Deep South: Paul Theroux

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Like Paul Theroux, travellers often go in search of adventure in other countries before exploring their own. Having travelled to remote corners throughout the world, he sets out to discover a part of his own country—the United States—that he knows mostly through its fiction.

The Deep South of the US is a cultural subregion and comprises the southeast corner of the country, the states that were dependent on plantations and slavery during the pre–Civil War period. History is alive and well there. As someone points out, the past “isn’t even past”. Some of the African-Americans Theroux meets remember their grandparents talking about slavery. So it’s not far away, after all. And although things have changed, racism does rear its ugly head.

Theroux decides to avoid the cities and stick to the rural areas to get a better sense of the real Deep South. He goes to small towns and settlements so tiny that they do not exist on the map (“you gotta be going there to get there”). Because the South is a three-day drive from his home in Connecticut, he is able to return time and again. The trip keeps looping in on itself, which means that he has more time to understand the area and see how it has changed.

The shocking fact that comes through is the level of poverty, and this in a so-called rich country. He drives through areas of stunning natural beauty dotted with towns abandoned or barely getting by. He finds “bank deserts”—areas where there were no banks, so people could not get loans or open bank accounts, something Theroux had not seen, not even in the remotest parts of Asia. And when there was a bank, the poor felt too intimated to go in. A lot of the destitution has to do with manufacturing moving out of the US, putting people out of jobs. There does not seem to have been much effort put into creating alternative jobs for them, so they end up sinking below the poverty line.

Theroux meets a wide variety of people, the desperately poor, intellectuals and farmers, who tell him about how difficult it is for black farmers to get loans. But there is incredible resilience, and those who can try to help their fellow citizens—buying bankrupt banks and restoring them for the poor; and helping with housing and food. And all this without much help from the state. And through the portraits of these people, you get a real sense of the place. Theroux has obviously fallen in love with the warmth, hospitality and strength of its people, so it’s no surprise that he chooses to go back.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Arundhati Roy

Review by Usha Raman and Suroor Alikhan

Below is a review in two voices—much as the book is a story told through several. Differentiated less by opinion than typeface.

I opened my pre-ordered copy of “The Ministry…” with a bit of trepidation mixed with skepticism. Like many others, I had read the reviews—the plethora of good ones and the few unsure ones and the very few outright scathing ones—and I was determined to make up my own mind. But in the case of anything by Arundhati Roy, it’s hard to not mix up the woman with the words. The prose is of course undeniably lovely, and makes us see a well-known city in ways that otherwise would totally escape us.

Arundhati Roy’s second novel follows 20 years after her first one, The God of Small Things. She spent the years in between as an activist, campaigning for the rights of the marginalized.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a story told in two parts and three voices, with two sets of characters that come together in a quick finale. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We begin with Anjum-born-as-Aftab, who, finding herself in the wrong body, embarks on a journey of reinvention, first joining the gharana[1] of Ustad Kulsoom bi in Khwabgah, the house of dreams, and then moving into her own palace of dreams-come-to-life—Jannat Guest House. Anjum collects around her a medley of marginalized humanity: the persistent and secretive Saddam Hussain, the seductive Nimmo Gorakhpur, the abandoned-and-adopted Zainab.

The story then pivots around the discovery of another abandoned baby, in JantarMantar, in the middle of a nationalist moment.

Now we hear the voice of Landlord, a failed civil servant and relapsing alcoholic who introduces us to Tilottama, the protagonist of the second part. Tilo’s journey takes us all the way from a barsati[2] in South Delhi to a houseboat in Kashmir to a nursing home in Kerala.

Roy’s story weaves together the complex—and continuing—story of a shattered subcontinent and its deep, irreparable wounds. She gives us glimpses of the extreme callousness and extreme generosity that make the present, the hope of the protesting crowds in the capital, and the hopelessness of those who resist the state—whether deep in the forests of middle India or in the hills and valleys of the north.

