Archive for ‘Guardian20’

May 13, 2014

Joanne M Harris, The Gospel of Loki

I wanted this to be so much better than it was. Reviewed for TSG.
Meanwhile, my ongoing love affair with parentheses has reached the point where I have now begun a review with one.

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(Very) broadly speaking there are a couple of different forms that mythical retellings take. The first of these is simply to educate; for children (or adults) who have not learnt these stories, or this particular set of myths, from story-loving grandparents or however else this sort of thing is passed on from one generation to another. You might call this the Amar Chitra Katha model; there’s a famous story that Anant Pai started the series because he was shocked to discover Indian children who knew more about Greek or Roman mythology than about myths born on the subcontinent. Retellings of this sort tend towards the uncontroversial; a universally accepted version of the stories that doesn’t offend anyone (or anyone with the numbers or clout to have it stopped).

At the other end of the spectrum is the retelling that assumes its audience to already be familiar with the broad outline of the story (possibly through reading the sort of basic mythology above) and uses this assumption as an excuse to explore, tease out nuance, be provocative. It refers not just to the myth itself but to the centuries of meaning that have been added to it; uses the weight of its original story in its favour. To rewrite myth is to start off with really powerful tools.

Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki is in a rather strange position, in this respect. On the one hand, the Norse myths are still less universally known than the Greek or Roman, and there’s probably an argument to be made for straight retellings of the myth, even at a time when certain Marvel comics-based movies have made one form of these characters particularly popular. Harris has written two young adult novels set in the aftermath of Ragnarok (The Gospel of Loki narrates the events leading up to it); it’s clear that she has clearly embedded herself deeply in these stories, but also that she’s willing to play with them.

And Harris chooses Loki for her narrator.

In Loki, Harris has the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Loki is a trickster god, the father (and mother) of lies, as he reminds us in the foreword; he is wildfire, a being born of chaos. To choose him to tell a story is a brave choice, and opens up almost unlimited possibilities for what can be done with the narrative, even when, with this myth more than most, the ending is so constantly present, and so inevitable.

There’s playfulness and some deliberate subversion in the title; early on Loki speaks of the religion that would, “five hundred years later or so, […] supplant us; not through war, but through books and stories and words” and it’s tempting to see in this a suggestion that this religious future has affected this book, this story, these words. The gospel (literally “good news”, but so embedded in its Christian context that it’s all but inextricable) of Loki, the father of lies. In his early descriptions of himself Loki often stresses the connection with Lucifer (Harris is, of course, far from being the first writer to make that connection), even calling himself “Light-Bringer”. A scattered reference to Pandaemonium (a name invented, of course, in another great mythic retelling), a narrator who swears by Gog and Magog, the lovely, stained glass-effect cover. But then we’re told that The Gospel of Loki is a rough translation of Lokabrenna; “bręnna”, it turns out, is “to burn”. There’s so much going on here; enlightenment and lies and destruction and religious truth all wrapped up in two alternate titles.  It’s enough to make you expect great things.

Yet, what we get is disappointingly tame. Each chapter of the first section begins with a warning against trust (“Never trust a ruminant”, “Never trust a lover”, “Basically, never trust anyone”). The Father of Lies turns out to be surprisingly trustworthy; barring one or two incidents in which he lies only to explain the lie a few pages later, Loki’s version of events isn’t really that different from what he describes as the “authorised” version.

“there was something magnificent in the Old Man; something noble and melancholy that might almost have touched my heart.” One of the things that most appeals about the Norse myths is the vastness and doomed-ness of them. I love them for it, but it’s tempting also to puncture that sense of importance, possibly by highlighting the sillier portions of the myths, or simply by adopting an irreverent tone. Loki is mostly petulant here, and often with good reason, but his flippant accounts of the residents of Asgard are often excellent—I’m particularly fond of a throwaway description of teenagers (human and werewolf) which includes the phrase “buttock sandwich”. There are dutiful references to that one time Thor had to dress in women’s clothes and that other time Loki had sex with a stallion and gave birth to a foal of his own. Yet it’s still more pleasantly scandalous than transgressive.

