Friday 22 December 2017

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

A few thoughts on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

This is why you read. This is why you read stuff you didn’t know much about. This is why you trust “best books” lists and critics’ opinions, and pick up a book you’ve never heard any of your friends talk about.
Because sometimes, the book you picked up as a result turns your mind upside down and makes you see the world through different eyes. I’d bought this book several years ago, but it just sat in my shelf after I found it was a “response” to Jane Eyre, and I hadn’t read Jane Eyre yet.

So last year, I finally read the classic and liked it enough to want to put this book back on the reading queue. And now that I’ve read this one, it’s as if Bronte created a flimsy story on top of a seething cauldron of experience, something tame that hid all the violence that colonialism and racism has wrought. Rhys unpacks all those underlying experiences - the heiress from Jamaica who’s caught between two other sides in her own country, the Englishman with his assumed superiority, whose discomfort with the tropical paradise makes others doubt their own home, the tacit assumption by him that non-whites aren’t mature or cultured enough, the same place turning beautiful or strange when seen through different eyes. She makes us see all these experiences through the characters’ eyes, and we understand them all even if we don’t always agree.

And by the end, the death of the heroine - yes, Antoinette is the real heroine, not the governess who stole the Englishman’s heart - comes as a fated, prophesied event rather than a happy accident to free up the husband.

Read, read. Really.

The Girl with the Golden Parasol, by Uday Prakash

A few thoughts on Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol

Nope, this is not a romance set in dreamland. This is a book that hits you with force, reminiscent of militantly activist stories like Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal or the Marathi hit Sairat. This is because it comes from the modern Hindi literature milieu, which has been (over- (in my opinion)) focused on issues of caste over the past decades. It’s written by the progressive writer Uday Prakash, and translated by the extremely talented Jason Grunebaum. Personally, however, I can’t imagine reading only this one style of literature, which is what’s been keeping me away from “serious” Hindi lit lately.

But at its core, this is a very engaging story. Rahul and Anjali (I’m pretty sure these names weren’t chosen at random, refer to DDLJ) are students in a university in Madhya Pradesh. Anjali the daughter of a brahmin and socially powerful father, Rahul from a lower caste, middle-class family. Yes, they fall in love, and yes, everyone is against them. The story is set in the backdrop of student life in the late 90s in the Hindi heartland, with political goondas, unqualified teachers, and the essential-to-hindi-lit question of caste troubling the hero. Every once in awhile, the internal monologues veer towards the oppression of caste and the oppression of capitalism.

For all the heavy-handedness, you genuinely feel for the characters, and you enjoy the rootedness of the story (the references to Madhuri Dixit, the samosas, the hostel life). The rootedness has been conspicuously missing from Indian lit in English, but it’s there in Hindi lit in spades. This is a worthy book to have translated and brought to the larger reading audience.

Apropos of nothing: I remember reading a recent Hindi book named Banaras Talkies that captured the hostel life in Varanasi. It wasn’t as serious as this book, but it was recommended to me by a friend of a friend who’d actually studied there and vouched for the authenticity of the tone and the locale. The Girl with the Golden Parasol captures that same kind of feeling even though I haven’t been there. That’s some kind of achievement.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

A few thoughts on Masako Togawa’s The Master Key

The Master Key is set in a rather rundown apartment complex for women. Each of the occupants have their own dramatic stories: a woman who want to be a mouse, a violinist with a paralyzed finger, a dwarf medium, a woman in a Miss-Havisham-like state of waiting. Togawa makes this a building of endless morbid interest. The Master Key of the title refers to a key that hangs behind the receptionist’s desk, a key that can open any of the doors in the building, and which would give the owner the power to peer into all these rooms. In some sense, the book itself is the reader’s master key, letting him into private rooms and private lives.

Binding all these separate stories together is a shadowy crime: a dead child buried in the basement 7 years ago. And now that the building is about to be shifted to make space for a road, the discovery of the crime is imminent. But there’s a religious cult leader who seems to know about things from the past. And there are mysterious phone calls to the receptionist. Who else knows about the murder?

To be clear: this is not a detective book. There is no deduction or investigating as you’d expect from my summary above. It’s more a series of psychological portraits of damaged women, tied together with this overarching theme of murder. Yes, there is a mystery that is resolved at the end with a surprising twist, but to my mind the core of the book would probably have worked without it, too. The pattern of the book is somewhat similar to this year’s Penance, by Kanae Minato, where the tragic stories of the characters after the crime was committed are more important than the crime itself.

Given this is a short book, it would be a good sharp read for fans of thrillers. Parts of it may feel slightly dated - this was written in 1984, after all - but the characters live on in your head.

