Uday Prakash lays claim to the whole world; he constantly invokes political events across the globe. The Holocaust, India Shining, Abu Ghraib, the release of particular films and songs, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Gaza Strip, all of these are referred to, creating a sort of timeline of modern history that intertwines itself (as the world always does) in the lives of our heroes.

Often this timeline is used as a mechanism for outrage, fixing the story in history so that we cannot dismiss these tragic events (none of these are happy stories; all end in failure, disappointment or death) by relegating them to the past. The stories are upsetting and angering, yes, but they are even more so because they take place in a modern, civilised world. “This was the time of Mohandas, of you, of me, of Bisnath, of what we see this very day when we look outside our windows,” the text insists, “And the time everybody knows as the first decade of the twenty-first century”.

If Prakash’s text is wide-ranging and cosmopolitan, we’re never allowed to doubt that many of his characters are as well. A character named Azad (“his personality was perfect, apart from being a smackhead”) is well-informed on subjects like horses and perfumes. The narrator of “Mangosil” is a writer, and widely-read, as is the honest judge (named “Muktibodh” in honour of the great poet) in “Mohandas”. Despite the anger underlying these stories they are frequently clever and self-referential, often addressing the reader directly and inviting her to play along. “Don’t you think that amid all the pain and sorrow and bleak colours of this story little drops of joy have been interspersed?” Prakash offers his characters moments that are gloriously funny or sensual (I was particularly struck by a description of a woman bathing in a red sari)—which only make their eventual tragedies all the more poignant.

Jason Grunebaum’s translation manages to convey both Prakash’s rage and his playfulness. The tendency to translate everything, including the lyrics of film songs, is bound to make the Indian reader roll her eyes a little, and the results are sometimes redundant (“salty namkeen snacks”) or bizarre (“hey, blindy!”). Yet I find myself in sympathy with Grunebaum’s desire to reach the widest possible audience—Prakash deserves nothing less.

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May 21, 2013

The Thuggery Affair (AF 6)

 

My friend Supriya recently visited her family in Bombay, and in a fit of home-sweet-home-ness took this wonderful picture of The Mumbai Mirror.

This was a useful reminder that the next of Antonia Forest’s books contained a) drug-running wildlife b) wordplay (though nothing quite in the league of “bleet(y) hell!”).

If Autumn Term is the Marlow book about genre and Peter’s Room is the one about make-believe, The Thuggery Affair is the one about language. This is to oversimplify, of course, yet language seems to be at the centre of most people’s experience of this book. Forest’s own discussion of the book (again, that useful prologue in the GGB editions) begins with a reference to the self-invented languages of teenagers and a rueful “unfortunately, I think I was the only person who did understand what my characters were saying. But still, try anything once”. Online reviews bear this out by talking constantly about how difficult the language of the “thuggery” is—to the extent that this particular quirk of the book has almost overshadowed the fact that the book is about drug-running pigeons.

A scandaroon, the variety of pigeon used to smuggle drugs. I hope this enhances your understanding of the text.

The plot in brief: Lawrie, Patrick and Peter are home for half-term; Nicola is staying with a friend and Ginty (to Patrick’s disappointment) with her grandmother. A group of young delinquents –you can tell, they wear garish clothes and listen to the Beatles—work nearby, at the home of a woman who breeds pigeons. Two such pigeons are taken down by Patrick’s hawk Regina, and the children discover that one has a capsule filled with white powder attached to its leg. Since all three are rather inept they lose the capsule and decide to split up—Peter will lead the gang (known to the children as “the thuggery”) on a wild goose chase, Patrick will break into the dovecote, and Lawrie, in the absence of the crucial piece of evidence, will take the pigeon’s corpse to the police and explain that it used to have drugs attached. To no one’s surprise, things go horribly wrong.

Further proof that this connection is tenuous, at best. These covers are nothing like one another.

In my head I keep associating The Thuggery Affair with A Clockwork Orange. Burgess’ book was written in 1962, three years before this, and also features teenagers with made-up languages, and, er … the cover of The Thuggery Affair is very orange. This is not a particularly scholarly comparison to make.

