Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Four Weird Tales”

This is a collection of short stories by Algernon Blackwood; my first time reading this author, known for his works in the fantasy, horror and weird fiction genres. My two favourites of this collection were The Insanity of Jones (A Study in Reincarnation) and The Man Who Found Out (A Nightmare).

The Insanity of Jones is the story of John Enderby Jones, and the two facets of his life and mind. On the one hand is Jones, the hard-working clerk at an insurance office, whose greatest achievement was being promoted to private secretary to the General Manager; and on the other hand is Jones, the man who can recollect his previous lives and who can communicate with the dead! This tale started off with two realities - one a metaphorical interpretation of the other (haven’t we all had bad dreams where the Manager is a dark and sinister man that we need to watch out for!) - but where the story really grabbed me was when Jones met the man in the restaurant and the lines between reality and fantasy really started blurring. The resultant relationship between Thorpe and Jones and the latter’s actions based on his “past dealings with the Manager” formed a fascinating read.

The Man Who Found Out is about Professor Mark Ebor, a scientist by day and ‘Pilgrim’ by night, the anonymous author of “sanguine, optimistic, stimulating little books” that help people bear the burdens of life. Ebor’s belief in the existence of the “Tablets of the Gods”, his trip to Assyria and his discovery of the Tablets form part of this very intriguing story. The other part deals with the handing over of the knowledge brought forth by this discovery to his assistant Dr. Laidlaw - and the maddening consequences thereof. This story reminded me of the movie “pi” where the search for the ultimate answers ended in helpless self-annihilation.

I also really liked the sheer poetry of The Glamour of the Snow. Although the ending did not come as a surprise, it was nevertheless a beautifully written story, each sequence on the slopes of the Valais Alps absolute poetry in motion, as Hibbert finds ultimate freedom and intimate love with a woman who forever remains a mystery.

For me the weakest story was Sand, the story of Felix Henriot and his sacred contact with the sand and the deserts of Egypt. I felt that the story seemed to drag at times, and some of its truly awe-inspiring moments were buried in a somewhat tedious tale.

There is a recurring theme of the call of the unknown that runs through all four stories - stories that are about the supernatural and the mystical - and I liked that. Overall, I liked the stories and will definitely be reading more works by this author.

“Adventures come to the adventurous, and mysterious things fall in the way of those who, with wonder and imagination, are on the watch for them; but the majority of people go past the doors that are half ajar, thinking them closed, and fail to notice the faint stirrings of the great curtain that hangs ever in the form of appearances between them and the world of causes behind.” These stories were first published in the years 1907 to 1912… fascinating words that reverberate across a hundred years!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Yukoku” (Patriotism)

I read Yukio Mishima’s Yukoku (translated by Geoffrey W. Sargent) as part of the collection “Manatsu no Shi” (Death in Midsummer) and other stories. One of my earliest blogs was Mishima’s “Kinkaku-ji” (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and, of the Japanese writers whose creations I have read so far, Mishima continues to be one of my favourites.

Yukoku, roughly translated to mean Patriotism, is the story of Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his wife Reiko, and their ritualistic suicide following the Ni-niroku jiken, or the 2-2-6 (February 26) incident: the attempted coup d’état in Japan, from February 26 to 29, 1936 carried out by 1,483 troops of the Imperial Japanese Army. Spanning three days, this is the story of a couple - their love, their life, and their gory death by seppuku. Unable to choose between his duty to the Emperor and his loyalty to his comrades, whom he has been commanded to attack for their act of mutiny, Lieutenant Takeyama decides to choose a third option, and his wife expresses her wish to follow him.

I really liked the entire collection of short stories (my favourites included Death in Midsummer, The Seven Bridges, Dojoji and Onnagata) and while I might talk in greater length about one of those in some later blog, the reason I picked Yukoku first is because it was a brutal push into a whole new world of literature I had not experienced before. As I have come to recognise now, Japanese literature has a way of being violently honest and shockingly brutal - yet, inherent in that attitude is a philosophy that seeks, not to shock or titillate, but to be accepting and inclusive.

That fact, and the brilliant coming together of such stark opposites as the couple’s intense sexual passion for each other and the highly descriptive seppuku - simultaneously poetic and violent - are what made Yukoku such a fascinating read.