There’s a place for safe-but-slightly-irreverent retellings, and perhaps to be disappointed in this book for not being more than what it is is unfair. But The Gospel of Loki repeatedly insists on the power that stories have, on how they shape worlds and destinies. “Words are the building blocks of Worlds; words and runes and names”, we’re told, and elsewhere:

Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead. And that’s why the King of Stories ended up being King of the gods; because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.

We’re told of the transformative power of myth, we’re given a narrator who is born out of the same chaos as the words he wields. High expectations only seem fair.

Perhaps there’s another clue in that title, Lokabrenna. It’s almost as if The Gospel of Loki were setting itself up to crash and burn.

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It’s also worth reading Liz Bourke’s review here; Liz also initiated a discussion elsewhere on the meaning of “Lokabrenna” that made me look for more information, and that influenced how I read it here.
September 12, 2013

“The Indian” reads Rumer Godden

I’ve been reading Rumer Godden’s India novels recently, and have found myself both impressed and annoyed by them. More impressed an annoyed, though, and I do wish I’d read them as a teenager.

This was published in the Sunday Guardian this past weekend.

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To read Rumer Godden only as an adult feels like missing out on some vital part of the experience. Often featuring thoughtful, intense, young women, they are exactly the sort of thing my teenage self craved.

A selection of Godden’s early works, set in India, were recently reissued by Virago Modern Classics. India played a major role in the author’s life. She spent much of her childhood first in Assam, then in Narayanganj in what is now Bangladesh, after the outbreak of the First World War put an end to her time at school in England. As a young woman she opened a dancing school in Calcutta, and, years later as her marriage was failing, lived for a time with her children in Kashmir.

Much of what occurs in these books is, if not directly autobiographical, at least strongly drawn from personal experience. In The River the large family in a house on the river bank in Narayanganj bears a  close resemblance to the author’s own (Godden was one of four sisters). Breakfast With the Nikolides has two sisters coming to join their father in India when the Second World War breaks out in Europe, just as Godden herself did during World War One. Kingfishers Catch Fire is loosely based on an incident that took place while Godden and her children were in Kashmir. Godden was close to her older sister (the author Jon Godden, with whom she collaborated on a number of non-fictional works) and pairs of sisters appear again and again in these books: Binnie and Emily in Breakfast With the Nikolides, Harriet and Bea in The River, Halcyon and Una in The Peacock Spring. Sometimes less attractive or outwardly interesting than their siblings, these characters are observers first of all. In her introduction to the books Rosie Thomas describes Breakfast With the Nikolides’s Emily and Kingfishers Catch Fire’s Teresa as “vulnerable, observant individuals […] deficient in charm but gifted with perception beyond their years”. This is true also of The River’s Harriet, stumbling over her first attempts to be a writer, and trying to work out what it means to be a person, and learning that “the world goes on turning, and it has all these troubles in it”. Observers themselves, these characters are partly detached from the events of the story, even as they affect events deeply. To anyone who has been a child, has watched adults, and the world, failing and showing their imperfections, there’s something deeply moving about all of this.

But even more than the rich inner lives of her characters, I’m fascinated by the attitude that Godden’s books have towards India.

Black Narcissus was Godden’s first commercially successful book. In it, a house in the Himalayas, facing Kanchenjunga, is given over to a group of nuns to establish The Convent of St. Faith. At first the sisters are enchanted by their beautiful surroundings; the clarity of the light, the imposing mountain, all add an intensity that at first they welcome. “they were filled with a kind of ecstasy. They woke in the late October mornings before the sun had reached the hills, and saw its light travel down from snow and cloud over the hills, until it reached the other clouds that lay like curds in the bottom of the valley”.

