Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Speaking Volumes: The Gulag's Lonely Voice

(For the Business Standard, August 3, 2008; my small tribute to the man.)

For Alexander Solzhenitsyn to die a normal death, of a heart attack in his autumn years, was no small achievement.

The Nobel Prize winner survived the Second World War, where he earned two decorations. In 1945, his ribbons and gongs didn't prevent him from spending eight years in Russian detention camps after he called Stalin "Old Man Whiskers". The camps killed many, but Solzhenitsyn made it through. In 1953, he almost died of cancer while still in internal exile. In later years he would survive less immediate threats—exile, disillusionment with the West.

Though his complete works run to almost 30 volumes, the ones that we most remember Solzhenitsyn by today are the remarkable One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the indelible The Gulag Archipelago.

Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962, shook the Soviet Union and forced the world to acknowledge the truth of what had been happening in Soviet Russia. The novel follows prisoner 854 through the travails of a normal day, as his co-prisoners scrounge for tobacco, discuss God and deal with the severe hardships of life in camp. The Gulag Archipelago was savagely analytical: it was a three-volume analysis of how one goes about building a police state. It remains one of the most extraordinary testimonies against the power and organization of brutality in our time.

In retrospect, the most astonishing thing is not that Solzhenitsyn managed to get his writings published, but that he wrote at all. In his Nobel lecture, he would refer to those writers who "vanished into that abyss". He wrote, "A whole national literature is there, buried without a coffin, without even underwear, naked, a number tagged on its toe."

His struggle for many years was that he was a writer without an audience, a writer who wrote in an asphyxiating silence. For Solzhenitsyn, the essential silence enforced on him for many years by the Stalinist regime was intolerable, a gulag of the mind.

The story of how The Gulag Archipelago was written is well-known, but perhaps there is no better way to honour Solzhenitsyn's passing than to retell it. Ivan Denisovitch had been published with the blessings of Krushchev; none of Solzhenitsyn's later works, including Cancer Ward, were as lucky. The KGB kept an eye on this "non-person" who was also being turned, slowly, into a "non-writer" by the lack of publication.

Solzhenitsyn had legitimate fears that the manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago would be seized by the KGB. He wrote the first volume in short drafts; you could recreate a map of Moscow from where various parts of the book had been secreted, a few pages at a time hidden in the houses of different friends.

Though he managed to get copies out into the West, there were just three copies of the completed manuscript in Russia when he'd finished, all three compiled with no small effort. One copy was with a woman in Leningrad, who had carefully buried it in the ground. The KGB interrogated her relentlessly until she confessed. On her release, she hanged herself, distraught over what she saw as her betrayal of Solzhenitsyn.

The writer had to work equally hard to smuggle out the manuscript of his Nobel Lecture. He photographed it; his wife hid it in her baby carriage, and handed it over to the wife of a friend, similarly equipped with pram and baby. The friend managed to cut the photos into strips, hide them in the back of a radio and get them into Helsinki.

Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Lecture contributed to his many years of exile from Russia, but looking back at what he had to do in order to write, I think I understand his words a little better.

"In order to mount this platform from which the Nobel lecture is read, a platform offered to far from every writer and only once in a lifetime, I have climbed not three or four makeshift steps, but hundreds and even thousands of them; unyielding, precipitous, frozen steps, leading out of the darkness and cold where it was my fate to survive, while others - perhaps with a greater gift and stronger than I - have perished. …

"Once pledged to the WORD, there is no getting away from it: a writer is no sideline judge of his fellow countrymen and contemporaries; he is equally guilty of all the evil done in his country or by his people. If his country's tanks spill blood on the streets of some alien capital, the brown stains are splashed forever on the writer's face."

That was his creed; and those who have read it and read his works may be sure that Solzhenitsyn will rest in peace. He did what he had to do; a simple epitaph, but not one often earned.

Speaking Volumes: Oh, the places that you'll go

(Published in the Business Standard, July 29, 2008)

At 84, Charing Cross Road, just a brass plaque commemorates the place where Marks & Co sold secondhand books, most notably to Helene Hanff. Devotees of the book still make the pilgrimage to see the plaque, undeterred by the demise of literature's best-loved bookshop.

Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, is bustling in comparison. Stratford's blend of kitsch and nostalgia makes it the Disneyland of literary tourist attractions. Closer to home, Rabindranath Tagore's Jorasanko in Calcutta is a well-maintained family museum that gives visitors some sense of the writer's life and times. Ghalib's home in Ballimaran in Old Delhi has been recently restored, and attracts would-be poets by the score.

