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India – then and now

While I am still struggling with Infinite Jest, I am interspersing the agony with other reading.

This week it is India. I thought in honour of the year, I should re-read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. A Man Booker prize winner at the time and then a Man Booker of the decades with this novel, the prize winner of all prize winners. Worthy, deserved and hugely rewarding to read.

SalmanI think everyone knows that it is the life story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight at the moment India and Pakistan were divided. This was only Salman Rushdie’s second novel and what a towering success it became.

I think it is true to say that many people reading “Indian fiction” got their insights from Europeans writing about the British Raj.  There were, in the early twentieth century, very few India writers being published in Britain. So the sources were Paul Scott‘s The Raj Quartet, EM Forster The Passage to India, JG Farrell Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur and similar, not forgetting Rudyard Kipling, of course.

Then a trickle began, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Heat and Dust, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and others, but what was significant about these was that they all lived abroad. But they were a post-partition generation and wrote about India now. The trickle became a flood and then a cataract, and with Arundhati Roy we got a writer who lives and works in India. She too won the Man Booker prize for her novel The God of Small Things.

ArvindaSo we come to today, with both Indian and Pakistani writers publishing in Britain. Among them, Aravind Adiga, whose first novel The White Tiger also won the Man Booker Prize. The White Tiger was about young entrepreneurs making money in the new booming Indian economy. His latest novel, Selection Day is a similar story of rags to riches, but set in the world of International Cricket as played in India. Two brothers, brought up in the slums, are forcibly trained to be good with bat and ball by their cricket-obsessed father, successfully to start with, they are both marked for great triumph, but when a sponsor arrives things begin to change and a sudden realisation dawns on the younger of the two boys.

From rags to riches has a very unique connotation in a land like India, where there is no health care, no welfare state, no safety net. You only have to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo to understand that. Aravind Adiga has touched the same nerve in his fiction. Katherine’s book was also turned into a play by David Hare and this is what I wrote having read the book and seen the play.

The book [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] was written as a result of Katherine Boo’s personal involvement in the slum dwellers who lived beyond the wall on which the “Beautiful Forever” tiles were advertised. The people living in this squatters’ slum were much more than cyphers, they had relationships well beyond what was portrayed in the play. They had back-stories, their current circumstances and the exigencies of living on the edge, at the mercy of police brutality and veniality; at the mercy of the weather and at the bottom of society – rag pickers, garbage sorters living on the detritus of a much wealthier and prosperous elite, living literally cheek-by-jowl with the evidence of wealth – smart hotels and smart cars and living right beside the most flagrant example of wealth: the airport. All this and more one felt at a visceral level when turning the pages of the book. Largely lost in the play. I doubt whether anyone in the audience who had not previously read the book could have come to anything like a real understanding of the degradation oddly coupled with the sense of personal pride that lived side by side in that slum

There are so many more that I haven’t named, but they are out there and waiting for you to pick them up.

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The Spanish Peninsular

I am reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a 900+ page door stopper, which I have been told “all literate people should read”. After nearly 200 pages I am still wondering why, and because I can only read for about one and a half hours before I am near to screaming pitch, I have been reading alternative books at the same time.

I Am SpainI am Spain is one such “alternative”. It covers the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 from the point of view of the International Brigades, the people who went out to fight for the Spanish Republicans from countries across the world. David Boyd Haycock centres his book upon the lives and experiences of the more famous participants: Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and many others, but since they were, in turn, writing about the experiences of those ragged, untrained but willing volunteers from all quarters of the globe, one does somehow get a picture of the Civil War which gets right to the heart of the action.

The more magisterial approach, that say of Antony Beevor, probably gives the reader a rounded, less partisan picture but Boyd Haycock, by presenting a black and white panorama, gives us a clearer notion of what the war was about, and why it mattered to Europe and America in those years between the two World Wars.Beevor on Spain

It is interesting to speculate, as Boyd Haycock does, whether had either America or Britain taken a different interventionist stance and by doing so, defeated Franco, this might have given Hitler pause for thought, and thereby preventing the global conflict, of which Spain was but the testing ground.

scan0009Another book which focusses upon these same “personalities” is Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill. Equally giving the reader a taste of the time. Hotel Florida in Madrid, towards which many of the journalists and photographers gravitated in order to report on the war, was a base from which they could leave to get nearer the action and retreat to in order to write up their reports. Hemingway and Gellhorn had adjoining rooms, and a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, the characters that land up there include many famous names, not least Capa and Taro.

