Civil War, again


One comes to books through many routes. I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by fellow bibliophiles who often come bearing wonderful gifts of books I may not have run into otherwise. Some of my favorite titles have been introduced to me thus. But occasionally I will follow up on a review or an author interview and buy a book simply because I like the sound of the writer, or the premise of the novel sounds like nothing I’ve heard before.

american war copyIt was on The New Yorker Radio hour that I came upon Omar El Akkad, a Canadian writer of Egyptian descent, and his debut work, a speculative novel called American War (Penguin Random House). Akkad tells an audacious but scarily plausible story. The events of the novel take place some sixty years in the future, in the midst of a second civil war. The battle lines, once again, are drawn between the north and the south. And once again, a key economic driver is at the heart of the conflict–as it perhaps always is, in any war. Not slavery this time, but energy. The South refuses to comply with the Federal government’s ban on fossil fuel and instead takes up arms against the new Unionists lodged now in Columbus, Ohio, with climate change having eaten away the coastlines and the borders having moved inland, after “the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself”. And while America self-destructs, two competing powers rise in the East, the Bouazzizi Empire (recognizable as the Gulf nations) and an Asian giant (China?) whose interest lies in keeping the war going.

In its somewhat futile but stubborn rebellion, the Southern army recruits idealistic young people willing to serve as suicide bombers and assassins, their anger fed by the North’s merciless attacks that destroy whole communities and break families. Sarat Chestnut is one of them, and her story, at once heroic and hopeless, is told by her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, one of the “miraculous generation” to survive the years of violence and disease and emerge into a period of uneasy peace to study the history of his nation and his people.

Akkad uses a mix of storytelling techniques. There is Benjamin’s memoir, told partly in first person and given over partly to a third person reconstruction of Sarat’s life. There are government bulletins, some heavily redacted, that make a distorted mirror of the times. And there are the dispassionate war reports from journalists trying hard to be objective. But it is Sarat who dominates the novel; we meet her as a feisty six-year-old playing in the rising waters of Louisiana and follow her as she turns into a taciturn teen in a refugee camp, and watch her turn ripe for recruitment into the rebel cause. She represents, in many ways, the heart of the rebellion, and the spirit that keeps it going over the twenty years of its playing out.

Despite the compelling premise, the book calls for a fair amount of patience and a willingness to wait for its promise to be fulfilled. It is possible to get confused by all the detail–some chapters mimic a history textbook–and keep some of the minor characters straight. But sticking with it proves rewarding, in the end, even if somewhat depressingly so. And the thing about dystopic–or speculative–fiction is, it is all frighteningly possible, even probable.

The Dictator’s Last Night: Yasmina Khadra, translated by Julian Evans

On 20 October 2011, the news was full of the capture of the Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, found hiding in a culvert in near Sirte. It was an unimaginable fall for the man who saw himself as the saviour of his people who, in turn, loved him. Outside Libya, he was known for possessing a sense of theatre, and for being one of the very few—if not the only—heads of state who had women bodyguards. But he was also a ruthless dictator who destroyed any individual who opposed him, or whom he perceived as being a threat.

With this book, Yasmina Khadra takes us into the mind of Gaddafi during his last night. It is a tour de force—although The Dictator’s Last Night is a fictionalized account, it feels very real. We know that the events narrated actually happened, but it is the glimpse into the dictator’s mind that is fascinating. It’s a short book at 180 pages, but Khadra tells you what you need to know, and quite frankly, I did not want to be in Gaddafi’s head for longer than that.

As the book begins, Gaddafi and his men have had to flee Tripoli and are hiding out in a disused school in Sirte. For the next few hours, he reminisces, rails at the Libyan people for betraying him and worries about his sons who are battling the rebels. He is a contradictory mix of supreme self-confidence with a hunger for approval, of sentimentality and brutality. When his security chief, Mansour Dhao, says he wants to resign so he can spend his time praying for forgiveness for his acts of injustice and cruelty, Gaddafi takes it as a personal attack. (After all, Dhao was acting on his orders.) “Do you think I was unjust or cruel to my people?”, he asks. Dhao’s only response is “Only God is infallible”. Gaddafi can barely contain his rage at this equivocation. He is, after all, “an exceptional being, providence incarnate, envied by the gods, able to make a faith of his cause”.

Khadra uses the journey into Gaddafi’s past to try to understand the circumstances that shaped him. Growing up as a poor and fatherless Bedouin, he managed to get ahead and join the army, even going to Sandhurst in the UK after military training. But that wasn’t enough: as far as the establishment was concerned, he would never be one of them. Not a man to ever forget or forgive a slight, he carried out his own vengeance once he took power.

