The War of the End of the World – Mario Vargas Llosa

January 12, 2019

The War of the End of the WorldThe War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The War of the End of the World is a sprawling, magnificent epic based on a true incident that happened in the Bahia region of Brazil towards the end of the nineteenth century as the country was coming to terms with ending the monarchy and abolishing the slave trade as well as establishing a young Republic.

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the foremost South American literary giants but probably not as well-known as his great adversary (he even punched him in an altercation once), Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Which is disappointing, because out of the South American auteurs I have read, including Marquez and Bolano, it is Vargas Llosa who strikes me as the most enduring; his style a perfect mix of authorial flash as well as no nonsense storytelling. One can hope that his Nobel Prize win in 2010 throws more light on his work. First published in 1981, this particular novel can be considered his masterpiece.

At its heart the story is about a mysterious stranger who walks the backlands of Bahia preaching the gospel and collecting stranded souls who accompany him on his travels from thereon. This stranger, Antonio Conselhiero, known simply as The Counselor, arrives in small towns and villages which are mostly impoverished and sets about righting the broken down churches and trying to lead inhabitants away from the paths of sin as he calls it.

It’s a dangerous time, as droughts and famines have driven the populace to poverty and despair as they grapple with the new Republic’s laws. To add to the woes, there are numerous bands of bandits who roam the arid lands and plunder without mercy. Is it a wonder then that many find succor and purpose in the Counselor’s teachings? However, there are those who are on the fringes of even a deprived populace, and it is to these people that the Counselor’s blessing and acceptance provide the most hope and admiration.

Thus, we have in depth descriptions of the backstories to some of these characters who end up following the Counselor around devotedly. These include, among others, a woman who committed filicide, a deformed human who walks around on all fours, and a woman established as a water diviner. There are also former shopkeepers, beggars, prostitutes, and even bloodthirsty bandits who genuinely turn to a peaceful life under the spell of the Counselor.

After going around with his coterie for years, the Counselor decrees that the new Republic is a construct of the Anti-Christ and has to be resisted. For this, his band set up on one of the prominent landowners’ land called Canudos and establish their slice of civilization there. But, the landowners and even the Republican state are not happy with this state of affairs, and soon the backlash begins. What initially begins as an assault by a small unit to get the group off the baron’s land turns into full-fledged warfare, as the state is brutally surprised at the intensity with which the Counselor’s followers repel the advances against their way of life. Before long, the inevitable bloodshed and brutality on both sides leads to its inevitable, yet wholly avoidable, conclusion.

It’s a riveting piece of work that Llosa has come up with here. He doesn’t seem to overwhelmingly take sides here. The Counselor’s band could have been described as a bunch of raving religious loonies, but there is real heart and depth in their portrayal. It would make even the avowed atheists re-examine their outlook towards the power or use of religion for some good for a chance. If even murderous bandits can be turned to a life far removed from their pasts, is the Counselor’s message, despite its religious bluster, all that bad? So do we root for them in this battle? But, the other side is also not represented as wholly lacking in human decency either.

The baron, Canabrava, is not shown as a slave abusing landowner with no feelings. Instead, his is a carefully painted portrait of a compassionate man who is involved in the politics of the land and time. Even the renowned soldier, with the moniker Throat-Slitter, sent out by the Republican government to put an end to the rebels is painted as a complex figure with his own moments of sentimentality. It is this moral conundrum which grips the reader from beginning to end and from which the novel derives its considerable strength.

There are some more interesting characters in the mix here – a disillusioned atheist revolutionary from Scotland, a guide and his wife in the backlands who get unwittingly mixed up with the revolutionary and Canudos, and a traveling circus troupe and its performers (including a dwarf and a bearded woman).

But make no mistakes about its title though. This is, ultimately, a book about a war and the descriptions match that. There is some real brutality on display as both sides murder, mutilate, rape and desecrate corpses. If you are of the weak of stomach or disposition you may want to be prepared before picking this up. It is also a bleak social commentary on the futility of war as the number of corpses pile up and even young children are forced to lose their innocence.

Eventually, it is a triumph of storytelling by a genius of the written word. Serious readers would be doing themselves a favor by picking this up and sticking with it throughout its considerable size.

