‘Sea of Ink’ by Richard Weihe

Weihe’s pen-strokes echo and reflect the brushstrokes of Bada Shanren’s art, which themselves are refractions of the variegated shades of black with which Shanren paints the natural world; lustrous and salubrious sable, elegant ebony, resplendent with kaleidoscope shades of darkness, smudges of black ink which echo the myriad of stars in the night sky, or the violet vibrations of a gold-fish in sunlight dappled water which represent the night as it would be if it was swimming through water. Black and white is often seen as such a monochrome way of presenting the world, yet as Shanren’s master teaches him, black itself is replete with innumerable shades and colours.

Bada Shanren’s art was abstract hundreds of years the concept was popularized in the West and imbued with symbolism. As his master taught him, it is not the image which i is important, but what the images represents to the artist; art should be nothing less than the representation of the artist’s soul on paper and for Shanren this was a mixture of wistfulness and wonder with a world which he was wearied by, yet loathe to leave.

“How can it be that, from this dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything; and in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?”

And so Shanren’s artistic vocation is to capture the inner essence of the world, the ephemeral echoes of beauty which his eye beholds and which he attempts to recreate via the broad strokes of his paint-brush. So Shanren, like all great artists, was able to depict the world as it had never been seen before, his attempts at depicting the movement of water is transformed into a catfish, two spiders whose invisible web-weaving means they are doomed to forever be apart, the distillation of light through an open door as the  moon gently rises. Shanren’s art represents nothing less than the joyful exuberance which he feels about life, about the world and, for Shanren, the innumerable moments of beauty which make up his days;

“One evening he went into the pine forest alone. The mountain peaks were glowing in the evening light. It appeared as if a giant had carved them with a huge knife. The flat rocks looked so clean, as if they had been washed. The stream snaked its way upwards,ending in a mere silver thread…..the light and pines and stream were there for him alone, and in his happiness Xuege forgot his exhaustion and sorrow, and his heart became as light as a feather.”

 

 

 

Advertisements

‘Elsewhere, Home’ by Leila Aboulela

This punchy, yet poised,  collection of short stories by Leila Aboulela explores displacement of a variety of different types; the displacement felt by a young English-Egyptian girl on her trips back to Egypt, of not really belonging and yet mysteriously drawn to her mother-land, of a young English woman recently converted to Islam, of the Scotsman who feels hopelessly disaffected when visiting his fiancee’s family in Khartoum  and of the displacement felt by so many immigrants as they leave their homes for a country whose customs and cultures seem to alien to them, whose reception of them can so often be hostile, accusing them of innumerable imaginary crimes. On the face of it the reader would conclude that Aboulela is exploring the disconnect and differences between cultures which are intrinsically different, yet the key theme of the novels is the things which bring is together and how the innate human desire for love and friendship as a way of overcoming our sense of isolation and the cultural differences which divide us, just as with Shadia and Bryan in ‘The Museum’.

The stories unfold not so much as a narrative, but as a series of images which encapsulate the emotional journeys which the characters are going through; some characters are stirred from their catharsis by jolts of love, some by the beauty of the world around them, such as the opalescence of the Nile as the narrator in ‘Something Old, Something New’, however what is important is that all of the characters are attempting to find some kind of meaning and sense of belonging. And herein lies the strength of Aboulela’s short stories and the innate sense of pathos which runs through them; where it be the supercilious Ostrich in ‘The Ostrich’ or the star-struck reader in ‘Pages of Fruit’, is it the insecurities of the characters, their flaws as well as their strengths which add emotional poignancy and depth to their characters, allowing the reader to invest emotionally in all the stories Aboulela weaves, whether it be the quotidian journey of a heartbroken woman through London or the young girl whose poor eyesight and inability to read the blackboard is causing her teachers to think she is stupid, these stories emanate a subtle sadness and beauty, just like the African night sky as seen by the narrator of ‘Something Old, Something New’;

“Out on the balcony, the contrast startled him. Sunset has softened the sky, rimmed the west with pinks and soft orange.”

