The Fortune of War and The Glass Palace

Fortune_of_war The Fortune of War was a great read — typical Patrick O’Brian. There are setpiece naval battles, intrigue, romance, all that is a typical of an adventure involving Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend — surgeon and British secret agent Stephen Maturin. They are caught up in the War of 1812 and brought as prisoners of war to Boston. But not all Americans like the war — not the rich Bostonian merchants at least whose trade suffers as a result of the British naval blockade. Maturin meets Diana Villiers again, and this time she is his. She leaves the wicked, rich Southern plantation owner, who also happens to be an American secret agent thick as thieves with the evil Frenchmen, and joins Aubrey and Maturin as they escape from detention and are picked up by a British man-of-war. This synopsis makes it sound like a typical action adventure but O’Brian’s deft characterisation and period details make it a compelling story.

Glass_palace I have just started reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. I earlier tried reading his The Calcutta Chromosome, attracted by the title because Calcutta (Kolkata) is my home town, but gave up — science fiction usually leaves me cold. The Glass Palace, on the other hand, deals with history. It starts with the British colonisation of Burma and, says the blurb, "presents… a band of memorable characters, spread across Burma, Malaya and India". I have only read the first few pages where an Indian boy, just arrived in Mandalay, sees the British invade the royal capital and depose King Thebaw. The story beginning in the 1880s continues through subsequent generations till Burmese independence and its aftermath. 

I am interested in the colonial experience and expect to spend some agreeable hours reading about the era. Coming from India and living in Singapore, I want to know more about the region and its history, especially as seen through the eyes of immigrants. A lot of Indians, like a lot of Chinese, settled in South-east Asia during British rule. Life for the local population also changed under the British. This book deals with the experience.      

1812 and all that: Aubrey and Maturin

Masterandcommander I haven’t seen the film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but like the author, Patrick O’Brian. So it was a pleasure to pick up the book, The Fortune of War, where Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, doctor and secret agent Stephen Maturin, are caught in the War of 1812.

I haven’t come to the actual fighting yet; I am still in the early part where Aubrey leaves behind his old ship, the Leopard, in the East Indies and sails with the doctor and his men for England to take command of a new ship. But the Royal Navy ship taking them home catches fire and sinks after rounding the Cape. Aubrey and his men row across the vast ocean until they are picked up by another British naval vessel. On board, they hear talk of war between Britain and America.

The Americans have already won a naval engagement, Aubrey hears and — like the other Royal Navy officers — cannot believe how that could happen while Maturin worries how the hostilities might affect Britain, already at war against Napoleon. Maturin, with his Spanish-Irish connections, hates Napoleon the tyrant and conqueror of Spain and wants Britain to beat back the French instead of being drawn into a war with America.

I have read the book up to that point and do not know what is to come. I haven’t read The Far Side of The World where the War of 1812 continues. I have to read the adventures in a piecemeal, haphazard fashion, having to borrow the books from the library. So I have read the first book, Master and Commander, the second, Post Captain, and some of the later books, such as The Letter of Marque, The Commodore and The Yellow Admiral, but have yet to read some of the intervening adventures.

O’Brian is a wonderful writer who can make the past come alive. He not only tries to get the language and the details right; his characters are also masterly drawn.

Aubrey is a bluff sailor while Maturin has a complex personality, but we see the other side of the sailor, too — the loving husband and father far from home. When he craves action or booty, he is only trying to advance his career or enrich himself to provide for his family. The sailor far from home is really a family man at heart. I can empathise with him and his lovely wife who love each other deeply despite their prolonged separations. It makes me think of myself and my wife and my son — she is in Calcutta (Kolkata), he has gone to college in the US, while I am in Singapore. But enough about myself.

O’Brian can be funny too. He describes Aubrey, a fine captain and navigator but no bookman himself, educating his midshipmen — young lads who had to be taught by their captains at the time. Aubrey quizzes the boys on the Bible. Who is Abraham, he asks. A bosun, says one; a corn chandler, says another, remembering something about Abraham and his "seed"; the third boy says, "Oh, he was an ordinary wicked Jew."  As Eliot might say, "After such knowledge what forgiveness?"  Aubrey canes the boy.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets could have been a "black beauty" and a working girl, speculates author William Boyd in an article in the Guardian.

He writes:"Shakespeare’s working life was in Southwark, south of the river, and London Bridge, a noisome, rank and dangerous district, freer of the City of London’s legal edicts by virtue of its location, and home to its theatres, pleasure gardens, bear-fighting pits, innumerable taverns and brothels. Historical records establish that there were black and mulatto prostitutes in Southwark brothels at the time, and it seems highly feasible that the Dark Lady might have been such a working girl.