Roy’s prose is often poetic, and the book is a pleasure to read. Except for the times when Roy the activist creeps into the novel. When Tilo leaves her Delhi home, and the Landlord looks through her things, he finds a notebook where she details case after case of torture and killing in Kashmir. Roy had already made this point—very effectively—in the narration of the Kashmir story. There wasn’t any reason to add so much detail—in fact, it detracts from the power of the story. It also makes the Kashmir section so long that I was wondering how she was going to pull the different strands together. And then there is a long letter from a woman who had joined the Naxalite movement (a left-wing guerrilla movement). Here again I felt Roy wanted to make a point about the injustices faced by women guerrillas—a worthy point but unnecessary to the story.

But that apart, I loved the book. Roy understands misfits and those who are different. Aftab-Anjum is the most vividly drawn character in this book, and Roy writes with perception and empathy about the turmoil of being a woman in a man’s body. As one of the hijras[3] says, “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us…. It will never settle down. It can’t.”

At times the ghosts of the God of Small Things walked softly across the page, making me wonder about connections—in the mind and in the heart. Does some aspect of Rahel grow up to be Tilo? Is Maryam Ipe an older, more shadowy, version of AmmuIpe? Do the Love Laws still haunt us, and the pages of this book—where the laws are instead flouted with a nonchalance that is hard to ignore?

I felt the end came together too neatly. In a sort of “they all lived happily ever after” kind of way, despite the histories that will not be forgotten, the cruelties that continue to be felt.

 

[1]Household.

[2]A one-room apartment on the rooftop of a house.

[3]Transsexuals.

Set in Darkness: Ian Rankin

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in the Rebus series, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed them. The books are set in Edinburgh, which is a character in its own right. Ian Rankin knows the city well, from the posh part with the big houses and lawns to areas so rough that any visitors stupid enough to wander would have a pretty low chance of survival.

There is excitement about the new Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, and a disused building is being renovated to house it. Inspector John Rebus has to act as police liaison as the building falls in his jurisdiction. Rebus is not happy about this. However, things start to get interesting when, during a guided tour around the building, he finds a body walled up in a blocked-up fireplace. It’s been there from the late 1970s, and no one can identify it. Soon another, fresher, body turns up in the building—that of Roddy Grieve, who was standing for the Scottish parliament as a Labour MP. Grieve comes from a prominent family, so the Chief Constable wants all the stops pulled out.

Then a tramp commits suicide, and when the Rebus’s team look into his death, they find that he had £400,000 in a building society, and a false identity. Rebus suspects that the three cases are linked but his superiors are not so sure. Of course, this doesn’t make any difference to Rebus, who is convinced he is right. He manages to circumvent the bosses’ interference with a little help from Siobhan Clarke, who used to work with him and is now part of another team. But the Grieves, who are eccentric and manipulative (and have a few skeletons in their cupboard), complicate things for him. And if that wasn’t enough, his old nemesis, the gang boss Ger Cafferty, is out of prison.

I like the way Rankin paces his books—he keeps up the tension but allows space for the characters to develop. Rebus loves rock, drinks too much and can be utterly cynical. Naturally, his personal life is a mess. Among the people Rebus trusts is Siobhan Clarke. She knows him well and is one of the few people who can stand up to him. She tries, not always successfully, to stop him breaking too many rules.

Set in Darkness is quite grim and doesn’t end with all the loose ends tied. But there is a healthy dose of black humour running through it. One of Cafferty’s thugs “had black hair so badly cut it looked like an ill-fitting wig, and a nose which hadn’t so much been broken in the past as thoroughly dismantled.” The pathologist jokes that he works in the dead centre of the city.

This book won the 2005 Grand Prix du Roman Policier in France. If you haven’t discovered this series yet, you should. They’re a delight.

The Professor and the Madman : A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary—Simon Winchester

Dictionary: A book which explains usually in alphabetic order, the words of a language, giving for each word its typical spelling, an explanation of its meaning or meanings, and often other information, such as pronunciation, etymology, synonyms and illustrative examples.

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most thorough compendiums of the English language. As someone who loves language, I enjoy browsing the entries, tracing the usage of a word from its coinage to the present. Like all dictionaries, it is a resource that we tend to take for granted and don’t really think about how it was first put together. Simon Winchester tells the story of the creation of the OED, and it is stranger than any fiction.

The OED took 70 years to compile, and at the heart of it were two men: James Murray, the editor for 40 years, and Dr. W.C. Minor, one of the dictionary’s most prolific—and reliable—voluntary contributors with over 10,000 entries.

Over the 20 years that they corresponded, Murray often invited Minor to visit the offices of the OED, but Minor refused to leave his home in Crowthorne. Finally, with the dictionary almost half-completed, Murray decided to pay Minor a visit to thank him for his help and to make sure his work was recognized. He telegraphed ahead to announce his visit and was met at the station by a coach with a liveried coachman. He was driven to a forbidding red-brick mansion and ushered into a library, where an important-looking gentleman was waiting. Murray greeted the man as W.C. Minor but the man corrected him. “I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years.”

W.C. Minor was a surgeon in the army, who was arrested for shooting and killing a man. He came from an old and highly respected family in Connecticut and had a history of mental illness. John Murray, on the other hand, was the son of a tailor in the Scottish borders and a formidable scholar. Together, these two men laid the foundations of what was to become the greatest dictionary of the English language.

Winchester was given rare access to the files on W.C. Minor. The book is scattered with definitions from the OED, and book feels almost Victorian, both in the writing and the black and white illustrations. There are some wonderful touches, for example the description of Minor working. For him, contributing to the dictionary was almost a therapy, a way of holding on to his sanity. He would pick a book from his collection, and then index any word that he found interesting. You can imagine Minor working hard, oblivious to the spyhole to his cell opening and closing as the guards checked up on him, filling his prison desk with “quires of paper, containing a master list of indexed words”.

But it’s not just the two men who are central to this story—the dictionary is almost a character in its own right, with its “twelve tombstone-sized volumes”. Winchester goes into detail about what it took to put together the OED—the planning and the meticulous work. The Professor and the Madman is a fascinating story and one that’s well worth reading.

 

Some histories can never be reconciled

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Strange fruit–the title of a song by Billie Holliday that’s been playing on my car stereo, and I can’t get it out of my mind…nor can I get the images it evokes out of my head.

It kept playing in my head as I read Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad (Random House, 2016), the story of Cora, who travels from bondage to an elusive freedom along that legendary trail taken by so many desperately hopeful slaves in the mid-nineteenth century. Like her mother before her, Cora flees the brutality of a cotton plantation in Georgia to embarks on an arduous journey through the states of a loose federation. Her escape is doubly complicated when she causes the death of a white pursuer, marking her as a wanted woman—an escaped slave and a murderer.

Cora’s first stop is South Carolina, where she encounters learning and a short-lived taste of independence before the ruthless slave-catcher Ridgeway shows up and she needs to flee once again. The secret network of safe houses and pathways takes her next to North Carolina, where she lives for months ferreted away in the tiny attic of a reluctant savior couple until Ridgeway discovers her and drags her away, even as an angry crowd calls for the public lynching of the couple. Cora manages to escape once again with the help of a freeman in Ohio, but Ridgeway’s shadow does not quite leave her path, catching up with her years later, making real freedom forever elusive, forever illusory.

The Underground Railroad is not an easy read, but it is riveting. Cora’s story—a possible fiction—is interspersed with the traces of other stories, of other escapes, told through handbills and posters of the day, revealing in their matter of factness.  For every African slave that reached the north, hundreds were caught, punished in horrible ways, and lynched, their bodies becoming the strange fruit that Cora encountered along the roads in North Carolina and Virginia.

Some stories can never have real closure.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that I moved on to another book that opened for me another chapter in the history of the United States: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (Random House, 2016). Based on painstaking documentary research and scores of in-depth interviews, this work of narrative non-fiction tells the story of a series of mysterious deaths of Osage tribespeople in the oil rich lands of Oklahoma in the early part of the twentieth century. Tying together the various threads of an incredibly complex story, beginning with the death of a young Osage woman who failed to return home after a party at her sister’s, through the persistence of a Texas ranger-turned FBI agent, to the early years of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Grann uncovers something that is part conspiracy, part opportunism, but complete tragedy.

The Osage were among the many tribes that were driven westward by the expanding needs of a growing (white) nation and like other Native American peoples, were handed a parcel of land to compensate for what they had lost. The Osage were given a large tract of rocky, inhospitable land in Oklahoma, but soon the area was found to be extremely rich in oil, and greedy prospectors and businessmen converged on the tribe to purchase drilling rights. The Osage grew wealthy but federal laws restricted access to their own money, and in most cases every tribes person was assigned a white guardian who managed their assets. Grann describes the systematic plunder of the Osage’s wealth—through cheating, duping gullible wards, and in many cases, murder that led to the property being acquired by a guardian.

While The Underground Railroad is fiction that forces us to confront the facts of history, Killers of the Flower Moon uses narrative to draw us into a story that could so easily be forgotten. Together, they remind us of the original sin(s) upon which the American nation is constructed—genocide and slavery.  The purpose of such stories—fiction or reality—is not to build rancor or stoke resentment, but to nurture compassion and empathy, and maybe, to force us to be vigilant and “woke”.

The Paradise of the Blind: Duong Thu Huang, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson

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It seems like a lot of the stories about Viet Nam are about the war, and that too from the American perspective. The country itself seems to disappear, merely providing a backdrop to the narratives of US soldiers. But what about the lives of ordinary Vietnamese?

This book provides an glimpse into those lives. It’s about three women—Hang, a young woman studying in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, her mother and her aunt Tam. It is narrated by Hang as she travels by train to Moscow to see her Uncle Chinh.

Hang never knew her father Ton, and it takes years before Hang learns the story from her mother. Ton was her great love, but her brother Chinh tore the family apart. In the mid-1950s, Viet Nam went through a land reform campaign. Villagers were intimidated into denouncing their “landlord” neighbours, who often only owned a couple of acres of land. The “landlords” were arrested and sent to labour camps, judged by courts of illiterate peasants. Like Chinh, who accuses Ton of being a landowner and forbids his sister from having anything more to do with him.

Although the Communist Party eventually apologised for the “error” of the land reform and carried out a “Rectification of Errors” where people were sent back from the labour camps, Ton does not return. His sister Tam survives. She is a strong and hard-working woman with “nerves of stone”, and has never forgiven Chinh for destroying her brother. When Hang’s mother takes her to finally meet her aunt, Tam is a wealthy woman. As Hang is now her only family, she devotes her life to ensuring her well-being.

Hang’s mother is a street vendor, and Tam’s generosity creates a divide between mother and daughter. The mother could never give her daughter what Tam can. So she, in turn, focuses on Chinh and his family, saving whatever money she can to buy them food and treats. At least, she feels, this family needs her, unlike her daughter. Hang resents this, especially when she has to go hungry because her mother is spending money on Chinh’s medicines. (Her mother figures Tam will come to the rescue, and she does).

Hang is caught between these two strong women. Both women are obsessed with their families and are prepared to do anything for them. The only way that Hang can survive is to break free is of this self-sacrifice.

Duong Thu Huang describes what life was like for ordinary people in Viet Nam: street vendors, party officials, villagers and students. She describes the food in great detail—which, as a foodie, I found fascinating. But Duong uses it to indicate wealth or the lack of it, from the lavish meals that Tam prepares to the “pickled white cabbage fried in a spoon of fat” in her mother’s house.

Duong is also very perceptive about people and their motivations. A young student tells Hang that her Uncle Chinh is like many people he’s known, who have “worn themselves out recreating heaven on earth. But their intelligence wasn’t up to it. They don’t know what their heaven is made of, let alone how to get there. When they woke up, they had just enough time to grab a few crumbs of real life, to scramble for it in the mud, to make a profit—at any price. They are their own tragedy. Ours, as well.”

This book, like Duong’s other novels, has been banned in Viet Nam for being critical of the Communist Party.