 

 

 

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena

‘Soviet Milk’ is a novel which mixes despair with a kind of wistful beauty; the claustrophobia of Soviet Latvia is combined with the wistful, ethereal beauty of the Latvian countryside; a country in which the quivers of moon-light on the softly-set snow are off-set by the brutality of the regime which sought to crackdown on any sort of expression, any truth which disagreed with its own narrow definitions of it. The story follows a mother and her daughter; the mother’s life overtaken by alcoholism and depression, a daughter whose precocity and problems with authority dimly echo her own mother’s adolescence. Yet, despite their similarities, both exist in a vacuum from one another, unable to fully comprehend each other; the daughter unable  to recognise the immense sense of unfulfilled ambitions of her mother and her inability to cope to exist within the prison cell of Latvian society; at one point her mother points out that her daughter’s pet hamster, which cannibalised its children not longer after they were born, may have done so because it was unable to cope with them living in a cage. Yet her mother fails to see that the freedom so long hoped to feel will be fulfilled in her daughter, instead she is largely absorbed with her own demons-that her literary heroes are Winston Smith and Captain Ahab is telling, both are individuals who feel weighed down by their sense of self-oppression and both are indomitable in escaping it.

However it is not so much the political or sociological aspects of ‘Soviet Milk’ which remains with the reader, although these are, of course, interesting; it is the little moments of beauty that Ikstena is able to intersperse into the novel; the pale moonlight on a cold winter night which imbues the atmosphere with an iridescent beauty, the fragrance of the moss on a quiet afternoon of mushroom picking-these are the moments which stay with the reader, the small moments between a mother and daughter whose relationship is often fractured and distant.

 

‘Lovers and Strangers’ by Claire Wills

Impeccably researched, thoughtfully argued and well-crafted, the problem with Clair Wills’s account of immigration in post-war Britain is that the germs of interesting stories are told in a somewhat dry, formulaic and academic style; in a book which is fundamentally about the emotional impact of immigration, mainly on the immigrants themselves, but also on the indigenous population. However, Will’s style does not lend itself well to presenting the journey’s the individuals or groups which Wills describes went through. So whether it be the Polish immigrants who were interred in Iran and South America, the taboo breaking interracial relationships between West Indian and British women, the lachrymose, lonely and homesick Irish immigrants or the immigrants from the Indian sub-continent who sought to echo the British culture they were attempting to integrate in so much that even parroted the gangsterism of the British underclasses.

However Wills is able to present a number of little-know and well researched facts, especially pertaining to the first wave of Commonwealth immigrants and the East European immigrants who undertook a surprising round-the-world our before arriving in Britain. Otherwise ‘Lovers and Strangers’ presents a cogent argument for immigration and its importance in creating a dynamic, forward-thinking society and culture; it is also a reminder of the worn-out arguments which have always driven the myopia of anti-immigrant thoughts; that immigrants are dirty criminals unable to integrate to society, that they are unrepentant ravishers of helpless local women, that they are a drain on resource and are taking local citizens jobs, or the cruder racial arguments put forward by the worst of anti-immigration movements.

‘Blinding’ by Mircea Cărtărescu

The diaphanous drug-addled dreams-cape of Cărtărescu’s imagination transmogrifies the world of Bucharest into a kaleidoscope of colours and sensations; the narrative of ‘Blinding’ reads more as a series of images rather than a coherent story and this, alongside the sensuality of Cărtărescu’s prose, the brush-strokes of his pen reading like a Dali painting can at times by jarring, as the reader is left disorientated by the dizzying images of the world Cărtărescu creates;

“Above the yard, the sky was an intense azure with milky clouds frozen in curls. The green and pink oleanders painted their blue shadows on the whitewashed wall of the left-hand house, and further away, the semi-gypsy population sweated in the smell of roux, like fleshy growths on a coral reef”

It is this coalescence of beauty with hideousness which lingers in the mind of the reader, as they are unsure as to whether they are delighted or horrified in the series of images which Cărtărescu creates. Snow melting prettily beneath the shadows of a morbid night; gums which recall to the narrator’s mind sepia-tinted sunsets; the image of a ring as it reflects and blends into the star-filled night- sky. These, rather than any of the characters, who are purely incidental, puppets aimed at propping up the fantastical world fashioned by Cărtărescu, or the plot, which meanders alongside the weird and wonderful mind of the narrator, represent the true essence of ‘Blinding’, as Cărtărescu opens our eyes to the surreal, beautiful and often terrifying power of the world around us.

‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor

The gentle undulations of the sea beneath the blundering weight of a lachrymose elephant; the swirls of the shadows beneath the hand of the puppeteer; the harlequin colours of a rapidly flooding earth as seen from the vast blackness of space.  These are the passages which give this collection of short stories their verve and beauty, whether it be the inconsolable grief of the miner who only sees the chicanery of the cameraman who in seeking to capture his degradation only ends up catching his hopelessness or the emptiness felt by the mahout as he has to let go of the elephant who has been his charge, Tharoor is able to, with great skill and pathos, the inner lives of the characters he depicts. It is in his pale pastiches of Calvino that his stories begin to suffer in quality; when Tharoor gives free reign to his imagination his stories soar, when he is engaging in deliberate homages to writers he admires they begin to sink into mediocrity, as with his Alexander The Great stories.