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A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

December 14, 2018

A Whole LifeA Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel of gentle power and emotional heft. A treatise of a man seemingly perpetually on the sidelines of the world but whose life encompasses a spectrum of events and feelings which may appear inconsequential to a wider lens but ensures, at least in his own eyes, that he has lived it well and with purpose. And it is this life that Robert Seethaler, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, draws us into with deceptively expert craft.

The man in question is Andreas Egger and he has spent almost his entire life, from the moment he was brought as an orphaned boy to his uncle’s house, in a village set among the remote mountains of Germany at the dawn of the twentieth century. Life is brutal for the young Andreas at his uncle’s home, where he is treated more like a beast of burden than kin, but he persists until he grows into adulthood and moves out on his own. It’s a cold, spare place with few frills, but Andreas makes it his home and makes every nook and cranny of it a part of his mental map.

Once he moves out of his uncle’s home, he initially takes up odd jobs to survive and then moves onto more serious pursuits, like working for the construction company building the cable cars across the mountains. He finds love and marriage in scenes of beautiful simplicity and warmth and experiences the horrors of World War 2, before winding down his later years as a guide in the mountains to eager tourists. Through it all he remains the same as ever, a man of few words but disarmingly simple honesty and grit.

This is the second book of Seethaler’s I’m reading in relatively quick succession. The first one I read, The Tobacconist, is milder in the impact it had on me and it can be seen as a precursor to this one. The style in both is the same; understated, simple and real prose with characters who on the outside do not attract much attention but who are opened up to the readers gradually to show a wealth of depth and emotion. However, there is no doubt that this one is the more powerful work.

Small in size perhaps, but in no other way.

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Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

November 30, 2018

Sputnik SweetheartSputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the title, it’s meaning derived not just from the Russian spaceships of the same name but also from the Russian word meaning “traveling companion” which is strangely apt for this rumination on mostly unfulfilled relationships.

My reaction to the initial sections (or most of it, in fact) of this short novel was that it was the same old Murakami tropes once again spewed in a not very convincing manner. If you’ve read a couple of Murakami novels you would pretty much feel like you’ve wandered in from one of them into this. However, the book did sort of redeem itself towards the end with its expositions on love, loss and the inscrutable bonds which tie us to people who we know would never be able to completely fulfill us. And of course, another Murakami staple – a bit of magical realism thrown into the utterly mundane.

So we have the usual reticent Murakami narrator, a seemingly very ordinary young man, known here only as K, who feels disconnected from most things in the world around him and has settled into a job teaching elementary students. However, he does have one invigorating passion in his life – Sumire, a girl who was a couple of years his junior in college and who now aspires to be an author. Sumire and he are as close as friends can be, with her unbounding all her unfocussed and almost naïve concerns onto him, but maddeningly frustratingly for him she doesn’t harbor any kind of sensual desire for him or for anyone else. Or so it seemed, until she came across a much older woman and fell into intense love and longing for her. This is Miu, and she is the important third cog in the story here. Sumire is a mostly unkempt heroine who doesn’t care for much beyond her writing endeavors and heart to heart conversations with K, some of which are made impulsively from a phone booth in the middle of the night. However, on meeting Miu, she experiences pretty much what K feels for her, a deep and almost painful unrequited desire. But she does get a chance to work for Miu, and eventually to go with her on a trip to Europe. They end up eventually in a small Greek island from where she sends her last letter to K. After this, the next K hears of her and Miu is a frantic, mysterious phone call from Miu informing him that Sumire has vanished and urgently asking for his help. K packs his bags on short notice to join Miu on the island and try and figure out what exactly transpired.

As all of Murakami’s novels, it’s intriguing. But also, as I’ve already mentioned, repetitive for a large part. The detached narrator, the unattainable and weirdly fascinating girl he falls for, the relationship complexities, random cats, deceptively simple prose and the dash of unresolved magic realism thrown in – all tropes from his other works. Whether it works or not is another thing though. For a lot of the initial half of the book I felt it was not really working out well. Sumire just seemed painfully naïve or silly at times rather than a mysterious fantasy woman, the metaphors employed by Murakami did not make sense and K was not much of an interesting narrator either.
However, it does pan out well towards the end. The incident which Miu talks about two thirds of the way in is genuinely creepy and enticing and it leaves the door open to a lot of interesting and relevant ruminations on love, longing, the self and its relation to others and life in general. This did redeem the book in a way for me. I would still be interested in picking up an unread Murakami if I see it somewhere, but I probably wouldn’t be enthralled enough to buy one for myself anymore.

