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[452] The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

” Because of that wife who got tired of waiting for her soldier, I lived . . . Sometimes I wonder what happened to her. I like to imagine the first time she leaned in to kiss that stranger, how she must have felt herself falling for him, or perhaps simply away from her loneliness, and it’s like some tiny nothing that sets off a natural disaster halfway across the world, only this was the opposite of disaster, how by accident she saved me with that thoughtless act of grace, and she never knew, and how that, too, is part of the history of love. ” (240)

Right off the bat The History of Love reads like a mystery, but it’s also a love story, in fact, love stories all entwined together over time by chance thanks to a certain book titled The History of Love, which over the generations have by chance touched people who would never have been connected.

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer wants to cure her mother of her loneliness years after her father died of pancreatic cancer. After several futile attempts at matchmaking, it dawns on Alma that a book her father had picked up in the window of a bookstore in Buenos Aires and gifted her mother might hold the key to her happiness. It’s no coincidence that Alma is named after the only character with a non-Spanish name in the book, written in Spanish, which her mother later translates. So the girl sets out to seek out her namesake, Alma Mereminsky.

Now that mine is almost over, I can say that the thing that struck me most about life is the capacity for change. One day you’re a person and the next day they tell you you’re a dog. At first it’s hard to bear, but after a while you learn not to look at it as a loss. There’s even a moment when it becomes exhilarating to realize just how little needs to stay the same for you to continue the effort they call, for lack of a better word, being human. (236)

In New York City, an old man named Leopold Gursky spends his days dreaming of his lost love who, sixty years ago in Poland, had inspired him to write a book. The ill-fated couple was torn apart by war but a child was born to them. Although Leopold has followed the whereabout of mother and son, and dreamed about all the ways their lives might casually intersect, he hides his love for a son who didn’t know he existed. It’s not until his son’s death that Leopold could mourn him in his house—with the hope that the sum of Issac’s belongings would suggest a life larger than the one Leopold knows.

Only now that my son was gone did I realize how much I’d been living for him. When I woke up in the morning it was because he existed, and when I ordered food it was because he existed, and when I wrote my book it was because he existed to read it. (80)

It takes a while to get a footing on the multiple back stories of The History of Love that would weave so seamlessly at the end. Alma’s research on the book that her mother so passionately translates, the mystery of the book’s authorship, Leopold’s effort to recover the manuscript so his son could read it—how the stories unfold is like digging from two ends of a tunnel, not knowing where and how they would intersect. When the series of embedded incidents do converge, the climaxes of the multiple facets come together with such an effortless click and striking coherence. Permeated in this literary novel is an affecting sense of loss and love, and disappointment in life. One man’s disappointment could be an act of grace for another. Love sustains them but the loss of it also haunts them, making them human. This book just takes my breath away.

253 pp. W. W. Norton Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[164] The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008

“I watched him walk behind the bamboo bars. Black stripes and sunlit white fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it was like watching the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film. He was walking in the same line, again and again—from one end of the bamboo bars to the other, then turning around and repeating it over, at exactly the same pace, like a thing under a spell.” [237]

The White Tiger is Balram Halwai’s confession of his murdering the master. It’s a letter (isn’t epistle the trendy literary form) addressed to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, before his imminent state visit to India. Balram speaks in recollection under this chandelier over seven nights. The incendiary remarks with which he carps on China’s lack of democracy can never be more timely apropos of the Beijing Olympic Games:

“I gather you yellow-skinned men, despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, still don’t have democracy.” [80]

But this viciously sardonic voice does not just gnaw on China, it’s meant to be satirical of India. Balram spells out his pieces of mind, which seem rather random at the beginning and sound like ranting, about his country—poverty, corruption, and marginalization of wealth. Trimmed to the bone The White Tiger is the rueful tale of how he is corrupted from a sweet, innocent, family-loving village fool into an urbanized fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness. All these changes happen in him partly because they have first taken place in his master, Mr. Ashok, who has returned from America “full of stupid ideas.” A servant is like a son to his master—and servitude is perpetual, just like being born into the lower caste is for life. Critics accuse Adiga’s writing about poverty at home being opportunistic, but aren’t books on China’s human rights just as opportunistic?