But (in part because of the completely spurious connection I’ve made in my head) I can’t help comparing the teenage languages in the two books. And when I do so I find the complaints about the Thuggery being incomprehensible rather strange, because compared to Nadsat this is hardly challenging. I wonder if it has to do with the expectations we bring to a book—perhaps one doesn’t expect a children’s adventure story to require effort. Most of the time the Thuggery’s language is just gloriously stylised:

“Why so much try to decorpse this one flutterlet?” (a character is trying to feed a baby pigeon)

“What met your top, Jukie? It grows a melon.” (Jukie, the leader of the gang, has a bump on his head)

“Belshezzar it” (a message is written on the wall)

For me, the reason this is interesting is that it ties in with a preoccupation with language that runs through the whole book. Forest’s characters don’t just use language, they delight in it. This is clear from the beginning of the book, when we learn how the book gets its name:

That pack of boys the village called them: Patrick, adding one more to the nouns of association listed in The Boke of St. Albans, called them in cheerful exaggeration A Thuggery of Teds.

Shortly after, Patrick gets into an argument with Miss Culver, the breeder of pigeons. Miss Culver is carrying a gun and seems quite threatening, until she realises that Patrick is the son of Anthony Merrick, the local MP.

It would have been one thing apparently, thought Patrick hilariously, for Gunslinger Culver to pepper a peasant, but quite another to murder a Merrick … Good humour and chap-to-chappery were now, apparently, in bloom.

Patrick isn’t the only one of the three main characters who delights in language. Peter later describes someone as “trembling like a naspen”. And then there’s Lawrie.

We already know from the previous books in the series that Lawrie is a good actor, and in The Marlows and the Traitor we see her observing other people’s behaviour carefully for the purpose of future roles (people who she is unlikely ever to act are ignored, obviously). Here, she starts the book by imitating a number of stylistic registers: she speaks “in the manner of any comic admiral of film, radio or television”, in her head she “composed a front page story for the Colebridge and District Mail”. So far this is unsurprising – Peter also likes to imitate a strong accent (seen here, but much more in The Ready-Made Family where it forms a part of the actual plot). What is interesting, though, is Lawrie’s ability to think in a different register as well.

Lawrie’s complete ignorance of everything around her often leads her to be used as the comic relief in these books. Here, she is deputed to smuggle the dead pigeon to the Colebridge police and explain the situation to them; a task which terrifies her. She braces herself by putting on make-up to look like a Bond Girl (Peter is alarmed; she does not look anything like Pussy Galore), but then gets really into the act. To the point that when she meets a member of the gang on the train, instead of trying to avoid him and run to the police station she flirts with him, introduces herself as Sophia, and decides to join him for coffee and a movie. And the reader laughs or rolls her eyes and says Oh Lawrie, because of course Lawrie would be so flaky that she’d forget her mission and go off on a date. It’s only later that we realise that there was a genuine threat to Lawrie—when Jukie casually says of Red Ted “I think mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ‘N then again mebbe even if she’s not”. As in The Marlows and the Traitor, we’ve been reminded that the world isn’t entirely safe even for middle-class English children having Blytonesque adventures. Once again we are pulled, as Peter thinks, into “the midst of an adventure which had turned into something huger and blacker than he had bargained for”.

But back to Lawrie who, being Lawrie, when she inhabits a role really inhabits it. And so Forest shows us an actual shift in her internal monologue. “It was just grotty Sophia had to lug her music-case around with her; and she naturally thought it gear when Red Ted offered to carry it for her.” (Though she retains her love of playing with language, describing “The Beatles merseying from Red Ted’s pocket ‘She loves you—yeh, yeh, yeh’”). It’s only when she panics, comes to her senses and escapes, that the register of her thoughts changes back to the one with which we are familiar.

Which is not to imply that the register with which we are familiar is any sort of default. There’s a moment, quite early on, which is rather telling in this respect. The trio of Patrick, Peter and Lawrie have received a note which the Marlows are unable to decipher, but that Patrick, with his greater knowledge of urban slang, is able to translate:

The carton was empty all right; but on the inside of the flap someone had printed: PLAY IT SEHR CRAFTY NODDY-BOY. IF THIS MOB IS SPRUNG THE CLICK IN THE SMOKE WILL HAND DADDY-O HIS HEARSE TICKET SHARPEST.

Peter read this aloud. Lawrie said, “What’s all that mean?”

In an unnaturally level voice Patrick translated. “Take jolly good care softy. If our lot are caught the part of the gang who operate in London will murder your pa. I wouldn’t know if sharpest means razors or just fast.”

