‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Gogol Ganguli is fated from birth for a unusual life; product of a strange, somewhat obscure Russian author, whose life and leech-ridden death is irretrievably linked with the life of Gogol’s father, Ashok, saved from oblivion by his love of reading (in this case Gogol) during a train crash. Gogol is constantly trying to shed the Bengali culture which he is brought up within; his mother’s food discarded for the blandness of American cuisine, his familial warmth for the coldness of American individuality, his parents for the veneer of contentment  offered by independence, his name for the shallow happiness brought about by acceptance. This is not so much a criticism of Gogol; as a product of, like Gogol, the Indian diaspora, the constant pressure to conform to Western standards of behaviour and cultural norms, to discard the culture of your origin as backward and parochial against the all encompassing liberalism of the West can be impossible to resist and in many ways the key them of ‘The Namesake’ is one of acceptance, of, like Gogol, being pulled into two different cultures, of the suffocation of never being free from the limitations of each, of never being truly yourself but being seen via the lens of two disparate societies.  Lahiri skilfully navigates this topic; instead of judging Gogol she seeks to understand what causes him to become the person he is, we may not like the adolescent and young adult Gogol becomes, but we do  end up liking the man Gogol becomes, the tragedy of his father’s death acting as the catalyst which allows him to re-engage with his culture, to accept himself and become a man who is comfortable with his place in the world and whose failures allow him to achieve some measure of success.

The other key theme is that of love; from the descriptions of the kicks and gurgles of baby Gogol as seen via the eyes of his mother, Ashima, the the slow, imperceptible bloom of love between Ashima and Ashok, to Gogol’s love for Moushumi, from almost undetectable build of of down on her forearms in the morning, to her quirks and idiosyncrasies, her sense of independence and his acceptance of these, just as Ashima is able to accept that her children will one day (in her eyes)  abandon her. Love may break down, as it does between Gogol and Moushumi, or bloom as it does between Ashima and Ashok, but it is the thing which defines us and which allows Gogol to find some meaning and guidance, the evenstar against the darkness which was slowly engulfing him.

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‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison

The invisibility of the narrator isn’t so much as physical one, but a psychological one; the narrator feels inconspicuous in the eyes of society, insignificant and infinitesimal, the indifference with which society treats him contributes to his feeling of alienation, of his invisibility-it is not so much that the narrator doesn’t exist, it is more that in the eyes of the world it doesn’t matter if he does exist. What is the crime the narrator is guilty of? Of being black. His blackness acts as imprisonment deeper than any jail cell, plunging him into a darkness devoid of any light, of any colour save the colour of the skin by which he is being judged, a murkiness against which the sole light is the narrator’s futile fight to regain his humanity.

The narration begins with Dostoevskian aplomb, as a diffident and disaffected man begins to describe all the contributing factors to his invisibility, starting with his time at university. This was a time when he was more or less whole and hopeful, able to appreciate the brief glitters of beauty which passed his way, before his cynicism blinded him to everything but the ugliness of the world;

“At the sound of the vespers I moved across the campus with groups of students, walking slowly, their voices soft in the mellow dusk. I remember the yellowed globes of frosted glass making yellow silhouettes on the gravel and the walk of the leaves and branches above us as we moved slow through the dusk so restless with scents of lilac, honeysuckle and verbena, and the feel of spring greenness…”

The narrator’s happiness is cut short, however, by a mishap involving a rich, white patron resulting in his expulsion from the university. The acts as a jolt for a series of mishaps, from a brief tenure in a paint factory resulting in a near death experience, to his involvement with the Brotherhood, a Black Rights movement, for whom the narrator initially acts as an orator, with the narrator eventually rebelling against the realpolitik and dogmatism which dominates the movement, whose core aim is to control rather than help African-American, an insidious if watered down replica of the bondage with which African-Americans were held by Whites.

