Sunday, May 26, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Vanka”

There is a very good reason why some authors and some works have come to be known as ‘classics’. I just finished reading a selection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) and have enjoyed it so much!

It would be impossible to talk about all the stories in this collection: so many have left such a lasting impression on my mind… the pitiable sense of power in ‘Small Fry’; the comedic jab at bureaucracy in ‘The Malefactor’; the conflicting shame and love of an actress daughter in ‘Panikhida’; the mute despair in ‘Anyuta’; the terrible crime of an innocent girl in ‘Sleepy’; the commentary of life and living in ‘Ward No. 6’; the love story in ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle’; the sad anonymity in ‘The Man in a Case’; the deep love of the adulterous ‘The Lady with the Dog’, the religious doubts in ‘The Bishop’…

However, when I think back, one story especially refuses to leave my heart. “Vanka” is the story of 9-year old Vanka Zhukov apprenticed to a shoemaker. At the heart of the story is a letter that he writes to his grandfather on Christmas Eve, telling him about the abusive treatment he is constantly subjected to, and making a desperate appeal to take him back home.

Chekhov’s writing style (what I gather from these short stories) is that he depicts a very small episode from a very mundane life - but, through that slice, narrates the life and times of the country and its people. From an incident that perhaps spans no more than a few hours, an entire back-story is told and an entire life is lived. And therein lies the brilliance of his writing. At one level, there is the pure joy of just listening to a good old story - about a dinner, about a snowfall, about a carriage ride, about a letter, about the night before a wedding - stories that are great anyway. But on a much deeper level, the stories hold up such a stark mirror to reality, discovering that rich and varied reality is indeed an incredible experience.

Through the simple story of a boy writing a letter to his grandfather, we get to meet an average boy, in what is perhaps a routine circumstance (or was, anyway, in the late 1800s) whose short life of nine years has seen more loneliness, poverty and physical and mental torture than a lot of people see in their entire lifetime. Driven to a menial position on account of his extreme poverty, this orphan boy begs his grandfather to take him back, and, in his desperation, promises things in return that he quite obviously could never fulfill. What adds a touch of the bitterly pathos to this tale is the constant reference to Eel, the dog, that gets beaten regularly, yet always comes back from the brink of death, only to go through the cycle all over again.

Vanka finishes his letter and addresses it “To Grandpa in the village”.

It just breaks your heart.

When all is said and done, Eel will just continue to “walk around the stove, wagging his tail.”

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “VALIS”

Hmm… What do I say about this book? At the best of times, Philip K. Dick is a writer whose works dance on that thin line between the logical and the fantastical - and don’t get me wrong; I love the edgy, the weird, the improbable - however, this book seemed to go so far beyond into the blurry realm of the unexplained and the inexplicable, I was finding it hard to keep track of what was going on!

Despair. Drugs. Death. Divinity. To me, VALIS was a world borne of, as much as born into, such a setting. Narrated by Horselover Fat, it is a recounting of his visions that explain the meaning of Earth and all life on it. Along with friends Kevin and David, it is an interpretive journey that takes him to the 2-year old Sophia - the personalized incarnation of Holy Wisdom - and beyond.

Horselover Fat and Philip K. Dick. Early Rome and 1974 California. Koine Greek and extraterrestrial communication. Through a constant superimposition of a remote past and a harsh present, PKD creates a world where we are all “memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system…” Into this system, Dick introduces the possibility of VALIS, part of an artificial satellite network wherein “pink laser beams” are transferring information to humanity, and wherein symbols are being used to trigger recollection of intrinsic knowledge; example, after a religious experience, triggered by an ichthys (“Jesus fish”) necklace, the story goes on to establish the narrator as a secret Christian, secure in the belief of Christ’s return. Or God. Or Zebra. Or Vast Active Living Intelligence System. And that “the empire never ends”.