 

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. For one thing, I’m reading this a good half-century after it was written and that changes a lot of things about context. I invoked Blyton a couple of paragraphs ago; the Famous Five, for example, regularly spend the few days of half-term battling smugglers with no adverse consequences, and saying things like “by jove!” A lot of the language taken for granted by this genre (though can we consider The Thuggery Affair to be in the same genre as Five Get into Trouble?) seems hopelessly archaic to a modern reader. And there are certainly moments in The Thuggery Affair that were probably not meant to be as funny as they are now; at one point Patrick suggests that they might have misheard Jukie’s nickname, and it might be “Junkie”. “Junkie—in their language—means drug addict.” I don’t know how widespread the word was in 1965, and Forest could hardly have predicted that it would become something everyone knew. But I laughed anyway.

But I don’t know if that exchange I quote above can be put down entirely to a disconnect between the world in which it was written and the world in which I am reading it. Because I don’t think Patrick says things like “take jolly good care” on a regular basis. I wonder if the text is laying that extra bit of emphasis on the sort of language that he uses to remind us that that too is not a default but a specific style of speaking associated with specific cultural markers.

Forest often gets dismissed by critics for writing about (since there aren’t enough of those in literature) privileged people having adventures. I do think this is a fair criticism, and I often find myself mocking the supposed poverty of her characters (the poor things cannot afford to buy more horses without selling the family tiara). But in The Thuggery Affair for the first time (and perhaps this has to do with the fact that it was the 60s) she might be doing the same. Twice in the book characters are forced to confront their privilege. First Lawrie, who discovers that the police might seem perfectly friendly and polite to the daughters of naval captains who also own extensive property and yet be hostile and suspicious towards girls in make-up who don’t look like the daughters of naval captains etc. One moment Lawrie is being suspected of being in a rival gang, the next, after a phone call from her mother, she’s being fed cocoa and pork pie.

And then Patrick, who over the course of his and Jukie’s aborted getaway drive learns something of his captor’s history. When Patrick scorns the notion that his father would ask him to commit perjury to salvage his political career, Jukie only replies, “You mean he doesn’t need it. He’s got it all already.” Patrick does say that his father would probably feel the same even if he was running for P.M. (rather telling that this is his definition of having something to lose!), but the reader has been reminded that Patrick’s and Jukie’s circumstances are entirely different. Shortly after, when he tries to express empathy for Jukie because he gets less pocket money than a lot of the boys at his posh school, he is mocked. “Patrick was silent, convinced he really did know how it could be, keeping company with people who had more spending money than you had”, but the reader is not convinced.

Somewhere in The Thuggery Affair‘s engagement with language, then, is there an acknowledgement of some of the series’ own class-related issues, of the constructedness of the norms of the class to which the Marlows, Patrick and most of their genre-contemporaries belong, and of the ways in which language and culture are intertwined? I think there might be, though I’m still not sure how far Forest herself would agree with me. Meanwhile, there are many pigeons.

 

 

*It is quite possible that no Blyton character ever has used that expression, but you know what I mean.

 

May 17, 2013

“CHARACTERNAAAAAAME!!!”

[With many sorries to Ashwin Pande. But look, no spoilers!

(That title is totally a spoiler)

(The rest of this post will also contain spoilers. I can’t imagine anyone cares about this)]

 

Star Trek Into Darkness. Bullet points, because bullet points seem to be how I always talk about blockbuster-y movies on this blog and also because I am lazy.:

  • I suspect the writing process for this movie went something like “Who’s the most popular Star Trek villain?” “Ah, right. What actors are popular right now?” Which is why this guy is playing this character.
  • He says this line (except the bit about not being a terrorist, because he kind of is), and he says it straightfacedly. Unless JJ Abrams was doing an SRK shoutout on purpose?
  • The last movie had Uhura randomly stripping down to her underwear. That doesn’t happen in this movie and at one point they even give her trousers. So that’s an improvement?
  • … except there’s an entire scene engineered for the sole purpose of having Alice Eve’s character in her underwear. Apparently it is necessary to do this before changing into a suit to go outside the ship. Other people we see leave the ship in special suits: Kirk, Spock, Khan, Bones. Of those, we see the following in their underwear:
  • To be fair to Abrams (but why should I?) with the image of Montalban’s Khan in our heads Cumberbatch’s chest would merely have seemed blindingly white. Because Cumberbatch is white. He is about as white as it is possible for a major actor in Hollywood (most of them are at least quite tanned) to be.
  • One way of solving that problem would have been to maybe cast a reasonably buff brown person. Other people have written very lucidly on the politics of this casting decision; I’m a fan of N.K. Jemisin’s clever comparison of casting within a racist system with the Kobayashi Maru.
  • When the 2009 movie came out I witnessed a number of discussions in which fans tried to retcon reasons for Kirk’s eyes being brown in the original series and blue in this alternate universe. I look forward to the theories that Khan’s newfound whiteness generates.
  • Uhura is very competent in her first scene, and in general right up until she starts discussing her relationship with Spock in the middle of a delicate mission that could get them all killed because that’s what girlfriends do Reasons.
  • Quinto and Urban remain the best things about this cast, despite the painfully uninspired things the script gives them to do. Such as chase Benedict Cumberbatch on foot through future London.
  • Cumberbatch appears in an early scene on a London street with his coat collar turned up and we thought of this and giggled a bit. Then, in the middle of the abovementioned chase scene he stopped to pick up and put on a long, swooshy coat so that he could then swooshily sherlock his way through the city. The young men sitting in front of us turned around and glared.
  • The movie’s first scene is an attempt to prove Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods.
  • In Abrams’ dubious defense: the last movie went straight for pretty/shiny/smouldery. This one manages a half-hearted attempt to examine the ethics of Starfleet, of Starfleet captains, of the organisation’s real purpose. By “examine” I mean “mention”.
  • Many things are mentioned. As this review puts it: “Old Spock explains why Khan is a guy to be feared. Pike explains Kirk’s character to Kirk, and also throws in a detailed explanation of the lessons Kirk must learn in this movie. Khan explains his own history to everybody, and the evil admiral explains his evil plan to the entire crew of the Enterprise. The film breathlessly rushes from action scene to action scene, stopping only to have a character deliver leaden exposition almost directly at the camera. It’s as though all of the set pieces were conceived first and then a trio of subpar writers had to fill in the gaps. ” (Actually, just read all of that review, it’s entirely accurate)
  • Wrath of Khan has a few iconic moments. Spock dies (spoiler: he comes back!), Kirk howls “KHAAAAN!!” STID does something supremely stupid; it rehashes and reverses the death scene. Now Spock has to watch Kirk die, their hands separated by a clear screen. Even now the scene might have retained some emotional resonance, until Spock howled out the name of his enemy. In that moment it became clear that the only emotion this film was interested in evoking was “I see what you did there”.
  • Kirk’s emotional trajectory over these two films has been entirely linked to his loss of his father, then his loss of his mentor. As Jonathan McCalmont said yesterday, daddy issues within daddy issues. Spock’s emotional trajectory has been illustrated in its entirety by Gingerhaze here. I wonder if Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus gets to have parental issues–she did just see her dad start a war, try to kill a bunch of people, and have his head crushed.
  • And finally, props to the movie for having Cumberbatch recite a series of terrible sexual innuendos in a (even by Cumberbatch standards) Very Deep voice. Since the movie gave him little to do as a villain, it was nice to see him breathily say “Oh, Captain!” in a shocked voice and ask Kirk if he was going to punish him some more. Should Abrams decide to make Star Trek III: Carry on Trekking, it’s nice to know he has something to draw on.

Short version, for anyone whose eyes have glazed over by now: This was a very bad film.

May 15, 2013

Frederic Tuten, Tintin in the New World

I thought of doing a dramatic reading of the Tintin-Clavdia sex scene and putting it up online, but I read a bit out loud and it was awful (and there were many foreign words to trip me up) so I decided against it. All you really need to know is that it contains this exchange:

“To Brazil perhaps. To the moist green nights of Rio or Bahia, where I’ve never been. To hot sheets and hotels, to sexlove and sexkiss and sexsigh and sexbreath to sex longings and sex spendings, and more.”

“Oh! Tintin, your words compensate for your inexperience. But leave words now, and let’s swim longer in the flowing wet of love.”

I wrote this for the Left of Cool column, which you can also find on the newspaper’s website, here.

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Henri Matisse’s The Dance hangs on the wall. In front of it sits a young man in an armchair, a table lamp at his elbow and a dog lying at his feet. The young man has a tuft of hair that looks familiar. Someone is trying to kill him, judging by the knife flying through a crack in the door.