But all too soon, this first rush of ecstasy fades. “They were so tired. The light at Mopu seemed to make the yellowness of their faces more yellow against their wimples; their steps sounded heavy in the clear air. They were not strong enough for the wind”.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that something about the spot makes it impossible for the convent to continue here. It’s nothing so mundane as a haunting, though it’s tempting to read Black Narcissus as a horror novel; but the oppressive grandeur of the mountain, the feeling that they are not completely safe among the local Indians, perhaps even the clarity of the air exacerbate the small problems and flaws among the nuns. Somehow, it’s all too much. The whole thing ends in tragedy, and the sisters return to England.

I snickered a little during the introduction, where Rosie Thomas claims that Black Narcissus “thrums with sex”, but it is certainly thrumming with something. Godden’s writing is often so descriptive as to verge on the purple were it not so sharply observed. If there’s certainly an element of orientalising India as she writes about it, the sights, textures and sounds she invokes all feel familiar, the result of lived experience. But if these are the words of an author who knows the country, at times the books evoke another India; one that is unknowable and inaccessible.

Good Europeans want to embrace India in Godden’s books. There’s a clear moral line being drawn through most of Breakfast With the Nikolides between Louise Poole who loathes India and her husband and daughter who both love it. Charles Poole has settled in the country and made it his own; Emily Poole seems willing to do the same. So strongly are our sympathies solicited for one side and not the other that the book almost glosses over the reasons for Charles and Louise’s estrangement—his sexual assault of his wife is reduced to a minor detail. Like Louise, Sophie Barrington-Ward in Kingfishers Catch Fire is a far from ideal parent. Yet in the matter of India she is set up by the book as clearly superior to her compatriots in the country who choose to try and replicate their English lifestyles as far as possible. And if Black Narcissus’s Mr Dean isn’t necessarily more virtuous than the nuns, he’s certainly better equipped to live in Mopu than most of the other Europeans.

There’s a tradition in some sorts of literature in which the “good” European is the one who treats the non-white natives (or the servants, if no natives happen to be about) better than some of his ruder countrymen. Think of Victorian adventure books (or Enid Blyton, or even the Tintin stories) in which a minor act of kindness may earn the noble English character a faithful native servant for life. In setting up these oppositions between the English people who feel kindly towards India and those who don’t, Godden often seems about to fall into this tradition. It is one of her strengths that she does not. Where a massive difference in power or status exists, friendship is hard to come by. Sophie may think she is living frugally among the Kashmiris; to the inhabitants of the village she is extravagant with her money and easily cheated—and though she may mean well they will always, and with good reason, be suspicious. Harriet in The River withholds the information that leads to the death of her brother, and so the family servant is sacked. A completely innocent interlude between Emily Poole and a young Indian student causes a violent, destructive riot. English people, even the nice, well-meaning ones, don’t get the luxury of somehow rising above their material contexts, and are often shown to be foolish or naïve for thinking that they can.

So if there’s something about India that compels Godden’s favoured characters to draw closer, it’s also something that ultimately eludes them, and something with which their fascination can be dangerous. India is turned into something like the cobra that fascinates Harriet’s brother in The River—too interested in it to let his parents know that it is in the garden, he watches it for days before it kills him. Breakfast With the Nikolides and Black Narcissus both end in tragic deaths, and Sophie of Kingfishers Catch Fire is in danger of it when she is poisoned.

And what of Indians themselves? It’s hard to tell. Godden does have the occasional Indian who appears as a fully realised character. Breakfast With the Nikolides introduces us to Narayan and Shila, a young couple trying to navigate the marital relationship in a rapidly changing culture. Narayan also has an intense friendship with a young man named Anil, and some of their exchanges are about as interior, and as erotically charged, as anything I’ve read. The Peacock Spring has a young Bengali poet as a major character. These are exceptions. While Godden often speaks of “the Indian”— “the Indian cultivator is rooted in deep, slow prejudice”, “the Indian[‘s ] sense of social service and citizenship is small”— she rarely speaks of Indians. The vast majority of the Indians in these books exist as background figures, part of larger populations (the farmers, the villagers, the crowd in the bazaar), undifferentiated, and by virtue of their sheer difference from the English protagonists, vaguely menacing. Deeply intertwined with the intense, sensual undercurrent of the writing is a sense of unease at this unpredictable, unknowable mass of people.