In reading this book, I wildly vacillated between moments of complete obscurity and points of clear understanding. I think this book calls for a second (or seventh) read to fully understand what the author was aiming to share with the rest of the world.

My search kept me at home; I sat before the TV set in my living room. I sat; I waited; I watched; I kept myself awake.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Interview with the Vampire”

This gothic horror novel by Anne Rice - the tale of vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac, who tells the story of his life to a reporter - was such a fascinating experience! (Interestingly, I have only read two vampire novels in all my life - this, and prior to this, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” - it was such a coincidence that the second one completely debunked all the theories created in the first one)!

Other than the obvious fascination of entering a world that I have never stepped in before, this book absolutely mesmerized me with the sheer poetry of its words. It is to the credit of the writer that in a story about a world of vampires, a series of killings, and the constant presence of blood and death, I still came away remembering the rich writing and the heartfelt emotions.

However I do have to say that I did not really think this was a ‘horror’ novel. Yes, there were some scenes of pure horror - the macabre dance of Lestat and the dead and rotting figure that was Claudia’s mother … the musician’s visit to Louis and Claudia just before they left for Europe … the horrific Théâtre des Vampires … that climactic scene so reminiscent of The Fall of the House of Usher. And there was also some very disturbing sexual content - disturbing because of the people involved. The very morbid “family” that is created by Louis, Lestat and Claudia, with interchangeable relationships; as Louis even says at one point, “father and daughter - lover and lover”. The scene with Claudia, the two young boys and Lestat was probably the most disturbing one of all … then again, it was a turning point in the story, and I suppose it just had to reach rock bottom within the specifications of the genre.

Overall though, this was a novel that dealt with all the existential questions that hit each and every one of us, and often leave us with a sense of doom and despair. You wouldn’t think a novel dealing with such a macabre topic would go beyond basic horror. But this novel does. It shines a light on topics like morality, in such comments as, “It’s not a question of aesthetics and morality if Nero played while Rome burnt or an artist works while his family starves, it’s really a question of two moralities”. It challenges standard beliefs with such points as, “If you believe God made Satan, you must realize that all Satan’s power comes from God and so Satan is simply God’s child, and that we are God’s children also.” It asks questions pertaining not just to the origin of vampires, but also to the result of their actions - what happens to the families of their victims / is the media talking about it / are the police investigating?

I was really fascinated by the characters too. Louis, Lestat, Claudia, Armand, Madeleine … were all vampires. But at no point does the book lump them all together into one category, displaying the same ‘type’ of vampirism. For starters, this book breaks all accepted norms of the physical appearance of a vampire - a vampire isn’t always a 30-year old man, tall, slim, dark haired; it can just as frequently be a cute and chubby 5-year old girl with a pretty face and long golden curly hair. Furthermore, like humans, all vampires in the book have their unique characteristics, unique personalities and a very personal set of beliefs and moralities. Lestat is driven only by a need to survive and goes through life satisfying that basic need. Yet for a brief moment he shows his driving force - perhaps a sense of loss? - when he tells Louis, a child grows up and as a man wants to go back to the toys of his boyhood thinking, ‘I didn’t know the value of it then, now I will go back to get that love’, but it doesn’t work that way, and people just have to move on. Louis is constantly fascinated by his new life as a vampire and is always trying to drink in the experience slowly and to it’s fullest. Yet he is tormented by such questions as his identity and his purpose. He laments, “I am going to last till the end of all time, and I don’t even know what I am” and wonders, “what does it mean to die when you can live till the end of the world, what is the end of the world anyway, other than just a phrase”. Armand, one of the older vampires is so desperate to find a companion in Louis, he is willing to plot the removal of a possible threat in Claudia. As he tells Louis, the sheer despair of living forever makes you realize after a point that everything changes but you, and “that’s when a vampire goes off to die and no one hears of him ever again”.

