Left Hooks

John Le Carre, who used to write spy thrillers before he started in his current job as a writer of anti-Capitalist rants disguised as novels, discusses his politics (more than his books) in this rancorous Guardian interview that would make a Naipaul proud. If you sift through the strident attacks (on Blair, the US, anti-egalitarian establishments, public schools) there are some interesting bits, like this one where he talks about movie adaptations of his books.

[…] it is unusual for Cornwell to feel other than mauled when his books hit the screen.

“I have been through the sheep dip with movies before but, like everybody else, I blame myself. I have written what I thought were very attractive books that have broken down badly for film. If they weren’t satisfactory movies, I was part of the process that made them unsatisfactory. I don’t feel that I was used or traduced, but many weren’t very good. Some, though, were. The film of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was pretty good. Tinker Tailor was really good.” He understandably forbears from naming those sheep-dip adaptations, but The Russia House, The Little Drummer Girl and The Tailor of Panama are surely contenders.

And now, in Cornwell’s estimation, the adaptation of The Constant Gardener is really good, too.

Le Carre is not a ranter. His willingness to make political statements out of his books makes their literary quality suffer – the writing is too strident and lacks the flair that’s needed to make the politics palatable. A flair that Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, had loads and loads of.

And through BookSlut, here is a Vonnegut interview on USA Today to promote his new book, A Man Without a Country.

“What do you want to talk about? Politics? Our president is a complete twit. I’ll talk about the death of the novel. I’ll talk about anything you want.”

You may not know from the interview, but Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are perhaps the best examples of overtly political books with literary merit – they are great reads even if the politics is unpalatable.

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoMayavaram is a little town near Thanjavur, and its most famous landmark is the Vaitheeswaran temple. The streets around the temple are filled with practitioners of a type of astrology called Nadi Josyam, which is based on the belief that every life is preordained, and that whoever preordained lives wrote down what would happen to a select few on palm leaf scrolls. The astrologers around the temple (claim that they) inherited these scrolls, and if they can locate the scroll that pertains to you, all they have to do to predict your future is read it out aloud.

There are multiple scrolls for every visitor (for the preordainers knew exactly who would visit) : a general one that provides an executive summary of life, and more specialized scrolls that zero in on specific aspects. Among these is is a scroll that talks about the manner of death that awaits the visitor. Hardly anyone who visits the astrologers wants to know what their scroll of death says. For even if you know, you cannot change fate. Or can you?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, his third novel to make the Man Booker shortlist, is a simple, beautifully textured novel that is not quite what it appears to be on the surface.

A young woman named Kathy H runs into two of her closest friends – Ruth and Tommy – in unusual circumstances and starts reminiscing about their shared past. That past is deceptively normal – life at Hailsham, a boarding school not dissimilar to the ones in those Enid Blyton books of yore, with normal boarding school type things happening: friendships, fistfights, heartbreaks and the general feeling of happiness that seems to prevail in such societies of young people. But like a clever composer injecting occasional melancholy notes in an otherwise merry musical score, Ishiguro uses the subtlest twists of language – an odd word here, an unusual phrase there – to tell you that through the seeming veneer of normalcy, something is just not right.

As the symphony progresses, the odd note is more and more apparent, and we start discovering that the students at Hailsham are different from the rest of us. They have been brought into the world for a specific purpose whose consummation will consume.. ok, extract a heavy toll on them sounds better.

This information is doled out to the residents of Hailsham in bits and pieces – usually as afterthoughts to more immediate topics – and its importance is played down, but over time they are able to piece together the snippets to form a hazy picture of what lies in store for them. Their entire life is preordained, and the students accept the dissembled truth fatalistically, hesitant to probe any deeper. Much like visitors to an astrologer, the students believe they are better of not knowing all the details. Are they?

After school the three friends drift apart, and their lives diverge until they run into each other a few years on. A metaphorical visit to a stranded boat and a confession later, Kathy and Tommy realize something: they want to postpone their fate. Can they? Can anyone?

There is some science in the book, but it is all incidental – Never Let Me Go is as much Science Fiction as say, Blind Assassin. Isihiguro uses a contemporary scientific development as a plot device to create a preordained society so that he can explore the questions raised in this review.

The writing is very Ishiguro – laidback and precise – the simplest of words are employed, but when they are strung together in sentences, they magically acquire a lyrical feel to them. Ishiguro is one of the best prose stylists around, someone who realizes the virtue of simplicity. Where a Rushdie would have toyed with the words – Hail and Sham are particularly fertile words for febrile wordplay – Ishiguro just describes things exactly the way they are: what happened when, and how things were when it happened. If the characterization is trite (Kathy could be the narrator in any one of Ishiguro’s books), the stylish writing more than makes up for it.