Kaveena: Boubacar Boris Diop

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This novel is set in an unnamed African country and starts against a backdrop of civil unrest. The head of the secret service, Col. Asante Kroma, is looking for the deposed president, N’Zo Nikiema. He is under orders to kill the president by Frenchman Pierre Castaneda, who had for many years been a close associate of the president.

But Kroma does not need to carry out his orders. Going into a little well-hidden house down a narrow street, the colonel comes across the dying president. The house belongs to Mumbi Awele, Nikiema’s mistress, whose six-year-old daughter Kaveena was brutally murdered a few years earlier. The investigation into the murder did not lead anywhere, and it was never clear who was responsible—although suspicions pointed to one of the two men at the top.

Kroma finds the president’s papers and his letters to Mumbi and decides to stay in the house with the corpse. Bit by bit he pieces together the history of Nikiema and Castaneda and the events that led up to Kaveena’s murder. It is a story of unbridled greed and lust for power—the kind of power that corrupts absolutely.

Nikiema and Castaneda met while working for a French mining firm. Both men were ambitious and hungry for power (Castaneda for the country’s natural resources). Together they overthrew the French colonisers and led the country to independence. Nikiema became president but the two­ men ruled (and despoiled) the country together. Castaneda became the man in the shadows advising the increasingly dictatorial Nikiema, but the partnership fell apart after Kaveena’s murder. Eventually, Mumbi’s avenges her child and brings down the regime.

Boubacar Boris Diop is one of the best-known writers of Senegal. Kaveena is a gripping story that exposes not only with corruption but foreign powers’ greed for Africa’s natural resources. The book is narrated by Kroma, interspersed with Nikiema’s letters. Diop creates a claustrophobic atmosphere as Kroma spends day after day locked in the house with the corpse. And what he uncovers is equally grim. This is not an easy read but one well worth the trouble.

Tales from the Kathasaritsagara: Somadeva (translated by Arshia Sattar)

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Kathasaritsagara can be translated as the “ocean of the sea of stories”. This is the mother lode of stories, composed by Somadeva around 1070 CE for the Kashmiri queen, Suryavati. But many of these had been around for a long time, so Somadeva was more of a compiler than a creator. They are full of unfaithful wives, conniving spirits, magic and intrigue. There are no morals here—these narratives celebrate life, in all its forms.

It starts with Parvati, the consort of the god Siva, asking him to tell her a story that no one has heard before. The story Siva tells her is overheard by his attendant, who then tells it to his wife, Parvati’s door keeper. The wife repeats it to Parvati, who is furious that she was told something that her door keeper knew. The attendant is then cursed to be reborn as a human and to tell the story over and over.

Many of the stories are about vidhyadharas, sky-dwellers with the ability to change shape, who are sent down to earth for some misdeed (like Siva’s attendant). Once they have fulfilled their destiny, they are released from the curse through death. Death is not an end here, merely a return to one’s true nature.

The original Kathasaritsagara runs into several volumes, and this book is a selection of the stories. Each chapter has a framing story, within which is another, within which is another, and so on. This gives the narrative a flow and continuity, like a river’s tributaries flowing into the sea. These are stories to get lost in, to enter another world where anything can happen.

The Pledge: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, translated by Joel Agee

The book starts with the narrator travelling to Chur in Switzerland to give a lecture on the art of writing detective stories. The talk is not a success, and the writer meets Dr. H., a ex-chief of police in the canton of Zurich. Dr. H offers to drive the writer to Zurich. On the way they stop at a gas station. An old man is sitting on a bench outside: “unshaven and unwashed”, smelling of alcohol and wearing “dark, grease-spotted trousers that had once been part of a tuxedo”.

After they leave, Dr. H. tells the writer that the old man, Matthaï, was once a brilliant policeman who didn’t smoke or drink. Some years ago, he was assigned to travel to Jordan to help reorganize the police there. Just a couple of days before he was due to leave, a call came from Mägendorf about the murder of a child, Gritli Moser. Matthaï was asked to lead the case until his departure.

Matthaï interviews the parents and is about to walk away, when Mrs. Moser makes him promise that he will find the murderer. Wanting nothing more than to get away from the place, Matthaï makes the promise, not really intending to keep it. But when he gets to the airport to catch his flight to Jordan, he has a crisis of conscience and turns back. He had made a promise to the mother, and he intended to keep it.