The painting is by Roy Lichtenstein, the young man is Georges Remi’s Tintin. Lichtenstein was famously a fan of the Belgian artist and writer who was better known as Hergé. He also seems to have been a fan of Matisse; he created another version of The Dance (this one did not feature Tintin) as well. But this layered painting, featuring artwork within artwork and tributes to more than one artist, was created for the cover of a book by one of Lichtenstein’s friends, Frederic Tuten’s Tintin in the New World.

One of the things that make the Adventures of Tintin so appealing is the character’s complete lack of any personality, making it possible for every reader to identify with him. He is a bland do-gooder, unaffected by any strong political beliefs, appetites or emotions. It’s his companions who provide that element—Captain Haddock with his anger management issues, his passion for his ancestry and his love of whiskey; Professor Calculus and his singleminded obsession with science; even Snowy the dog displays more emotion than Tintin himself. As for sex, it’s hard to imagine the young reporter even contemplating the possibility.

Tuten’s book plucks Tintin out of this comfortably emotionless existence. At the beginning of the book Tintin dismisses the world of “Adults … all for lust and murder”. “I shall always be glad to have stayed stunted at twelve,” he thinks, but this situation is about to change when an anonymous letter from Belgium sends Tintin, Haddock and Snowy to Peru, to investigate some mystery within the remains of Machu Pichu.

Like the Lichtenstein piece on its cover, Tintin in the New World is a tribute to more than one master. In Peru, Tintin meets a group composed of Herr Peeperkorn, Herr Naptha, Signor Settembrini and Madame Clavdia Chauchat, characters who will be familiar to readers of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. All four characters embody wildly different worldviews and Tintin is sucked into their debates. Simultaneously he falls in love with Clavdia, leading to a sexual encounter that would be permanently scarring were it not so entertaining. (“Oh! Tintin, your words compensate for your inexperience. But leave words now, and lets swim longer in the flowing wet of love.”)

In many ways the book is deliberately outrageous, playing on the incongruity of Hergé’s character in this setting and often creating an over-the-top parody of its own genre. We see Tintin discussing Second Empire architecture, being psychoalalysed, and turning to vegetarianism; about a quarter of the book is taken up by an extended dream sequence in which Tintin and Clavdia grow old together and fight persecution from the villainous Peeperkorn. Eventually, Tintin will be goaded by his emotions into doing something unforgivable. The world is no longer simple, its lines no longer clear. How can Tintin go about the world bringing justice when, he now knows, “all are guilty, even as they sleep, guilty of mischief done or yet to be done?  The human womb breeds human monsters, sucking eel mouths of desire and wilfulness.” If this all seems a bit excessive, we’re never in doubt that it’s meant to.

There can be no doubt that Hergé knew of Tuten’s book. While the whole thing was published some years after his death, chapters were published during his lifetime, and the book as a whole is “dedicated to the memory of my friend Georges Remi (Hergé)”. Created with permission of a sort, then, it falls somewhere between parody and authorised sequel, homage and critique. I suspect Hergé approved.

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(Many thanks to Shreyas for lending me his copy of this–it is good to have friends who are so willing to pick up strange and terrible books for my entertainment.)

May 14, 2013

Go Goa Gone

The movie that was supposed to be Bollywood’s first zombie movie (originally titled Shaadi of the Dead, then -I think- Rock the Shaadi) seems not to have been released, and I don’t know what is going on with it. Meanwhile, Go Goa Gone (Bollywood’s second zombie film? Does it count as Bollywood if it has a big name star? Is it now the first zombie film? I don’t know) came out this weekend. I very much enjoyed it, despite its occasional tendency to forget that it was supposed to be about, not by, stoner manchildren. Some thoughts, over at First Post (I won’t be posting this review here, since FP is online-only).

May 8, 2013

Rosemary Stones, Under Manners

Never let it be said that I do not review diverse things? From last weekend’s column:

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In a pile of old unsorted books I recently discovered something rather surprising; a guide to etiquette for teenagers. Titled Under Manners: A Teenage Guide to Etiquette this book, by Rosemary Stones, aimed to help teenagers with such difficult questions as the meaning of “RSVP”, the correct way to dispose of chewing gum, and that all-important question—“should a boy offer to carry a girl’s books if she’s a feminist?”

Under Manners was published in 1991. It’s a mystery, therefore, how it ended up among my books; I was nowhere near teen-age at the time. In the twenty years since this book was published, quite a lot about the world has changed, and when I found it I wondered how something like a book on etiquette could work as a cultural artefact. What important dilemmas around everyday social behaviour were prevalent in the early 1990s? How hopelessly out of date would they seem in 2013? The answer, it seems, is not as much as I expected.

