Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

In Herta Müller’s book, behind the back-pains, I read:

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 1, 2010

Book Cover

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller, translated from the german Herztier by Michael Hofmann. Published by Granta 2009, 240 pages. Design: Dan Mogford; Photography: Glen Erler


Don’t take me wrong, The Land of Green Plums – recommended to me as the second best of the 2009 Nobel prize winner’s books and the best among those translated into English – is a beautiful book, in almost every way possible. The problem is that there’s not much behind all the beauty. It’s just the chronicle of four independent spirits living under the cruel reign of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, and their various sufferings.

My strongest problem in all this was: exactly how happy these people would be in a free country? I never got an indication as to the unhappiness being a squashed happiness rather than just the lack of it. There is, in fact, an indication to the contrary, though I can’t reveal it because it comes too late in the book.

The book is narrated by a nameless woman (a stand-in for Müller, whose life-story this could well be), and aims to basically be a portrait of both the inner and outer lives in Ceauşescu’s Romania, following her through her interactions with friends, family, and agents of the state.

All of which could make for rather heavy going, and it does. Just never dreary. There are two reasons for this. First, obviously, the writing, which is so consistently good that no single passage stands out among the rest. So, picked out from a random review on the web:

The gym instructor was the first to raise his hand. All the other hands flew up after his. While raising their hands, everybody looked up at the raised hands of the others. If someone’s own hand wasn’t as high as the others’, he would stretch his arm a little farther. People kept their hands up until their fingers grew tired and started to droop and their elbows began to feel heavy and pull downward. Everyone looked around, and since no one else’s arm was lowered, they straightened their fingers again and extended their elbows. Sweat stains showed under the arms; shirts and blouses came untucked. Necks were stretched, ears turned red, lips parted and stayed half-open. Heads kept still, while eyes slid from side to side.
It was so quiet among the hands, someone said inside the cube, that you could hear the breathing up and down the wooden benches. And it stayed that quiet until the gym instructor laid his arm across the lectern and said: There’s no need to count, of course we’re all in favor.

And, second, the metaphors. This novel abounds in them, thanks to the often child-like and occasionally childish view taken of the world by the narrator, who has been slightly wary of life right from childhood. The green plums, for example. When she was a child, her father who she hated because he was an ex-SS man who still sang Hitler’s praises, warned her not to eat plums while they were still green, because she wouldn’t feel the soft pits going in and she couldn’t possibly be stopped from dying once it was stuck somewhere. From that day on, she starts sneaking in as many green plums as possible. Later, all the policemen in the city go out of their way to eat green plums while patrolling, and … well, never mind, I hope you catch my drift.

So, what makes this book “a beautiful book, in almost every way possible”? The handling of these metaphors within the beautiful writing; whatever forms of shallowness I found the book guilty of, emotional wasn’t one of them. Recently, I went to a short film making workshop, in which the instructor said that the best stories were the ones that had embedded in them the idea of a circle. I don’t know if I agree, but I can tell you one thing: this book takes the form of a circle, on the level of story, on the level of character, and on the level of ambient metaphor, and in this particular instance, at least, that’s how it works.


Posted in Book reviews, Books, Müller, Herta | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

“set down / This set down / This”: a complete misreading of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 11, 2010

My Edition: Translator Mirra Ginsburg, Publisher Bantam Classics

He is a sickened man … he is a spited man. An unattractive man. He thinks he is a “sick man … I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.”

In truth, he is neither sick nor spiteful.

Well, one Thursday, unable to endure my solitude any longer and knowing that Anton Antonych’s doors were shut on Thursdays, I thought of Simonov. As I climbed to his fourth-floor apartment, I was thining that this gentleman found my presence irksome and that I should not be going there. But since such thoughts would always in the end goad me still more irresistibly, as though in spite, into dubious situations, I went in.

That’s only how he acts. He is endowed with the intellect of an intelligent man who has never been able to relate to people.

He is not unattractive because he is ugly. He is, in fact, unattractive because he is unattracted.

No, in truth, he is not unattracted. He is merely scared of being attracted, of being attracted and finally rejected, scared merely because he can’t possibly see it coming.