Against all of this the over-riding feeling which the narrator feels is that of hostility; the hostility of the college president Dr. Bledsoe against his contretemps, the hostility of the union in the paint factory, the hostility of the villainous Brockway in the factory basement, of the members of the movement who regard his emotional appeals to their supports as unscientific and rooted in sentimentality, of Brother Jack who feels upended by his quick rise in the movement; this hostility acts like a chain around his neck, weighing him down just as the anger of the crowd in the prize-fight he needed to take part in to gain entrance to university paralysed him, rendering him unable to act, unable to think, unable to do anything but exist in a world which refuses to see him.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Some Prefer Nettles’by Junichiro Tanizaki

The story of the gradual disintegration of a marriage, ‘Some Prefer Nettles’ is not Tanizaki’s novels, but contains moments of beauty and poetry interspersed between pages of often too stilted dialogue. Perhaps the dialogue is purposefully stilted; after all the key theme of the novel is the disaffection between the married couple Kaname and Misako, however their separation is a reflection of wider societal trends which Tanizaki is commenting and reflecting on. Kaname, whose Western sensibilities are more a product of his fantasies than any objective reality; his favourite Western book, ‘The Arabian Nights’ is in fact an Eastern one, and the Western prostitute he is fascinated by is in fact not likely Western at all; in many ways the novels other key theme is the destruction of these mirages, these fantasies which dominate Kaname’s psyche, but which he gradually sheds beneath a newfound fascination for Japanese values. Kaname doesn’t realise, however, that the ideals he creates about Japan are just as fantastical as his ones of the West-it is this inability to confront and recognise reality which is the key reason for his split with his wife Misako-his idealisations render him incapable of forming concrete relationships with other people, until they begin to resemble the dolls in the plays he admires.

Like most of Tanizaki’s novels, the innermost feelings of the characters are subtly rendered via symbols, however the novel lacks the punch of ‘The Makioka Sisters’. the ethereality of ‘Naomi’ or the sad, somnolent beauty of his treatise ‘In Praise of Shadows’.

 

‘Disoriental’ by Negar Djavadi

It is difficult to articulate the feeling of otherness engendered by being a refugee; drowning beneath an endless sea of loss, to be washed up on the shores of an alien culture, a culture which beneath a thin veneer of liberalism masks a sense of smugness and superiority. If you were to sum up the theme of ‘Disoriental’ it would be of retaining a sense of hope amidst an endless feeling of alienation; alienation from the tyranny of parochial regime which seeks to strip people of their rights, alienation from a society which, despite its implicit rejection of you, you seek to cling on to because its all you have, alienation from a society which, despite allowing you freedom from political oppression, offers a deeper, more deeply embedded oppression,  a sense of otherness which seeps into your very pores. Yet, despite this it is a novel full of hope; hope that the fearless political discourse of her father will live on, hope that her family will re-gain a sense of belonging and meaning.

The story follows the life of Kimia; daughter of the aloof political dissident Darius and his wife of Armenian descent Sara, the story constantly intersperses past and present;for Kimia the two are intrinsically entwined, with the past constantly influencing our actions and shaping our futures. So Kimia contrasts her past; from the harem in which her grand-mother was born amidst a sea of women,  to the insouciance of her father, his strangeness and sense of individuality, all of this filters down to Kimia herself; all of these factory into and play a part in making Kimia who she is, a kaleidoscope of different identities; tomboyish teenager, reticent adult, a misfit meandering through a maze of identities until she finally finds herself beneath the every-day drudgery of a fertility clinic waiting room.

Kimia’s quest for freedom and meaning forms the backdrop of a wider search for belonging; not just of the Iranian diaspora who, like Kimia’s family, struggle against the hard reality of leaving their lives behind after their dreams of the freedom of the West, but of immigrants as a whole, of being uprooted, of being displaced, of being exoticised and losing all of the things which gave your life meaning and walking down the street and never quite fitting in. For Kimia, her sense of displacement is doubled by her feeling of alienation from the Iranian culture she is a part of; of her not conforming to standard notions of femininity, of her desire to break free and experience life on her own terms.