In some ways, the late 80s and early 90s feel like a different world. When Stones suggests that by the age of eighteen one should endeavour to be able to “type” and “use a computer”, these things are still seen as skills that need to be learned rather than inherent and necessary parts of our lives. Foreign food (Stones is  British and the book is addressed to children in the UK) seems limited to “French”, “Indian” and “Chinese”, and various word lists are given to help decipher their respective restaurant menus. Yet strangely, the ability to eat with chopsticks is seen as a necessary skill. “It is not very stylish to ask for a spoon and fork”.

Other ways in which the book seems alien include an extensive table explaining how to address various titled people in formal letters. The hypothetical reader’s correspondents include the Queen, a selection of Dukes, Marchionesses, Earls, Countesses, and Mayors who, apparently, are to be addressed as “His Worship, the Mayor of –” even if they are women. It’s a little difficult to imagine that teenagers who mingle with this exalted company and go to dinners where they may be wearing evening gloves (which must be taken off before eating anything, “even if it’s just an olive”) need to be told what “black-tie” signifies, or that they must not pick their noses or squeeze their spots in public.

And yet in some ways Under Manners feels like it could have been written today. We still see men whining about how difficult it is to know whether or not they should open doors for women or help them carry things; here’s Stones suggesting (as, it’s easy to forget, people have been doing for decades) that perhaps these courtesies could be extended to anyone who looks like they might appreciate them, regardless of gender. Swearing is perfectly acceptable, unless around people who will be shocked by it. A section on sexual etiquette solves the problem of how to respond to men grossed out by women menstruating (solution: do not have sex with immature people) or to people who say “I love you” in the throes of passion. We’re instructed to address women as “Ms.” until we find out that they prefer a different title, and not to despise small talk as a way of making people comfortable (sample conversation opener: “What’s the most disgusting food that you enjoy eating? Mine is goats’ feet”). We are told how to apologise to friends after getting drunk and throwing up on their floors, how to buy inexpensive wine and look like we know what we’re doing, how to freeze out a racist or a homophobe at a party without breaking furniture. I have bookmarked certain pages for future reference.

So what has changed in the last twenty years? Technology, certainly, though I suppose I now know how to address an email to the queen. And I’m unlikely ever to wear gloves to dinner. In all other respects, though, the world seems disappointingly similar.

**********************************************

May 7, 2013

Iron Man 3 as Literary Fiction (and other bullet points)

[This post is full of spoilers, obviously]

I saw this, then at 5:30 am I sat down and wrote this synopsis of the novel that Iron Man 3 could have been, and thought it was funny. Blame 5:30 am:

Tony, a middle-aged polymath, has been traumatised by the (before the opening of the novel) recent attack upon the Earth by aliens. He is unable to sleep, his relationship begins to fall apart, and he turns to tinkering with machines  for comfort. Then an old enmity, based on Tony’s accidental rudeness to a stranger at a party years ago, returns to haunt him.

Tony lives in a world that is increasingly complex, with technology, and even human biology, changing too quickly for many of its characters to keep up. Meanwhile, a new terrorist threat seems to have arisen in China. As the story progresses we learn some banal truths about narratives of terror, recent construction of China as major threat, the complicity of US politicians in some of the less pleasant aspects of capitalism. But Tony, with his vivid memory of recent events, sees these things for the hollow sham that they are. Once ALIENS HAVE ATTACKED, who cares about the threat from China?

Eventually, Tony throws himself into these simpler causes. He saves the US president, whom the novel has already accused of doing awful things; he disbands and undoes the research of rogue scientists (that might, as unethical as it was, have been of help to us next time ALIENS ATTACKED)*. In the face of a vast and unknowable universe potentially full of ALIENS. THAT ATTACK, in the end Tony can only cling to narratives he knows to be outdated.