There are some interesting touches. Gaddafi has recurring nightmares before something life-changing happens, and these nightmares always involve Van Gogh as he appears in his self-portrait with a bandaged ear. He is visited by Van Gogh on his last night, the end of which would see him and his men flee the school and be ambushed by rebels. But true to himself until the end, Gaddafi sees himself not as a hunted man but as a Christ-like figure. As the mob descends on him, he calls out “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do”.

This is a haunting book, beautifully and vividly written. Khadra is a well-known Algerian writer. This is the first book I have read by him, and I was completely absorbed in his world.

A final note: I read the book in French (La Dernière Nuit du Raïs), so the quotes are my translations, except for “an exceptional being…”, which was taken from the extracts of the English translation on Amazon UK.

Everything I Didn’t Tell You: Celeste Ng

Everything I didnt tell you“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

So begins a book about a family with an absence at its heart—that of the oldest daughter who dies just before her 16th birthday. Although there is a mystery to her death, this is not a whodunit. It’s a story about a family, flawed in the way families are, trying to make sense of the world around them.

To her parents, Marilyn and James, Lydia was everything they weren’t. James is Chinese-American, living in a small town in Ohio, where at the time, he was the only “oriental”. He desperately wants to fit in and be like everyone else. Like his blonde, blue-eyed wife, Marilyn. But Marilyn is also a misfit in her way: she had ambitious about becoming a doctor at a time when women doctors were thin on the ground. Children and marriage put an end to those ambitions. So both parents pour all their thwarted dreams onto Lydia without stopping to think what Lydia really wants.

There is another absence in this book—the absence of any real attempt to truly understand the people who are the closest. James and Marilyn both imagine Lydia to be popular at school, brilliant in physics, when she is neither of those things. She plays up to them, and both parents so desperately want her to live their dreams that they never stop to see who she really is. They don’t see the two younger children, Nath and Hannah, either: both are so focused on Lydia that they neglect them. Nath and Lydia are close in age, and they form a bond, but once Nath gets into Harvard, he is focused completely upon leaving and neglects his sister. Hannah, the youngest, is a watchful, quiet child, who is often far more perceptive than the adults.

This is a beautifully written book. Celeste Ng has a deep understanding of human nature, and the way people are so caught up in their own narratives that they only see others through those narratives. It takes a catastrophe for them to realize that each one of them has a life and personality of their own. But I got the feeling at the end that they will try harder with each other but that a lot of things that should be said won’t ever be. And maybe that is the proof of writing fully rounded characters—you wonder what happens to them after the story is done.

I’m Indian. Can I Write Black Characters? Thrity Umrigar in the New York Times

How do you get under the skin of someone else? Thrity Umrigar, an Indian-American writer, talks about the expectations that come with the hyphenated identity: write about what you know, that is, Indians. But that is the point of fiction, surely? That a writer can get inside the head of any character they create, and if they are good at what they do, make the reader believe in the character.

But when Umrigar wrote a book with a black protagonist, she got a lot of flack. As she says, “If men can write about women and science fiction writers can write about space aliens, surely I can write about someone from a different race. And I have spent my entire adult life in the United States. Why shouldn’t I write about that most American of topics — race and race relations?”

To read the article, click on the image above.

Meena Kumari: Vinod Mehta



For many years, I’ve enjoyed the writing of Vinod Mehta, the editor of the Indian newsmagazine Outlook, so I was looking forward to reading his biography of Meena Kumari, an iconic Indian actress who died in 1972. But the biography was written on a commission soon after her death, when Mehta was a young man. And it is very much a young man’s book—cocky and self-assured—which is a pity. If he had written it in the last ten years, it would have been a more thoughtful work.

In an introduction to this recent edition, Mehta admits to this. He had been influenced by Norman Mailer’s style of writing, which was to insert the author into the text. You can never really forget that Mehta is writing this book, which means you cannot really lose yourself in it. I wish he had edited it and ironed out some of the annoying tics, such as the constant references to “my heroine”.

However, the story itself has enough weight to carry it through. For those unfamiliar with Meena Kumari, she was a well-known actress who worked in Hindi films from 1939 (as a child actress) until her death. She was known for playing tragic roles, including in one of my favourite films, Pakeezah, to which Mehta devotes an entire chapter. She was prolific and very talented, so much so that in 1963, she got all three nominations for the Filmfare Best Actress award!