What if you wanted to visit West Egg, Long Island, where Jay Gatsby threw his parties, hosting a permanent "great festival"? Or Oz, where Dorothy and the Wicked Witch face off? Until recently, all we could do was use our imaginations—or perhaps be passive observers at the film version. The makers of virtual worlds from Second Life to Google Lively have a different concept in mind: a place where you can visit and create your favourite literary destinations. It's still in beta, so there are some issues, but it's tempting:

This is my list of the top five literary destinations I'd like to explore in a virtual world:

1) The Arabian Nights: Shahryar's kingdom, which stretches from ancient Persia to India and China. This is the vast territory that forms the setting for the Arabian Nights, the kingdom where Scheharazade uses story-telling to postpone her execution from one day to another. It's a rich landscape where commoners and kings collide, and it has some resonance with these present-day countries. Tahir Shah, in his book In Arabian Nights, guides you between both worlds.

2) Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo: This small town appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and is possibly the best recognized literary landscape of all time. Garcia Marquez based Macondo, according to his own accounts, on the town he grew up in—Aracataca.

In his autobiography, he offers a classic origin myth: "The train stopped at a station that had no town, and a short while later it passed the only banana plantation along the route that had its name written over the gate: Macondo. This word had attracted my attention ever since the first trips I had made with my grandfather, but I discovered only as an adult that I liked its poetic resonance. I had never heard anyone say it and did not even ask myself what it meant…" And so a legend came into life, and a place that has obsessed me all of my adult years as a reader came into being.

3) The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling: If you go to Seoni in Madhya Pradesh, most astute readers of Kipling will recognize the landscape in which the Jungle Book is set. Here are the python-friendly rocks, the forests undisturbed by man, the ruins in which monkeys can create a second kingdom unknown to human beings. Kipling's accuracy in setting down the Seoni landscape was considerable—and yet, he asserted that he had never been to Seoni, that he "got it all" from Sterndale's Gazetter. This shouldn't deter those who grew up with the sound of Akela's "Look well, look well, ye wolves" ringing in their ears.

4) Wonderland, in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: Choosing just one out of a myriad familiar landscapes from children's fiction is heartbreaking: how could you privilege Watership Down over the rivers that govern The Wind in the Willows, for instance? And in this category, I have far too many contenders: Oz from the Wizard of Oz, all of Dr Seuss's phantasmagorical lands, Beatrix Potter's very English world, or Narnia. But in the end, Carroll's Wonderland prevails because it has had such a grip on the imaginations of children from his time onwards. I have never yet met a My Space/ Facebook/ Twitter/ Role Playing Games conversant child who hasn't at the same time been beguiled by Carroll's vision of Wonderland. He didn't know he was doing this, but what he wrote was a vision of something that has proved to be eternal and enduring.

5) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: Though Conrad never makes it explicit, it is generally understood that Heart of Darkness plays out on the lifeline of the Congo River, descending into the Congo Free State. He offers a searing vision of a man learning what the true cost of betrayal is, and for first-time readers, this vision is indelible. To explore this particular landscape in a virtual world would be dangerous—but also, perhaps, inevitable.

Those are my top five: what's yours? Email me and let me know.

I loved the responses that came in to this column--here are a few:

From Thomas Cherian:

I liked today's column on places in books that one would love to visit.
I was surprised and a little miffed :) (sorry, die hard fan's stubborness) to see that you had not included Middle Earth. I for one, would love to visit Tolkien's majestic creation and walk through the forests of Lorien. I would also include Narnia as well as the home of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. (I'm sure many younger readers would like to join the Famous Five and go to Kirrin Island) I may also like to have looked on the life on the ship in amitav ghosh's sea of poppies.

From Priyanka Chowdhury:

I loved this so much I decided to mail you my list.

1) Coleridge's Xanadu (Kubla Khan)

2) The skewered Book-of-Genesis-universe in Boating For Beginners where God is an ice cream cloud.

3) Dorian Gray's room (The Pic of DG)

4) Dr Jekyll's laboratory (Dr J and Mr H)

5) Mary and Colin's secret garden (The Secret Garden)

From Sowmitri:

I would go watching life along the River Mississipi along with Mark Twain. Also, stay for a couple of days with our own R K Narayan in Malgudi.