 

Bullet points:

  • People’s clothes (and hair, as Adam Roberts pointed out on twitter) are disturbingly flame-proof.
  • Villainous sidekick character resembles evil China Mieville. Which naturally recalls this.
  • Ben Kingsley is hilarious and a wonderful surprise–what seemed like a racially (and otherwise) dubious plot and casting choice turns out to be (mostly) about our construction of racial others as threats and so forth. Except:
  • (1) It does so by, (quoting Gerry Canavan quoting Ramzi Fawaz), “bizarrely mak[ing] disabled veterans villains as a way of deflecting assumptions about Middle Eastern people as terrorists”
  • (2) I’m now very curious about the version of the movie that opened in China, with an extended role for Fan Bingbing.
  • (3) …okay, this is probably too long for a bullet point, but. Given the context in which this movie was made and released, one gets the feeling that the audience discomfort with the idea of the Mandarin as supervillain (and of his being played by Ben Kingsley), or with the  was a vital part of the reaction the film wanted to evoke, it’s a film about itself, pre-empting and reacting to the fans. Which is interesting, but this is all it does. There has to be a middle-ground between the po-faced grimness of the Nolan movies (that begs to be parodied) and this half-hearted postmodern-lite.
  • (4) all of which makes me wonder, if the rumours about Benedict Cumberbatch’s role in Star Trek: Into Darkness are true, whether that movie will also negotiate its casting choices in a similar way (or will they go for straight up offensive?). Twice in one month might be a little hard to stomach.
  • For the majority of this movie Stark is not in his suit. Taking the superhero costume out of the superhero movie makes a big difference. Man in hoodie facing indestructible, glowing bodies is a different genre, visually, from man in outlandish red and gold costume facing indestructible glowing bodies. In those moments it looked a bit like a horror movie. That was pretty cool.
  • We know that Stark is traumatised by the events of The Avengers because he kindly sits down and tells Pepper Potts that he is traumatised by the events of The Avengers. As this review (which is harder on the film than I am, I did genuinely enjoy it) notes, the film seems to set itself up to show us “how Stark will reach within himself while facing fearful odds to overcome his trauma but there is not ONE single scene during which Stark performs any kind of real introspection.”
  • I love you, Paul Bettany.
  • I love you most of all, Rebecca Hall.

 

 

*I’m aware that some fans have read that situation as Stark figuring out the glitches in Hansen and Killian’s work, leaving Pepper still superhuman but less likely to suddenly explode. I didn’t get that sense at all, to me it seemed obvious that he’d managed to rid her of (as she seemed to want) all the effects of the treatment.

May 5, 2013

The monster and the children’s book

The Monster in Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster requires Moin to draw it in order that it may have a corporeal form. Its giant nose, hideous face and fearsomely purple skin turn out to be a bit too much for Moin’s weak artistic skills. Much to its disgust, the Monster must go about looking like this:

I did a very silly interview with Anushka at the Duckbill blog when the second Moin book came out. I asked her a couple of over-inflated, “serious” questions about the book: about the monster’s self-identification as a monster, about its lack of a name and a gender, and so forth. I’m not sure what it says about me that I now think my parody questions focused on an aspect of the book that I think is rather important.

Another recent children’s book (though for younger readers than Moin’s audience) is The Pleasant Rakshasa by Sowmya Rajendran and artist Niveditha Subramaniam. It’s about Karimuga, a rakshasa whose beauty causes the other rakshasas to feel jealous and insecure. Being a saintly sort of person, Karimuga arranges it so that his numerous assets are  distributed among his peers.

There’s already enough in this outline of the plot to suggest that this book is very deliberately doing a couple of interesting things. The rakshasa as “pleasant” and unselfish, for one. I don’t think any twenty-first century children’s book (insert hollow laugh, because you just know there are some authors and publishers who will still enthusiastically prove me wrong) can still disseminate seriously the idea that entire races of sentient beings are fundamentally “bad”. The redistribution of assets, if not property (though beauty is itself a kind of currency); if this blog had very different politics I’d be writing an outraged Are Tulika Books Indoctrinating Our Children With Communist Propaganda? story. And then there’s the association of the rakshasa with beauty. If you grew up on a diet of Amar Chitra Katha and the like you know that rakshasas are mostly hideous, mysteriously olive-green, and can only be beautiful when they want to trick you into wanting sex with them–see for example many depictions of Surpanakha.

Karimuga looks like this:

The other rakshasas were jealous of him.

“Look at his beautiful purple skin!”

“Look at his splendid red eyes!”

“Look at his wonderful hairy legs!”

“Oh, look at his huge belly!”

“And those teeth!”