I had actually read this collection quite some time back, since which time I have read a fair number of Japanese books (the more well-known ones anyway). Today my mind has learnt to accept a lot more, but when I picked up this collection, I was just about getting into the scene… the honesty and the open-mindedness that I have now come to recognize as a natural component of their writing was truly an eye-opening experience, and for that reason, this story will always hold a special place in my heart.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”

I have seen one of the two film adaptations of this short story by Philip K. Dick. I liked 1990’s Total Recall a lot, however, barring the starting ideas of the protagonist’s desire to go to Mars, his botched procedure at Rekall (Rekal) - the company specializing in vacation memory implants, and police officers out to kill him, the two stories follow completely different paths.

The very long title of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is the very short story of Douglas Quail, an ordinary clerk, and the curious events that unfold once he decides to follow up on a long-held desire to go to Mars. Without giving anything away, I will say that the best feature of this story was the fact that the two most fantastic desires that Quail had, proved to be true! Moving quickly from dream to reality, from fantasy to fact, this power-packed story made for a very interesting read.

I wonder, though, when all is said and done, were Quail’s two alternate memories recalled or ‘rekal-ed’? And if he were to go back a third or a fourth time, would more secrets emerge? The imagination flies!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Life of Pi”

Starting in India, the country of my birth, ending in Canada, the country of my life, and with a final wrap-up by Japan, the country of my dreams, this adventure novel by Yann Martel is one of the better examples of rich and creative writings that I have come across!

Life of Pi is the story of Piscine Molitor (Pi) Patel, a South Indian boy and his 227-day saga of survival while stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In exactly 100 chapters, the story - divided into three parts, “Toronto and Pondicherry”, “The Pacific Ocean” and “Benito Juárez Infirmary, Tomatlán, Mexico” - deals with the three themes of Pi’s discovery of religion, his experiences with zoo life, and of course the story of his survival.

Owing to the fact that I am not at all religious, my least favourite part was the unfolding of Pi’s experiences with different religions. That said, the writing was so captivating, I kept reading anyway, and actually discovered some interesting ideas, such as, “It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsamane… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

Again, in the section describing his childhood years at the family zoo, I got a whole new approach to the concept of animal life in a zoo. Like most people I guess, I sometimes pity zoo animals, and their captive lives in tiny jails; yet as Pi points out, “Animals in the wild lead lives of hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food is low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, now in their personal relations… In the wild, animals stick to the same paths for the same pressing reasons, season after season”.

The main reason I found this book so absorbing and memorable was its powerful storytelling; a tale - fantastic enough to begin with - is narrated in such a rich manner, it was sheer joy reading this book. The descriptions were so vivid, the imagery so powerful! That wonderful reading experience started at the zoo - a notable incident being when Pi’s father teaches his sons a lesson about how dangerous the animals could be… after going through the cages of the more ferocious animals, when they finally reached the guinea pigs, I realized I had been holding my breath!

That fantastic imagery is of course best showcased during the narrative of Pi’s days and months on the lifeboat. From the first time he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with three animals, to the horrific sequence of events between the hyena and the zebra, to the first time he discovers he is with a tiger, to their experiences at a carnivorous island… the imagery is so very powerful. Pi describes the sea as a city, complete with “highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine traffic. In water that was dense, glassy and flecked by millions of lit-up specks of plankton, fish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians were madly racing about, no doubt honking and hollering at each other.” So picturesque!

The other feature I found absolutely fascinating was how human as well as animal nature evolved - or devolved - when it was thrown into a seemingly helpless situation. In the grotesque events that pitted the hyena against the zebra, the tiger against the mako shark, we saw the desperate levels to which an animal will go to, when survival is all that matters. What was more horrific was when we saw man’s descent to those same levels. A very religious, strictly vegetarian South Indian boy was not above eating everything from the liquid in a turtle’s vein to a tiger’s faeces to even another human, just to stay alive, that most basic of all human instincts.

On the other hand, this same fight for survival also led to the amazing relationship between the boy and the tiger - and how it shifted from one of fear and power, to that between a master and his servant, to one of mutual understanding where they finally began to understand each other’s presence, and the sounds and movements they made.