This particular book is still a good read, especially if you’re a primer to Murakami’s works.

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

November 22, 2018

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an apt title for this bittersweet coming of age love story set amidst the tatters of World War 2 and the heights of the rivalries between the USA and Japan (and China and Japan).

It’s 1986 and an old hotel, a symbol of the Japanese community during the earlier part of the century, is soon to be opened up again under new owners. However, a sudden and unexpected discovery has put a different spin on affairs. In the basement, a veritable treasure trove of memorabilia belonging to Japanese families of the war years has been found and this brings particularly acute memories back to Henry Lee, a retired widower who recently lost his long time wife to cancer.

Because Henry has a past he has been trying to bury beneath the mounds of time. A past which involved a painful adolescence growing up in the city’s Chinatown quarter with parents, especially his father, who were staunch nationalists for the cause back home and considered the Japanese as the devils incarnates. Henry managed to get a ‘scholarship’ to the local whites’ school, though this meant he had to spend his time in between and after classes helping out in the cafeteria and cleaning duties. Apart from putting up with bullies who equate him to the Japanese enemies despite his parents’ best efforts to remind everyone they were Chinese.

Into this insular world comes a breath of fresh and probably forbidden air. Keiko Okabe is an American, but in a suspicious age people mostly notice only her ancestry, which is Japanese. Ironic, since she doesn’t even speak the language and has always thought of herself as American. ‘Scholarshipping’ side by side with Henry, they develop a close bond and Henry soon feels the growing pangs of first love as he reaches the brink of his teens. However, his parents are staunchly against any sort of contact with the Japanese, and Henry is soon caught up in emotional and political turmoil, as numerous Japanese families are uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps, in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Among these is Keiko’s family and Henry feels the wrenching pain of separation with someone he was getting completely besotted with. Apart from this, things aren’t rosy on the homefront either, with Henry’s father virtually disowning his son. Henry though decides that he needs to make his own choices now and along with his friend, a Jazz player by the name of Sheldon, and his school’s lunch lady manage to keep in touch with Keiko by visiting her in the camps. But eventually, he knows the moment of truth will be soon upon them both.

The story is unabashedly sentimental at times, especially in the tender moments between Henry and Keiko. There are also some touching passages of his relationship with his friend Sheldon, and his days of caring for his terminally ill wife before her death. But it never feels forced. As readers, the melancholy and emotions soak into us gradually and we feel the throes of both young and old love and opportunities missed and people lost. The book interweaves between present day 1986 Seattle and the past of 1942 Seattle. In the present, Henry reconnects with his college going son and slowly divulges the details of his past life to him, while in the past Henry and Keiko’s connection is emphasized with an intimate look at the Jazz scene of the time which turns out to be their shared passion with a particular attachment to a record by a musician long lost since then. It also points out a probably forgotten episode of how the USA treated its own citizens (of Japanese descent) with their virtual confinement in ‘camps’ at the time.

There are some anachronisms and incorrect detailing at times, and it is tough to distinguish Henry’s present day voice from the past version of it, but these are surely forgivable in a poignant tale which primarily focuses on the issue of displacement and the shaky concept of patriotism in tough times. And of course, young and tender love at an age when kids mostly see with their hearts, the brink of adolescence, after which the bittersweet realities of the world start clouding over the innocence.

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The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma

November 14, 2018

The FishermenThe Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chigozie Obioma’s ‘The Fishermen’ is a marvelous (but grim) parable that incorporates elements of contemporary Nigerian life with the superstitions and culture of Africa, told through the life of the Agwu family.

Namely this talks about the four elder brothers of the family, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin (the youngest of the four and the narrator here), who are growing up in a town called Akure under the dictatorial rule of General Sani Abacha in the mid-nineties. The brothers are a tight bunch who are fiercely loyal to each other and mostly do everything together. However, at the beginning of the story, their disciplinarian father has to move away on account of a transfer in his job working for the central bank leaving them almost entirely under the watch of their harried mother. And unbeknownst to any of them, it is this which inadvertently sets in motion a tragic chain of events with consequences they could have never foreseen.

Out of the need to find new ways to spend their time after school, the boys decide to start fishing on the banks of a river, Omi-Ala, which was once revered but over time has come to be associated with filth, fear and suspicion (helped in no small part by rumors propagated by colonialists pushing Christianity). Normally, the boys would never have been able to continue with this hobby if their strict father was around, but under the care of their overworked mother they are able to hide their activity for a considerable while. To ultimately disastrous effects.

On one of their visits to the accursed lake, they come across a village madman, Abulu. Abulu could have been seen as a generally comic figure, except for the fact that he is prone to make prescient prophecies which more often than not turn out to be true. So when he gives his prophecy of doom to the oldest brother, Ikenna, which involves his destruction at the hands of one of the other ‘Fishermen’ Ikenna lets it slowly consume himself from within and spirals into doom, taking his family along with him. From this point on, the story becomes an increasingly desperate account of the brothers’ disintegration as the poison of superstition proves too strong for bonds built over years of filial love. The parents can only watch on helplessly as one incident after another consumes their carefully built up family and life ebbs further away from the promises the past once held.

Obioma does a great job of ratcheting up the tension and sense of despair gradually and with plenty of references to his country’s lore. Each chapter is named after an animal or insect with the perceived characteristics of each linked to one of the characters in their predicament. The writing is both lushly descriptive, giving a great feel of a small town middle class family’s circumstances in the Nigeria of the nineties, and zippy enough to keep the reader hooked and make this a quick enough read. There are some references to MKO Abiola, a popular leader who should have won the elections back then but was not allowed to form the government and was imprisoned before dying shortly thereafter. There is a meeting conjured up between the boys and the leader – a parallel probably to the path their own lives will take thereafter, from a message of hope and unity to disillusionment and infighting. The story also shows how superstitions can devastate lives, with prophecies virtually becoming self-fulfilling purely on account of their utterance alone. The climax, though not exactly a ‘happy’ ending, is still a satisfyingly apt way to wind up events.

Part of the Booker shortlist in 2015, this is a rewarding read for anyone interested in good fiction.

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From Hell – Alan Moore

November 5, 2018

From HellFrom Hell by Alan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A seminal work, almost on par with Moore’s own Watchmen, this is the kind of book which strikes down the notion that ‘comics’ are limited in their scope and reach to select audiences. As complex and layered as any novel out there, there is a chance you may not love its grit and gore but you cannot deny the mastery of medium and meticulousness of research that has gone into producing it. Alan Moore, who comes across as an eccentric genius mostly, shows that there is a brilliant method behind the facade.

The story takes its inspiration from the infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ serial killer who terrorized London towards the end of the nineteenth century with the Whitechapel murders of a number of prostitutes. A case which was never solved and the criminal never caught, there have been numerous theories over the last century and more on the identity and conspiracies behind the gruesome murders. It is on the germ of one of these theories that Moore expands this universe.

In his tale, a conspiracy involving a royal prince marrying a commoner and begetting a child is the forerunner to the murders of the prostitutes in the know of these affairs. For this, their preferred weapon of choice is a brilliant surgeon by the name of William Whitney Gull, who uses his fascination of the human body and of his belief that a higher cause calls to him to commit the crimes. Gull maybe a brilliant surgeon, but he is also a member of the Freemasons and accordingly is deluded in his own significance in the events unfolding. There is a fascinating and long chapter devoted to Gull and his man Friday in the murders, Netley the coach driver, going around various historic landmarks in London with Gull soliloquizing on the architectural secrets the architects hid in these landmarks as a nod to their pagan influences through history. This may sometimes seem like a long winded explanation going nowhere, but it provide a gruesomely effective explanation for what Gull believed in while planning and executing his elaborate murders. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the police – mainly Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard. However, Abberline is going to realize soon that Gull has the blessings from various aspects of the bureaucratic and police machinery and that finding a scapegoat may be the primary objective. To complicate matters further, a supposed psychic of the Queen is also in the picture.

So this is not a typical whodunit, because the ‘who’ becomes quite obvious from early on in the story. What it is, is a complex analysis of power and poverty and how these intermingle to produce effects that reverberate through the ages. Desperation and need become perfect foils for the ruthless and it is this that is exploited by the Royal machinery (and Gull) here. The age it is set in is hugely interesting, but I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of the grainy black and white art though. It rendered some details tough to decipher and I felt it didn’t capture the place and time it was set in effectively enough.

