Sunday 20 August 2017

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

A few thoughts on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens

This is practically the Sholay of humorous fantasy books, written by the two biggest names in the industry, known to everyone who is aware of the field, and recommended on every book forum that exists. I’m almost scared to admit that it has been lying on my bookshelf for five years and I only now happened to pick it up.
I’m even more scared to admit that I didn’t think it was the best ever book of the genre. Sure, parts of it were good, and parts of it reminded me of other books that I’ve enjoyed a lot more (back to this topic in a bit), but overall it felt a bit jumbled up and generally pantsed as far as the story went.

And pantsed seems to be exactly what it was : Gaiman wrote a bit, sent it to Pratchett, who added some, and then back to Gaiman, and so on and so forth. It grew organically, thus gaining both the sudden unexpectedly rich passages that come from spontaneous writing, and also suffering from the not knowing the overall arc in advance. The jokes come thick and fast - but either work for you or fall flat, depending on your mood. Maybe if I’d read this lying around in a hammock in Hawaii, all tensions left behind, I’d have enjoyed this more. As it was, the success rate was maybe 30% of the jokes. 

I don't suppose I need to explain the story to you: Apocalypse is here, and an angel and a demon who have gotten far too used to the world as it is, are trying to prevent it happening. In the meantime, the Antichrist, who is an 11 year old boy, is not quite sure he wants to destroy the world. But it would be nice to make this minor change, and that one... and in the middle of all this is a witch who's descended from the only true prophesier ever, a young man who's just signed up with the Witchfinder army, and random other folks who are annoyed at the turn of events. About what you'd expect from the intellectually zany Terry Pratchett and the intellectually playful Neil Gaiman.

But returning to the bits I particularly enjoyed: DEATH of Discworld-and-capital-letters fame, who livened up every scene he was in, even if he wasn’t as tongue-in-cheek as in the Pratchett books. His three other partner horsemen (of the apocalypse) felt kind of forced in comparison - walk-on roles, delivering their lines because they were asked to.

And another bit I loved: William Brown, who shows up here renamed to Adam Young. As a long-time fan of the Richmal Crompton William books, I noticed Gaiman’s mimicry of the accent as soon as I saw it, and was vindicated when Gaiman mentioned it as a specific source in his afterword.

Another little bit, not directly related to the book itself, which I’m loving: David Tennant of Broadchurch/Jessica Jones/Dr. Who fame will be playing Crowley in a TV series of Good Omens. I couldn’t have asked for a better actor!

But did I hate the book? Not really. Loved it to bits? Not really. The Discworld books are the last word in humorous fantasy if you ask me, and I’d probably choose those over Good Omens.

Sorry, Neil. 

Don't Let Go, by Michael Bussi

A few thoughts on Michael Bussi’s Don’t Let Go

So this is the third of Bussi’s books translated from the French into English, and so far I’ve read them all, in sequence of (translation) publication. My first thoughts when I read Don’t Let Go was that this must be an earlier book of his. It eschews much of the fancy writing techniques that characterized the first two books (After the Crash, Black Water Lilies) - there’s no unreliable narrator, there’s no twist out of the blue, there’s no shuffling of time. On the face of it, this is a relatively straightforward chase thriller set in an exotic location.

Martial Bellion’s wife has disappeared, probably murdered, from their hotel room on Reunion Island. Eyewitnesses say he was in their room for a while, leaving behind blood on the walls and taking along a laundry cart that might have held his wife’s body.

Now he’s on the run, taking along his young daughter, finding ways to escape the island-wide manhunt launched by its entire police force. He certainly acts guilty, but did he really kill his wife? We’ll go through a long series of manhunt-evading maneuvers and counter-moves by the police before we find out.

I read a review a long while back of the movie Terminator 2, which said the movie was basically 4 chase scenes punctuated by dialogue. A similar reduction could be done of this novel. Again and again, Bellion finds a refuge, or seems to be cornered, with the police moving ever closer, and again he manages to slip through the trap. Some of these are made to show off Reunion Island’s scenery and geographical quirks. In between, we have a varied cast of characters digging up details of the case: an ambitious inspector, a sex-crazed deputy, a local “Miss Marple” (a little confused on the role of this Miss Marple, by the way - but I suppose she adds local colour and some tension towards the end).

The ending, let it be said, has no surprises beyond those mandated by the genre. And if there’s a weakness to Bussi, it is a tendency to give happy endings, or at least proper closure, to his leading characters. True, there are a couple of disturbing murders here, but things could have been much, much worse.

This doesn’t mean the book is boring. It moves quickly, there is a constant barrage of twists and facts and revelations, and of course the writing/translation is more than competent. The setting of the novel, and the descriptions of the class structure of the place, are a novelty, but that is about all the novelty there is. It is as if Bussi is aiming for a clean, straight novel that one can read at a sitting. In that motive, he succeeds splendidly. 

