Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Elephanta Suite - As Fascinating as a Mammoth on the Mumbai Marina Beach

Three repulsive stories for the price of one. Perhaps I should have sheltered myself from Paul Theroux's fiction and continued to bask in his mostly splendid travel writings.

Opening with an American couple exploring extra-marital adventures and Ayurveda on a hilltop spa, Theroux follows up with another for the barf-bag. A wiley Jain lures an American pederast to Indian spirituality and makes off into the sunset of the Wild West with loot from the victim. Top it all off with a youngish American girl, all on her own, encountering some really sinister spiritual sisters and a greasy rapist. Bound to make many an American feel much holier than thou where thou is any Indian.  

Necessarily, a novel about a place is an account of the place. Mostly, such tales have drawn travelers to locales. Maugham's stories make the 'Orient' intriguing but inviting. Paul Theroux's triplet cannot, I fear, make India alluring to any - save, perhaps, those in search of the lurid. 
Alice, the heroine of the last of these three novellas, 'The Elephant God', a young American woman on a train, feels that Indian novels haven't adequately prepared her for the experience of India. 'Where were the big, fruitful families from these novels, where were the jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men?'

A new passage to India
Though I'm not quite sure what these Indian novels mentioned are, the reader from India is bound to have a Slumdog Millionaire experience: 
OMG! If this is India, then where am I?! Who am I?!
Admittedly, our own media would have us believe that Paul Theroux's India, as depicted in The Elephanta Suite, is all the India there is. At least all the India that matters. It's a tempting offer, at times. Especially when every news item, national and international, waxes more yellow, one than the other, where it comes to India. 

After decades of polyphonic fiction from and about the subcontinent, it is strange to read such a complacently one-sided view, in which the locals are objects of lust, curiosity or ridicule but their inner lives remain closed.

I'm all for a nice dose of the nasties in a piece of writing. And novellas are rarely for the faint of heart. After all, how much mush can even the mushy at heart mush? 

However, in The Elephanta Suite, there is not the tang, twang and tingle of the good writing that characterises anything that struts about as a novella. Rather, this is a green at the gills stumbling bumbling bungling broth of blether, with an overall smell of decay.
Theroux is a keen observer of decay. Dwight relishes the "reeking lanes" where he trawls for trade and Audie bears witness to his own deterioration ("the jug ears, the thinning hair. He was no more than his breath"). There is an equally bleak view of India. Characters discover it to be full of inexplicable motives and desires. "India attracted you, fooled you, subverted you, then, if it did not succeed in destroying you with the unexpected, it left you so changed as to be unrecognisable."
As in his previous novel, Blinding Light, Theroux's passages of erotica jar with the intelligence of the rest of his writing. Perhaps it's a metaphor for Western capitalism screwing over the East, but an author fast approaching 70 lasciviously detailing the services of Dwight's teenage Mumbai prostitute makes for queasy reading and it's not just the girl who's left with a bad taste in the mouth. Also, sometimes the sex simply defies the internal logic set out by the narrative.

Apparently, there was or is an attempt at a film. Mercifully, since there is no further news, it is possible that it will not materialise.

I'm not alone in feeling that this was a wild goose chase, seeking all the usual worth that a Theroux can provide only to find a wasteland: 
Except that in this collection of stories, the quest for such gems becomes a treasure hunt of sorts through a wasteland of false notes and insufferable smugness, crowned by an open distaste for all things Indian.
Theroux’s latest work of fiction is a triptych of independent tales with shared elements. India, as a backdrop, constitutes one; white Americans of diverse ages and temperaments who experience it first-hand, the other. Conjoining the unrelated narratives thematically is a series of elephant references and anecdotes that culminate in a blood-curdling climax, with a pachyderm becoming the dispenser of poetic justice.
Given that the stories are littered with contemporary allusions to call centres, outsourcing deals and emailed messages and include a sly take on Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid controversy, the slant of the first two, “Monkey Hill” and “The Gateway of India”, is disconcertingly anachronistic.