"Certainly, such an identification makes immediate sense of the sonnets’ rage and misogyny."

He points to the most famous of the Dark Lady sonnets — Sonnet 129 — which celebrates not love but speaks of lust and is full of self-loathing:  "Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ is lust in action … "

Here is the complete sonnet:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme
A bliss in proof–and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Boyd, author of novels like A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War, has also written screenplays; that is how he ended up writing A Waste of Shame, a BBC television drama about the love triangle found in the sonnets, involving a "Fair Youth", the Dark Lady and the middle-aged poet. Boyd, who was formerly a lecturer in English at Oxford, read all the 154 sonnets — 126  addressed to the "Fair Youth" and 26 to the Dark Lady. The last two are bawdy allusions to mercury baths that were a contemporary form of treatment for pox, he says.

Indira_270_2

Indian actress Indira Varma (above), who also appeared in BBC’s Canterbury Tales and Bride and Prejudice, plays the Dark Lady in A Waste of Shame.

Boyd does not claim to have found any conclusive evidence that the Dark Lady was a prostitute. But Shakespeare knew at least one brothel-keeper, he says.

He writes: "One of Shakespeare’s known associates was a brothel-keeper called George Wilkins, a violent man, arraigned on at least two occasions for savagely beating up prostitutes (one of them pregnant). I cannot prove that Shakespeare was a brothel visitor but the numerous documented connections between Shakespeare and Wilkins attest to the fact that he would have been no stranger to Wilkins’s rebarbative and sordid world."

John Fowles

Johnfowles128 The writer John Fowles is dead. He was 79. The flurry of newspaper obituary notices was a startling reminder about a man who had long been out of the public eye, but there was a time when he was one of the most widely read writers. I remember reading him in the Seventies and Eighties. The Collector, The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Daniel Martin, The Ebony Tower were all bestsellers.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of my favourite books. It’s as solid as any great Victorian novel, and clever, experimental and ambitious like the works of Gabriel Marquez and Salman Rushdie. Fowles is as erudite as Anthony Burgess — and far more sensuous, almost reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman was made into a memorable movie, with a script written by this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Harold Pinter. I was absolutely captivated by Meryl Streep in the title role.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

No_1_ladies_detective_agency I just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and I can see why it’s proved so popular. It is different from the typical mystery or detective story. Precious Ramotswe is the first woman detective in Botswana. When her father dies, she uses her inheritance to set up her own little agency with just a secretary and herself as the sole private eye. The cases she investigates mostly involve missing people, from a man suspected by his wife to have eloped with another woman but who turns out to have been eaten by a crocodile to a boy abducted by a witchdoctor. Precious finds the boy and returns him unharmed to his parents. But she is not always successful. In one case, she is fooled by a schoolgirl.

There are no murders, no shootouts. The book follows her various cases and along the way tells her life story. The exotic locale combined with the complete ordinariness of the lives described gives the book a piquant charm. Precious and her friends are like people anywhere. I could empathise with her father who worked in the South African mines and returned home a rich man by his village standards and passed on his wealth to his daughter. Precious is ambitious and proves a successful businesswoman but she makes mistakes too. She fell in love with a musician in her youth and married him, despite her father’s misgivings, but he soon abandoned her after beating her up badly. The baby she had by him died soon after birth. But she has got over her personal tragedies by the time she sets up her agency. Precious the detective is a shrewd but good woman who is happy with her life.

There is a love interest too. Mr JLB Matekoni, the successful mechanic in whose car repair shop Precious drops in whenever she wants some company, proves more than a good friend. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may be a story about a woman detective in Africa but it combines the wit and the humdrum peaceful social life found in a Jane Austen novel. The result is charming.

Ed McBain

Ed_mcbain Ed McBain must have had one of the longest shelf lives as a crime fiction writer. I have been coming across his books ever since I started visiting bookshops and libraries. And no wonder.  Cop Hater, his first 87th Precinct book, came out in 1956, according to Answers.com. By then he had already had his first taste of success with Blackboard Jungle (1954) which he published under the name, Evan Hunter. I haven’t read that book or seen the film featuring Sidney Poitier. Nor did I know he wrote the original screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock classic, The Birds, though I did see that film. Only from his obituaries did I learn he was born Salvatore Lombino but changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952 because he thought readers wouldn’t much care for an Italian-American writer. Rather like Harold Robbins. But then he adopted the pseudonym Ed McBain for his 87th Precinct novels.