Speaking Volumes: Batman's Long Reign

(For the Business Standard, July 22, 2008. I'm slightly exasperated with this column; it was an attempt to pack a lot of stuff into the 800-word space, and it reads like a floppy introduction to a longer but unwritten piece. For a much more detailed and acute take on The Joker, read Joseph Kugelmass' essay in The Valve.)

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum and one night... one night they decide they're going to escape! So like they get up on to the roof, and there, just across the narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in moonlight... stretching away to freedom.'

'Now the first guy he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see he's afraid of falling... So then the first guy has an idea. He says "Hey! I have my flash light with me. I will shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me." But the second guy just shakes his head. He says... he says, "What do you think I am, crazy? You would turn it off when I was half way across.""
The Joker, telling Batman a story in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke.

At the Osian's film festival last week, I was riveted by scripwriter (now director) Abbas Tyrewala's view of the difference between a screenplay and a "literary" work.

Tyrewala, who's written the screenplay for Hindi films as disparate as Main Hu Na and Maqbool, said that a screenplay was not authored so much as written for a director. The screenplay writer's function was not to impose his signature, his handwriting on the script, but to produce a story that met the needs of an entire universe of collaborators—the director, the cinematographer, the actors.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the world of comic books makes most literary commentators uncomfortable. Comic books offer easy-to-understand, formulaic myths, created by a profusion of authors and collaborators rather than the solitary figure of the writer.

With Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight in theatres this week, the figure of one of the most influential superheroes of the last 70 years looms large in the collective consciousness. Batman has no superpowers, merely an arsenal of technological toys and fighting skills. As a child, he witnesses the murder of his parents; when he grows up, the millionaire Bruce Wayne leads a secret life warring against criminals, in an attempt to balance the scales of justice. As Nolan (and several of the authors of the comic books) notes astutely in Dark Knight, there is a kinship between the "good" hero and the evil villains he seeks to stamp out—his nemesis, the Joker, claims that kinship when he says that they're both freaks. Batman never sank into obscurity, unlike now-forgotten "superheroes" like Foolkiller or Moonknight.

Created by Bob Kane in 1938, Batman initially followed the bang-kapow! conventions of the pulp comic book, gradually gaining complexity in the hands of writers as different as Dennis O' Neill and Frank Miller. But unlike Bill Willingham's Fables or Neil Gaiman's Sandman stories, the Batman comic books are not easily claimed as literary works.

Take a popular literary figure like Sherlock Holmes—along with Dracula, often claimed as a source of inspiration for Batman. The Holmes stories follow a linear sequence; the Batman comic books can be read in parallel, where the character follows one path in one set of books, and a completely different path in another. Depending on the imagination of the author of the moment, the Joker might be merely a scary clown gone to the bad, or a psychopath rivaling Hannibal Lecter as a compelling portrait of true evil.

What makes me care about Batman, though, is that ever since 1986 if not before, he began to resemble in both comic books and films the mythic, ancient figure of the flawed hero. He's an orphan, following the long history of heroes who have lost either one parent or both and the figure of the hero in the old fairy tales who arrives, seemingly unparented, on the scene. He's slightly grotesque, in his hunched-over bat's costume, his eyes literally masked and unseeable; nocturnal, on the edge of being inhuman, possessed of an innate feral quality, like Dracula.

Batman has no superpowers, which makes him one of us and more—a Greek hero, very human and trapped by the same qualities that makes him a hero, battling as much with his own persona as with any flesh-and-blood villain. Superman offered a playful fantasy of incredible powers—flight, superstrength, invulnerability. Spiderman offered the fantasy that you could be a weak guy but have skills beyond belief. Batman, instead, offers the premise that we all live in a lunatic asylum; the difference between the villains and the guardians, and the rest of us, is that they know this and we don't.

Book review: Something To Tell You

(I don't review books published in India for reasons of conflict of interest, and enjoyed the break for a while. When this came my way, though, I realised how much I'd missed it.)

Something To Tell You
Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber,
Rs 495, 345 pages
ISBN 978-0-571-23874-3

There's a certain kind of writer who should be allowed to grow old only if he promises to do it disgracefully. Many of Hanif Kureishi's fans would argue that he belongs to this group, and perhaps some of the disappointment that a faithful Kureishi reader feels when reading Something To Tell You stems from the fact that this is such a neatly wrapped, conventional, sedate novel.