All in all, the book sounds and feels dated.
Alice boards a train in Bombay. She is en route to Bangalore with a friend who, at the last minute, ditches her for a new found amour, so Alice, alone in her coach with her co-passengers, spends her free time thinking how Indians have mummified an English where words like "utterance" and "miscreants", "thrice", "ample" and "jocundity" survive in daily usage. She meets a young man who adds to her vocabulary of Indian words with "ruminative", and Alice can't help thinking as she looks out of the train window that "it's so Merchant-Ivory".
This exoticisation of India is hardly unexpected, no foreign writer, less a travel writer, has remained free of the cliches, yet what is more annoying is that Alice's train somehow lands up in Gurgaon, the New Delhi suburb, before continuing on to Bangalore. Printer's devil? Subbing mistake? Or has the author of the hugely popular The Great Railway Bazaar lost his Bradshaw?
Paul Theroux's sleaze yatra

I would recommend this book to all India haters, Indian or not. It is a marvellous way to develop an allergy for the country before hand. Perhaps it will be handy for anxious parents whose offspring show signs of wanting to 'find themselves' - India is famous for the quest. 

Well, I wash my hands off the book and look forwards to reviewing another Nordic Noir novel, albeit one that is not as wonderful as the Hakan Nesser we discussed in a previous post.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Inspecting Silence in Nesser's The Inspector and Silence

I had not heard of Nesser when I picked up the book. Initially, it was a bit disconcertingly unlike the usual Nordic Noir crime novels. However, it soon dawned on me that this was quality writing. A good book is one which enchants and informs. And this Nesser has opened me to music and cinema and more in the most delightful way. However, it is also fairly satisfactory as far as mystery goes.
The most heinous part of a crime such as murder is the silence - the silence of death, of the victim, of scared witnesses, of the murderer. Here is a novel that offers all these and more.
When during the heat of a sweltering summer an anonymous woman caller telephones Acting Chief of Police Kluuge informing him that a girl is missing from the summer camp of the strange religious sect, The Pure Life, he sends for Chief Inspector Van Veeteren.

Unlike so many fictional detectives, Van Veeteren is relatively well-adjusted. His combination of wryly matter-of-fact observations and philosophical ruminations are thoroughly enjoyable -- and believable -- in this twisty layered tale that should keep even seasoned mystery fans guessing.

And there is the locale that, also, takes a twist. Nordic Noir - the very words have crunch, munch and ooze dark deep deliciousness - is associated with Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark... . However, here it is an invented elsewhere, with most of the Nordic ambience intact.    

One of the mysteries of a Håkan Nesser novel is the setting: It could be Sweden, but the place names sound distinctly Dutch, as does the surname of the protagonist, Inspector Van Veeteren. The action plays out in and around Maardam, a fictitious city “somewhere in Northern Europe,” with landscapes distinctly more Scandinavian than Benelux. 
And that is not all that puts Håkan Nesser's The Inspector and Silence in a genre of its own.

 The interview helped me better understand the man and, as bonus, I got to see his dog - I had read that he had a dog and that he had been a school teacher. 

Indeed, the novel is a delightful education of sorts. The Inspector, when not relishing cognac with coffee, or a nibble of good cheese, reads or listens to music and, as if that is not enough, catches a good film at the local cinema hall, too.

M.Strīķis, via Wikimedia Commons

In most senses, we proceed normally, tackling questions - Who is so and so? Why did x do such and such? What happens next?

The Inspector's routine for handling 'what the hell should he do' is to sit in a beautiful spot and do something pleasurable! 

As fast and furious thunder the anti-smoking brigade, so French and Japanese films, for example, seem to delight in characters who smoke and are, usually, hot. Nesser's Inspector gets my vote for ending a chapter with 
"Not a minute too soon for a glass and a cigarette" 
With all that good cheer, music is a must. From Bach to Pergolesi, Nesser's book brings us music:

I almost always discover a "new" piece of music reading a Nesser book. Van Veeteren is quite a music lover, and this read led me to Penderecki's Requiem.

Back to the book with more Bach...

Novels are prone to platitudes. The good novelist asks: What on earth do those platitudinous platitudes mean?