What is particularly impressive about this collection is the sheer range of different styles or stories Tharoor is able to depict. ‘Cultural Property’ depicts the strains of a modern relationship between individuals from vastly different cultures, the humorous vein of ‘The Phalanx’ belies is essentially tragic mediation on war, ‘The Astrolabe’ the last moments of a sailor as he is heaved over a cliff by a group of islanders or ‘United Nations in Space’ a depiction of a dystopian future where most of the world has been flooded as the United Nations witness the greatest storm in history from a dilapidated space station. The mark of many writers is no doubt imprinted in these stories, but the influence is not too obvious as Tharoor gives his imagination free reign and delight the reader with the multitude of wonderful stories which exist in his mind.

‘Refuge’ by Dina Nayeri

‘Refuge’ is primarily a novel which deals with disconsolation, with Niloo’s stories acting as a parable for the sense of loss which all refugees experience; the lost not only of their culture and everything which previously defined them but also of relationships, which in this case is the relationship between Niloo and her drug addict father after she flees Iran with her mother and brother. The loss of her father-and the subsequent unfulfilled promises of them reuniting, cause a sense of mistrust build within as the void caused by the loss of her father is replaced with a sense of weariness as she struggles to let others in, her outward sense of independence disguises a deep-seated insecurity at being hurt. However the sense of loss goes both ways; her charismatic and fiercely independent father feels increasingly isolated and alienated from his children, as the years and distance slowly take their toll on their relationship until they become virtual strangers, his charisma is transformed into a sense of coarseness in his children’s eyes, his drug addiction an unbearable weight on their relationship, as his children slowly lose the sense of reverence which he may have held for them in their eyes;

“How sad it was when someone has left your orbit, whose memory has receded, holding such intimate knowledge. Meeting them again feels like renewed loss, and it’s full of tremors and watery eyes and involuntary responses like much like a bout of opium withdrawal, not only because every familiar detail -their blue eyes of their yellow laugh or a charming turn of their hand-is like the coil of a a skin from a peeling heart…”

Indeed the journey Niloo goes through is a like a gradual peeling of her emotions; her connection to her home-town in Iran and all the memories it brings, her relationship with her father, the gradual unravelling if her marriage beneath the weight of her own self-destructiveness, another trait she inherited from him, until the truth of their relationship is laid bare; that she has spent her whole life running from any joy or excess in fear of turning into the father who she so closely resembles, whose sense of exuberance ruptured any meaningful relationship he was able to have.

The true strength of ‘Refuge’, however, is the emotional depth of the characters; Nayeri is able to bring about their imperfections, all of the foibles and traits-both good and bad. This gives the story immense emotional resonance and a sense of strength, as the reader is brought along a journey of a young girl who is seeking a sense of belonging in a world which has ruptured her from everything which she held dear.

‘Men Without Women’ by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is able to mix irreverence with wisdom in a way that no other modern writer is able to. His stories, which explore the romantic dynamics between men and women act as exploratory pieces on various relationships; the morose actor and his reticent chauffeur, whose mutual feelings of isolation bring them together in what can only be described as a guarded friendship tinged with a faint hit not of romance exactly, but a kind of understanding. Or of Kitaru and Erica, childhood sweethearts whose relationship is difficult to capture exactly; whilst not physically intimate, they share a kind of spiritual intimacy which, when sundered, leads to a feeling of deep disconsolation, a kind of emptiness permeates their souls, which become empty vessels in one another’s absence. If one word could be used to describe Murakami’s stories then it would be unusual; unusual in the sense that he completely dispenses of the tropes and cliches of mainstream of books and films of love, but instead captures the uniqueness of individual feelings and emotions, the quiddity of human relationships; in this sense it is Murakami’s wonderful imagination, his unique ability to make even the most mundane of stories into something fantastical and and surreal that really sets his stories apart. Just as Habara is entranced by Scheherazade post-coital stories so the reader is entranced by the spiders web of stories which Murakami is able to spin; stories which shimmer with energy and elegance.