I can easily imagine the child reader I was devouring Godden’s work, thrilling with the sheer unfairness of the adult world, the sensory overload of the prose, the writing that, yes, thrums with sex. And I imagine that reader identifying deeply with the white-skinned teenaged protagonists, and finding it (because they are such good teenaged protagonists!) deeply satisfying. As an adult, I’m torn between these finely-drawn, brilliant characters and my real place, somewhere in that brown mass.

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July 24, 2013

Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

No regular column this week because I was reading and writing about Galbraith’s debut novel instead. And about the new Rowling. It’s been a busy week.

This was published in the Sunday Guardian, here.

 

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It’s impossible to write an innocent review of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling after the events of these last few days. We all know why it’s being reviewed, why it’s at the top of the Amazon bestselling charts at the moment—last week it was revealed that Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Rowling apparently submitted the manuscript anonymously; it was rejected by some publishers before being picked up by Sphere. Rowling seems to have wanted to write free of the weight of expectation her name carries with it. That, of course, is no longer an option. That weight of expectation has now fallen heavily upon the book. It has become the focus of editorials about the State of Publishing (capital letters required) all week, either because it’s fascinating that critics, not knowing who its author was, should have given it positive reviews (and what are the implications of that?) or because it is somehow supposed to be meaningful news that the hardback sales of a book by an unknown, barely-promoted debut author should not have been in the thousands. Whatever one says about The Cuckoo’s Calling thus has a meaning that goes beyond the book itself. The completely objective review is probably a myth, but rarely is a book so heavily outweighed by its own context. I might not have read this book and certainly wouldn’t be reviewing it were it not for the revelation of Rowling’s secret authorship.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime novel in five acts, centred around the death of the supermodel Lula Landry. Lula’s mysterious fall from her balcony is thought to be suicide, but her brother is not convinced. He hires private detective Cormoran Strike to find out whether his sister was really murdered. Strike must also sort out his relationship with his new temporary secretary who is efficient, attractive, and more interested in the case than she is in him.

This is a book that places itself very solidly in its specific genre tradition. Cormoran Strike is the classic private eye in his shabby office in a run-down building; approaching middle-age, overweight and in possession of a prosthetic leg (as a result of his time in the army), and currently homeless as a result of the end of his marriage. He is also, for some reason, irresistible to beautiful women. In some ways it’s as if someone had tried to transpose a Raymond Chandler novel upon London. This sits rather uneasily with the very definitely twenty-first century feel of much of the plot’s London setting; the young musician who avoids the paparazzi by putting on a wolf’s mask, the exciting fashion design and the use of google search in the crime-solving business. There are no smartphones; perhaps that would be a step too far.

Since we can’t un-know its author, it’s inevitable for those of us who came to the book too late to look at it in the context of Rowling’s earlier work. Some of the similarities are superficial, such as the use of the epigraph (all in Latin in this book) at the beginning of each part of the work. The delight in naming; Cormoran Strike and Lula Landry would not sound out of place in a Harry Potter book. Eager internet commenters have already pointed out that Rowling’s chosen pseudonym translates to “Fame-bright” “British stranger”.

Rowling’s strength has always been in telling a story and moving a plot along. Most of the characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling slot neatly into type, but this doesn’t hinder the novel. The genre works in Galbraith/ Rowling’s favour here; the book does nothing particularly new, but manages to be a solid, satisfying crime novel. It is interrupted on occasion by awkward prose, as when Galbraith/ Rowling describes a young man as “a masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races” (he kindly deciphers said ancestral cocktail for us a page or so later) or when she literally describes characters in terms of feline orifices (“when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around the cigarette, it looked like a cat’s anus”). But moments this spectacular are few and far between.

We’ll never know now whether, given time, word of mouth and the more affordable prices of paperbacks, Robert Galbraith would have built up a dedicated fan following of his own. I suspect he might have; The Cuckoo’s Calling is as good as or better than many popular mystery series. I might not have read the first Cormoran Strike book before I knew who its author was but I think I may be looking forward to the second.