And, perhaps, some more tongue-in-cheek about platitudes concerning the skills of detectives:

Just as Nesser has invented the 'where' of it all, I suspect that a poet and a writer mentioned in the book are, both, fictional. Here is where the tragedy of translated fiction lies that we are at the mercy of whatever is translated and much is, necessarily, beyond our ken.

From music and literature we come to cinema. The Inspector catches a screening of Kaos by the Taviani brothers:

Though there is a rich IMDB page for Nesser, I cannot find anything that I can share, alas. 

We have seen how the silence, in which the Inspector inspects the silences of the witnesses, is punctuated by the eternally good things of life - works of literary merit, music, food and drink and all else that is real and beautiful in life. For larger than life crimes are rarer than the media would like us to think.

Finally, there is the process of writing which Nesser amusingly unfurls for us, with a flourish, every now and then:

Notice the trio of phrases that sets the scene in our minds. Like a haiku. 

And the tongue-in-cheek 'upright' envy is a marvellous phallic tribute to the moral malevolence of the 'good people'. Observe the adherence to concepts of flow - how one paragraph ends with a word and the following one echoes the precedent.

Speaking of things moral, the Inspector is agnostic. And ethics is handled here on a higher register than is usual to such works. In silence, the Inspector balances two crimes: the crime itself and the crime of false accusation.  

In another laudable move, without fanfare, the author brings us a world where a sari is an acceptable term, without a need for italics - such a supremely understated way of making the world one without the fanfare of a Mankell who makes the other so exotic that we can also throw in exotic crimes as natural to exotic races. 

There is more detail, in the novel, about various meals than there is, mercifully, about the brutal crimes. I mean, how many brutalised corpses can one read about, at the end of the day?  

"Two bottles of beer, some crispbread, a little plastic tub of marinated garlic cloves and a few generous slices of game pâté."

Geoff Peters, Duck Liver Pâté and baguette
an Nesser

is wife Elke (a psychiatristAt its core, The Inspector and Silence is an old-fashioned whodunit-style crime novel, a nicely crafted mystery with a minimum of high technology and forensics. At the end of the day, it is solid police work, feet on the ground, that solves the crime. Though clearly an anonymous tipster helps advance the investigation in meaningful, if rather abstract, ways. DI Van Veeteren seems to fancy himself along the lines of a Nordic Nero Wolfe, where his mood is only as good as his last meal. There's nothing wrong with this characterization in and of itself, but whereas Nero Wolfe's pompousness comes across as elegant and refined, Van Veeteren's comes across more as aloof and autocratic. True, he's nearing retirement and no doubt looks forward to days of wine and roses, but when compared to the brutality of the crimes he's investigating, his attitude seems a bit callous at times. But this could simply be a translation issue.

However, there are two sides to this coin - after all, it is an age where everyone is screeching "Do something!":
Van Veeteren is faced with a case of the most horrible nature, in which he has little evidence. He must solve it with a combination of logic and intuition. He has only ever failed to solve one case, for he builds them slowly, contemplatively, patiently. He watches and waits. And this method works for him: the cases are almost always solved. Some readers may enjoy partaking in this grimly methodical manner of deduction. Some may be bored senseless.

If I have to find fault, at times I felt, in the early parts, that there were some hiccoughs of translation - but mostly those worked out with adorable quaintness. Perhaps it is the very erudition of the author that presents a challenge to the translator.

I've yet to find a name for this genre that I detect in the book - the best way to find out would be to read another Nesser.

However, lined up for the immediate future are a Paul Theroux and a Camilla Läckberg.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Shoot! We forgot Nevil Shute - Part VIII

With two popular tales and one that has not pleased some reviewers, we come to the end of the Nevil Shute series. The first one here is set in the back of beyond...

'Culture clash is the subject of "Beyond the Black Stump", set in the American northwest in 1954, where people think of themselves as pioneers, and Western Australia, where they are. The hero is Stanton Laird, an American geologist who has worked all over the world for the Topeka Exploration Company, most recently in Arabia. As the story opens, he is vacationing in his home town of Hazel, Oregon.'

You can preview the book from the Amazon cover below:

Now, we can move beyond that stump to On the Beach 
'The novel details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Melbourne as they await the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the Northern Hemisphere following a nuclear war a year previously. As the radiation approaches, each person deals with impending death differently.'