Before I go any further, let me clarify something: I refer to Hindi films/movies throughout—Meena Kumari pre-dates Bollywood, a term I use only because it is a shorthand for a certain kind of film. I don’t like the term, any more than I like Nollywood (Nigerian films) or Tollywood (Tamil films). It trivializes the fact that these industries are specific to their culture; they are not just clones of Hollywood.

Rant over, let’s get back to the book. Meena Kumari was born Mahjabeen Bano in 1933 to an actor-musician father and a dancer mother and was one of three daughters. Both parents suffered from ill-health, so they pushed their young daughters into acting. Meena Kumari once said that she had started taking care of her family since she was four. Even as a child, she loved the camera and eventually became a huge star, with all the ups and downs that stardom brings. Her marriage to Kamal Amrohi, a director and a screenwriter much older than her, was an intense romance to start with, but soured in a few years. She had started drinking and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Amrohi wrote his masterpiece, Pakeezah, for her. It was of the few films he directed, and she finished it before she died. The story of a courtesan, Sahebjan, it is among the few Hindi films that does not portray courtesans merely as entertainers but as women with hopes and dreams of their own. The film had been in gestation for years. Amrohi came up with the idea in 1958, wrote the script by 1960, but the film didn’t reach cinemas until 1972. This was partly due to Amrohi’s perfectionism, Meena Kumari’s lack of availability and the state of their relationship. It was Meena Kumari’s and Amrohi’s greatest film and her swansong. The language is sheer poetry, as are lyrics of the songs. And Meena Kumari is wonderful as Sahebjan.

What I enjoyed in this biography is that Mehta looks for the person behind the myth of the “great tragedienne”—the unfortunate woman who was used by everyone, especially men, a myth that Mehta does not entirely buy. Meena Kumari could be difficult and self-destructive, but she was also a generous, intelligent, literate woman (mostly self-taught—she wrote Urdu poetry), who not only knew the names of all the crew on a film set, including the man who served tea, but remembered the details of their personal lives. There is a wonderful story about a journalist arriving on a set to interview her. She was one of the biggest stars in Bombay at the time. He couldn’t find her and was directed to where some of the crew were sitting on the floor, drinking tea, and there she was on the floor among them. I know the next time I watch Pakeezah, I’ll be looking at Meena Kumari in a different light.

Leaves of the Banyan Tree: Albert Wendt


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I didn’t know much about Samoa when I started reading this. I had come across parts of Margaret Mead’s 1928 anthropological study a long time ago, a study that was later proven to be inaccurate and misleading. And Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last years there. In short, I knew nothing about the country itself, just romanticized glimpses through the eyes of foreigners.

This is exactly the kind of half-knowledge that Albert Wendt set out to correct in writing Leaves of the Banyan Tree. It spans New Zealand’s colonization of the country (the Germans had been there before) and ending after independence, which happened in 1962. Although it covers three generations, the story is focused on one man, Tauilopepe Mauga, the head (matai) of his aiga, the extended family. Tauilopepe is ambitious for his aiga and single-minded in his pursuit of “God, money and success”.

He starts by clearing his part of the forest for a plantation, leaving in place a single banyan tree, after which he names his plantation. The book follows him as his fortunes grow and he becomes one of the richest men in the area. Oddly enough, it is at this point that Tauilopepe is at his most vulnerable. In his obsession with wealth, he has lost the people closest to him: Toasa, who is like a second father, Lupe, his wife, and Pepe, his only son. The arrival of a mysterious young man into the village brings events to a head.

The world of The Leaves of the Banyan Tree is very much a man’s world, and even the stronger female characters like Lupe and Masina, Tauilopepe’s mother, stay in the background. The main characters are the men: Tauilopepe, his son Pepe who rebels against his father, resenting him for the way he treated Lupe, and Taosa who tries to keep the old ways alive but realizes he is fighting a losing battle. Tauilopepe is memorable—you may not like him, but he towers over the book like the banyan tree.

I learned a lot about Samoa, and how the country changed and modernized (Wendt is ambivalent about whether this is a good thing). He has some sharp observations about the relationship between the papalagi, or the white colonizers, and the Samoans. Something that did surprise me was how Christianity had taken root, thanks to colonization and missionaries. There seems to be very little of the old religion left.

The book took me a while to get into, but eventually I was hooked. The narrative is driven by conflicts: between Tauilopepe on one hand, and his father, Taosa, Lupe and Pepe on the other; between tradition and modernity, commerce and religion, the city and the countryside, and living in harmony with the natural environment and exploiting it.

I’ll end with a passage that seems to sum up several of these conflicts. Taosa is with the men as they are clearing the forest: “With the missionaries, these papalagi settlers shattered the tapu that had ensured the survival of that cycle in which man had respected all other living things. Now Toasa was witnessing his own people continue the destruction. … In that slow walk across the clearing he had finally accepted the inevitable. …To Tauilopepe, the past had no real meaning. … The world [Toasa] was trying to prop up would sooner or later collapse completely.”

The House of Sleep: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s novel about obsession, love, sleep and dreams follows a group of students, moving between their lives as students and 12 years later. We are told in the beginning that the odd-numbered chapters are set in 1983-84 and the even-numbered ones in 1996. But although it moves between two periods, most of it takes place in and around the same house: Ashdown. This is where the group live as students and the location of the sleep clinic in 1996.

Sarah Tudor is a narcoleptic; she is unable to control her sleep and can doze off at any time. She also has vivid dreams that she has trouble distinguishing from reality. When the book begins she is dating Gregory Dudden, a psychology student, who is a bit of a jerk (to put it politely). Gregory likes standing over sleeping people “as they lay helpless, unconscious, while he, the watching subject, retained full control over his waking mind”. Terry Worth, a film student, sleeps 14 hours a day because he has the most exquisite dreams, which he can barely remember. Sometimes images flash through his mind, which he tries to pin down, “only to watch them recede into spreading blankness or feel them trickle through his fingers like sand”. So it’s not surprising that he becomes obsessed with an unseen film by a little-known Italian director. Then there is Robert, a friend of Terry’s, who falls obsessively in love with Sarah, who, in turn, breaks up with Gregory and falls in love with Veronica.

Fast forward to 1996 (although that’s not really how the book works—it drifts back and forth between the two periods). Robert has disappeared. Gregory has set up a sleep clinic, ostensibly to cure people of sleep ailments, but in reality to cater to his obsession of beating sleep, which he sees as a disease that robs people of time. Working with him is Dr. Madsen, a woman who is in every way the opposite of Gregory—human, empathetic and funny. Terry Worth’s dreams have vanished, and he has become an insomniac and a well-known film critic, prolific because he can work all night. He registers at the clinic, claiming he hasn’t slept for years: an ideal subject for Gregory to prove his theory that you can live better without sleep.

As the story moves between the past and the present, the events of the past are superimposed on the present. Chapters sometimes close on unfinished sentences, which are completed in the next chapter by another character in another context and another time. Coe throws in tantalizing clues, often in a blink-and-you-miss-it way. What happened to Robert? Why does Ruby Sharp, a little girl whom Sarah used to babysit when she was a student, try to contact Sarah after all these years? Why does a little girl in Sarah’s class look vaguely familiar?

I know it sounds complicated, but the way Coe tells the story, it’s not. There is a fluidity between the shifts in time. There are a few crazy coincidences in the way that the characters move in and out of each other’s lives, but their lives are so enmeshed that there is no getting away from each other. It does get a little over the top towards the end, and there were twists in the tale that I didn’t see coming. I do have to say that it is a testament to Coe’s story telling that he manages to keep it all together without driving his readers to distraction. This reader had trouble putting the book down and finished it over a weekend! A clever, intriguing book.

Terra Australis: Great Adventures in the Circumnavigation of Australia—Matthew Flinders, ed. Tim Flannery


I first heard of Matthew Flinders in July 2014 when a friend, Heather Wicks, told me that she was going to London for the unveiling of his statue. Flinders was her fourth great-uncle, who had been the first European to sail around Australia. That piqued my curiosity, so she lent me this book.

Matthew Flinders spent most of his life sailing around Australia, and gave it its name. He was the first to circumnavigate Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. Flinders spent several years in Australia, finally returning home to his wife, Anne in 1810 after being imprisoned in Mauritius for over six years. (A letter to her is included at the end of this book.) He spent three years writing his diaries but died before he could see them in print. Tim Flannery has edited his diaries into a single volume and written an excellent introduction.

Flinders was born in England in 1774. He decided as a boy that he was going to sea, and by 1789, he was working for the British navy. His first voyage to Australia was in 1794, when he signed up to go on the Reliance to Botany Bay. The crew included a surgeon, George Bass, and the two men shared “an ardour for discovery”. Once the ship had docked in Port Jackson in Australia, they set off to explore the coastline in an 8-foot ship called Tom Thumb. The entire crew comprised the two men and a boy. Over the years, the ships Flinders used to explore the coastline grew bigger in size until he was put in charge of Lady Nelson, a brig of 60 tons in May 1802, an indication of Britain’s growing interest in exploring the continent.