Revealed from the layers of social nuances and scenes of New Delhi lives are the deeply disturbing truths of a man-eat-man world: You eat or get eaten up. As befit to the beastly allusion of the title, humans are metaphorized as animals that struggle to survive:

“Go to a teashop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that teashop—men, I say, but better call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms…” [43]

To deal a heavier blow on the imbecile post-colonial government, Balram equates the most corrupted and depraved politicians, those who would do whatever it takes, even to kill some along the way to reach the top, as wild animals that attack and rip each other apart.

“—the day the British left—the cages had been let open; and the animals ripped each other apart and the zoo became a jungle.” [54]

Small people—the forgotten, the stricken, the unprivileged, the impecunious, and the homeless are caught between power struggles of political struggles. They are trapped in the vicious cycle that usually renders their lives even more miserable. They are like wounded stray dogs:

“A pink patch of skin—an open wound—glistened on its left shank; and the dog had twisted on itself in an attempt to gnaw at the wound. The wound was going crazy from pain—trying to attack the wound with its slavering mouth, it kept moving in mad, precise, pointless circles.” [213]

Through Balram’s eyes, we see India as we have never seen it before: the cockroaches, the prostitutes, and the worshippers of multiple gods, which don’t create morality. Trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is almost impossible is the white tiger—nickname given to Balram for his merit in school. Soon he realizes money cann’t solve all the problems, but at least he could make the leap from darkness into light, which, paradoxically, is darker than darkness. The White Tiger is a well-written book of our time. Its amoral and irreverent themes are authentically contemporary in a world shaped by massive globalization.

Other Reviews:
Book Crazy
The Mookse and the Gripes
Tuesday in Silhouette

White Tiger? Booker Prize?

Book review: [164] White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Despite critics from all over are shocked at Aravind Adiga’s surprise winning of the Book Prize, I have taken up The White Tiger. Eileen Battersby at the Irish Times comments about his “surprise victory” of winning the award for this novel. She further notes that Adiga’s win “left the literary establishment gasping, perhaps even bewildered.” Whether the book is crude and opportunistic as Miss Battersby has deemed, it is definitely an eclectic read, I mean, somewhat weird.

Balram Halwai tells the transfixing story, which is meant for Chinese Premier (god knows why) Wen Jaobao, of how he came to the success in life with his own wits. But he is a murderer who cuts off his employer’s neck. He recovers his story over seven nights under this preposterous chandelier that barely fits his room. Anyway, when he was a boy, his family took out a huge loan to finance his cousin’s wedding. Taken out of school he had to break coals for a living. being the brightest kid in school, he was dubbed the White Tiger:

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In this jungle, you are the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation.”
He paused.
“The white tiger.” [30]

Adiga’s message isn’t subtle or novel, but Balram’s appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations of the social order are very unsettling. So far it’s a bit weird and shaky. Booker Prize?

The Short List:
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

[118] The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – Jose Saramago

 gospel.jpgsaramago.jpg

Saramago deftly embraces historical facts, myth and reality and juggles them in this extraordinarily fictitious account of Jesus Christ. The novel is an in-depth psychological portrait of a savior who possesses a touch of humanity so much more substantial than the Bible claims. Jesus who is at once the Son of God, the beginning and the end, men’s destiny, and a young man of the earth is an interweaving of letters, irony, spirituality, irreverence, humanity, and foible.

The novel hinges on the fact that Jesus’ father, Joseph of Nazareth, out of cowardice and selfishness of the heart, failed to alert the parents that King Herod had issued a decree to kill boys under the age of 3. He could have spared the lives of 27 children had he spoken up. Joseph felt the scruple of running off to save his own son but had forfeited the lives of others. The guilt he felt was exactly guilt a man may feel without having sinned or committed the actual crime himself. It was the sin of omission.

