The absurdity and its victim: remembering Albert Camus

Whenever a sincere attempt to measure the depth of twentieth century will be made, there would be Camus and his thoughts. The greatness of Camus, the literary giant, may be inquired against the backdrop of Camus, the succinct philosopher, only to conclude the inescapable truth: they are inseparable. The world Camus builds in ‘The Plague‘, the world Camus hints in his short-stories such as “The renegade“, the world that shatters in his novels like “The Fall” or “The stranger” or in his play “The Just Assassins“: all of them are not dissociable from the hoarse outcry of “The rebel” or the morbid fatalism of “The myth of Sisyphus“. Why is it that Camus so close to our heart, my heart: I often ask myself. I wonder why, even after reading all the masters of Twentieth Century, in my mind Camus remain standing tall, hovering over everyone else. It is not simply because of his literary genius. His works were never amount to be as ambitious as Ulysses of Finnegan’s Wake. His oeuvre is not as magnanimous in its depth and premise as that of Sartre. Still Camus remains as the one and only: because, he holds in his head the duality of our generation, the dialectics that is tearing us apart: the dialectics between fatalistic ignominy and rebellious upsurge.

To write about someone like Camus, it is hard not to give away to the temptation of putting one quote after another, letting the words speak for themselves and keep observing the awe in the readers’ eyes. But I am not going to give in to that, because Camus for me is not one-liners; he is the totality. He is the Atlas holding the world of our thought upon his shoulder tirelessly. There is something within the premise of his novels and short-stories that advocates the in-depth analysis, a rereading of the text of apparent clarity. His characters are somewhat recurring, as if he is putting himself in the shoes of different persons in different circumstances. The perils of his characters are not varied since they are from a particular temporal space and afflicted by the same duality in between their dreams and actions. Sometimes he is dangerously close to solipsism, sometimes his absurdist point of view takes a deterministic aura, sometimes he destroys himself through a rebellious urge; yet for any Camus admirer he always presents the same genius: the indefatigable dichotomy.

To understand Camus one should read him in the context of his place and time, but still, like any great man of word, there’s a distinct flavour of universality in his writing. One may dip into a Camus novel without preparing himself to read him and still would emerge as someone else after going through the vicious world of the mastermind. And that is how Camus changed the world, not merely by describing its projections and attributes, but belonging and accommodating the change within himself and within the psyches of the readers. Camus has become an integral part of anyone who even dared to gloss over the pages of any of his books; never letting the reader rid himself off him, thus creating a world sombre, ineluctable and yet dulcetly fatalistic.

 

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Film Review: Jose and Pilar (A scetch on last years of Jose Saramago)

Jose e PilarWell-made documentaries can be broadly  categorized in two classes: the first genre comprises fact based hard-hitting stories on a controversial socio-political subject matter, the best example of which is the ones made by the world-renowned Michael Moore; while the second genre introduces the viewers to a dremscape like journey, putting the poetics in the camera work that ascends us to an out of the world experience. Searching for a Sugarman is the finest example of the second genre to which the documentary made on Nobel laureate Portuguese  novelist Jose Saramago belongs.

Now let me begin with a confession. I am not a huge fan of Jose Saramago’s work. I have read his very innovative novels like Blindness, Seeing and The double and appreciated the original style of story-telling. Yet I could not enjoy his style of grueling details, his obsessions with harrowing factoids and musings of the characters that sounded rather trite. The lack of use of punctuations and style of his stream of consciousness writing is somewhat lost in translation and all I could see was a writer whose craft seemed rather common-place; and I don’t know if I should blame the author or the translator for this.

Returning to the documentary made on the final days of Jose Saramago and his wife Pilar del rio I should say that I found a different Jose Saramago whom I could not find in the pages of his novels (translated in English). This Saramago, with his in depth insights on life and its tributaries, on his pondering over his impending death, his race against borrowed time to finish his novel, and his conclusion (and the conclusion of the film) not with his usual optimism but rather a devastating fatalism reminded me of another Portuguese master writer senior to Saramago: Fernando Pessoa.

Apart from the points I mentioned just now, Jose and Pilar touches the love between Sarmago and his wife, their mutual achievements, their struggle to change the world and keep pace with it. The fiery Pilar exhorting against war efforts in middle-east comes in sharp contrast with the brooding Saramago who, almost languidly, goes on with his life accepting that “a man’s writing cannot change the world”. In fact the political commitment of Saramago that I never found in his novels (which perhaps is a good thing) is present in the documentary without any nuances  and as searing truth.

In conclusion Jose and Pilar truly changed my outlook towards the writer and I believe it will do that to everyone who endeavoured to read him in English. In that sense it is highly recommended for the English speaking audience.

Book Review: One Man’s Bible

One Man's Bible

“Freedom is not a human right conferred by Heaven. Nor does the freedom to dream come at birth: it is a capacity and an awareness that needs to be defended. Moreover, even dreams can be assailed by nightmares.”

– Gao Xinjihan (One Man’s Bible)

When you read a novel you half-expect a narrative these days. Narrative itself is becoming a thing of the days bygone; and linear narratives are, well, evaporated into oblivion. In his famous autobiographical novel One Man’s Bible Gao Xingjian does let us through not one but two parallel linear narratives.

One man’s bible is written in a fashion crafted especially by Gao. He has used the pronouns ‘YOU’ and ‘HE’ in alternate chapters, both to refer to himself, one to address his past self while the other to reminisce the self he left behind. Using He to refer oneself in one’s biography is not new. We have read Coetzee’s work built in similar fashion, referring oneself as ‘he’, taking the view of an objective almost uninterested witness and story-teller. Gao doesn’t follow suit to that known pathway; rather his ingenuity reminds us of his magnum opus ‘Soul Mountain‘ where he used different pronouns almost interchangeably to refer to himself. In many ways, One man’s bible is bound to remind one of Soul Mountain as I have read in my earlier article and since I read One man’s bible first, years before soul mountain, I would rather refrain from this comparative study.

In this epic tale of a personal journey from nowhere to nowhere, Gao sketches the world little known in the Western Hemisphere, the exotic world of China with all its struggle with tyranny and modernity. The political affliction of the nation, how it devours the aspirations of the multitude and the individual is truly depicted in this novel. While describing the horrors of cultural revolution Gao does not refrain from giving the account of the day to day ordeals, thus keeping in mind of his readership outside China, and at times the horrors and blood-baths are taken to the realm of magic-realism. In places the writer’s agony are acutely personal, while another moment he very much resembles an everyman smote by the autocratic regime. It is impossible to pin down when the parallel story  arc of the past self is merged into the story of present; how the asphyxiating want for freedom merged into today’s burden of rootlessness. At times like this, the world revolving around Gao seems so insignificant, that one might just forget of its struggles and outcries and try to find solace in the simple language of the master story-teller.

I don’t know if it was the work of the translator (Mabel Lee, who translated all the works of the author in English) or the author himself to use a very simple almost ascetic language, but it works. The author’s clinging to small short sentences, haunting in the aftertaste, reminds us of the semi-biographical work of another story-teller afflicted by a similar political regime and finding a way out at the finality: Herta Muller. For some unknown reason, I cannot dissociate One Man’s bible from The land of the green plums: both novels great in their own right and very dissimilar in story ark and otherwise. For me, both of them will be the tales of, not hoarse outcry of indignation, but the silent resistance of human condition in the face of utter in-discrimination.

Book Review: Soul Mountain

 

“You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!”

 

GAO XINGJIAN (SOUL MOUNTAIN)

 

imagesThis is how Xingjian described his own novel: as a part of the novel. In the 72nd chapter of the book when an argument is broken out in between his conscious self and his dream-like projection of himself: this is how things transpire to him. And perhaps this is the place from where we should start to recount his novel as it is the lowest possible point of the estimation.

 

Gao Xingjian is a maverick. He takes his tale to the furthest corner imaginable especially for someone who is weaving a tale sitting in the Eastern corner of the world, almost forgotten, despised, ridiculed. And here lies his strength: in the collective assault of rejection that he had received. It is what enables him to walk away, to be the insurgent for individuality in a land under a regime where individual never existed. Being the part of a tradition somewhat similar to his, I often share or dare to share the agony of his lost soul.

 

Soul Mountain, the magnum opus novel of his creation, is the triumphant journey of an individual through the soul of a country trying hard to catch up to the world, to the illusion of progress and prosperity and in that effort obliterating its own history and tradition. The novel takes shape as a story told by an unnamed traveler while on his journey to the mysterious soul mountain or Lingshan. The author uses alternative pronouns as I and you at first in alternate chapters to follow two different narrative arks, evidently following the same person and same journey only in different stages of their journey. It obviously reminded me of his autobiographical work “One man’s bible” where almost through the entire book he used the pronouns You and He in alternate chapters. But later other pronouns are introduced; unlike One man’s bible, here, the story arks get muddled more and more; the dreamscape like scenes intervene into the mundane of the travelogue in a way that the boundary between fiction and memory and imagination does not remain clear. A ‘She’ is emanated from the acute loneliness and lust of the central character and yet she departs on a whim unnerving the story-teller as well as the readers, cultivating more doubt regarding her existence.