I can’t say I enjoyed his books when I started reading crime fiction. I preferred more literary writers: Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes. But lately I started appreciating him. The narrative is tight, the writing professional and unpretentious. The police work described in his books seems so realistic I was surprised to learn he was never a cop. His obituaries spoke about how he practically invented the police procedural and his influence on TV cop shows like NYPD Blue.  I recently read two of his books, The Frumious Bandersnatch (2003), which is funny and macabre in turns and ends with a twist, and Fat Ollie’s Book (2002).  That is entertaining too.  A redneck with a softer side,  detective  Ollie Weeks is an amusing  character. 

McBain  was no slacker like Ollie. " I write from 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. I try to write eight pages a day," he said in an interview five years ago which one can still read on the official Ed McBain website. "McBain had few vices beyond cigarettes, women and staying at Claridge’s, " said the Telegraph. Too bad he died of cancer. But hardboiled guys like him need their coffin nails — despite which he had a  long successful life. He was 78.

Sappho’s poem

Oddly enough, this surfaced in Yahoo! Odd News:

LONDON (Reuters) – A love poem written 2,600 years ago by Sappho, the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, was published on Friday for the first time since it was rediscovered last year.

Sappho’s verses expressing love for her female companions on the Greek island of Lesbos have either shocked or delighted generations of readers ever since they were first composed.

Her works once filled nine volumes and the ancients called her the "tenth muse", but little has survived to modern times.

The 12-line poem, only the fourth to have been recovered, was found on papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy. It was published with an English translation in the Times Literary Supplement.

"She obviously had emotional relationships with women of her circle, quite possibly sexual," the poem’s translator, Oxford University academic Martin West, told Reuters.

"They seem to have had some sort of society in which they could be in each other’s company quite a lot, rather cut off from men," he said. "But the were clearly able to have plenty of fun."

The poem was rediscovered last year after researchers at Germany’s Cologne University identified a papyrus once wrapped round a mummy as part of a 3rd century BC roll containing poems by Sappho.

They noticed that some of the verse fragments on the crumbling Cologne material matched parts of lines already identified as Sappho’s on a papyrus discovered in 1922.

By combining the two they were able to reconstruct the original, adding likely missing words in the gaps that remained.

The Reuters report contained only the first four lines. So I toodled off to the Times Literary Supplement to read the full poem. It was part of an article by the translator, Martin West.

The poem

("The words in square brackets are supplied by conjecture", explained West.)

"[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife."

Continue reading “Sappho’s poem”

Bugs in the story

Transmission: A novel by Hari Kunzru (First published in 2004)

Computer virus attacks, so often reported in the media, cross over into fiction in this novel. The Transmission of the title refers to the spread of computer viruses. Arjun, an Indian IT graduate, goes to work in the USA. Fired by the computer security firm, he creates a virus to infect computers around the world, hoping to get back his job by fixing the bug. But when his boss falsely claims credit for the security patch and refuses to take him back, Arjun mounts a wave of virus attacks and goes on the run, chased by the FBI. Sounds like a thriller, but it isn’t, quite.

The author, Hari Kunzru, is writing a Tom Wolfe-style novel that’s fiction as reportage. It covers computer viruses, body shopping (where a middleman recruits cheap labour, say, in India to be farmed out as temporary workers in the USA), cinema and the media. Arjun is body-shopped to the USA. His viruses are hidden in e-mailed attachments that are pirated clips from his favourite Bollywood actress’ biggest blockbuster. And they wreak havoc on the film world as well as the business world, which provide subplots for this novel.

Interwoven with the story of Arjun are two other stories, about his favourite Bollywood actress, Leela Zahir, and Guy Swift, an English PR flack. They don’t know each other but they are all affected by the virus. The PR agency collapses, the virus attacks generate a wave of international publicity for the young actress who can’t cope with it and disappears. And so does Arjun, to escape from the FBI. The novel ends with conspiracy-theory-style speculation on the Internet and in the media about what happened to Leela and Arjun. Kunzru refuses to give any definitive answer.

That may make for intriguing journalism. But I found it disappointing in this novel because it starts off like a novel of character. Arjun’s Indian background is so well described, his experiences in America so well told, this could have been a touching story of cross-cultural relations. Instead Kunzru ends up writing a parable about connectivity and the dangers of global dependence on the Internet.

That would have been all right too but for the ending. The mystery about where Leela and Arjun vanished seems a cheap trick. Of course, it happens in real life and can be exciting material for gossip on the Internet, but in this novel at least it seems the writer did not want to make the effort to take the story any further. He wants to tease the readers. That can be tantalising but also disappointing.