I have in my own life merely carried to the extreme that which you have never ventured to carry even halfway

That is true, for isn’t he but the modern version of a character from a Greek morality play, a tragic character not because of what happens to him but because of who – what – he is?

Isn’t it, after all, true that the only way to explain this man, in all of his contradictory facets, is to name the character that he is?

… This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).

I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

Final note: My compliments to translator Ginsburg’s endnotes, which were both endlessly illuminating as well as view-of-the-book shaping.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“My name is A. B. C. D. Douglas; Father’s name: E. F. G. H. Douglas”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 5, 2009

Cover of Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third

Cover painting by Jatin Das

Fakir Mohan Senapati(1843-1918) has a really interesting name, because Mohan Senapati is a Hindu name whereas Fakir is a Muslim name. So, I thought I might as well explain it, my source being the introduction to this edition by Satya p Mohanty. He was born Braja Mohan Senapati. In his childhood he fell gravely ill. After his grandmother had prayed to all the Hindu Gods she turned to two Muslim saints. In exchange for curing him, she promised to give him up to their religious order as a Fakir. When he recovered, she reneged, but agreed to give him up symbolically by changing his name to Fakir.
Six Acres and a Third(Oenguin Modern Classics edition, Rs. 250) is his first novel. He is also said to have pioneered the genre of the short story in Oriya, though his pioneering story has since been lost.

Ramachandra Mangaraj was a zamindar – a rural landlord – and a prominent moneylender as well, though his transactions in grain far exceeded those in cash. For an area of four kos around, no one else’s business had much influence. He was a very pious man indeed: there are twenty-four ekadasis in a year. If there had been forty such holy days, he would have observed every single one. This is indisputable. Every ekadasi he fasted, taking nothing but water and a few leaves of the sacred basil plant for the entire day. Just the other afternoon, though, Mangaraj’s barber, Jaga, let it slip that on the evenings of ekadasis a large pot of milk, some bananas, and a small quantity of khai and nabata are placed in the master’s bedroom. Very early the next morning, Jaga removes the empty pot and washes it. Hearing this, some people exchanged knowing looks and chuckled. One blurted out, “Not even the father of Lord Mahadeva can catch a clever fellow stealing a drink when he dips under the water.” We’re not absolutely sure what was meant by this, but our guess is that these men were slandering Mangaraj. Ignoring their intentions for the moment, we would like to plead his case as follows: Let the eyewitness who has seen Mangaraj emptying the pot come forward, for like judges in a court of law we are absolutely unwilling to accept hearsay and conjecture as evidence. All the more since science textbooks state unequivocally: “Liquids evaporate.” Is milk not a liquid? Why should milk in a zamindar’s household defy the laws of science? Besides, there were moles, rats and bugs in his bedroom. And in whose house can mosquitoes and flies not be found? Like all base creatures of appetite, these are always on the lookout for food; such creatures are not spiritually minded like Mangaraj, who had the benefit of listening to the holy scriptures. It would be a great sin, then, to doubt Mangaraj’s piety or unwavering devotion.

Jonathan Swift – about whom I speak solely from reputation and hearsay – felt the need to create believable characters and put them in situations strangely reminiscent of reality to perform his satire. Fakir Mohan Senapati, in his Six Acres and a Third (translated by a veritable army consisting of Satya P. Mohanty, Rabi Shankar Mishra, Jatindra K. Nayak and Paul St-Pierre),feels no such need. His characters are all caricatures, his Orissa a land that exists only inasmuch as it helps him make his point, but I believed in them nevertheless.

When I finished this book, I thought this was a ‘great’ book in the same way that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, because of its importance. It is widely touted, to the extent that it is touted at all, as being the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature, as showing the ‘view from below’ before most of India had heard of anything along the lines of Marxism, as … well, quite a few more things, as described in Satya P. Mohanty’s (rather averagely written, even if makes good points) introduction. But, now, five days after having finished it, I realise that there may be more to the greatness this book than just importance. Not that I ever thought it wasn’t a very good book, but it just didn’t strike me as a candidate for greatness merely on basis of quality. Now, as I was typing up that quote, I realized that not only had Senapati got me to believe in the caricatures while I was reading it, I still believe in Ramachandra Mangaraj and co.