 

If we try to read the novel in an earnestly literal way, initially what it speaks of is a semi-autobiographical tale of a Beijing based writer who had a near-death experience in the form of being misdiagnosed to have terminal lung cancer. After he was informed off his not being in danger, he sets out for a journey through the mountains of Sezwan province of China, partially to evade the Communist authority hunting him as a righting element needed to be ‘cured’ by reform through labour and partially out of his yearning for the past of his nation that he never encountered, that remained hidden for his generation for years past. While on his way, he encounters that history of the traditionally sumptuous nation through mythologies and folk-lores, through religious traditions of Buddhist and Daoist (Taoist), through the simple unaggravated lives of the people living at the fringe of the modernity, through a journey towards his own past, to search the grave of his long-forgotten grand-mother. The linear story ark is lost after a while as both the writer and the reader loses interest in keeping account of the day to day realism. The reader enmeshed in stories and anecdotes told through carefree yet captivating manner remains true to the writer till the final page of the long novel.

 

In a way, Gao Xinjian’s novel is not afflicted by the absurdism as is expected from the “Beckett of the East”. Rather he concentrates on revealing an obscure history of what the world know very little. In that sense he can be paralleled to Orhan Pamuk.

 

 

 

Unlike Pamuk or Murakami, he is not impaired with the choice between two world: eastern or western. Rather Gao’s world is a world torn apart by different projection of self, a world very private and very universal at the same time. Sitting in a part of the world where the annihilation of self is mandatory both politically and traditionally, Gao’s endeavour to embrace his kaleidoscopic self image is not only laudable; it also transpires us to a world we seldom experience.

 

Book Review: “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee

DisgraceCoverThere are novels that remain cocooned under the robe of simplicity and yet is not a simple one. Under the veil of apparent simpleness, it weaves a story so intricate, so dark, so sinister that it cannot fail to touch the frailties and hegemonies of the world both esoteric and mundane. If I am to choose a few novels falling in this category: Disgrace will be the first one.

The novel starts with a setting of an academic environment, something not very frequent in Coetzee’s work (in fact the only other novel I can remember with academic settings is Elizabeth Costello). Aged professor David Lurie is ‘disgraced’ when found to be in violation of the university’s law of being sexually involved with a student. He loses his job, the purpose of life and moves back to his daughter Lucy’s home set in the rural landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. The hegemony of fairer skin colour and well-equipped economic station of life comes in sharp contrast with the country searing in anger of maltreatment. From here on the story could have been another tale of the central versus the marginals: like the stories Coetzee has written earlier, in Waiting for the Barbarians or Age of iron. But Coetzee refrained from flowing through another formula-fed narrative and went on to add intricacies into the heart of an already intricate tale. The idyllic life  Lucy is shattered with a violent attack that ends up ravaging and impregnating her. David’s incapability of being the saviour of his child, his future generation’s ‘purity’ is paralleled with his attempt of writing a play on the decadent life of Byron’s final years. Lucy, who was earlier hinted to be lesbian, loses the dream-like world she woven around herself: a farm life of mutual assistance beyond the private ownership of the man’s world; and yet it does not seem to the typical onslought upon the sexual minority from the point of view of the mainstream. Neither was it an attack on the single white female living on the fringe of the society almost encroaching upon the Black man’s territory. In fact, Disgrace is full of actions that are not prototype of any form we used to know. The characters are not representational; neither do they carry any sense of onus to take the story or their lives to a certain destiny. The fatelessness pervading through the entire novel reminds us of work of Fernando Pessoa or Imre Kertész.

While writing the novel, I think Coetzee was aware of the fact that David Lurie is destined to be read as the representative of white Afrikaner fast losing his power and authority and feeling emasculated. And thus Coetzee did everything in his power not to enable Lurie to fall under such pretext. Coetzee’s sincere concern over animal rights also found its way into the novel at the finality, putting both the central character and the readers into a precarious position. The more the slim novel approaches its final bell, the more evident it gets that Disgrace, almost resolutely would not be a tale that can be labelled sealed and forgotten. To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard, when you label me, you deny me. Disgrace can neither be labelled, nor denied of its unique position in the map of twentieth century literature.

Book Review: On Chesil Beach

OnChesilBeach   Ian McEwan is a master of completion. By virtue of a decorative ending, he can render a very ordinary work into something memorable. His novel, or rather I should say novella, On Chesil Beach was such a work.

    On Chesil beach is a story of a young couple, Edward and Florence, very much in love with each other, on their honeymoon ‘on Chesil beach’. While both of them somewhat concerned regarding their own inexperience in sexuality, their apprehension does not seem to be something out of the ordinary and things look as if eventually everything’s going to be just fine. During their somewhat clumsy attempt to initiate the love-making, the author takes us through the back story of how they met and how they grew up, depicting other characters of their family through a few swift strokes of his pen. None of those characters were unveiled to a great extent, but all we have are but a hint of their glories and afflictions and their consequence upon the honeymooners.

    While in the penultimate chapter the things started to go horribly wrong: first through a few jitters, a few common mistakes followed by a heated argument and then a naïve confession on the part of Florence which took things to tumult. Edward’s male ego was hurt, as he is but a boy still to put his feet in a man’s shoes. And in the final chapter the novel concludes with an unexpected whim: a potential romantic drama ended up being a tragedy. Looking back at the things through the eyes of an aged rueful Edward, the author disseminated a sense of yearning for the day long gone, just like in his novel Atonement.

On Chesil beach, in no way, is a masterpiece. Even though it is set in the sixties England, it does not aim to be a period drama. It does not catch or even deeply look into the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the rebellious age. Rather its characters have a sense of innocence around them almost belonging to the old world coming from a George Elliot or Jane Austen novel, still trying to come in terms with the post world war sovereignty. The glimpse that we have into the family members of Florence or Edward are not revealing enough and at times seemed almost off-hand and only intended to help the author reach a certain number of word limit. The relation hinted between Florence and her father does not provide us enough material to conjecture anything. So in a sense, the novel is rather a short story in its content and novella in its volume. Still it will be remembered, not because of its volume or its ambitions, but because of its wistful ending.

The eternal view of an outsider: an ode to J. M. Coetzee

There are voices that soothe, voices that narrate and voices that haunt: but it is not often that we find a voice so distinct, so deliberate and so effortless that it is capable of performing all those three things. John Maxwell Coetzee, the prophet of our time has such a voice. Entering a novel of Coetzee does not amount of getting lost into a world of its own kind. Coetzee is not Kafka. When the guilt speaks through him, of the reluctant colonizer of ‘Waiting for Barbarians’, we don’t feel any particular design on the part of the creator to invoke a particular emotion in the heart of the readers for the central character through which the novelist has chosen to speak. When we meet the decaying matriarch of the novel ‘Age of iron’ lamenting for a generation lost in the battle leading to no emancipation, we do not feel like the arch-angel like presence of the character passing judgement, taking pity, easing the end for her. Rather we see things through her, a conscientious outsider, who is so distant from the everyday conflict tearing the world apart that all she can do is to observe and wait for her end to come, while the guilt of remaining an observer and not an actor on the stage of history erodes her core.

J.M._CoetzeeHistory in the pages of Coetzee does not hold its breath; it does not wait for the ominous to take shape, to let the readers understand the difference between the imminent and the escapable. It does not unfold in a gradual manner baring its heart slowly yet definitely. Rather it befalls upon its victims, the characters whom Coetzee never fails to identify with, thus rendering them the center stage and the words they never had. Coetzee confers them with the strength to face the disasters that are imminent and often innate in their own presence. The characters such as Michael K is not very frequent in his works, ever so silent, waiting for the time and life to pass their judgement upon him. Rather we anticipate more for the characters like Susan Barton, the feminine voice of retelling Robinson Crusoe, excluded and silenced by history and collectivity. Similar voice emanates to tell the story of the white woman in the novel “In the heart of the country”. The lack of reliability on the part of the story-teller is something Coetzee reinvented, by starting to narrate the voice, not of hegemony but of oppressed. The characters Coetzee built with so care and compassion often trudge along the margins of the civil world that we know of and yet have the oddity and audacity to make a commentary.

The man who witnessed everything as an outsider, would, for obvious reasons, watch his own life in a similar fashion to no one’s surprise. All three parts of his excellent autobiography were not the reminiscence of an old man filled with lamentation and regrets but a visitation of his past self through eyes of a distant disinterested viewer. I cannot remember reading an autobiography more eloquent and more poetic than the semi-autobiographical novel of Herta Muller (unofficially) “The land of Green Plums“.

Though he did not experiment with forms in a rebellious manner until very late when he introduced a very innovative style in “The diary of a bad year” or even in “Summertime”, I don’t think I would remember him as the maverick of forms. Coetzee transcends into something larger than a South African voice of conscience or the nobel laureate novelist or a two-time booker prize winner or anything that is described through worldly reviews and awards. Coetzee would remain, for millions, the last of his kinds, the voice of reason looking through the glass of an outsider and yet immersed by the guilt as well as rectitude. And for me, he would simply be the writer who taught me to speak not the words of the world, but the words of my soul and for that, and only that, he would always be the author who has undone and made me, for countless occasions.