The two strongest stories in this collection however, are ‘An Independent Organ’ and ‘Samsa in Love’. The latter is a wonderful upending of ‘The Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa awakes as the most grotesque of creatures; a human being. Gregor slowly navigates the world around him, including feelings expressed in the strangest of things-language-and an unbearable feeling of tumescence in the presence of a female hunchback, a tumescence which, in a fit of perspicacity, he likely equates with some kind of vague heart condition. Indeed the feeling which the woman  (literally) arouses in him  rejuvenates an interest in being a human being-an idea which he was previously lukewarm about. ‘An Independent Organ’ explores the story of Dr. Tokai a man who eschewed any complicated romantic relationships in favour of casual sexual encounters, only to inexplicably fall in love, the culmination of which leads to him literally wasting away as he fulfils his desire to no longer exist.

As well as the sheer feeling of joy which reading this collection of short stories brings, it is also refreshing to see him dispensing (in the main) of the-albeit well-loved-tropes which define his fiction. Instead we are treated to original and well-crafted explorations of love; whether it be the teenage girl who breaks into the house of the boy she is infatuated with, the incipient but unfulfilled romance between two Erica and the narrator in ‘Yesterday’ or the emotional journey taken by Kino (in what is perhaps the story closest to Murakami’s traditional style), his stories are as entertaining as they are beautiful.

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

A  modern re-working of ‘Antigone’, ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie eschews any form of subtle political dialogue in favour of the blunt force of Shamsie’s rhetoric; the lead antagonist is a thinly veiled portrait of a famous politician, the romance which develops between the lead characters Eamonn and Aneeka is slightly artificial because of the obviousness the plot device. Powerful is probably the most suitable word with which to describe ‘Home Fire’; what the novel lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in the force of the messages it is attempting convey; messages on the ease with which men, cast adrift from society, hopelessly alienated and alone can be radicalised, how the parochial jingoism of Islamaphobia is often they key driver in the radicalisation of the very people who it says should be making a greater attempt at integration.

‘Home Fire’ follows the love story between Eamonn and Aneeka; although both come from Pakistani backgrounds their upbringings couldn’t be any more different. Eamonn is born into the life of privilege, his father, a thinly veiled caricature of the current home secretary, full of cultural self-hatred and a virulent believer in integration at the expense of his own culture, whereas Aneeka comes from a more traditional Pakistani family. Their romance-like most of the characters or relationships in novel-is slightly artificial due to it being a symbol of the ideas Shamsie is aiming to present and becomes doubly ambiguous by Aneeka’s motives; whether she is driven by an actual desire for Eamonn or her relationship is part of a slightly convoluted plan to acquit her brother is never quite fully explained. Indeed, in a novel full of ideas, the grotesqueness of fundamentalist Islam and Parvaiz’s slow seduction and radicalisation  are probably the most convincing part of the novel.

Perhaps Shamsie’s close modelling on Antigone has contributed to the slightly exaggerated nature of the characters in ‘Homecoming’; Shamsie’s sledgehammer approach can leave the reader slightly disorientated, both by the message and approach, however ‘Home Fire’ remains a fascinating exploration of radicalisation and the place of Muslims in the West.

‘Bombay Stories’ by Manto

Manto is able to conjure beauty from the drudgery of Bombay;  the dirt-filled puddles reflect the diaphanous sun-light of a gleaming Bombay morning, as the cast of outcasts who populate these short stories;  pimps and prostitutes, artists and assassins as the lugubrious and the lonesome lurch from jubilation to mourning. In his unflinching portrayal of the seedy under-belly of Indian life,  a break from all of the cliches and caricatures which can beset stories about India and Indian society, Manto represents a truly original voice in Indian literature, at times unrefined and coarse, but with the eye of a true storyteller.

‘Mozelle’ stands as a particular highlight; a story where the heartless floozy sacrifices herself for a insecure Sikh man (who she may or may not love) and his fiancee. The lead character, whose casual indifference to any form of rules or decorum captivates the reader as much as it does Trilochan; indeed Manto’s ability to circumvent norms is his key skill s a novelist. Mozelle, like so many other Manto characters, defies any kind of convention, indeed most of the female characters in his collection of short stories demonstrate this spirit of independence, this disdain for classification. Manto can turn the most hardened murderers-such as Mammad Bhai-into honourable men, the most pathetic lovers-such as Chaddah and Mommy-into sympathetic characters, as Bombay is transformed via the alchemy of Manto’s prose into a city of million and one untold stories; of jilted actresses, of prostitutes desperate for love, lonely directors and naive revolutionaries.

Few writers are able to turn the waves of a woman’s hair into billowing of smoke on the skyline, or a woman’s breasts into finely crafted pots; yet this is the magic of Manto who was able to paint Bombay in limitless number of harlequin colours.