 

 

 

‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Perhaps Marquez’s most lyrical pitch-somewhat ironic given his reputation of one of the great romance novelists-‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ is by turns a harrowing and yet beautiful account of the life of the practically immortal dictator, whose egotism fosters a god complex in his own mind; a man of interminable age and boundless power, the dictator is an exaggerate caricature of various real-life dictators and a warning to what happens when so much power is concentrated into the hands of a single man; by turns benevolent and malevolent, vindictive but forgiving, boundlessly paranoid despite the endlessness of his power,  cynical yet at times hopelessly sentimental, driven by lusts by made impotent by beauty, monstrous and yet still a man with innumerable flaws beneath the god-like reputation, ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ reflects on what happens when a man takes on the reputation and powers of a god.

Marquez’s style, sans any normal sentence structure, reads like a series of impressions, of oft-unconnected links and thoughts, with constant changes of pace, tone and theme, the common link being the dictator’s boundless cruelty, whether it be serving a unfaithful General as a meal at a banquet or cutting into pieces a man whose wife he has just violated. Yet, despite this, Marquez’s descriptions are often vivid and poetic,

“They saw his afflicted face, his eyes overflowing with tears, the track of frozen poisons of its hair dishevelled by the winds of space as it left across the world a trail radiant with star debris and dawns delayed by tarry moons and ashes from the craters of oceans previous to the origins of earth time, there it is, queen, he murmured take a good look at because we won’t see it for another century, and she crossed herself in terror, more beautiful than ever under the phosphorous glow of the comet with her head snowy from the soft drizzle of astral trash and celestial sediment.”

At times the country in which the story has a beauty which is a boundless as the the ocean which surrounds it, yet at others it is dreary and dreadful, humid and claustrophobic, yet it never ceases to be magical underneath the lyricism of Marquez’s prose; a kind of fairy tale dominated by a monster, whose shadow looms large over the story, ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ is perhaps the greatest of the Latin American dictator novels, a beautifully evocative yet terrifying account of a man who felt himself to be larger than the world his inhabited.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

For a novel whose primary theme of infertility, the atmosphere within Gilead is imbued with a kind of fecundity, a sense of vibrancy beneath the dour parochialism of Gilead, like brief quivers if light dancing deliriously, deciduously , in the darkness which has enveloped the world of Offred and her fellow handmaids;

“Then we had irises, rising cool and beautiful on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, like mauve and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long been rooted out.”

In contrast to this kaleidoscope of colours which surround the natural world is the black-and-white morality of Gilead; a morality which is a product of thousands of years of patriarchy, of the most narrow-minded and elements of Christianity, of the worst excesses of capitalism, of the vituperation and violence of a society which is sinking beneath the weight of its moral hypocrisy. In the novel a series of disasters and cultural shifts have led to a sharp decline in birth-rates, as well mass infertility, leading to a fundamentalist Christian regime taking over large swathes of America. Offred is a handmaiden; a woman who is deemed fertile enough to mate-in the very literal sense-with a number of high-ranking men in Gileadian society. The world which Offred inhabits, a world of oppression and uncurbed misogyny, would seem nightmari ash if it were not for the fact that this is still the reality for millions of women around the world; a world in which they are frequently denied their rights beneath a mask of paternalism, where they are blamed for the moral failings of men, where they are constantly judged beneath the relentless male gaze. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ merely magnifies these prejudices within a fictional setting.

However, scratch beneath the surface and the reader will find the hypocrisy of the regime laid bare; “we are only human” quips The Commander after he takes Offred to a clandestine party, by ‘we’ he of course means the men who enacted the regime whose rules they feel they have a free pass not to follow. Men-unable to see women as anything other than breeding machines, lose their moral identity, cast adrift in a world with no hope, a world stripped of love and beauty.

Meanwhile the oppressive atmosphere of Gilead, of the purges, the hangings and the paranoia, is punctuated with a kind of almost hopeless beauty as Atwood’s descriptive powers render Offred’s desperate life with a brief crack of light, as the novel ends ambiguously with Offred’s fate poised between life or death; perhaps, at this point, whether she survives or not is irrelevant-what matters is that she is able to leave an account of a life which otherwise would have been forgotten, another faceless handmaiden condemned to an eternity of invisibility.