Australia became Flinders’s passion. A few months after the Reliance had docked in London, Flinders was on another ship, the Investigator, heading back to Australia. It was on this second trip, when Flinders was circumnavigating Tasmania, that he encountered the man who was to be his rival, the French captain Nicolas Baudin. The two men—and two countries—vied with each other to discover more about the continent. As the French first lieutenant jokes to Flinders, “If we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies in Van Dieman’s Land, you would not have discovered the south coast before us.”

But of course, the land was not “discovered” by the Europeans—the aborigines had been there for a long, long time before. Flinders writes about his meetings with the aborigines, which were, on the whole, friendly. He tries to see through their eyes and imagines how he would react to strangers, “so different in complexion and appearance”. However, not all these encounters went so well. In 1802, a misunderstanding led to a scuffle between the crew and the aborigines, leading to an aborigine being shot—unfortunately, not the last time this happened.

Flinders writes in great detail about the trips, describing the land, its flora and fauna. He lists the supplies they carried and how much they cost. This book is not a quick read but it really gives a sense of what it must have been like to be on those journeys. We live in a time when it feels like we have seen everything, either actually or virtually. These diaries recapture the sense of wonder of seeing something for the first time. They are also an important chapter in the history of Australia.

“One Hundred Years of Solitude”: New Readings 50 Years After?

320This year bibliophiles around the world celebrate 50 years of book life for “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), a novel that pioneered a new genre, gave its author, García Márquez “Gabo”, the Nobel Prize (1982), and changed the way people would read and think about Colombia and Latin America. Much has been discussed about the novel ever since: its intricate plot spanning a century of a seven-generation family drama, its elevated use of language and idiosyncratic aesthetics, its role as long-lasting cornerstone of “el boom latinoamericano”… Even without having read it, people always have something to say about the book. So, are there new ways to read the saga? After half a century, can the story of Úrsula Iguarán and José Arcadio speak to new audiences?

Among many, perhaps the biggest feat of the book is having depicted extremely vividly the realities of Latin America by creating the imaginary world of Macondo. This artifice of encapsulating and crystallizing one place by creating and expanding another is what, most critics concur, makes this a masterpiece. García Márquez paints a fresco of the exuberance and the tragedy, the abundance and the melancholy of Latin America and its peoples. He ravels the genealogy of a family, the Buendías, to (re)construct in equal measures, fictional and historical, an account of sensuality, postcolonial ingenuity, protracted violence, seminal local wisdom and folklore.

In Gabo’s literary universe, the reader is never able to tell what is real and what is magical, nor we can tell where is the line (if there is a boundary at all) that separates life and afterlife, natural and supernatural. But admittedly, this may not be credited to the creator’s inventiveness. The unbearable realities and beautiful mysticism of Macondo are in itself everyday life in Latin America, a place where “all utopias seem possible”.  Celebrating-the-50th-Anniversary-of-One-Hundred-Years-of-Solitude-by-Gabriel-García-Márquez-with-a-New-Book-with-Special-Illustrations-3Illustration by Luisa Rivera for a special edition of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, published by Penguin Random House.

But Gabo does not want to romanticize his homeland. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is powerfully a cautionary tale about the depredation of the political divisionism of the subcontinent and the superstructures of imperialism, about injustice, death and oblivion as Latin America’s ultimate self-inflicted condemnation. Tumultuous love stories and labyrinthine family episodes serve as pretext to yield socioeconomic and political underpinnings that are worth revisiting numerous times, always in the light of the signs and symbols of our time.

And though there are many teachings for the “children of Macondo” in the book, a less evident one comes from an underexplored theme, the environment. If there is an aspect that the next generation of readers must not overlook, is the inextinguible awe that García Márquez feels (and makes us feel) in the face of nature and landscape. From page one we are invited to the unfolding and reinvention of a majestic natural world: “At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” The tale then is populated with insatiable carnivorous ants that may devour the protagonists in their sleep, scorpions whose stings are hard to decouple from erotic encounters, yellow butterflies that trace the path of impossible love interests, a rainfall that lasted four years, eleven months and two days, and that washed away the town’s lethargy… Indeed, this eco-imagery presents us with an augmented, even surreal Caribbean, imaginable only to those who dare to step into García Márquez’s biodiversity ecstasy, and those who, well, have lived long enough in this part of the world and its vicinities.

In its fiftieth anniversary, not only “One Hundred Years of Solitude” but Gabo’s entire bibliography should be (re)read and celebrated. In changing times for the continent, his opus magnum remains a prism to both remember and imagine the solitude of Latin America, one year at the time.

You can follow Sergio on Twitter @sergiosandovalf

Deep South: Paul Theroux


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.