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April 9, 2013

Amruta Patil, Adi Parva

My review of the first volume of Amruta Patil’s version of the Mahabharata was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Here it is, with more pictures–though said pictures were taken with my awful cellphone camera, since I was too lazy to make the trip downstairs to the scanner.

 

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“We are an unbroken lineage of storytellers nested within storytellers. When I open my mouth you can hear the echo of storytellers past.”

Copyright law is entirely unequipped to handle an epic storytelling tradition. Harper Collins’ sumptuous edition of Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva wisely proclaims itself to be “via” rather than “by” Patil, but the copyright page has all the usual wording asserting the writer and artist’s “moral right to be identified as the author of this work”. It’s fitting in a way that this conflict between a single author/single version of the story and the vastness of the whole should play out in this book’s paratexts, when the question of what aspects of the Mahabharata are told, and how they are interpreted, is such a major part of Patil’s book.

Because the sheer scale of the Mahabharata is something of which Adi Parva is constantly aware. To get to the beginning of this story, Patil has to begin with the origins of the universe. At one moment the whole is played out with the whole of the cosmos as its canvas, at the next, at a microscopic, cellular level. In a stunning spread the conflict between the cosmic dog Sarama and king Janmajeya is depicted with its main characters portrayed as constellations. But we also hear of rishis whose role is to “intervene with the necessary genetic data” (read: sire important children), and the universal conflict between good and evil is illustrated through the positive and negative charges in an atom. Ganga likens the story to the Indrajaal, the net of rubies that extends infinitely in all dimensions, and each of whose gems reflects all of the others.

Ganga is the sutradhaar for this part of the story,though we are informed that Ashwattama will be telling the next part. Emerging in the dusk in a small town square near the place where Janmajeya is holding his snake sacrifice, Ganga’s story has attracted a small crowd of listeners. But this is no spellbound audience, staring with eyes open and mouths shut. Her listeners have their own opinions – on her appearance or the propriety of a woman wandering about alone at this time of the day, but more importantly, on the story itself. “Is there a curse coming up? I sense a curse coming up”, complains one woman. The abundance of blessings and curses are “to distract from a plot full of holes”, complains one moustachioed gentleman, adding “I write plays for a living” to give his remarks more weight. (“How can anyone make a living writing plays?” asks an old man, with some justification.) Audience members complain that the asuras get given a raw deal in some situations, that women aren’t given their due in retellings. They also bring the story back down to earth when they request, for example, that more stories about dogs be included.

Patil has claimed elsewhere that she had to learn to paint for this book. Adi Parva is gorgeous, shifting constantly from watercolour to charcoal to pencil to collage with a range of styles on display. There’s a knowing use of familiar iconography as well. A page depicting the serpents about to be victims of Janmajeya’s sacrifice has them against a whimsical board game background of ladders. An apsara rising from the water to disturb the peace of yet another meditating rishi (as the text notes, this is something of a recurring motif in the epic) is a clear reference to Botticelli’s Venus. Blue gods and grey-brown asuras are a part of a visual tradition perhaps best known to modern readers in the form of Amar Chitra Katha. Though there’s very little sense, at least so far (Patil has indicated that there will be at least one more volume) that this iconography is being interrogated.

Then too, as much as the structure of Patil’s rendition seems to leave space for a multiplicity of interpretations, there can be only one sutradhaar. Her Ganga often shuts down avenues of debate, apoliticising the story to some extent and dismissing an audience member’s attempts to do the opposite as “partisan politics. Which is all very well, and one might argue that the last few years have seen a number of retellings of myth that examine these areas of the epics. But to bring them up and refuse to address them does this book no favours.

“In any case, you are not held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.”

There’s much to be said here about which versions of a tale are retold and disseminated, and how “write your own” is sometimes too glib a response. But Patil’s faith in the myth shines through; if any story can stand up to infinite retellings, it is this one.

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January 30, 2013

Musharraf Ali Farooqi & Michelle Farooqi, Rabbit Rap

I found Rabbit Rap hard going the first time I read it a few months ago. It was easier when I reread it for this review, but it’s still a disappointing book. Particularly when one knows just how good a writer M.A.F really is. At least I was kinder* to it than Ashley Tellis?