In an interesting take on events, the third part of the novel features the conversation between Pi and two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport who are trying to ascertain why the ship sank. Pi’s alternate survival story ends with a question (thrown just as much to the reader, I think) as to which of the two stories they preferred… To all of you who ask, ‘is Life of Pi a true story?’ I will quote Pi’s answer to Tomohiro Okamoto: “The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Rendezvous with Rama”

The tragic meteor impact of 2077… gigantic cameras, probes and satellites launched into orbit… that momentous event of 2131 when an asteroid 40 kilometres across and a day lasting four minutes came hurtling towards the sun… humankind’s first ever contact with an alien civilization - and all in the first 20 pages! This is the reason I call Arthur C. Clarke the pioneer of science fiction, and consider him one of my all-time favourites.

Rendezvous with Rama is the story of survey ship Endeavour and its mission to gather as much information as possible in this first extra terrestrial contact before Rama touches perihelion and starts on its way back.

The best thing I liked about this book - which in fact is the best thing I like about Arthur C. Clarke - is that I was immediately taken to a world way into the future without any slow or pointless preamble! And that started with the very title of the book - having gone through Greek and Roman legends to name newly discovered objects in Space, scientists in this future date have now turned to Hindu mythology (Rama being the name of the main protagonist of the epic Ramayana). And right away the tone is set - yes, in the future, scientists would have run out of the names that are common today!

The story starts with people of different planets sitting in conference, discussing an asteroid that came from a million light years away. As we follow Commander Bill Norton and his team into the heart of Rama, we quite literally leave our present day Earth behind. This is the world where monkeys, the ‘superchimps’, do chores as housekeeping, elementary cooking, tool carrying and dozens of routine jobs, so that humans can be free to do human work (as all progress should really aim for). This is the world where a ballpoint pen is a prized possession of a few collectors. This is the world where Mercury, which by the way has cities like Inferno and Port Lucifer, is an inhabited planet. This is the world where religions like ‘Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut’ exist, the main tenet of which is that Jesus Christ was a visitor from space.

Clarke takes us out of our comfort zone to enter a totally alien world. When Commander Norton is at Rama’s central axis: a hollow cylinder of indefinite length, he tries to assign words like crater, wall and sky to his surroundings, but immediately forces the ‘false impression’ out of his head with the realization that “he must discard the instincts both of earth and of space, and re-orientate himself to a new system of coordinates.” In the face of proof that life exists outside our solar system, that’s exactly what we also must do. I have to say; there were moments when, like the space travellers, I also experienced a disturbing sense of vertigo. When you are in endless - literally endless - space, with no colours of blue sky to denote ‘above’ or green grass to denote ‘below’, and not even the pull of gravity to tell your brain that that is ‘down’, so the opposite is ‘up’, what a sense of disorientation that would lead to. To the writer’s credit, this is exactly how I envision outer space and alien worlds to be - I do not expect them to follow Earth’s laws of physics. Even in the one scene where Rama seems to be following Earth’s creation, and moves from the ice age, to water and oxygen formation, to the making of planktons… it all takes mere hours and days - not 375 million years!

Jimmy Pak’s flight on his low gravity skybike, to the southern end of Rama, takes the story to an exciting new phase - from an endless world of ‘cities’ with ‘buildings’ and ‘streets’ (significantly built in threes) and a sea, to a weird world with cones emitting strange magnetic fields, crab-like robots and even alien flora!

What really took the story to a whole new level for me was the fact that in every step of the adventure there is such a sense of waiting… but for what, we don’t know! As the Endeavour team walks along the endless stairways and plains of Rama, the one thing they are all subdued by is the almost palpable silence. “Every footstep, every word, vanished instantly into the unreverberant void”. But there is also the constant sense that something is coming - a sense that is heightened with the intensified race against time as Rama’s outer hull changes from 270 degrees below, to molten lead as it races towards the sun.

Books like this are the reason why Science Fiction is my favourite genre. Anything can and does happen! And that is what should be at the core of all creative processes. It should not be bound by any possibilities or probabilities. There should be a constant sense of wonder and discovery and innovation!