Something To Tell You could be seen as the bookend to Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia. It features a similar laundry list of characters, ranging from the eccentric to the forceful to the lost, drifting through the landscape of Britain's suburbia. Many of Kureishi's characters are either deeply seductive or determinedly mundane, caught in political causes or domestic dramas that are large enough to encompass and engulf their lives. In this novel, Kureishi's sixth, he stirs so much into the mix that what emerges is a thick soup where no particular ingredient stands out.

The central character is Jamal Khan, psychoanalyst: "Like a car mechanic on his back, I work with the underneath or understory: fantasies, wishes, lies, dreams, nightmares—the world beneath the world, the true words beneath the false… At the deepest level people are madder than they want to believe." It's promising stuff, but the story unfolds in predictable ways. Jamal has his own secret, one so dark that when he unburdened himself to his own analyst, the experience was classically cathartic, unleashing floods of shit and vomit in the aftermath of the session.

As Jamal, now middle-aged, looks back to the world of 1970s suburbia, where his personal tragedy is set, Something To Tell You flashes into beguiling life every so often. Jamal may be the quintessential dull character made interesting by circumstance, but many of the people who surround him are fascinating—Kureishi has a master's eye for speech, dialogue and the quirks of the individual, and there's much to hold the reader's attention. There's Jamal's tattooed-and-pierced sister Miriam, a cameo appearance by Karim from The Buddha of Suburbia, and another by Omar Ali, now 'Lord' Ali, from My Beautiful Laundrette. Karim discusses the negatives of being on Celebrity; Ali is now one of the smooth millionaires who mushroomed in Tony Blair's warmth. Jamal's London is as detailed as ever, from the unlimited menu of sexual possibilities to the children's school that comes recommended by Mick Jagger.

It's when Kureishi drags his attention back to the plot that Something To Tell You sags. Jamal's most important love was with an Indian girl, Ajita, who carries her own set of secrets—secrets rendered almost banal in the retrospective gaze of the therapist who has, almost literally, heard it all. But as a young man, what he learns sparks a tragedy; he and his friends confront Ajita's father. In the misadventure that follows, the man dies, leaving Jamal and his friends marked in very different ways.

In the aftermath of this death, which is laid securely at the doors of those who had organized protests against Ajita's father's factory, Jamal introduces a compelling interlude in Pakistan. He and his sister Miriam are reunited with a father who smells almost comfortingly of alcohol, and to the world of Karachi. Neither Karachi nor Pakistan are what he had imagined; instead of the spirituality Miriam expects to find in Karachi, she and Jamal discover a ruthlessly materialistic place: "Deprivation was the spur". His father is a trapped man, rare in Karachi for his integrity, but yearning not for Britain so much as for Bombay. There's a moment of genuine poignancy here; Jamal is at home in Britain in a way his father will never be in his own country.

But that moment passes as Kureishi returns us to the world of the couch and the closet, and introduces a new but ineffectual plot twist. As one of his friends attempts to shoulder his way back into Jamal's life, the now-respectable therapist has to decide what to do with this particular twist in the narrative. He is at peace with the past; the moment when the man he has inadvertently murdered "clung to me, his fingernails in my flesh" has passed. What he has to solve now is his friend's demand for redemption and reparation; the incident damaged his friend far more than it damaged him, and for a brief moment, the secure foundations of his comfortable therapist's life are rocked. But only briefly; Kureishi is unwilling to take this book into the messy, action-packed territory of the conventional thriller, and the threat peters out, leaving a kind of resolution in its wake.

Kureishi's preoccupation is with the stories we can and can't tell, with the narratives we suppress that may come back to haunt us, and yet as Something To Tell You limps to a desultory close, it resembles nothing more than a rambling session on the psychiatrist's couch. The vast and often amusing, sometimes tedious landscape of this novel is littered with the jargon of psychiatry—avoidance, catharsis, subliminal memories, the "spume and irruption" of the unconscious—but few of the profession's deeper insights. There are moments of illumination, as when Jamal remarks that "Listening is not only a kind of love, it is love." But as with many of the key insights and observations in this novel, it's left to lie there on the couch, never coming to life.

Kureishi might argue that this is the right shape for a novel of this decade, that indeed, the novel should be loosely constructed of random conversations, that it should introduce you to people who flit in and out of the narrative just as real people do in our lives, that it should be full of incident and trivia simultaneously, that it should avoid closure, since most people's lives have little closure in them. For the reader, though, Something To Tell You doesn't have nearly enough to say.

(For the Book Review, July 2008)
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