Saturday 19 August 2017

A Mirrored Life, by Rabisankar Bal

A few thoughts on Rabisankar Bal’s A Mirrored Life

So, a biography of Rumi, as narrated by Ibn-e-Batuta? What’s not to like, for a modern reader who’s read the Coleman Barks’ translation of Rumi’s iridescent poetry, who want to hear more of that Sufi longing for the beloved?

This book is a mistake for you, modern reader. Because it talks of Rumi not as a poet, but as a Maulana, a religious teacher. And the focus of the book is the deep (shall we say divine) affection between Rumi and Shamsuddin Tabrezi, another mystic that Rumi revered as his teacher and guide. It also talks of Rumi’s father (a religious teacher himself), and his wife and children, and of Rumi’s composition of his masterpiece, the Masnavi. A few places, yes, Rumi’s poetry shines through, but that’s not the focus. The religion and the person is.

Once that expectation is set, the book reads better. It describes how Ibn-e-Batuta came to be entrusted with a manuscript written by Rumi, which talks of his, Rumi’s, life story. Batuta then narrates from this manuscript in Rumi’s voice, interspersing it with a bit of his own intentions to travel. The story begins from Rumi’s childhood and his wandering life with his father, and goes up to him preparing for death. Shamsuddin Tabrezi - I had to look him up on the net - yes, he’s a real figure and his companionship with and guidance of Rumi is extremely well known - the book expects you the reader to know who he is, actually, and foreshadows his appearance in the narrative - but I found the whole thing a little contrived, and couldn’t quite grasp the reason for the affection. That's the drawback of coming at this story blind.

The translation by Arunava Sinha is top-notch, as expected from the unofficial king of translation from Bengali. I have a copy of Dozakhnama somewhere, by the same pair of Bal and Sinha, and I probably will read it, but with tempered expectations. That one is a dialogue between Manto and Ghalib - but who knows whether Bal’s picure of Manto and Ghalib is the same as mine!

Waiting for the Mahatma, by R K Narayan

A few thoughts on R K Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma

A K Ramanujan said somewhere that no Indian hears the Ramayana for the first time. It seeps into everyone from the environment, bits and pieces are always known, and so on. He would probably have said the same for R K Narayan - no Indian of today has not heard of RKN, or is not familiar with at least some of his work. The Malgudi Days TV serial title tune is a ringtone now, the old episodes keep showing up on repeat somewhere, Swami and Friends is a rite of growing up, and so on.

Which may or may not be the right kind of justice for the writer. After all, he isn’t a childrens’ writer, nor one who peddled nostalgia. He wrote a true picture of India at the time, the 40s through the 70s, and his work was respected by serious readers. Associating him with our own childhood memories is a side effect.

This was what made me keen on reading Waiting for the Mahatma - although it was set in the town of Malgudi, it dealt with a more mature theme, talked of history and more tumultuous times, and was unlikely to feature any cute children.

All of those expectations it satisfied. WftM is the story of Shriram, a young man who lives an uneventful, closeted, life with his grandmother in a bylane of Malgudi. His life is upturned one day when he meets a young girl, Bharati, who is collecting funds for Gandhiji’s movement, in preparation for the great man’s arrival in Malgudi. Bharati is an orphan, attached to Gandhiji’s camp forever. Smitten by the girl, Shriram joins up the freedom struggle as another foot soldier. He meets the Mahatma several times, in fact is in communication with him through most of the book. The story covers the 40s, so it walks us through the common man’s experience of the freedom struggle - a very different experience from what our bombastic official accounts tell us.

The biggest surprise for me was that Narayan treats Gandhi and his movement unironically (mostly), yes, there are sly digs at how the common man interprets the movement, and the fact that Gandhiji is fine with the superhuman image of his. But still - he’s a real person here, and his word matters a great deal to Shriram and Bharati. As you read, you realize how far we’ve come from the days when Gandhiji was taken seriously - nowadays he’s an icon, on a pedestal, to be revered as a god but not to be understood.

Unexpectedly, the book did make me nostalgic - for the time when Narayan’s fluid, rooted writing was more popular and it was okay to write about small towns as simple innocent places. Ever since Arundhati Roy, Indian villages are regressive, casteist, and whatnot. Maybe either extreme is wrong - but it’s to be noted that Narayan’s village/small town are not exactly utopian - people die in them, get ostracized, go to jail, starve, all of that. But he still makes you feel like he loves them and their people - and this is what shines through in his work.

Yes, I’ll probably be reading more of his books. Maybe not Swami and Friends, though. Or maybe I will. For old times’ sake.