War is not about personalities, but it is in their records more than those of the many volunteers that capture the vile nature of that particular conflict.

DisinheriteeAn even more generalised account of the mass exodus from Spain, as a result of war, persecution or deprivation comes in the form of a book by Henry Kamen. This volume does of course include characters whose lives were affected by the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and many others, but its scope and focus is both broader and wider. For The Disinherited, is a study of The Exiles who created Spanish Culture” and demonstrates how much the whole of Europe and America have benefitted from the contribution that exiles have made to culture.

This is a picture of a country that for centuries exiled some of its most talented citizens in wave after wave of persecution or political necessity, and those exiles’ creative response to their situation. Prevented forever from returning to Spain, they created a mythic, romantic Spain – the Sephardic Jews in Holland, the exiled Moslems from Granada in Morocco to the painters and sculptors in Paris. Each one helped to create a “virtual” Spanish culture whose impact on the world has been immense.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 10

And so on to weightier matters, literally. Paul Auster‘s door-stopping novel weighs in at 1200 grams and 886 pages, a mere bagatelle when compared with David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest which is on my TBR for post Booker reading.

42314321 is the title of this massive book and is the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of newly arrived Russian immigrant Ichabod Ferguson. Family legend having it that Isaac Reznikoff was told  that he would get on better with a more American sounding name, and that Rockefeller was a good name to choose, but on being asked his name, he said in his own tongue Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten).

I have gone into quite a lot of detail to demonstrate here the complexity of the characters and their relationships, so if this seems to be a spoiler to you, rather than an exposition, stop reading where the text colour changes. This novel is a work of philosophy, an exploration of nurture versus nature, of the ‘what ifs’ of life. Ferguson is a thoughtful, observant and rather lonely little boy, in the section where he learns to read he ponders on the accident that has caused his immobility, unwinding the actions and causes and giving some thought to the vagaries of cause and effect, at this point he is only six…

This is an unashamedly American novel, rooted in place and time, rooted in fact, very much, in Paul Auster’s own place and time. Various key world events lock us into when this is all taking place: the ending of the war in Europe, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Korean War and other similar. Baseball features, teams that in Europe may have little meaning, take on importance, at some level and probably mirror actual games and players, I have no idea.

Like Michael Chabon and Howard Jacobson it is also decidedly Jewish, though not in an synagogue attending way, but in family gatherings, food and culture. Auster uses the novel form to address existential issues and questions of identity, space, language, and literature, creating his own distinctively postmodern (and critique of postmodernist) form in the process. Identity, Ferguson’s, being the key ingredient here.

It may take a while to read, but it is worth the effort. As with several other longlisted titles it is stylistically unusual, but do not let that put you off. Like going to France with a smattering of French in your memory, you get used to hearing it, and your ear becomes attuned – in this case you will find your “ear” and eye quickly pick up the familiar patterns.

There are constants in this book. Archie’s relationships with his parents, their parents and siblings remain the same, as does the date of his birth. On his father’s (Stanley Ferguson) side he has two uncles Lew (Louis) and Arnold (Aaron), whose wives are respectively Millie and Joan. Lew and Millie have two children, Andrew and Alice; Arnold and Joan have three, Jack, Francie and Ruth. His mother, Rose Adler has one sister Mildred, her parents Benjy and Emma live in New York. Ike and Fanny live in New Jersey and then there are inconstants!

But at this point is becomes complicated. In 1.1 Stanley, the youngest Ferguson is ambitious and driven, he starts with a leather goods store which eventually expands into the 3 Brothers Home Store, and sells everything from furniture to white goods. It would do better if the two elder brothers, layabouts both, were not constantly helping themselves to takings from the till; Lew is a gambler and has borrowed money off Stanley to cover mounting debts, however his gambling has become more serious, he then suddenly has a huge win, but far from repaying his brother, he buys mink for Millie and a Cadillac for himself and then throws a big champagne party, he eventually has a fatal crash in the Cadillac; the store is doing well until there is a huge warehouse burglary, which it eventually turns out is an inside job, and since he does not want to bring down his brother Arnold, Stanley endures the loss in silence, sending his brothers away; by 1.2 Stanley’s store has burnt to ashes, Ferguson is six and is learning to read, having broken his leg falling from tree; 1.3 fills in some of the more lurid details of the store fire. Archie’s cousin Andrew is killed in the Korean War, Lew goes off the rails and his debts become insurmountable, with his book-maker he conceives of an insurance scam that includes burning down the store, with fatal results and Lew ends up in prison; 1.4 finds Stanley with three prosperous stores, with two more due to be opened, he sees very little of his son Archie [who, by the way is known as Ferguson throughout]. Rose, his mother, is a professional studio photographer in all these sections, but in various guises. In 1.4 she spends quite a lot of time looking for a suitable studio/shop space which she eventually finds. 