A version of this review was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian.

 

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A fantastic (and devoid of humans) world has reached a post-predatorial era. The uninhibited use of a pesticide called UB-Next has killed off many carnivores and driven away the rest. Meanwhile the Fishermen of Urban Lands (FOUL) have been using a laser-guided system to protect their fish, thus wiping out most species of birds of prey. The rabbits, who own most of the farms benefit the most from this state of affairs. Newfound prosperity and a freedom from predators leads to a number of changes in rabbit society—most significantly a move to above-ground dwellings that marks a huge cultural shift.

An uncritical supporter of this new way of life is Rabbit Hab, a farmer and chairman of the Lapin Alliance, who aspires to wealth and social success. He is befriended by Rabbit Fud, a director of the UB-Next company, and is persuaded to become an early adopter of the company’s new product, a fertiliser called Vegobese. He is also keen to move his extended family out of the warren and into modern housing, but is foiled in this by the cunning aged matriarch, Gran-Bunny-Ma. As these new chemical products have unintended effects and things grow more and more out of control, Rabbit Hab and Gran-Bunny-Ma find themselves on opposite sides of a social revolution.

It’s clear from the beginning that Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi’s Rabbit Rap is a work of satire. It’s not always clear what it is a satire of. Ecological issues? We have here the unchecked use of chemicals promoted by big agro-tech businesses causing huge changes in the flora and fauna of a place. Entire species are wiped out, and the food produced by these new methods is pale and tasteless. Capitalism in general? Important decisions are made over games of golf. As UB-Next’s products fail or come with unintended side-effects, they are repackaged as luxury brands, and impressive amounts of spin are applied to make exploding, or radioactive vegetables seem good. Revolutionary movements? The movement initiated by the young rabbit Freddy goes off the rails almost immediately, lacking focus and easily manipulated by a number of people with their own agendas. Is the target of the satire then modern society (“a fable for the 21st Century”, says the subtitle), and can so generalised a subject make for a successful satire? I’m not sure.

Surprisingly, the most sympathetic characters here are Freddy and Rabbit Hab himself. In their own ways, each is the innocent abroad, caught in the machinations of those around him. Both rabbits, though on opposite sides of the conflict, seem to believe sincerely in their respective causes, and neither of them appears capable of understanding the extent (all too clear to the reader) to which they are being manipulated. Rabbit Hab’s desires in life may be simple and material (an impressive-looking modern lifestyle, a less embarrassing family, a membership at a prestigious golf club) but they’re not particularly evil, and they’re easily understood. Freddy’s initial motive is an unattainable crush, yet even as he becomes first an acknowledged leader of the movement and then a scholar, he’s still easily made a fool of. The real political genius here is that of Gran-Bunny-Ma.

And there’s much to be said for the image of the seemingly weak, elderly lady scheming her way to the top by means of a more powerful understanding of the world she’s in. Just as there’s much to be said for the scenes in which Freddy interacts with the “NERD-bred” rabbits; a dynamic as influenced by 1950’s “JD” (juvenile delinquent) narratives as it is by the low slung jeans of Kids These Days (where “these days” are the mid-1990s, it’s all rather dated). But none of this is relevant, or leads to anything. Then there’s a joy in the wordplay where concepts are acronymised and inverted so that FRUMP and NERD are now desirable things to be. But a setting like this offers so much scope for linguistic play that the few instances we get merely serve to draw attention to a more general absence.

It’s too easy to dismiss a story about talking animals as silly or frivolous, unworthy of serious critique. But some of our best works of social commentary have employed animals to make their point. We don’t need to go back as far as Aesop’s Fables; the twentieth century has given us George Orwell’s Animal Farm and (more recently) Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Done well, political or social satire can be scathing and powerful, or at the very least clever. Rabbit Rap is content to be a silly book about rabbits, and I can’t help being disappointed.