All he does is make no pretensions at depth, or naturalism. His narrator is nothing more than a ‘dispassionate’ (I’ll come back to these quotation marks) observer, who tells us merely what he sees, what he ‘concludes’, and the results of his ‘research’. This, you would think, isn’t very hard to do. Take, for counter-example, Albert Camus’s The Outsider, a review of which was my first post on this blog. My primary complaint with it was that it felt as if Camus wasn’t trying hard enough to convince us, because everything from the plot to the characters apart from the protagonist struck me as very poorly thought-out. Max Cairnduff commented saying that it wasn’t intended as a naturalistic piece in the first place. Which is a fair reason for disagreement; the primary reason we disagree about quality of art is that some things are more important to some people than they are to others. My point in bringing this up was that I felt no such irritation while reading Six Acres and a Third, which I feel even works as a naturalistic piece. This is so because Senapati makes so little pretence, makes everything he says sound so provisional, that I can take it as the version of truth as offered by someone not completely disinvolved.

And, therein lies the crux of the narration; the book is narrated by a person, or persons – even common people from Orissa and Bihar tend to use the royal pronoun, and the narrator could well be an investigator for the English, so I can’t be sure though I lean towards it being just one person –, who’s not involved but is making a thinly-veiled pretence at being one of the people whose life depends on these people whose dealings he talks of. I can say this because of the way it is said: looking at the quote, you can see three levels of narration, so to say. First, we have the fact that he is using Western courtroom logic to defend Ramachandra Mangaraj. Then, we have the fact that he is revealing facts that can only incriminate the man. Then, he is using the worst logic available to save him nevertheless, inasmuch as he will then be safe in a (caricaturised) court of law. He’s attacking Mangaraj, and thinly veiling it as a defence. The whole book – which, compliments to the author, is very short, less than two hundred very loosely packed pages – passes in such a flurry of multiple but obvious levels of deceit, most of the time more thinly-veiled than the rest of it. Sometimes, we even see trickery in the narrator’s mention of his target audience.

There is a plot, but it only comes in the second half of the book. Senapati packs most of it with a set of vignettes showcasing corruption at various levels – and the various branches of each level – of society, going as high as is relevant from the villagers’ point of view. Brahmins, peasants, zamindars, policemen, lawyers – especially lawyers, since it is their language which is used as the medium of satire –, they all come under scrutiny. There are six acres and a third, not to mention a cow, that are seized, and which go to court etc. Interestingly, even the victims of the seizing aren’t completely honest. Most interestingly, the only good people in the book barely talk; there are two, and one of them gets one scene with three, maybe four, barely functional dialogues. The other one? He only gets a few actions to perform.

It sounds so complex (here, I’m talking about morally complex, all the little implications; my ‘levels of writing’ are actually fairly obvious, even necessary for a book claiming to be a satire). But, when I read it, I thought the book was written in a simple, lucid style with few depths I was surprised to have plumbed. It is nothing more than the highest compliment to Senapati that all of his meaning came across so clearly. After I finished the book, I read Mohanty’s introduction, and there’s very little of this write-up that uses things I’ve learnt from Mohanty. Not because I found the points unworthy but because I already knew them. It was valuable only as a history lesson on this book. It is this simplicity, supported strongly by the cultural – it was the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature – as well as historical – as a burning critique of the British administration – importance that makes this a great book. And I never even mentioned the anger simmering beneath the narrative, with about as much obvious force as this sentence.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Senapati, Fakir Mohan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“The clamour of voices filled the air, each one impossible to distinguish, like the waves on a raging ocean, leaving no trace except an awesome, all-encompassing uproar.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 29, 2009

The cover

It's not as ugly as this; the colours are actually pretty toned down due to the texture of the cover, giving it a very nice look

When I read this sentence both times I started Rhadopis of Nubia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt (written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank), it sounded exactly like an excited crowd. I don’t suppose you felt any such thing while reading it, apart from maybe thinking that it was a pretty poetic line. Mahfouz’s writing, like Wodehouse’s, consistently shows this quality where the value of each sentence is strongly enhanced by the passage it is in. Just like Wodehouse’s writing is consistently fresh so that you are going to start laughing at some random word-gag, Mahfouz’s writing is consistently beautiful in a way that you are likely to feel something completely during some random burst of beauty. For me, it was the above sentence. For another reader, it would be something else.