While the book in its entirety was all about rich and powerful writing, some scenes especially stood out! When the story shifted from New Orleans to Paris, the book took on such a vibrant hue. Just the descriptions of walking the streets of Paris, in general, were so brilliant! “… her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets - as vast and indestructible as nature itself. All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theatres, the cafes…”

But it is also in Paris that the story shifts to a surreal level. It is in Paris that we meet the painter who manages to recreate Louis at the exact point between human and vampire. It is in Paris that we experience the horrific theatre of the vampire. It is in Paris that we meet the doll maker Madeleine, and get to know of the tragic compulsion behind her china doll shop, where all the dolls are children. It is in Paris that Louis’ visit to a church personifies an ancient juxtaposition of good and evil, god and the devil.

Within the horror genre, I still prefer stories that successfully create an inexplicably eerie atmosphere (two fantastic examples being, Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”) - still, this tale (interestingly titled “Interview with the Vampire”) has been a memorable experience! The tragic ending of the tale – and of a vampire’s life – reflected not only in Louis’ words, but also Lestat’s final appearance, was one of utter despair … yet the cycle seems ready to start all over again. “… And I felt that cry again rising inside of me, that cry that pushed everything else out of its way, my teeth clenched to keep it in, because it was so loud and so full it would destroy me if I let it go.”

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Män som hatar kvinnor” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (translated by Steven T. Murray a.k.a. Reg Keeland) is the first book of the Millennium series trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. The title, which literally translates to ‘Men who hate women’, permeates through to this story of Mikael Blomkvist, investigative journalist with and publisher of Millennium; Lisbeth Salander, brilliant researcher and computer hacker working for Milton Security; and their search for Harriet Vanger in an attempt to resolve a 36-year old unsolved mystery.

With Blomkvist’s losing a libel case against industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, and his moving to the Vanger estate on Hedeby Island, the story shifts from one murky world of business and politics to another - but in neither case is it what it originally appears to be! While not in the class of Agatha Christie, the writing was certainly reminiscent of her style: set in a small, out-of-the way place, involving a large number of people, and covering a wide canvas, where nothing is as it appears! Barring one or two events, the narrative style was not one that relied on action-packed happenings to move forward, but instead, was a wonderful story-telling of mysterious people and their dark secrets, weaving its way through unearthing and interpretation of clues - from the delivery of pressed flowers, to coded entries in a diary, to pictures taken at a parade.

I also thought that the characters were drawn very well … Erika Berger the classy and smart business woman; retired industrialist Henrik Vanger who only has one passion keeping him alive; Cecilia Vanger whose brassy front hides a sad woman; Nils Bjurman the ward who takes a grotesque advantage of his power; Dirch Frode the lawyer and loyal friend; William Borg who wants only to destroy Blomkvist … every character was so memorable; even the ones that appeared very briefly, such as Holger Palmgren. Of course, the most fascinating character was Lisbeth Salander. Short and skinny to the point of looking anorexic, tattooed and pierced, socially awkward yet outspoken to the point of rudeness, and a genius computer hacker, this girl with the dragon tattoo is one of the more memorable characters that I have read about in recent times!

Okay, now for what I didn’t like! This did not happen more than two or three times, but when it did, it was quite jarring. There were sections when the narrator - while describing an incident - went into so much background information with such a lot of commentary on society and a history of the times; it quite broke the pace of reading. Example, when Lisbeth was thinking of getting a new laptop, there is so much detailed information on the specifications of a Mac laptop; it was beginning to read like an advertisement.

That, however, was a minor issue. What was really disappointing was the way this story was brought to an end. The last third of the book wraps up the mystery, and I have to say, it was a hastily put-together wrap-up of a story that had, up to that point, been told with such care. While the reveal was undoubtedly shocking, there was absolutely no lead up to the person, and who could very easily have been substituted by any one else. A good murder mystery is one where you don’t see the solution till it is told to you - but once it is told to you, it shines a light on clues scattered all over, and you say, ‘of course, I should have seen it all along!’ There was no such satisfying conclusion to this tale.