 

 

‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

There are some books which are unputadownable. Books which grab your imagination and which you never want to let go of; will Levin ever win Kitty love? How did Colonel Aureliano Buendía appear before the firing squad? Will Edmond Dantès get his revenge? There are some books however, which are dull, damp squabs of grey on the imagination, the rather ironically named ‘Never Let Me Go’-if only because the reader so frequently wants to is one of these. It is not so much that it is poorly written or that there isn’t some potential for the plot to become interesting; rather the characters are so bland and nondescript, the pacing so laborious and the attempt at creating pathos so shallow that the world which Ishiguro creates, a world of tedious teenagers and a vaguely sinister plot which loses the edgy atmosphere which Ishiguro is trying to create due to its innate dullness that the reader-or this reader at least-struggles to really become invested in the story.

Ishiguro is no doubt at his best a brilliant writer, but ‘Never Let Me Go’ is the kind of kitsch dressed up as great literature which doesn’t deserve the praise it got. The only thing which saves it from the waste bin is Ishiguro’s undoubted abilities as a storyteller which, in this book at least is mostly missing.

‘The Slynx’ by Tatyana Tolstoya

A feeling of desolation pervades the atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic world in which ‘The Slynx’ is set; a world of drudgery and paranoia, of bleakness beneath which lurks a violence and insurrection as what we would loosely describe as the protagonist-Benedikt develops a sense of self-awareness via the books he reads; snatches of Anna Karenina and her realisation of the shallow emptiness of society, of the subtle sadness and dimpled beauty of Chekhov, of the indescribable joy of holding a book in your hand, its feel, its touch and smell, the ideas it propagates, how it opens Benedict’s eyes to the beauty of the world, from the swirl of dust in the the sun-light to the vastness of the night sky or of it’s chameleon like ability to transform Benedikt into the character he is reading about. Yet reading is a double-edged sword; whilst it opens Benedick’s eyes to beauty it also opens it to banality; the banality of the world around him, of his marriage and family, of his foul-mouthed father-in-law and vulgar, vapid wife and corpulent mother-in-law, of the tedious, tepid Fyodor Kuzmich, the diminutive ruler of the world Benedikt inhabits and who Benedict ends up over-throwing and replacing with a far more violent and arbitrary tyranny.

‘The Slynx’ is set in a post-apocalyptic world where an unspecified nuclear attack has rendered the population hopelessly disfigured and dis-formed. It would be difficult not to acknowledge the obvious metaphor for the overthrow of the old world of Russia and its replacement with the Soviet state; Blok was replaced by blockheads, the wonders of its theatre by the turgidity of Soviet dramas, its high culture, within which it was the leading light of all art-forms, from literature to ballet, replaced by the dry, mechanical and tedious political literature of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless Benedikt’s awakening allows him to render the world around him with a kind of elegant, elegiacal beauty;

“Near the ground everything was blue as blue could be, and up above, the sky shone even and yellow, smoldering it’s last; every now and then a swipe of pink would tint the yellow, or a gray cloud woudl stretch like a spindle, hang there a bit until its top would stain raspberry, flare, and be gone. Like someone was rubbing the sunset, smearing it with his fingers.”

A wonderful exploration not only of the joys of reading, but also the feelings of isolation and alienation it can engender, a dark and dreary exploration of a world stripped of it’s humanity and, most importantly, a story bursting with verve and imagination beneath the bleakness, ‘The Slynx’ is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic novel.

‘The Time Regulation Institute’ by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

A paean to a lost world, ‘The Time Regulation Institute’ explores Turkey just as it is about the cross the threshold from the Ottoman Empire to it’s re-birth as a secular, Western state under Ataturk. The novel frequently jumps between  absurdist plots, such as the miraculous resurrection from death of the narrator’s auntie, to surreal humour, such as the narrator’s second wife who, under a vast swathe of illusions, associated her husband with the hero of the last film she happened to watch, endowing him with the swash-buckling style of Errol Flynn,  or of the somewhat ambiguous time regulation institute itself which regulates something or another relating to time, but what that something is isn’t ever articulated and perhaps isn’t really important. The institution itself perhaps doesn’t provide any useful service outside of allowing the narrator to cogitate on the various absurdities which surround him, or build a series of rather monstrous edifices each of which resemble a time-piece of some sort.