Another thing that surprised me about the writing of this book was my discovery of the best sort of superfluousness there is. Time after time came a metaphor that was new when it was introduced, but so completely natural that I knew what he was going to say next. Unfortunately, I can’t find any examples of this now, and so can’t quote any of these (brilliant) bits.

The book is the story of how the love between a courtesan Rhadopis renown in all of Egypt as the most beautiful woman ever and the Pharaoh Merenra II causes their eventual downfall. It is, in almost every way, a Greek tragedy, where the character has a major flaw, and that flaw eventually causes his/her death. In this case, the flaw is Pharaoh’s: his pride.

I can say that despite the fact that it has a varied cast of major characters – the king’s counsellors a priest Sofkhatep and a commander Tahu, his wife Nitocris, and Rhadopis and Pharaoh – who’s characterisations are all solid, with me only confusing the source of a dialogue once, that once being my own mistake. It is a formidable achievement of the book that I was able to write down these (for me) alien names without thinking about their spellings.

The story is that Pharaoh takes away most of the lands of the priesthood, an unpopular move, to increase the splendour of Egypt, then falls in love with Rhadopis and starts showering his wealth on her, making everyone think that the latter is the cause for the former. The exact details of the downfall I won’t reveal here, except to note that for a Greek tragedy, it is remarkably surprising. Another remarkable thing is that we are given no way of knowing whether most of the insults flung by people at each other are true or not. Further to its credit, we are given indications.

And now, the most interesting thing: the eponymous Rhadopis (who I’m pretty sure is mentioned to have come from some place other than Nubia). She, as I’ve already said, is the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought of how being that affects a person, and for good reason: beauty is subjective, rendering this question meaningless. You could think of one of the most beautiful women, which is a meaningful question, but it is not the same as one person obviously towering over all the others. In the beginning, Rhadopis has a frozen inside. She has given up the thought of loving, instead drowning in meaningless sex and (other) intellectual pursuits, regularly holding court – and bed – with the top political, philosophical and artistic minds of the region (Mahfouz uses one of them , the philosopher, to take a jab at Keats: “Do not be surprised, for beauty is just as convincing as the truth.”). That is why her meeting with Pharaoh is such an important event: she completely melts, not knowing how to deal with this newfound nervousness. Needless to say, hers is the most interesting character arc in the book.

Somehow, halfway through the book, I was convinced that in some complicated way Rhadopis was a symbol for Egypt itself. Not so much a good, respectable feeling as a guess. This was the only problem I had with the book: the fact that I was out of context had an effect on how I looked at the book. Though I am sure that the book had a significance in 1930s Egypt when it was written, I found that, in the end, it has no significance at all for me. In the end, for me, it was just a beautifully written book, nothing more.

PS: the form of the title was copied from Pechorin’s Journal, written by Max Cairnduff.
Rhadopis of Nubia

(written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank),

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Mahfouz, Naguib | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on September 27, 2009

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know”, starts Albert Camus’s The Outsider, as translated by Joseph Laredo. You know that. It’s one of the most famous first lines in books. When I first read it, I thought it was supposed to show the apathy of the narrator, Meursault. However, the next few lines make it clear that it is merely a lack of information; he has got a telegram telling him only that his mother’s funeral is the next day. The next hundred or so pages make it clear that Camus put that line in to show that Meursault does not bother himself with such trifling details and probably didn’t realize that it could be explained in as simple a way as lack of information. Or, maybe he did, and didn’t care. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what’s wrong with this novel.

Meursault has no idea of his mother’s age, but he can tell you most of the advice his mother gave him as a child. This is what makes him an outsider. He has ‘nothing more to say to mother’- presumably having learnt everything she has to teach him -, so he sends her to an old age home; an act frowned upon by his neighbours. At the old age home she spends a presumably happy three years, having struck up a relationship with a man the inmates – that is how they are referred to in the book – call her fiancé. He goes to her funeral, and isn’t particularly sad. He comes back home and realises that “after all, nothing had changed.”