Matthaï throws himself into the case. He is convinced that the killer is not a local but a serial killer operating in the area. He sets out to lure him into a trap, using any means available. He goes against procedure and his superiors. He is eventually taken off the case but cannot let go. Slowly, his obsession destroys him, until he becomes the half-crazy wreck sitting outside a gas station.

This book is tautly plotted and fairly grim. There are no neat resolutions, just messy endings. Friedrich Dürrenmatt uses language economically and creates a sense of oppression. When he describes Chur and northern Switzerland in the winter, it is no winter wonderland: Chur is covered with “dense, sluggishly lumbering, snow-filled clouds” through which you could see a “patch of metallic sky”. A snow-covered valley is “rigid with cold.” His description of Matthaï’s gradual breakdown is compelling.

This book was made into a film with Jack Nicholson. Even if you have seen the film, you should read this book—it is better than the film.

 

Of Love and Other Demons: Gabriel García Márquez

of love and other demonsOnce, under a stifling October sun, Gabriel García Márquez, the great Latin American writer, observed the unceremonious wrenching open of a centuries-old tomb.  As the sacred stones were smashed into rubble, bundles of luminescent golden hair tumbled through the suffocating atmosphere of dust.  Measuring 22 meters and 11 centimetres, it was attached to the adolescent skull of a girl whose given names were still legible in the etched stone: Sierva María de Todos Los Ángeles.

A young journalist at this point, Márquez recognised something immediately.  A story had been interred in this catacomb, dormant for long years.  And so, decades later, he did what all writers do, he wrote it.

What emerged is a powerful, moving, homage to the desolate hopelessness of love.  ‘For you was I born, for you do I have life, for you will I die, for you am I now dying.’  Beautiful and enchanting, it spins the sad tale of a girl bitten by a rabid dog on the eve of her 12th birthday.   She was the forgotten and hated daughter of a wretched addict and a feeble old Marquise presiding over the final disintegration of a family fortune built on the back of illicit slave trading.  Suddenly under the threat of rabies, in a flash of inspiration, her father endeavours to save the child.  Sierva María is drawn out of the family she has known her life long, the African slaves whose languages she speaks and by whom she was raised, and cast into the hands of all manner of healers.  Eventually coming to the attention of the Holy Office, the bright and bedazzled young girl is thought to be possessed.

Love, we find here, is the true madness.  But ironically, just as it enslaves, it is also the force which sets us free.  This is the demon which sweeps through the lives of Márquez’s cast.  Like Sierva’s mother, driven to cacao addiction and wild orgies with hired slaves in a bid to reclaim her dead lover.

For the first time since I can remember, as soon as I closed the final page, instead of placing this fable back on a shelf, I began again.  Coming to the end of a second reading, it might be difficult to hold off a third.  Márquez’s prose is gentle.  Even in translation, it flows with a warm rhythm that belies a sometimes harsh message.  As he says, ‘the more transparent the writing, the more visible the poetry.’

There are echoes here of José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher who chronicles the solitude that essentially defines true love.  ‘The warm companionship which love intends to be… is an attempt to create a union between my solitude, the genuineness of my life, and that of another; it is the fusing of two solitudes as such into one solitude made up of two.’[1]  This gulf in the heart of the individual is elegantly rendered by Márquez.  In his world, life truly begins when a person turns to love, when they invest their solitude in that of another.  But this beginning is also the end of something; because it is dangerous, it takes us beyond our own control, ‘O sweet treasures, discovered to my sorrow.’  Yet it is also the ultimate risk worth taking.  The Marquise realises this when he sees his daughter sleeping.  ‘He adjusted the mosquito netting so the bats would not drain her blood, he covered her so she would not cough and he kept watch next to the bed, feeling the new joy of knowing he loved her as he had never loved in this world.’

This book is highly recommended.

[1] José Ortega y Gasset, translated by Mildred Adams, Man and crisis, 1958, New York, Norton, p. 92.