What then is the theme of  The Time Regulation Institute’? Bergsonian concepts of time, the impermanence of life, the machinations of Ottoman middle-class society, the singing career of the narrator’s life style, the narrator’s preposterous romantic fantasies, the mysteries of psychoanalysis and the narrator’s father complex, superficial spiritual seances and the inevitable loss of  unique and wonderful culture beneath the relentless wave of modernity. Does the above sound chaotic and unstructured-and often unrelated? Absolutely. But this merely reflects the rather jumbled-up narrative style and approach, which often acts as a series of meanderings of the narrator than any kind of functional narrative, but perhaps this again is the point; Tanpinar dispense of conventional Westernised narrative forms but instead opts for a very loose collection of thoughts and events connected to the life of Hayri Irdai, a nondescript man whose status us raised by his association with a nonsensical organisation and influenced by his writing of a the historical biography of an entirely fictional scientist. Added to this is a Svevo like level of self-analysis of a narrator whose naivete is bordering on incredulous and a self-depreciating style which precedes that of the two Levi-Carlo and Primo, as Tanpinar both explores and celebrates the final gasps of a soon to be extinct Ottoman society via a man who never really belongs to it.

‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee

It is difficult to understand the alchemy of books, the magic of reading, whereby lines on a piece of paper are transformed into something beautiful, where characters who exist solely in the imagination of another become people you care for. This metamorphosis, this breaking free from the cocoon, the chrysalis from paper and ink to a beautifully realised story takes place entirely in the readers head; if they feel that the characters are well-written and sympathetic without being sentimental, that the plot moves forward quickly without meandering, then, as with all great art, the reader will feel titillated by the thrill of being transported into another, wonderfully crafted world. Such is the case with Pachinko, a beautifully realised account of a Korean family spanning five generations, from a nondescript fishing village to modern Japan.

The core theme running through the novel is that of imperialism, or in this case Japanese imperialism. It is the spectre which hangs over the heads of the Korean characters throughout the novel, from Hoonie and his parents to the relationship between Sunja and Hansu and the birth of their illegitimate son Noa, which acts as a catalyst in setting-off the events which gradually overtake those round them. More fundamentally then this the narrow, parochial attitudes of the Japanese towards the Koreans, the xenophobia which is a product of Japanese imperialism has a fundamental impact on all of the characters; whether it be Hansu, for whom, like many Koreans, a life of crime is the only route out of country which would deny him everything from citizenship, to property to jobs, to Noa, who struggles under the burden of his Korean identity, of being labelled with the stigma of stupidity, of the iniquity of being the bastard son of a Yakuza boss. It stretches deeper than this, the disease of imperialism has burrowed itself in the Korean-Japanese consciousness, as prejudices, both great and small, weigh down on them; the burden causes a deep-rooted sense of insecurity, so that even their successes, whether it be financial such as Mozasu, or academic as with Noa or Solomon, are tinged with a thin veneer of mockery. There is an interesting scene where Noa and a female character argue about the apparent sympathy displayed by George Elliot to Jews in ‘Silas Marner’. Noa, influenced by his upbringing as a Korean in Japan, thinks Elliot is sympathetic towards her Jewish characters in allowing them to establish their own lives in a country which is supportive of them, however for his friend, an upper-class Japanese girl, who perhaps sees through this facade, Elliot’s views are bigoted; in excommunicating her characters she is rejecting their views and humanity-you can believe what you want to believe so long as it is not done in my country.  For Min Jin Lee the idea of a homogeneous, static culture is ridiculous. All successful cultures are the result of the exchange of ideas and practices, of food and language and any attempt to enforce a narrow concept of culture is doomed to fail.

More than this, however, Pachinko is a beautifully realised tale of 20th century Japan through the eyes of Korean immigrants. The reader gradually grows to share the hopes and dreams of the characters, Lee is able to bring out their inherent humanity to engage the reader’s pathos. Noa and his love of English Literature, Sunja and her selfess devotion to her children or Hansu and his gradual moral disintegration despite his-at times-good intentions, Lee is able to draw the reader into the world she creates until, as if by magic, the black squiggles on a piece of paper transform themselves into something indescribably beautiful and tragic, something wonderful which will long linger in the mind of the reader, like the endless noise of a Pachinko machine.