The next day, he strikes up a relationship of his own with a woman whom he knows from long before. We also meet two of his next-door neighbours – these aren’t the ones who frowned upon his sending his mother away – the shady Raymond and the old Salamano with his dog. Salamano loses his dog, Raymond has all sorts of trouble. . . Meursault just keeps on helping simply because he is a genial chap and sees no reason not to. He goes with Raymond to a beach where there’s a face-off at a spring between a pair of Arabs and Meursault, Raymond and their host. Meursault and Raymond go back and there’s the palpable lack of a (physical) face-off in which Meursault ends up with a gun. When they are about to go back to the host’s chateau, Meursault figures that the effort it’s going to take to climb up the stairs in the glaring sun is not any more than going back to the spring, or something like that. In other words, he’s probably got a minor stroke.

So, Part I of the book ends with him killing one of the Arabs, after he, pretty clearly, sees the other draw his knife, firing one shot and then four more, “like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.” This whole part, he seems to have written each chapter just before going to bed that day (in the case of the first chapter, the next day, because he doesn’t actually go to bed the first day of the narrative), which gives us an idea of his state of mind after having done it.

The second part is his life in prison and his trial. As far as I can tell, this part is narrated from after the trial, just before the execution (spoiler alert?).

He starts off saying that he used to not like to talk about it, but he doesn’t see the point anymore. First, he finds it hard because he keeps on thinking like a free man. Soon, however, he comes to the conclusion that

even if I’d been made to live in a hollow tree trunk, with nothing to do but look at the sky overhead, I’d gradually have got used to it. I’d have looked forward to seeing birds fly past or clouds run together just as here I looked forward to my lawyer’s curious ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait for Sundays to embrace Marie’s body.

The Dalai Lama has said, years after this was written, that no matter what happens to you, in the end you return to an average level of happiness. Meursault is someone he might refer to as the truly happy man.

Then, there’s an extended courtroom set of scenes, which is the whole problem with the novel. He’s being persecuted for not crying at his mother’s funeral as much as for the murder: he is a criminal who felt no sadness at his mother’s death and no regret for his crime. Around thirty years before this novel is set, Freud’s ideas had come into acceptance; bottled-up emotion, among many others. For the whole part, I was wondering how out of league with the times Camus was, or whether he didn’t care enough to make a better, more plausible, case – in a set of scenes which take up nearly a fifth of the book. The second problem is that of the Arab’s knife; in the killing scene Meursault clearly recorded ‘the knife in front of me’, but it never appears again in the book. If he had just told them about the knife, it would have been a case of self-defence, but Camus obviously doesn’t want that. So why was the knife there in the first place? To justify, in the moment, the killing to the reader.

After this seriously idiotic bit comes the good chapter, where we get under the skin of Meursault. I refuse to spoil this part, except to say that Meursault is shown to be good in every way Ayn Rand’s characters are, but without any of the irritatingly extreme hate for the rest of the human race. Just this chapter would make a great short story, and without all the ‘philosophy’ which is supposed to be there in the book.

Camus’s reputation is the thing that baffled me most about the book. The Outsider was nothing like Nausea – the other ‘existentialist’ book that I’ve read -, except that in the courtroom scene, Meursault imagines the room to be a train and Nausea’s hero has his seminal ‘realisation’ in a train. It compares more closely to Ayn Rand, and only in terms of characters. Point 2: this didn’t seem a statement of philosophy like Ayn Rand’s books or Nausea are. It seems to be mainly a critique of society.

A critique of a society that persecutes, for having come to terms with the ideas of life and mortality, one of the best of men. A man who understands that it is okay to die if you die at the right time, a man who understands that it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as you like her enough, a man who is virtually guaranteed to never divorce after marrying on that principle because he’s so amiable in the face of trouble, a man who is so at peace with his own death, and lust for life, that he doesn’t need religion to provide him with it, a man who – for both himself and his voice – is the only reason I like this book.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Camus, Albert | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »