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[808] The Door – Magda Szabó


“The bond between us—produced by forces almost impossible to define—was in every way like love, though it required endless concessions for us to accept each other.” (Politics, 104)

In modern postwar Hungary (1960s-80s) an old woman who is now a famous author (who is named Magda) recalls the times when she hires an old peasant woman as her housekeeper. The novel begins after the young writer passed through a “political frozen” time, a period rife with censorship, and starts to be able to write again, paving her way to renown. Magda and her husband, a college professor, moving up on the social ladder, are desperately in need for a charlady in their new flat. Inquiry around the neighborhood leads them to Emerence—gruff, stubborn, proud, secretive, bluntly honest and highly critical lady who is a hard worker. More accurately, it’s Emerence who selects them.

All her life [Emerence’d] been like royalty, adjusting her memory to suit political reality. (Amnesia, 221)

The Door follows the intracacies of the young writer’s intimate filial relationship with Emerence. The book is a story less about events than about relationships, the gradual discovering, and awakening of who another person is and who one is oneself. The stark contrast in background—Emerence an illiterate peasant who is anti-intellectual and contemptuous of culture; and Magda an up-and-coming author who is unduly self-conscious—creates an irresistible dynamics between the two women, who make concessions along the way and strive to see and make sense of each other’s life.

They eventually become close in spite of their differences. Despite remaining stern and aloof, Emerence sustains Magda through her husband’s grave illness and bestows upon them a number of gifts that they resist at their peril. The greatest intimacy Emerence shares with the “Lady Writer” (as she becomes to call her) is to permit her entry to her house, to witness her secrets, to know her history. It is a unique privilege denied even of her family. It is also on account of this privilege, this knowledge to Emerence’s past, mottled with much tragic losses and disappointment, that an unintended, heartbreaking betrayal inevitably ensues.

The book is stately, full-blooded, and contemplative. It exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes agonies of Hungary’s recent history. Emerence is as practical, anti-intellectual and hostile to the church as Magda is abstracted, literary and religious. Emerence sustains on her values and morality, which transcend any religious teaching and political dictate. If she embodies dignity, she really embodies humanity. She ministers to the needs of many in the neighborhood on her own term and schedule. As this unlikely friendship evolves, there’s something profound and provocative about the meaning of love. To love is not to impose one’s own standard and values on another being, but to accept and to respect one’s choice in life.

261 pp. NYRB Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[798] My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk


“It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.” (Ch.28, 160)

My Name is Red, set in late 16th century Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, is rich in details, ambitious in scope, and subtle in philosophical meanings. In the center of this book, far from being a mere historical novel, is the recurring Pamuk’s internal East-West war. The novel is set in the time when the Ottomans’ confidence in the ever-expanding empire had begun to be shaken by the power of the West.

The story in a nutshell tells of two murders among Sultan Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist and gilder, the other of Enishte, the cunningly complicated organized commissioned by the sultan to produce a book that desecrates the Islamic religion. By contributing individual style to these art works, Enishte’s artists are accused of heresy, since the deviation of rote perpetual imitation is illustrating away from Allah’s perspective. Allah’s criterion of beauty is the only that which matters. The style the sultan’s artists surreptitiously adopt is that of Italian Renaissance. Figures are individuals, portraits are of specific people, and even trees, dogs, and dervishes are particulars.

Unlike mere decoration of the text, to portray individuals or objects for their own sake is to give them iconic standing. To coin such stature to objects and people is utter disrespect to Allah. The detective is Enishte’s nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul after his uncle had rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte’s daughter, Shekure. He has been summoned back to help organize the book for the sultan. When his uncle is slain, Black hastily weds Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years ago.

The book is itself constructed around the individualizing perspective; each chapter offers the varying first-person truths experienced by the characters. Death, Satan, a coin, a horse, also give their narratives. The irony of the heinous act is the murderer, who is faithful to the older artistic creed, betrays himself by a distinctive and detectable artistic style that proves his undoing. The narrative of Satan is by far the most provocative and profound. It evokes the philosophical duality that evil is as important and necessary as virtue (good). It’s the duality that one cannot exist without the other. Then at the very heart is an aesthetic tradition renewed and glorified without hatred and rancor. Though not always plot-driven, the book is a literary feat delving on how art, religion, and love intersect.

413 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[778] The Paradise – Émile Zola


“She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat . . . she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine.” (Ch. XIII, 393)

Zola’s 1883 novel that chronicles the life and extravagant growth of a fictional department store feels very modern, bearing a striking relevance to our consumerism today. Although it’s a love story, the book is quite a treasure trove for feminists and cultural critics, as it captures the social psyche of French people, women in particular, in their reception to the ambitious capitalistic endeavor of a department store, which drag the women out of their home into the public space.

Doesn’t Paris belong to the women, and don’t the women belong to us. (Ch. XI, 318)

The novel starts out conventionally enough, with a country girl’s arrival in Paris at the age of 20, with two younger brothers in tow. Denise Baudu’s parents are dead; she hopes her uncle, a draper, would provide work for her. But his business, as well as other small shops, have suffered tremendously from the opening of a large store across the street, the Ladies’ Paradise, which continues to expand and drive others out of business by cutting down prices. Denise accepts a probational, commission-only position as a saleswoman in the dress department, where for months other girls gang up to deprive her of sales, and ridicule her for her mild, submissive manner, and her lack of sophistication.

As one might have imagined, Denise’s career in Ladies’ Paradise is one from hell. It’s your Cinderella story set in retails. Life and trade, economic disaster and triumph teem about her. As small shops’ attempt to compete with the ever-expanding department store proves a dismal failure, Octave Mouret’s emporium has so captured the imagination of Parisian women that that take up the place by a storm, camping there as if they are in a conquered country. They even believe Mouret’s goods are more superior. To shop at Ladies’ Paradise has become the quo status. Amid all the commercial competition, the treachery and rivalry of saleswomen, the schemes of salesmen to oust their boss, Denise remains true to her values.

The Paradise is a rich tapestry of Parisian life in a period when the idea of a department store is a far-fetched idea that the banks are not willing to invest. There’s also the mandatory upstairs-downstairs struggle through the newcomer Denise, who against all odds manages to conquer the entire staff with her tenderness and modesty. In lavish detail and myopic vision Zola captures the greedy customers, the gossiping staff, and the vain obsession with image, fashion, and gratification.

438 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz


“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Found in Translation”

Another thoughtful article in the New York Times about translated literature. The writer abandoned Chinese for Portuguese when his professor said it’d be 10 years before he’d be able to decipher a newspaper. When he started reading short Brazilian works, he stumbled upon Clarice Lispector, a writer so sensational that she was a household name in Brazil, but nobody knew of her outside of her country.

The very book in question is The Hour of the Star, a novella published in 1977. I. too, only stumbled upon Lispector’s works when browsing at an indie, The Book Soup in Los Angeles to be exact. While the heroine is a typist who lives in the slum of Rio, Lispector herself is the book’s most forceful presence. Reading the little book makes me want to know everything about her. Her books remained virtually untranslated until 1997. Lipsector faces the same obstacle all foreign writers do: they are not being read as there are so many English language readers.

In the United States and Britain, translations represent just 3% of the book market, in China 7% and in Russia 10%. I’m not surprised the book vendors who actually carry the most translated literature are the local indies, of which the staff are engaging in literary activism for the authors and works to be found by English-speaking readers.

[674] The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann


” What was life? No one knew. It was aware of itself the moment it became life, that much was certain—and yet did not know what it was. Consciousness, as sensitivity to stmuli, was undoubtedly aroused to some extent at even the lowest, most undeveloped stages of its occurrence . . . (Ch.5, p.270)

Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War, The Magic Mountain is many things: a modernist classic, a comedy of manners, an allegory of pre-war burgeois Europe. The plot is incidental: it revolves around Hans Castorp, a young engineer who just completed a training course preparing him for a job in ship building. Before beginning work, in 1904, he plans a short three-week visit to his cousin, Joachim Ziemssem who is in a TB sanatorium up in the Swiss Alps.

A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries; and although he may regard the general and impersonal foundations of his existence as unequivocal givens and take them for granted, having as little intention of ever subjecting them to critique as our good Hans Castorp himself had . . . (Ch.2, p.31)

The novel spans about ten years, building up very slowly by important details of hans Castorp’s past. Before his three weeks are up it is discovered that he himself has TB and becomes a patient, living there for the next seven years, until his departure just before the Great War, and becomes a soldier. Obviously, illness is decidedly center-stage in The Magic Mountain, but there is also a disturbing ambiguity as to just how much of Hans’s illness is genuine. Ensconced in his lounge chair, miles away from the cut and thrust of life on the “flat lands,” Hans finds himself questioning long-held notions of honor and mortality. Up in the “high, remote, narrow world under a spell of icy purity,” the passage of time becomes unnoticeable—in a way slippery and can no longer be trusted to behave as one would expect. He and other consumptives that represent the European nationalities, are trapped in such rigid regime of sumptuous meals, rest cure, and fetished thermometer readings. There are giddy flirtations and intellectual debate on disease, humanity, suffering, and love.

Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. (Ch.7, p.657)

The book is long, challenging, and provocative. Reptition of routine doesn’t lead to a homogeneity of time. Instead it annihilates the regular sense of time. The eternal monotony of time’s rhythm in the sanatorium creates a sensation not even of mere repetition but of a regular standstill of time. Over time Hans takes up reading in subject matter that would help understand life—medicine, religion, and botany. Over time there is a heightening of his personality as a result of a quest that is a universal one: to pass through illness to rediscover the ethics of normal life. It’s the same journey we embark upon everyday. The magic mountain is no longer a retreat or social height; it is our everyday. As months turn in years, his stay in the sanatorium is not limited to a brief and terminable episode of illness, but a sentence without limits and without walls in which his existence, out of his free will and with the best intention of all sides, is bound to the ministrations and adjudications of medical expertise.

The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition that requires patience and a slow reading pace. Mann contrives to create a sense of timelessness with tedious descriptions of the obsessive states of mind, intense antagonisms and imaginary love affairs. In the closed environment of the mountaintop, Hans Castorp achieves an individualism that is neither social nor religious, transcending even all politically determined morality. The story is simple but the way it’s told is complex, like hiking a treacherous, steep slope.

706 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[657] A Universal History of Iniquity – Jorge Luis Borges


” Morell leading uprisings of Negroes that dreamed of hanging him . . . Morell hanged by armies of Negroes that he had dreamed of leading . . . it pains me to admit that the history of the Mississippi did not seize upon those rich opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (and poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his tomb. ” (From The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell)

Borges’s debut collection of short stories in 1935 is a re-creating of stories about international criminals from the Orient, the Islamic world, the Wild West, both historical and fictional. Although Borges mentioned these stories were just meant for light entertainment, and for me provide access to his early dabbling, they combine high seriousness and a wicked sense of fun. There are numerous signs of what is to expect of his later works: mirrors, elusive identities, hoaxes, duels, manipulations, decoys, serendipity, and most significantly and prominently, irony.

He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He seemed that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily have convinced. (From The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro)

Handled with fecundity and class, perfidious individuals from history and legend stride through the pages. Lazarus Morell is an amoral entrepreneur who charges salves to help them escape their masters only to resell them at a profit. Tom Castro convinces a rich woman that he’s her long-lost son despite the fact that he bears no resemblance to him. A widowed lady commands a sizable pirate fleet and fights against the Chinese imperial navy twice. Monk Eastman roams the street of New York and wreaks havoc. Bill the Kid kills for amusement in New Mexico only to be rewarded with whores and free whiskey. The Ronin plot to avenge their lord’s death by killing the teacher of imperial etiquette who insulted him, even though they know that they will be put to death. A heretic of Islam teaches that mirrors and sex are evil because they multiply humanity. A theologician teaches salvation is by faith and not by works of love and charity. A king forces his way into a forbidden tower where a ghastly inscription awaits him. A man who journeys to Persia to find fortune after a dream convinces him to leave home finds a serendipitous outcome. A priest who learns black magic from a wizard is given an even greater lesson on gratitude, and the lack of. An ink blot turns into a mirror that shows violence.

The narrative voice is smooth and delightful. Granted the collection is no more than a regurgitation of some of the world’s most dreadful villains and their stories, Borges writes with elegance and an economy of words. The merit lies in the skill with which he tells the stories. He won’t tell you someone is betrayed, murdered or dumped into the river. This collection is a great preamble to what is to be deemed masterpiece.

64 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[612] The Oxford Murders – Guillermo Martínez


” I found the parallels with Gödel’s theorem very striking. In every crime there is undoubtedly a notion of the truth, a single true explanation among all the explanations . . . What is a criminal investigation if not our own game of thinking up conjectures, possible explanations that fit the facts, and attempting to prove them correct? ” (Ch.7, p.53-4)

There have been many novels that fuse mathematics and murder mystery. Although The Oxford Murders is not the first thriller to adopt this device, it is (to me), one of the few that does it successfully. In The Oxford Murders, a young Argentine mathematician just arrives Oxford on a scholarship. On a summer day shortly after his arrival, he finds his landlady dead on the chaise, eyes wide open in terror and two parallel trails of blood running from her nose. But Mrs. Eagleton’s death, heralded by the purest of mathematical forms, is only the beginning of a sequence of murders. It seems that the serial killer can be stopped only if someone can crack the next symbol in the sequence. The narrator is joined by the leading Oxford logician Arthur Seldom on the quest to crack the cryptic clues.

He concluded that he would have to provide the police with another suspect, one who was obvious and immediate and who meant the case was closed. The perfect crime, he wrote, wasn’t one that remained unsolved, but one where the wrong person was blamed. (Ch.14, p.107)

The plot rattles along at an efficient pace. Sometimes it pauses to fill the reader with the theoretical background, but before long another murder would takes place. Although the series of murders seems to be linked by cryptic clues and symbols, the trouble is that even if the math graduate and the logician think they have got the next symbol, there’s always a paradox lurking in the background. Perhaps there is an alternative, more surprising twist to the sequence. In the end, the solution is unexpected yet perfectly logical and watertight. Martínez, a mathematics professor himself, impresses the reader the similarities between cracking a crime and proving a mathematical theorem. He manages to pull this off without overwhelming those who aren’t in the grasp of advanced mathematics. It is, after all, easy to labor connections between mathematics and murder, but there is a lightness of touch, aided by an elegance in prose, in the way Martínez lays out the themes in the book.

Perhaps the strangest thing is that Petersen didn’t even consider the possibility that it might have been a natural death. I realized that though he may have had doubts before, he was now quite convinced that he was pursuing a serial killer, so it seemed perfectly reasonable to find murders at every turn . . . (Ch.25, p.192-3)

The Oxford Murders does not have the most exciting characters—some of whom are in fact dull. The book does appeal reader’s mind and seduces one to solve an abstract logical puzzle. There are puzzles within puzzles, red herrings both obvious and obscure. The slow unmasking of the culprit reveals that however they are dressed with an intellectual allure, the motives behind the murders are so much simpler, intellectual speaking, but emotionally complex. The book evokes the age-old conflict between heart and mind. The irrational logic revealed in the denouement comes as a surprise but the underlying motive is all too familiar and human.

197 pp. Abacus/Hachette UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[572] The Dinner – Herman Koch


” At that point, my brother coughed and cleared his throat. He sat up straight, then leaned over the table–as though he were searching for the microphone. That’s exactly what it looked like, I thought to myself. In all his movements he was suddenly the national politician again, the shoo-in to be our country’s next leader, and he was about to put in her place a woman in the audience in some provincial union hall. ” (Ch.13, p.78)

The Dinner is labeled a thriller, being compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but it impresses me as neither. It’s literary fiction with an overpowering suspense. The actual story spans over just one evening, punctuated by flashbacks, as two couples, brothers and in-laws, meet at a high-end restaurant for dinner. The book, divided into sections of a meal, begins with drinks and dark satire. Much is made of the pretentiousness of the establishment and the preposterousness of its food. The narrator, Paul Lohman, is cynical, snarky, but observant—feeling an aversion to the evening ahead—he is obviously not the one who decides to dine in such claustrophobic atmosphere in which one is hemmed in by server who offers exaggeratedly excessive information on the food.

Top restaurant’s tactic, he told me once, is to actually force as much wine as possible down your throat, wine they sell for seven times what the importer charges for it, and that’s why they always wait so long between bringing the appetizer and taking orders for the entrée: people will order more wine out of pure boredom… (Ch.9, p.48)

The restaurant is what befits a rising star in politics like Paul’s brother. Serge Lohman is the leader of the opposition party, a shoo-in for prime minister. Contrived to maintain a balance between public charisma and privacy, Serge often struggles to keep the public property and the private circumstance separate. This is exactly what I find absurd about this dinner, purposed to discuss serious family issues, that takes place in such high-profile atmosphere. Paul finds everything about his brother repellent, from his handshake to table manner to his smile. He loathes how Serge dismisses his family and children to the point that they become a mere backdrop of his political campaign. Even the adoption of a child from Africa, to Paul, is a publicity stunt.

What has brought about this dinner is not revealed at first (not for about 120 pages). But the gentle hum of small polite talk gives way to disclosure of secrets, which involve a terrible crime of the couples’ children. The cousins’ partnership in the horrific act has punctuated the families’ insulated world and threatens a possible police investigation. The details and facts are drawn out vividly over the main course of the meal (pun intended). This is when the dinner slowly mounts the culinary climax and civility disintegrated.

But no one at the table spoke a word. Sometimes people allow silences like that to fall—when they don’t feel like saying the obvious. If Serge had told a joke, a joke that started with a question, a comparable silence would probably have ensued. (Ch.41, p.265)

The Dinner is unsettling, disturbing, and misanthropic. The slow, meandering turn of the story is neither boring nor bothersome, as some readers have complained. What appeals to me is the carefully calibrated revelations of its unreliable and increasingly unsettling narrator grows ever more intense and neurotic with the turning of pages. The book is not thriller in the sense that it involves a manhunt. It’s a tautly written family drama that raises the issues of modern parenthood: stubborn defense of our children, and the deep compulsion to believe they cannot do wrong.

292 pp. Hoarth. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Les Misérables


At 202 pages, I’m making good progress on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. The book, which unveils slowly but with a steady build, represents a massive portrayal of the society whose values both shape Clyde’s tawdry ambitions and seal his fate. In light of this rich tapestry of social psyche, my spirit soars and wants to read more books like Dreiser’s. Les Misérables is next. Examining the nature of law and grace, the novel elaborates upon the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, anti-monarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love. It’s more than an epic story.