 

Karimuga is beautiful because he is fat and hairy with red eyes and yellow teeth. Ravishankar’s nameless “Monster” is unconcerned with beauty–its concern is that it be as physically terrifying as the limitations of a small boy’s artistic skills can make it. Both of them, then, are offering alternative ways of “judging” appearance; one by ignoring traditional literary beauty standards altogether in favour of a much more useful paradigm, and the other by overturning those standards and creating a set of beauty standards that are almost its opposite. Incidentally, Moin’s monster was also supposed to have purple skin (and who can blame it for wanting such a thing).

I think it’s also interesting that part of the monster’s problem is that it cannot be drawn–at least, not well. Particularly when you consider some of Niveditha Subramaniam’s rakshasas:

I think it’s possibly relevant that both of these creatures exist in part outside the clear black outlines that, for example, their eyes (and the face of the green one) have. The green rakshasa also has hairy legs without really having enough leg for the hair to rest on. There’s something decidedly non-Euclidean about all of this; monstrousness, then, is undrawable.

But creating alternative standards of beauty can be as exclusionary as the original ones, as The Pleasant Rakshasa finds. All this new set of attractive traits does is to set up Karimuga as the ideal to aspire to. It’s only when Karimuga is able to share the wealth, to let go of the power that his beauty gives him (while still retaining his glorious yellow teeth because you have to be able to love your body) that any sort of revolution can happen. And Karimuga is happy.

 

[Or this is all complete nonsense. But you should read both these monster books anyway, they're excellent.]

May 2, 2013

April Reading

James Joyce, The Cats of Copenhagen: That’s the second time in a few months I’ve written about a children’s book that was a gift from my best friend. Column here.

Anushka Ravishankar, I Like Cats: I reread this while writing the column above. Anushka is a friend and former colleague so I am clearly biased, but my fondness for her work, particularly this book, predates the few months when we worked in the same office. Lovely, silly poem; gorgeous illustrations by artists from across the country in a range of different styles.

Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me: I need to read more Crusie, because this was often really funny. Unfortunately, I ended up reading it as a horror novel.

Rae Earl, My Mad, Fat, Teenage Diary: I usually have clever ways of getting access to British TV, but was unable to watch the series based on this book. I read it in a day and have been failing to write about it ever since, but I think I liked it? I think it was charming?

Indira Goswami, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (trans. Aruni Kashyap): Written about for the column, here.

Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam, The Pleasant Rakshasa: I adored this and have half a blog post written to explain why.

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo: Written about for the column, and the most fun I’ve had reading anything in ages.

Adam Foulds, The Broken Word: For the column, but I think it may spark another post soon as well.

Himanjali Sankar, The Stupendous Timetelling Superdog: Himanjali is also a former colleague and a friend (and I have met the dog, the two daughters and the husband in Germany who obviously bear no resemblance whatsoever to the dog, two daughters and husband in Germany in the book), so this is clearly not an official review. But I thought this was adorable. It’s full of silly puns, snark at institutions and the media, and absolutely nothing is resolved in the end.

Ruby Hembrom and Boski Jain, We Come from the Geese: A picture book based on a Santhal origin myth. It’s told well; it has a rhythm to it that feels like myth. But what really drew me to it were the illustrations–really bold black and white, intricate, repeated patterns, strong lines. Unexpected and lovely.

Rachel Hartman, Seraphina: I was a little underwhelmed by this, possibly a natural reaction to a number of very enthusiastic reviews. It’s a good idea, and on the whole it’s well done. And yet. It’s not enough, somehow. The dragons aren’t quite alien enough to justify the text’s positioning of them, the romance is just a shade too predictable. The prose, though, is exactly what it needs to be.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl: I’m glad I read this just in time to vote for it in the Locus poll, and sorry I didn’t read it earlier so I could gush about it more. I’d read some positive reviews and seen it win the Tiptree award, but nothing quite prepared me for just how solidly good and disturbing and intense Kiernan’s book would turn out to be. Best book of 2012, probably.

Jerry Pinto and Garima Gupta, When Crows Are White: I’ve been a fan of Garima Gupta’s art for a few years now–she has been one of the best illustrators in the country for quite some time. Pinto wrote what was probably last year’s most critically acclaimed Indian novel. And the art here is gorgeous, and the prose is nimble and the voice is knowing and wryly funny. And then it just stops. It feels like it is suspended between fable and story of revolution, but it doesn’t complete either of the stories it promises and I don’t understand why anyone would have left it that way.

Stephanie Laurens, And Then She Fell: Is a Laurens book. I still read them. Then I rant about them. At least nowadays I skip past the very samey sex scenes.