So this is not my favorite Alan Moore comic (that would still be Watchmen), but it’s definitely up there with some of the best stuff I’ve come across in the medium. A must read, if you’re willing to put up with the gore and some complex ruminations on the world and the state of man in it. However, a word of warning though – don’t watch the movie version starring Johnny Depp; that is just a disservice to this wonderful work of art.

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The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler

October 27, 2018

The TobacconistThe Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book which quietly and with minimal fuss goes about telling its story. Translated from the German, this is a poignant tale set in Austria on the eve of World War 2. The paperback version of this book is beautifully and cozily illustrated and entices the reader into its un-showy thrall.

The book opens without much pretense about the characters. We are dropped right into young Franz’s idyllic little existence in a beautiful village in Austria, among the mountains of the Salzkammergut, where he lives with his mother. However, his life is about to undergo a sudden transformation; their benefactor and his mother’s lover has died in a freak drowning accident and money is about to get tight. His mother calls in a favor she is owed by an old friend and sends Franz to Vienna to be an apprentice at a Tobacconist’s shop. Initially overcome with homesickness and foreboding, Franz allows himself to be taken over by the wonder of the big city and gets caught up in the life of the shop and its patrons.

The tobacconist himself, Otto Trsnyek, is a bit of an enigma; injured in the previous World War, he got the shop as compensation and has been there ever since, selling newspapers, cigarettes and “all the trimmings.” His customers include a certain Dr. Sigmund Freud, who Franz gets acquainted with and to whom he turns to for advice on various problems of existence, prime of them being his having fallen in love with a Bohemian performer, Anezka. As Franz indulges in his despair over his disappearing lover and continues his otherwise idyllic existence in the shop, there are bigger clouds hovering threatening to spill their wares on the city. For, it is the time of Nazi Germany, and the Fuhrer has taken over the fancy of a lot of Austrians too who believe his arrival in their country foretells good times. This, of course, means testing times for the city’s Jewish inhabitants, of which Freud is one. As Franz starts becoming aware of the burgeoning situation, can he and the Tobacconist stay out of trouble or will they also get sucked into the growing whirlpool of despair?

The story provides answers to all this, though in its own subtle style. As the Gestapo rein in the citizens, Franz handles his lot with quiet dignity, while not shirking from making his point, despite the inevitable consequences. In between, he and his mother keep up a steady stream of postcard correspondences to each other.

It’s a compelling story told in a no frills manner, at times perhaps a bit too no frills. Franz’s initial sense of childlike wonder at both the city and his first love gradually ebb away into despair and resignation as he realizes the truths of the world he inhabits. As the storm approaches, people’s natures and allegiances shine a light into their mental map and at how a charismatic leader can sway a populace to betray themselves (or maybe realize their true selves). Franz’s interactions with Freud are a clever mix of wry humor, childishly despairing pleas (by Franz) and some sudden bursts of existential brilliance. Sample this for one of the dialogs:

Freud: “Most paths do at least seem vaguely familiar to me. But it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity—or, best of all, all three at once—can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”

This is a worthwhile read on the nature of life and love and an inevitable loss of innocence of both. One wishes though that, at times at least, it could have been a bit more urgent in its prose.

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The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry

October 19, 2018

The Secret ScriptureThe Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.”

This is an unabashedly sentimental novel, wallowing in a mire of nostalgia and despondent memories and narrated by a hundred year old woman in a crumbling hospital for the mentally ill. Also interleaved with present day narrations by her doctor, quite an old man himself, who is trying to deal with the melancholy of a crumbling marriage and being around a mental institution every day.

While that whole setup may not sound very salubrious, the thing is, it is done very well. The reader is soaked in the atmosphere of early-nineteenth century Ireland in between the wars and in the midst of the Troubles. Our main narrator is Roseanne McNulty, a hundred plus year old seasoned inmate of the hospital of which Dr. Grene is the chief doctor. The crumbling hospital is finally being relocated to a more modern and smaller structure, and Dr. Grene is faced with the unenviable task of determining if he can release some of the patients into ‘normal’ life in order to deal with the smaller capacity of the new hospital. Despite being in the same hospital as Roseanne for more than thirty years, it is only with this development that he decides to start making her acquaintance and get to know more about the circumstances behind her confinement (which covers most of her life). It wasn’t uncommon for people, especially women, to be interned in asylums at the time for no other reason than they were considered a disgrace or a deviant in ‘proper’ society and Dr. Grene wants to find out if this was the case with Roseanne. Roseann, for her part, maintains her diary/notebook which is presented as her narration to the reader, but hides it whenever the doctor comes. While their initial interactions come across as guarded, soon they form a subtle but warm bond and Dr. Grene starts respecting the quiet strength and dignity of his old patient. However, even he wouldn’t have been prepared for the shock and wonder of the eventual revelation the book has.