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* I don’t really believe that a critic’s being “kind” to books is a virtue.

November 16, 2012

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy

Shorter version: not as awful as some of the quotes made it sound, but still weak.

Longer version (forthcoming post): why does Rowling hate fat people so much?

This appeared over the weekend in the Sunday Guardian.

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A casual vacancy, according to Charles Arnold-Baker’s Local Council Administration (quoted at the start of every chapter of J.K Rowling’s new book), is said to have occurred when a councillor’s seat is vacated during the term of office due to the councillor’s disqualification, resignation or death. Such a situation befalls the council of the small town of Pagford when councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly of an aneurysm.

Fairbrother’s death has far greater implications for Pagford than it might first appear – potentially affecting even the limits of the town. The Fields, a council estate populated by people from a distinctly different social class to most of Pagford, technically comes under the purview of the town. For a long time now, various members of the council have been trying to have the Fields declared a part of a nearby city instead. Fairbrother, himself a former resident of the Fields, led the faction in favour of keeping the area within the town.

Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy uses the politically fraught atmosphere after the councillor’s death to tell the story of the interlocking lives of a number of residents of a small town, all of whom have in some way been touched by Barry Fairbrother. At one end of the social scale is Krystal Weedon, one of Fairbrother’s pet projects. The daughter of a drug addict and frequently in trouble at school, Krystal is also the backbone of the school rowing team and is singlehandedly trying to look after her baby brother lest social services take him away. At the other end are the Mollisons, socially aspiring snobs and Fairbrother’s rivals on the council, who are seemingly possessed of every possible vice; Howard is fat, Shirley is homophobic, both are racist.

Indeed, a large portion of The Casual Vacancy seems dedicated to showing us just how unpleasant and how banal its characters’ lives are. They speak and think in cliché; “Christ, it puts everything in perspective though,” sighs Miles Mollison. “Goes to show, doesn’t it,” says Simon Price (“portentuously,” in case the reader somehow missed the point).

No one here is entirely pleasant. Parminder Jawanda, Fairbrother’s ally on the council, may have the right politics (and it’s always clear what those are) but she is a terrible mother to her youngest daughter. Kay Bawden, a social worker, clings desperately to a relationship that is over. Simon Price is abusive and violent; his wife Ruth enables and excuses his behaviour.

Even the characters who live in the Fields don’t escape this treatment. Worse still, as readers who cringed through some of Hagrid’s speeches in the Harry Potter books will be alarmed to hear, Rowling has chosen to try to render their accents phoenetically. Presumably the rest of the residents of Pagford speak with crisp RP accents.

The only characters who emerge from all of this as people are the children. Each of the teenaged characters in The Casual Vacancy feels (like most teenagers, presumably) powerless and isolated, and all of them are victimised and disgusted by the behaviour of the adults around them. Yet the entire focus of the book is on these young people; from the debate about schooling that divides the council to the mysterious hacking of the council website that allows the teenagers to influence their town’s politics – to the tragic double funeral at the end of the book. Adults are mocked for not being young; a grown woman who tries to dress like a girl and another who is fascinated by a boy band are both portrayed as ridiculous. In a move that will certainly date this book, the novel takes for its refrain Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. The only adult character to come out of this looking good is Barry Fairbrother himself, and he is dead.

The result of all of this is that there are two books at war within this one. The first is a structured, precise (one suspects diagrams were involved) satire about nasty, small-minded people in a small town. The other is a tragedy involving children caught up in forces they can’t entirely control. The opposition between these two results in some scenes that are frankly embarrassing – at one point the vision of evil, fat (and to be fat is treated here as a serious moral failing) Howard Mollison, receiving good medical care with his family around him is juxtaposed with that of an innocent, dead child.

One of the complaints often levelled at the Harry Potter series was that, as it grew in popularity, the books became more and more bloated. Rowling may have left behind the wands and unicorns, but The Casual Vacancy has more in common with those later Harry Potter books than one could wish. There’s probably a sharp, cutting work of social satire in here somewhere, but you’d have to hunt around to find it.