“On the Beach” is however unlike many other post-apocalyptic novels (except “The Road”) due to its ending. Many movies and dark novels of today that remark upon the end of the human race enjoy teasing the reader and viewer with last-minute twists and deus ex machina’s such as in the movies “Children of Men” and “The Book of Eli” and McCarthy’s novel-made-film “The Road”. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does muddle the waters between grey realism and optimistic fantasy.
Shute’s novel here ends like the poet T.S. Elliot wrote, “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” As the lethal clouds of radiation go south, the scene of the world goes silent and the characters that are left take their cyanide pills and die. The world gradually eases into oblivion and silence in Shute’s vision, and as the reader we are left with a sense of both fear and dread that this is a possible future for the world if humanity spirals into the chaos of war once again.
Some critics complained that the book's resolutely low-key depiction of human extinction was unconvincing: people just wouldn't die that way. Yet readers identified readily with the characters' quiet dignity. This conventional novel about unconventional weapons became "the most influential work of its kind for the next quarter of a century and the only one most people ever read"

Waltzing Matilda - On The Beach (1959)

“It frightened the hell out of me. I’m still frightened.”
These words mark the reaction of a young Australian named Helen Caldicott to a story of the aftermath of mistaken nuclear war, in which those who never even took sides were faced with the slow advance of deadly nuclear radiation on their shores. On the Beach, first a best-selling novel and then a major Hollywood film, confronts the viewer with a number of questions: How would you behave if—in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse—you knew you only have a few weeks or months left to live? Would you carouse riotously, knowing the end is near? Deny that the entire thing is happening? Hope against all logic for a miraculous reprieve? Try to maintain a core of decency in the face of imminent death? Wish that you had done something long ago to prevent nuclear war in the first place?

And now for another one about which readers have not exactly raved:

The Rainbow and the Rose  'One man's three love stories; narration shifts from the narrator to the main character and back.'

Preview it as I have no link to the book, alas - but then there are those who lump it with the Beyond book that we've glanced at above:
“The Rainbow and the Rose” (1958) has pilot Ronnie Clarke, trying to save retired senior Johnnie Pascoe who has crashed on a medical evacuation mission and is seriously injured, dream about the latter’s chequered life while resting overnight in Pascoe’s house after his first attempt to land a doctor there fails.

I love the stories of Nevil Shute. He describes things beautifully and doesn’t hurry through the telling. He takes care to build very human characters in interesting and believable situations that reveal their best qualities. His male characters are decent, kind and hardworking. His female characters are intelligent and hardworking, as well. I enjoyed reading The Rainbow and the Rose for exactly those reasons.

Trustee from the Toolroom appears to be well liked for many reasons.

Trustee from the Toolroom is a tremendously compelling and well-plotted adventure story from 1960 about a mild-mannered English columnist for a hobbyist magazine called Miniature Mechanic who is duty bound to recover a container of valuable jewels from his dead brother's wrecked yacht in the South Pacific. (Fun fact from Wikipedia: "Trustee from the Toolroom was voted #27 on the Modern Library Readers' list of the top 100 novels.
Shute's books are low-key, but his plots are assembled like Swiss watches -- every piece fits perfectly, and you simply can't put one down after you're 50 pages into it. They also contain astounding technical realism -- far more than you'd think could hold his readers' attention, much less keep them spellbound.

An academic paper examines how appropriate this author was for the times: 
Both in his own right and as a representative figure he deserves analysis on account of his part in the literary re-statement of what has fairly been called the ‘imperial idea,’ that matrix of assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes which had sustained and rationalized the endeavors of several generations of politicians, publicists, and civil servants, but whose relevance to Great Britain's circumstances after the Second World War was increasingly open to doubt.

Reactions apart, Nevil Shute's novels continue to be engaging. Here is list of important links for avid fans of Nevil Shute:

All that's left is for you to read this Pied Piper of a novelist on a beach, perhaps in a town like Alice or in a toolroom, with a rainbow and a rose.

After this long ramble through nostalgia, the blog returns to the here and now with upcoming posts featuring reviews of three recently read novels - A Paul Theroux and two Nordic Noir thrillers.