As Kathy reminisces, going back and forth in time, constructing a disjointed image of life at Hailsham, the reader identifies with her emotions. We want her to ask more, to find out more, but understand why she will not, why no one will. When life at school ends, we feel the way Kathy and her friends do – anxious and excited, and unusually resigned. Is this how we would be when confronted with something like this? (A Time article about the behavior of people in crises comes to mind – most everyone sits waiting for events to take their course).

Up to this point, the book was brilliant. And then came the ending – a let us sit down and talk, and I will explain all of it to you ending – that took a lot of luster out of the book. Suddenly, the plot looked a little contrived. The hackneyed nature of the characters became more apparent, as did the parallels to other Ishiguro works. (DoZ discusses the obvious parallels here). A little bit of a let down.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is a good book, but it is one that entertains more than it challenges.

This post is part of Veena’s Booker Mela.

Other Reviews:




Expert Witnesses

Judge: “Mr. Thief, you are on trial for a very serious crime. You killed the manager of a bank, and stole a lot of gold from their safe deposit vaults. The case against you is watertight.

Mr. Thief: “Heh.

Judge: “Heh? That’s all you have to say about it?

Mr. Thief: “Heh is the sound of me laughing self-righteously. I would like to let you know that I didn’t do it. It was an invisible man that killed the manager and stole all the gold.

Judge: “That’s bullsh.., I mean, impossible.

Mr. Thief: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Judge: “You lost me there, what are you talking about?

Mr. Thief: “Never mind, but I am sticking to my story. It was an invisible man that killed the manager and stole all the gold.

Judge: “Invisible man? That is scientifically impossible. Do you have any witnesses?

Mr. Thief: “As a matter of fact, I do. I would like to call H.G Wells to the stand.

Judge: “But he is dead, I thought. Or maybe that’s Orson Wells.” Checks with someone. “Yeah, they are both dead.

Mr. Thief: “Too bad, I will call Ram Gopal Verma instead. He made a movie called Gayab, and can use the scientific expertise he gained during the making of the movie to prove that invisible men are not impossible.

Judge: “I think you might have a point there. Even if I buy that for a minute, how do you explain all the gold in your house?

Mr. Thief: “Oh, that was stuff I produced using alchemy.

Judge: “Huh? Ok, this is becoming a farce. Alchemy is a ridiculous explanation.

Mr. Thief: “Oh yeah? I will call Neal Stephenson to the stand prove it is not that ridiculous.

Judge: “Dude, this is tiring. What are you smoking?

Mr. Thief: “If you must know, I read this on my way to court this morning.

Mixed Signals

TransmissionImagine this for a moment: You are Hari Kunzru. Don’t want to? Remember you get to hang out with Zadie Smith a lot. Good, so now imagine this for a moment: You are Hari Kunzru. Now read on.

You pitch a plot to your publishers – a satirical plot spanning multiple continents about a computer virus bringing together three otherwise unconnected people – and they buy into it. Then you sit down to write the book, and realize you have no idea about the people to populate your plot with.

Hmm… you think. Hmm. Umm. Still can’t seem to come up with anything. Meanwhile, a couple of lunches with Zadie.

After a few days, you come up with three carica.., I mean, characters: a desi engineer, a Bollywood actress and an American marketing genius. You are very pleased with yourself, but when you go back to write the book, you realize something else: the plot has no room for the marketing genius. Reluctant to waste days of thought, you swiftly decide to add the guy to the book as an irrelevant subplot. And in a stroke of genius, you decide to pay homage to your thought process by naming the guy Guy Swift.

One more lunch.

Things start falling in place now and once you know who the characters are, it is easy to provide them with traits. Thus, the engineer is a nerdy self-made genius, drinks a lot of coffee, lacks social skills, is paralyzed around women and wears shirts with brand names printed on them. He also happens to be Indian so he has to have a doting mom, a tough-loving dad and in a nod to the new reality, a sister who works at a call center. Oh, and he is also a virgin and his house smells of curry. This is satire, after all.

Guy Swift is a marketing genius: so he has to

1. Talk mostly in meaningless marketing lingo,
2. Be glib and full of himself.
3. Have other traits you are aware of about anyone remotely connected with marketing.

The Bollywood actress? C’mon, you know by now. No? Ok, she is pretty and exotic, young and sensitive, has bitchy mom who forces her to hang out with seedy old producers.

This is fertile territory. You are on a roll. Thus Guy’s wife is pretty, and a little confused about things in general. The Bollywood actresses current co-star is also full of himself, and in a brilliant take on contemporary Bollywood, he used to have a girlfriend who used to be Miss World. When she decided to break up with him, he got into trouble by making threatening phone calls to her. To avoid litigation however, you insert a line about this guy (not Guy) losing one of his roles to Salman Khan. So Cool.

And so on and so forth. I am sure you are tired of being Kunzru. Plus he lives in London, where the food is rumored to suck.

Now for the real review, which you can read without imagining anything.

So yes, the characters are a bit hackneyed. And also yes, I do know it is supposed to be a satirical take on the connected world and a commentary on our dependence on computers, but some of this stuff is so overused it is not really funny anymore. (The desi engineer and marketing exec caricatures: Heard of Dilbert? Or the ABCD vs FOB fights at every single Indian diaspora website that has comments enabled?)

In spite of this, the book was an entertaining read. Honest. Kunzru has an eye for satirical detail and writes beautifully – even the most mundane of passages has an interesting turn of phrase or an unexpected insight; and if written this well, the menu from a British restaurant will make a good read. It also helps that Transmission is a short book, well paced and tautly narrated.

Here’s a fairly long excerpt…

As the bus trundled over the Yamuna Bridge, past the huge shoreline slum seeping its refuse into the river, he ran several variations of this basic fantasy, tweaking details of dress and location, identity of companion and soundtrack. The roar of public carriers receded into the background. Lost in his inner retail space, he stared blankly out the window, his eyes barely registering the low roofs of patchworked thatch and blue polyethylene by the roadside, the ragged children standing under the tangle of illegally strung powerlines. High in the sky overhead was the vapor trail of a jet, a commercial flight crossing Indian airspace en route to Singapore. In its first-class compartment sat another traveler, rather more comfortably than Arjun, who was squashed against the damp shoulder of a man in a polyester shirt. Did Guy Swift sense some occult connection with the boy on the bus thirty thousand feet below? Did he perhaps feel a tug, a premonition, the kind of unexplained phenomenon that has as its correlative a shiver or a raising of the hairs on the neck or arms? No. Nothing. He was playing Tetris on the armrest games console.

He had just beaten his high score.

Guy Swift, thirty-three years old, UK citizen, paper millionaire and proud holder of platinum status on three different frequent-flyer programs. Guy Swift, twice Young British Market Visionary of the Year and holder of several Eurobrand achievement awards. Guy Swift, charter member of a Soho club, a man genetically gifted with height, regular features, sandy blond hair which tousled attractively, relatively inactive sweat glands, clear skin and a cast-iron credit rating. For two years he had lived with the reputedly unattainable Gabriella Caro, voted the most popular girl in her class every year of her studies at the International School of Fine Art and Cuisine in Lausanne. He had the number of the door-picker at the Chang Bar on his speed dial. You would have thought he was untouchable.

Guy’s seat had eight different parameters, all of which could be adjusted for his comfort and well-being. The airline had provided a pouch of toiletries, a sleeping mask and a pair of disposable slippers embroidered with their new logo. He riffled through the pouch, ignoring everything but the slippers, which he turned over and over in his hands. A recent trend report had hinted that the airline was about to break the taboo on yellow-accented greens in the cabin. But the slippers and accompanying items were still presented in a conservative blue colorway. Was this, he wondered, a failure of nerve?

“More champagne, sir? A drink of water?”

He took a glass from the smiling female attendant, unself-consciously bathing in the soft-porn ambience of the moment. Mentally he noted the experience as a credit on the airline’s emotional balance sheet. He enjoyed the attendant’s android charm, the way this disciplined female body reminded him it was just a tool, the uniformed probe-head of the large corporate machine in which he was enmeshed. He (or rather his company) was paying this machine to administer a calculated series of pleasures and sensations. Respectful of its efforts, he had for the last four hours been sitting as immobile as a hospital patient, relishing them one by one. The heft of china and glass, the frogspawn dampness of a miniature pot of eyegel.

The flight was well into its nocturnal phase. The cabin lights had been dimmed. His fellow passengers had put aside their complimentary copies of The Wall Street Journal and settled into various states of trance. They fell within the standard demographic, these first-class people, balding business pates anesthetized by meetings and conference-center hospitality, glossy retirees occupying the stewards with long lists of requests. He settled a pair of headphones into his ears and pressed play on his current favorite personal soundtrack, a mix by DJ Zizi, the resident at Ibiza superclub Ataxia. Zizi, who bestrode the Uplifting Ambient scene like a tight-T-shirted colossus, had chosen to call his mix “Darker Shade of Chill.” It was, Guy thought, a good name, because although dark, the music was still chill. Breaking surf, feminine moaning and fragmented strings were countered by foghorns and echoing piano. DJ Zizi was comfortingly committed to the center ground.

The music trickled into Guy’s brain, slowly clearing his mental space like an elderly janitor stacking up chairs. He had a sense of angelic contentment. Here he was, existent, airborne, bringing the message of himself from one point on the earth’s surface to another. Switching his laptop on, he tried in a halfhearted way to compose an e-mail to Gabriella, but confronted by the blank white screen he could think of nothing to say.

But, where are the shelves?

Books stacked on shelves, ordered using a system whose name is a misspelt synonym of condensation. Sometimes the shelves move, scaring you to death if you are caught between two of them. There are rows of computers running MS-DOS that try to hold people off from approaching the head honcho (or one of her assistants) that knows where all the books are. Trying to find a quote from a book takes a couple of days in a brick and mortar library, but it is free. Most everyone is happy with the arrangement – authors, publishers, librarians. Except readers interested in a little research.

Online behemoth borrows books from a few libraries, and scans them in digitally. Finding a quote from a book takes a few milliseconds.

Publishers hate it. And today writers have decided they hate it too. Go figure.

A few minutes of fun

Haruki Murakami writes a lovely little story called The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day for the New Yorker – easily among the better works of fiction in the magazine this year.

“Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning for him. No more, no less,” his father said—or, rather, declared. He spoke coolly but with utter certainty, as he might have in noting that the earth takes a year to revolve around the sun. Junpei listened in silence, partly because his father’s speech was so unexpected; he could think of nothing to say on the spur of the moment.

“You will probably become involved with many women in the future,” his father continued, “but you will be wasting your time if a woman is the wrong one for you. I want you to remember that.”

Later, several questions formed in Junpei’s young mind: Has my father already met his three women? Is my mother one of them? And, if so, what happened with the other two? But he was not able to ask his father these questions. As noted earlier, the two were not on such close terms that they could speak heart to heart.

Read the full thing. It’s worth it.

Skin Deep

Stephen Metcalf reviews On Beauty for Slate, part of their Book Blitz this fall, and recommends that the Booker committee not award her the prize.

I recommend this not because Smith isn’t richly, almost absurdly, talented—which she is—and not because On Beauty isn’t a good book, because it is. I offer my recommendation because Smith, being so young, is too content to write well only in auroral bursts; too ready to concede a character to stereotype; and, in the presence of serious ideas, too quick to be woolly-headed and imprecise.

In typical Slate fashion – irreverent and blunt – Metcalfe describes the book as banal,

The second reason On Beauty might have rescued itself from its own tendency to topical banality is simply this: It is written by an exquisite writer, who has mistaken her admirable pooh-poohing of a lot of foolish publicity for a free pass to get by as an overcelebrated mediocrity.

Oooh, that must hurt. He tries to make amends with this, but the damage has already been done.

Therefore, Dear Committee, I plead with you to assist in removing the cameras and quote-mongers from Zadie Smith’s life and help prevent her from blowing up into an even larger global literary darling, prone to even more gratuitous Hamlet-like maunderings, and let the woman who could write the following develop into her appointed greatness:

“Always off somewhere, yes,” said Howard genially, but it did not seem to him he traveled so very much, though when he did it was more and further than he wished. He thought of his own father again—compared to him, Howard was Phineas Fogg. Travel had seemed the key to the kingdom, back then. One dreamed of a life that would enable travel. Howard looked through his window at a lamp-post buried to its waist in snow supporting two chained-up, frozen bikes, identifiable only by the tips of their handlebars. He imagined waking up this morning and digging his bike out of the snow and riding to a proper job, the kind Belseys had had for generations, and found he couldn’t imagine it. This interested Howard, for a moment: the idea that he could no longer gauge the luxuries of his own life.

Some tea, detective?

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is cool for a number of reasons, but the best part about the series is the lead character – Mma. Ramotswe. She is the first really likable detective I’ve come across – unassuming and pleasant; someone you could hang out with, and make easy conversation about Botswanian politics over a cup of tea.

No one else comes even close.