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October 11, 2012

Janice Pariat, Boats on Land

Janice Pariat’s book of short stories has been one of the bigger releases in Indian publishing this year. I thought the collection rather uneven, but it’s also clever, careful, and often excellent. My review was published in last weekend’s TSG, and is here on the paper’s website.

 

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The first story in Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land begins with the power of the spoken word. “Ka ktien. The first, a short, sharp thrust of air from the back of the throat. The second, a lift of the tongue and a delicate tangle of tip and teeth”. It’s a reminder that language is made with the body and that its sounds are physical; the written word here is “feeble and carries little power”. It’s also a reminder that the Khasi language originally had no script, and that the region has had a strong oral culture.

Perhaps that’s why the telling of stories is such a prominent feature of this collection. Many of these are first person narratives, and there’s usually a sense that these tales are being told to an audience; whether it be a very specific audience in the title story, or a more general one in “Echo Words” or “Keeper of Souls”. Other stories, like “Embassy”and “Sky Graves”, feature storytelling as a part of their plots.

The fifteen stories that make up this collection are set mainly in and around Shillong. It’s possible to work out from the details Pariat lets drop that they are also arranged roughly chronologically. “A Waterfall of Horses”, the first story, is set in the 1850s, “Echo Words” soon after Independence, “Laitlum” in the 1990s, and so on. The city’s past and the changes it has undergone over time are reflected upon throughout the book. The narrator of “Hong Kong” feels “the weight of everyone’s history press down on me like relentless rain”. She’s not the only one of Pariat’s protagonists to feel that way. The titular character of “Keeper of Souls” is burdened by an ability to see the souls of the dead. But “that’s what pilgrimages are for, really. To think about the places and people you leave behind”, says an elderly shopkeeper in “Pilgrimage”.

This is not the only way in which the passing of time is central to Boats on Land. There’s also a sense that the perspectives through which these stories are told are aging through the book – the child narrator of “A Waterfall of Horses”, the awkward young women of “Secret Corridors” and “Laitlum”, the young lovers of “Embassy” and “Hong Kong” all lead up to the adult couples of “Aerial View” and “Keeper of Souls”.

And then there is the magic. Pariat begins her book with a quote from Alejo Carpentier, “I found the marvelous real with every step”. The line between the real and the marvellous is being constantly crossed through these stories, though even that changes over time. Magic is resorted to outright in early stories like “A Waterfall of Horses” and “Echo Words”; prophetic dreams are taken seriously in “At Kut Madan”. But by the end of “Dream of the Golden Mahseer” we see the young boy who believes that “only old people” believe in spirits; henceforth magic must leak into the stories in more subtle ways. And so we have the tailor of “19/87”, who interprets lottery numbers from dreams and the shape shifters of “Sky Graves” who are removed from us by one degree by being the subjects of someone else’s story. In the story “Embassy” young woman fighting off unwanted advances “became a waterfall”. Pariat allows that simple statement a glorious ambiguity; is this magic, metaphor, or merely the rambling of an unreliable drunken man?

Boats on Land gives us few neat plots or easy resolutions. Pariat is at her best when she is most restrained and this, fortunately, is often. Which is why it is disappointing when she occasionally crosses over and gives us too much information in the form of narrators who have no visible reason to believe that their audiences don’t know about the political stances of various student unions, or the decade in which the story is taking place. It’s possible, for example, that there are readers who won’t recognise the cover art of Nirvana’s Nevermind as it is described in “Laitlum”, but it’s still jarring when Pariat insists on telling us what it is.

Compare that to a moment in “19/87” in which a young man visiting a tailor named Suleiman picks up the scissors from the tailor’s worktable. The story has already established a growing intolerance against outsiders in the city and so the author sees no need to tell us that Suleiman might be wary, or why. Yet we share his unease until the scissors can be put away. Pariat’s prose is frequently gorgeous but it’s in unobtrusive moments like this, moments in which the reader is trusted to play along, that Boats on Land really shines.

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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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May 13, 2012

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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

I wrote this a while ago for the Sunday Guardian.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.

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In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.

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