I loved Barry’s earlier book, A Long, Long Way, with its vivid and humane descriptions of the brutality of the warzones of World War 1 and this one, while less action packed, is also indulgently realized in the time and place it represents. It also passes a very critical eye on the state of society at the time, especially on the women it casts its aspersions on, sometimes for no more reason than unfounded gossip and suspicion. Roseanne’s initial life, while hard, was marked by her love for her graveyard managing father, and these sections of bonding between father and daughter is beautifully rendered as is the gradual withdrawing of her mother as circumstances change.

The circumstances, when they come, mark some drastic changes in the family’s life, especially in Roseanne’s. The first, an encounter with some soldiers in the graveyard who want to bury their dead comrade, brings with it an enigmatic priest and a reassigning of her father’s job. The second, later on in life, once she seems to be happily married, is linked to the events of the first incident and forever alters her fate. The priest, Father Gaunt, is another fascinating character, forever shrouded in mystery in terms of his true intentions and thoughts. One thing which cannot be denied though, is the import which church and its take on moralities had on the people and society at the time and how this hold had a distasteful effect on people’s lives then, here manifested in Roseanne’s drastic change in life.

Another interesting aspect of the narration is the different perceptions of history when viewed from different people’s accounts. Dr. Grene, while unraveling the mystery behind Roseanne’s life, finds the information he comes across as markedly different in certain aspects from what Roseanne tells. But what is the truth? And what are historical accounts but someone’s written recollections of events passed? Can any account be said to be more honest than another? Or is all of history, like memories, colored by the viewpoint of the person narrating it?

It’s a fascinating set of quandaries this book throws up, but more than anything, it is the humanity Barry infuses in his characters that make us root for them and ache for them when things go awry.

I would highly recommend this to any lover of good, if a little morose, literature.

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Roots – Alex Haley

October 7, 2018

RootsRoots by Alex Haley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I just felt like I was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind’s greatest flaw…”

On some levels, this is an absolutely astonishing work. Tracing the author’s roots back through the generations and arriving wondrously in a remote village in Gambia, Africa in the mid-eighteenth century, it picks up the story from there till the time Alex Haley was born. A descendent of the brutal practices of slavery enforced upon numerous captives from the Dark Continent, he presents this as a biography of his family tree.

The initial portions of the book are perhaps the most fascinating. We are provided an intense, in-depth view of life in a remote African village called Juffure, through the protagonist called Kunta Kinte. Kunta Kinte grows up as any God fearing member of his clan does, following its age old practices of hunting, farming and self-sufficient living, offset by the seasonal hardships and simple joys of this life. His life from his birth and growing up years to his ‘manhood training’ is evoked in brilliant detail and transports us effortlessly to a world we could never have otherwise re-imagined. There are grittily recounted sections detailing such things as his first walking journey as a child (an honor and a rare privilege for a child) with his father to the new village founded by his uncles, and the manhood training underwent by all boys of a particular ‘rain’ (the term used to specify age). Goat herding and school activities are also described in detail here. All up till the inevitable ambush and kidnap of Kunta by slave traders.

After this the book becomes a grim and brutal study of the way captured slaves were treated before being offloaded onto various plantations in the United States. The ship journey, in particular, assaults our senses with the filth, stench and loss of dignity which the captives are forced to endure and the heartbreak of having their whole life till then taken away from them in a heartbeat.