Smoke, by Donald E Westlake

A few thoughts on Donald E Westlake’s Smoke

Well, yet another Westlake novel being read. Shouldn’t be a surprise considering how I enjoyed the previous ones. This one’s a little bit different, though: it features an invisible man. True to Westlake tradition, however, the invisible man here is Freddie Noon, a small-time crook who immediately uses his powers to steal gemstones, furs, and other such.

And of course, the other characters are even more colourful: Noon’s girlfriend, a variety of crooks and lawyers, even the scientists and corporate types who were working on the chemical that contributed to Freddie’s state. Westlake weaves them through into a series of coincidences and Priyadarshanesque set pieces that leave a smile on your face. Picture this: the invisible man riding a bicycle full tilt on a country road. Or the invisible man choosing to wear a Bart Simpson mask so his girlfriend can make out where he is. Or even a woman nuclear scientist hoping to become invisible so people can be attracted to her for her brain, not her looks.

The story careens along, from scene to scene, and it is obvious that Westlake is having fun with the idea. But things begin to bore us after a while - this book is longer than the typical Westlake at 300+ pages, and cutting it down to the usual ~250 would have benefitted it a great deal.

In any case, my review here is the same as for the previous books: A fun read, with chuckles every so often, like eating a big bag of caramel popcorn. Personally I’ve always preferred the Richard Stark/Parker books even if they were too over the top in the other direction. But these comic thrillers are a fun diversion every once in a while.

The Bankster, by Ravi Subramanian

A few thoughts on Ravi Subramanian’s The Bankster

So Ravi Subramanian’s been called The John Grisham of Banking in India, and it is easy to see why with this book (my first read of his works). The story, featuring two parallel threads, tracks (a) an idealistic man driven to protest against a nuclear plant in South India, and (b) corruption and murder (or is it?) in a high-profile private bank in Mumbai. Subramanian uses his insider’s knowledge of the banking field to great effect here, laying out the daily routine of the employees of a bank, and the various functions like HR, Enforcement, Relationship managers, and so on. But several employees are dying mysteriously, just as they stumble upon some sort of nefarious plot. Can our hero, Karan Panjabi, figure out what’s going on before the next victim dies?

Subramanian does a neat job of creating a complex conspiracy that spans continents, while being tied to current events. The investigator, Karan Panjabi (a recurring character, I think), is smart, and the clues are well placed even if overexplained at times. There is some misdirection and a surprise at the end. The writing is smooth. But somehow, the book feels a little lifeless. Why is that?

It took me a while of thinking over this to figure it out. With apologies to Mr. Subramanian, I will now proceed to spoil the story in the process of dissecting it.

The criminal plot that is revealed over the course of the book is this: There’s a shadowy company in Vienna that’s working for the interests of Israeli defense. They recruit a few guys in India to (a) finance agitations in India, and (b) open accounts in corporate sector banks in Mumbai and whitewash money through these accounts, through planted bank officials. When a few people start to suspect these accounts, they get killed.

Even then, I’m oversimplifying here - there are quite a few pieces to this conspiracy, and not everything is revealed, either. Ideally, the people involved should make a formidable foe - they can get people killed in India and Europe, they have presence in three continents, they possess millions!

Now what are the evidences of their evil power? They kill four people over the course of the story, all of them related to the bank, who started suspecting there was something wrong. It is nearly halfway through the book that their nemesis, Karan Panjabi, shows up on the scene.

Karan’s entire role is limited to sitting in one room for 2 days and gathering evidence through phone calls and interviews, much like a Poirot of old. At the end, in fact, he literally assembles several important characters, calls the police, and lays out the entire plot. The Poirot comparison is even more pronounced.

If you see the way the bad guys operate, as compared to the way the good guy works, the reason for the weirdness becomes clear: the former is a thriller novel standard, while the latter is a cozy detective novel trope. In a pure thriller novel (say the Jack Reacher books), the bad guys are in motion all through, doing things, chasing Reacher, trying to kill him, changing their methods, and so on. The story is revealed through action. Even in a forensic thriller like the Lincoln Rhyme books, Rhyme’s agents who do the legwork for him are actively in conflict with the bad guy. To take this pattern to The Bankster, you’d expect Karan to get attacked on his way to the office, maybe for his home to ransacked, or maybe for him to have to make a dangerous journey to a nearby town to meet the most important witness.

None of that happens. All the clues he needs are available to him for the asking. He has people to fetch him anything he asks for. He never feels threatened at a personal level. When the culprit is caught, there is no debate on the truth of the revelation. This doesn’t even belong to a thriller novel.

And that - the two halves of the book being from different genres - is the reason IMHO for the feeling of something missing.

I think this critical analysis has taught me more than I expected about writing :).