I’ve heard quite a few people claim that they love Sherlock Holmes, but I am not sure they know what true love means. Holmes, if you recall, was the deductive genius constructed from bones and brain who subsisted on tobacco and said things like “It’s elementary, my dear Watson” (although his handlers now say he was misquoted). Now he is the type of person that inspired awe, not love. He was a skillful detective, who was aware – too aware – of his skill. He was moody and aloof, and seemed to prefer hanging out with dumb doctors.

If he were to stop by unannouced at my house one of these days, I’d be leery of letting him in. Not without clearing my list of visited sites, and making sure my shoes were out of eyeshot, with no traces of soil on the soles. I’d make him a generic brand of tea – characterless – and make sure I drink my tea when he is not around. I’d fret about the way I eat my food, and make sure I don’t look at anything on the wall when thinking about stuff – this dude can pick up trains of thought. Thank you very much, but I’d rather watch him drinking tea with you.

Who else, I wonder.

Miss Marple was possibly a hottie (if and) when she was young, and could sometimes make intuitve leaps that could shame Holmes, but she was boring and mean. She was an anachronism even in her time, and talking to her over tea would be umm.. boring. And there is the small matter of her thinking of us young folks as fools.

Perhaps the only thing that would make me do it with her (why do you snicker? I meant the act of drinking tea) is the threat of an evening with Poirot. Uggh. I shudder when I think of the reactions at the restaurant when I walk in with this funnily dressed dude with an upturned moustache.

Although I think it would be kinda cool if I take him to the local restaurant that plays “Mangalu Mangalu” all the time. (Alright, Alright that was a lame reference: just because Poirot’s moustache is upturned doesn’t mean he looks as bad as Aamir Khan does in Mangal Pandey).

Marlowe? No way. How long can you stand someone wisecracking through the sides of their mouth? And that, by the way, rules out most of the detective populace since Marlowe.

Well, maybe young Christopher would fit the bill – we could talk prime numbers and the big bang theory – but he’s a little too young. And coming to think of it, pet detectives don’t count. So no Christopher, and (thank goodness) no Ace Ventura.

Leaps Never Made

Everyone knew everything about everyone else in the neighborhood – this was your typical middle income neighborhood in India, you see. The kids could go into any house they pleased, and get lots of good food and free advice. Every adult (loosely defined as anyone five years older than you) was encouraged (even expected) to discipline you – stop playing, start studying, don’t ride your bike too fast – it was like living in a prep school with a teacher-student ratio that would make the lefties delirious.

The whole colony (for that’s what neighborhoods were called then) laughed when Pushpamma’s son sent a money order back to himself; cried when Kumar Mami’s husband passed away, and clicked tongues in disgust when Jayarani akka “love” married. It sympathized when Karikarar got scammed out of his money, pitied me on the street when I flunked a paper in college, listened as I angrily explained that it was NOT my fault, and demurred when I demanded to know how it knew.

So, yes, we all knew a lot about each other.

And that’s how I knew that people bought a lot of magazines. Every household I went to (eat, play, wander about) bought at least two a week – in addition to the daily newspaper. Kumudam and Vikatan, Kungumam and Idhayam, Saavi and Rani, one or the other. Drawing Master had the Illustrated Weekly delivered weekly (“to improve Babykka’s English”) and only stopped it when they published some pictures of naked women (Later he switched over to The Week, and always had the postman deliver it to his school address).

Strangely though, no one bought books.1

Hours were spent reading serialized fiction from magazines, and hours more were spent discussing what happened and what might happen, but that was it. The occasional maverick would buy a “monthly,” – sensationalized murder mysteries that a clueless moron churned out every month, but that was it.

There was a lot of patience exhibited for serialized fiction – read a few pages, wait for next week’s issue; read, wait; read, wait… but the patience never extended to buying a good book, and reading it a few pages at a time. Dense vernacular fiction was lapped up when presented in magazines, the lightest novel was ignored when published. Poring over The Hindu for a long time was a sign of intellectual accomplishment (or a way to get there), but spending a few minutes reading Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn was wasting time.

No wonder the Tamil publishing industry languishes, with a 5000 copy run considered outstanding. No wonder every writer wants to become the clueless moron churning out sensationalized murder mysteries. No wonder the one guy (with skin thinner than Antara Mali2) that sells a few more books than the others is deified, and (ironically enough) all the magazines want him to write serialized novels for them. No wonder there hasn’t been a book of note for the last twenty years, and no wonder all the good writers out of India want to write in English.

But why?

[1] Rapidex English Course, Guide to Get Government Jobs, Lifco English to Tamil Dictionary etc. don’t count.

[2] Not counting extraneous appendages.