Once at the plantation, Kunta tries to escape multiple times, the final time being found by slave catchers and having a horrible injury inflicted upon him. Post this incident, he is moved to the plantation of a doctor, who heals him as much as he can before setting him onto gardening duties. Though he becomes milder in his resistance over the years, Kunta never loses his anger against the white man or his memories and fondness for a homeland he knows he will probably never see again. Eventually forced to resign himself to life on the plantation, he decides to get married to the cook and a daughter is born, Kizzy. To her he recounts his tales and words from Africa and a family tradition is born, which will be passed down through the ages. When tragedy again strikes, it is to Kizzy’s point of view that the story shifts. A large part of the book after that is devoted to her son George and his shenanigans as a trusted cock fighter for his master. I was not too enamored by the detailed descriptions of the cock fighting scene at the time, but again this did provide a vivid description of a time long gone. Eventually, the book condenses towards the end and culminates in the last few chapters being narrated by the author himself as he details his emotional journey to find details about the lives of his ancestors.

One of the striking things about the narrative, and which I initially took a little time to get used to, is the sudden shifting of the point of view. After a point, we are suddenly left with a new protagonist and the earlier characters who were integral to the plot up till then suddenly leave unceremoniously from the pages. However, in retrospect, this was probably a grim reality for a lot of the slaves back then – in an instant, through some perceived crime or plain whim of their master, entire families can be sold away from each other and would never see each other again. The book does an altogether fantastic job of depicting the sheer criminality and unfairness of slavery which snatched so many people away from all that they had known till then and left them at the mercy of their masters/overseers.

However, and this was probably why I couldn’t give it a perfect rating, I realized after reading it that there had been controversies galore after it was published. A lot of doubts and research has been raised in light of Haley’s claim that the whole thing is true, some pretty compelling. There was also a plagiarism case which was settled out of court in the years after publication. Haley’s journey into the village where Kunta is from in particular raises questions of authenticity as does the admission that certain passages were lifted from an earlier book, ‘The African’. In fact, there was a chance that the book and author would have been more accepted as a true great if it had been presented as literary fiction.

But, all things considered, this is still a gripping and unflinching look at the brutalities of a time and place and a reminder on why we should never forget our shared histories. For this reason itself, this is a must read for everyone.

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The Prisoner of Heaven – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

September 26, 2018

The Prisoner of Heaven (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #3)The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So we’re back in the world of mid-twentieth century Barcelona with the third in a series of tales set around The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the Sempere & Sons bookshop. Zafon is in familiar territory here, but at some point the shtick has to run out I guess. This is a good book for sure, but nowhere near as captivating as the first two books in the series (The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game). The relatively slimmer size of the volume plus a not completely wrapped up ending suggest that there is another volume to come.

Daniel Sempere, the main protagonist of The Shadow of the wind, is now happily married to his love Bea and still lives around the beloved bookshop run by him and his father, with a little help from their trusted and occasionally eccentric friend, Fermin. In fact, it is Fermin’s marriage soon and the preparations are in full swing. However, out of the blue one day, a strange looking character comes into the bookshop and leaves a cryptic and creepy message for Fermin. When Fermin finally discloses to Daniel the story of his past in a notorious prison for dissenters in Franco’s Spain and the circumstances which led to his escape from there, Daniel is assailed by the realization that it’s not just Fermin but his own life also which is facing upheaval.

For the tale Fermin tells is one of despair, betrayal and hopeful redemption involving a set of prisoners in the jail, as well as a certain ‘Prisoner of Heaven’; this turns out to be David Martin, the character from The Angel’s Game which was a prequel to Shadow. David Martin in turn is deeply linked to Isabella, Daniel’s mother, who supposedly died of Cholera when was very young. Or did she? It is these and other questions that Daniel and Fermin have to deal with for the remainder of the book as well as ensure that Fermin’s betrothal goes on as planned.

Like I said earlier, it’s a good book. It was good to get some background on Fermin and how he stumbled into the Semperes’ lives, and it was interesting the way they linked David Martin to the story too (though it did leave me a bit confused based on what I read at the end of The Angels Game). However, it doesn’t touch greatness like the first two books in the series did. In those books, despite the overarching melancholy and at times predictable Gothic romance tropes, Zafon managed to pull in the readers with some brilliant setting up of atmosphere and heart. Over here though, the same zest and natural flow in the storytelling is missing a bit. Plus it appears they wanted to split it into two books which takes away a bit of shine. It would have been so much better to have this also as one longer tale like the others.

I still did like it enough though to give the next part a shot when it comes out. This is still a hugely entertaining and well written series which readers would do well to try.

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