Yes, it lets down in the end but is pretty funny and entertaining much of the way. Kunzru, who went to Oxford like Amis, is as stylish a writer though mercifully less self-indulgent. He doesn’t quite get the ad scene right but is absolutely spot-on on Bollywood and computers.

Continue reading “Bugs in the story”

Giving Amis a miss

Martin Amis: 2

Yours Truly: 0

I tried reading Martin Amis’ novel, Money, for the second time, and for the second time I failed. I gave up almost near the end, though I did sneak a peek at how it ends.

Amis, for all his literary talent (and he is awfully good at words), can be very taxing. He is on a roll, pouring every idea, every image that strikes his fancy on to the page, considerably prolonging the narrative. Amis knows he is being self-indulgent but pleads helplessness. He writes:

I disclaim responsibility for many of my thoughts. They don’t come from me. They come from those squatters and hoboes who hang out in my head, these guys who stroll past me like naturalized, emanicipated rodents (passport and papers all in order), like gentrified rats, flapping a paw and saying ‘Hi, pal’ and I have to wait and not mind while they make coffee or hog the can — there’s nothing I can do about them.

— Martin Amis, Money

It’s hip and vivid and quirky, but it doesn’t take the story anywhere.

This book could have easily lost a hundred pages without hurting the narrative. But Amis, who was only 35 when this book was published in 1984, was apparently more interested in the storytelling than in the story itself, more keen to showcase his literary talent than his plotmaking.

I was impressed but finally lost patience and gave up. The book is like the period it’s set in — the yuppie 1980s. It’s one long orgy of sex, glitz, financial extravagance and bad behaviour that finally becomes a bore.

Amis is too clever for his own good. He introduces himself in the story as a supporting character. The hero-cum-narrator, John Self, gets Martin Amis the writer to write the screenplay for a film he is making. It’s a clever idea, and amusing at first, but the joke wears out in the end.

In Nick Hornby’s novel, How To Be Good, there’s a minor character, a book publisher’s salesman, who considers Amis a "smart-a***" That’s rude — Hornby letting one of his characters badmouth his rival, Amis. He is rude but right. Amis is one heck of a talent who is not necessarily one whale of a read.

Rankin’s lovers

She yanked the padlock free, the chain coming with it. Pulled open the gate.

And was picked up off the ground by Rebus, his hug enveloping her.

‘Ow, ow, ow,’ she said, causing him to ease off. ‘Bit bruised,’ she explained, her eyes meeting his. He couldn’t help himself, planted his lips on hers. The kiss lingered, his eyes shut, hers wide open. She broke away, took a step back, tried to catch her breath.

‘Not that I’m not overwhelmed or anything, but what’s this all about?’

— Ian Rankin, A Question of Blood

"What’s all this about?" Ah ha, that’s asking. That long, slobbery smooch was just a snog waiting to happen as every reader knew from the sexual chemistry seething on every page though the guy and the gal never even let it into their thoughts. No, they sublimated it. He wants to protect her, she tries to mother him though he is much older than her — and there lies the rub. Theirs is a mutual attraction that dares not give itself away because of the generation gap: who wants to be a sugar daddy, or a Lolita, especially on the police force? As it is, they happen to be partners.

And that’s how Detective Inspector John Rebus and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke play it — partners, friends, but not lovers — until almost the very end of this thriller when Rebus rushes to Siobhan’s rescue. He finds her alive and is so relieved he forgets himself — and plants that long, wet kiss. And, breathless, she asks "what’s this all about?" as if she doesn’t know — and she a detective! Is she being naive or coy?

The author, Ian Rankin, doesn’t explain. He cuts away to the last chapter where Siobhan is in hospital, recovering from a slight injury, with Rebus at her bedside. But we know they can no longer pretend to be just partners in the cop shop.

They certainly make an attractive pair. Rebus is a modern Philip Marlowe. Siobhan is feisty and caring, smart and devoted. It is their relationship which finesses the Rebus stories. Mystery is not the right word for Rankin’s novels. He may be Britain’s most successful crime fiction writer today but he can’t be compared with Christie or Conan Doyle because he doesn’t write typical whodunits. One reads him as much for his description of people and places as for who killed whom and why.

Going through A Question of Blood, I realised I had read it before. But that didn’t stop me from carrying on. Unlike the typical whodunit, where you want to get to the bottom of the mystery, here I wanted to linger among the people and the places and the music that accompanies Rebus and Siobhan wherever they go. A police procedural as full of character as a traditional novel and also a literary jukebox — that’s how I would describe this book.