To assuage his remorse that incessantly plagued him, Joseph, as he truly believed he was acting out of his own accord and obeying God’s will, made strenuous effort to beget more and more children to compensate for the 27 lives. When Jesus learned about Joseph’s crime, Jesus felt poignant for his father but asserted that his father was to blame for the deaths of innocent children. Joseph’s sin was illustrated to full actuality as Jesus envisaged infants dying in perfect innocence and parents who had done nothing wrong. Jesus was embittered and broken at the fact that never was a man more guilty than his own father, who had sinned to save his life.

Joseph’s death, which was rather dramatic and undeserving, bore the scruple of his own conscience and arose the question of what awaited him after death. Would it be possible than everything ended with death? What would happen to the life’s sorrow and sufferings, especially the sufferings right before the last breath? What about the memory if time is such an undulating surface than can only be accessed by memory, would memory of such suffering linger at least for a short period of time? Saramago has repeatedly made claims to explore the notion of after-death and its correlation to human existence throughout the novel.

Jesus under Saramago’s pen is not as perfect, impure, and righteous as the Bible portraits him to be. One sees that the savior succumbs to temptation, to not receiving the cup of death, to choose to remain on earth and not to be crowned with glory. The most provocative and controversial aspect of the book is when Jesus intervened the stoning of an adulteress, which brought him to awareness that he was living in sin with Mary Magdalene, and thus living in defiance to God’s will. The sin of adultery (sexual immorality as the Bible claims) brought Jesus into open conflict with the observed law.

The book is not deprived of interesting dialogues in spite of the serious overtones of theology. My favorite is the conversation in which the Devil pleaded with God to admit him into the kingdom. God curtly denied the request asserting than the good God represented would cease to exist without the evil Devil represented. In regard to the meaning of human existence and the pursuit of holiness, Saramago does leave us with an enlightening thought (with such sober dignity) that the soul, in order to be able to boast of a clean and blameless body, has burdened itself with sadness, envy and impurity.

Russian Reading Challenge

Updated List

russia.jpgbulgakov.jpg

Patriarch’s Pond was made famous in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The beginning of the novel presents the Devil’s emergence in Moscow.

Ex Libris has announced a new challenge along with a tentative reading list, a very ambitious one that will begin on New year’s Day 2008: the Russian Reading Challenge.

Being a student of comparative literature of which Russian literature is a core emphasis, I embrace this challenge with anticipation and joy. I’m exhilarated about the challenge, which hopefully will raise awareness of the subject and eradicate some of the fear (fear of these long-winded, thick chunkster that is quintessential of Russian literature) that might have overwhelmed potential readers.

Russian literature is a broad term. It generally refers to the literature of Russia or its émigrés, and to the Russian-language literature of several independent nations once a part of what was historically Russia or the Soviet Union. Prior to the 19th century Russia produced very little, if any, internationally known literature, but in this century, on which my study focuses, Russian literature saw an astounding, flourishing golden age, beginning with the poet Pushkin and culminating in two of the greatest novelists in world literature, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the twentieth century leading figures of Russian literature included internationally recognized poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova or Osip Mandelstam, and prose writers Isaac Babel, Maxim Gorky or Mikhail Bulgakov.

My tentative reading list:
1. Complete Short Stories, Anton Chekov
2. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy Re-read a different translation. It will be fun to read along with you
3. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov I read it several times. A novel with staying power
Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya Work of modern literature about a group of Russian émigrés
4. The Overcoat and Other Stories, Nikolai Gogol
5. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov Text of my Year 1 grad school course, all splayed and dog-earred! Love to re-visit.
6. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
7. Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov
8. Moscow to the End of the Line, Venedikt Erofeev
9. What is Art, Leo Tolstoy
10. The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy
11. Mother, Maxim Gorky
12. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
13. The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky
14. A Dead Man’s Memoir, Mikhail Bulgakov
15. The Time: Night, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

The list shall be updated consistently as more titles become available. In the mean time, I shall try very hard to keep my hands off the stack as the whistle of the challenge will not be blown for another three months!

For your information and reference, my blog has a subcategory under Russian literature where you will find reviews and essays of selected works.

[Cross-listed in Russian Reading Challenge blog.]