The absolute inconstant is Ferguson’s aunt Mildred, in each section she is sometimes unmarried and does meet and marry, or remains a spinster. But each time she does marry it is to somebody completely different. And in different ways this affects Ferguson, especially the last husband, Donald Lomax a divorced man with a son, Noah.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 4

There are a great many novels dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad and to mention only a few: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sacred Hunger and The Last Runaway barely covers the ground. Some of them deal with the subject in a slightly glossed over fashion and others go deep into the fleshiness of it.

Underground RailwayThe latest in this long line, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, spares the reader nothing. The story of Cora begins in the forests of Africa with her grandmother Ajarry, at the time a small child. Eventually Ajarry arrives on the Randall estate, and at some point in the dreadful progression, this estate switches to cotton.

Cotton demands many hands, you only have to read Gone with the Wind to know that, planting is the first hazard; weevils, drought, lightning strikes are next, but then there is the picking. For picking you needs many and nimble fingers and the negro slave was the answer.

The Randall estate eventually passes to the two sons, one takes the Southern plantation and the other the Northern. Ajarry has passed on long since, and Mabel, her daughter, has by now had a daughter of her own, Cora.

At the beginning of the novel, not the backstory, Mabel is a hunted runaway and Cora a young, abandoned child. We are spared nothing, not the labour, not the beatings, not the rapes and not the fear. The pages are saturated in it.

This novel has, not surprisingly, already won one book award, The National Book Award Winner 2016 (of America). Endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey this climbed the America charts and has now climbed the British lists.

This is Cora’s story, possibly a unique account, but more probably one that would have been familiar to many African slaves. It is a tale of courage, indomitability, fear, joy and survival against the weight of white suppression. It is not a book to enjoy, but one to learn from and consider. unsworthAnd like Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger, it makes very clear the relationship between Britain’s prosperity and slavery. It was not only the traders in human misery who were implicated – but each and every person who took a mouthful of sugar, drank rum or wore fine cotton.

Its position on the shortlist is a likely outcome.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 2

You have to hand it to Ali Smith! Her new title Autumn is Part One of a seasonal quartet. The flyleaf tells you that it is a “meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are…” Who writes this stuff and did they even complete the whole book?Autumn.jpg

This is a jumble of thoughts and ideas, loosely hung around the backstory of two people, Elisabeth Demand and Daniel Gluck, neighbours when Elisabeth was a young girl. Daniel, by the time the novel is being set down, is in a care home aged 100 and Elisabeth, pretending to be his granddaughter visits regularly.

In an earlier part of his life, Daniel has known and loved Pauline Boty [a real British female pop artist of the 1960/70s]. He is a song writer, with one good song to his credit.

The book ranges over a Britain that is reeling from the results of the Referendum of 2016 backwards through the Profumo Scandal, but largely from Christine Keeler’s perspective, or rather how Pauline Boty has presented her in a picture entitled Scandal 63; struggles of identity – Elisabeth is trying to get her passport renewed and a Hannah Gluck, who gets picked up in Nice with a false passport in the 1930s, but manages to walk free and of bodies: men, women and children being washed up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015/6; it is also about perception.

Daniel has described Pauline’s pictures to Elisabeth when she was a young child, but they have all been lost and in any case, he does not ever tell her who they are by, much later as an art student she realises what it was he was telling her.

There is no doubt that this is a meditation of sorts, there is a lot of reported thinking and dreaming, and some philosophical questioning of truth, lies, presentation and reality.

But much of it is random thoughts laid on the page a bit like a collage (which is what Pauline Boty is famous for), scraps of thoughts and materials which may or may not mean anything in the scheme of things. Does this make it “a novel” or just “novel”?

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Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.

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