Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali

The other day I read that they named a Himalayan thrush after Dr. Salim Ali, the 'Bird Man of India.' The better part of my childhood was spent cultivating a happy interest in birding. The interest still lingers, but it has been long since it has greeted the break of dawn and the flutter of the early risers. I remember one of the nature camps I attended when I was about eight. One of the introductory activities was talking about a topic you were assigned. My piece of paper had said, 'Salim Ali,' and I had been all ready - speaking not only about his contribution to birding, but cool stray facts, like his love for motorcycles. 

Salim Ali is a name that even the most amateur Indian bird-watchers have heard of. It is the name on the book most of us lug around on our weekend expeditions, tucked away between a bottle of water and a pair of binoculars. And with the name goes a skeleton of a creation-story - of a little boy who shot a sparrow, only to discover on closer inspection that it was not the usual sparrow at all. It had a yellow throat. The first spark of curiosity stoked a fire of passion within that boy who would grow up to be India's greatest ornithologist. This book is about that first sparrow and the ordinary boy from Bombay who carved himself an extraordinary life. The Fall of a Sparrow is Dr. Ali's autobiography.

There is much to be said about Ali's rigorous effort, his attention to detail, his broad goals and the impeccable vision that made him bring leaping reform to the way birds were studied in India. The perfect demonstration of his skill and dedication comes through in how he organized and carried out the Hyderabad State Ornithological Survey. It is impossible to mention all his work in one review, but suffice to say, it leaves you  awed and inspired. 

An India Today review calls it "a story of the evolution of a bird hunter into a bird watcher." That implies some sort of redemption which is far from the truth. One of the crucial aspects of this book is his unique perspective on conservation. Ali condemned the encouraging 'ahinsa' approach to wildlife conservation, which he considered akin to protesting the slaughter of the holy cow. Appealing to the religious sentiment in the effort to conservation was to him misguided and futile. He was not religious or spiritual. His love for animals was not of a sentimental variety, rather scientific and aesthetic. 

Towards the end of the book is an interesting chapter titled Scientific Ornithology and Shikar. Ali's life work involved him killing and stuffing hundreds and thousands of bird "specimens" with innovative entrapments that he describes in the book. His methods of bird-study may seem cruel to a modern reader but they paved the way for decades of ground-breaking research in ornithology. Had it not been for his methodical study, we would not have had the knowledge we use for conservation today.

But more than that, ever since he was a child, Salim Ali loved hunting as a sport. The yellow-throated sparrow he shot was one among many of his sport killings. He was a frequent big game hunter and a sworn meat-eater. In the epilogue, Ali lists the differences between a sport hunter and a poacher. The etiquette of a sportsman, he says, prescribes:
1. no shooting in the breeding season
2. sparing the young and females
3. keeping within the bag limits
4. no shooting at night with blinding lights
5. no shooting at waterholes 
These methods are employed by poachers for illegal activities. Ali goes even so far as to state that the presence of a legitimate professional shooter is the most effective deterrent to the poacher, and criticizes the statutory ban on all hunting. An excellent perspective, but I doubt it is always as simple to draw a line between the two. Now, all this says nothing about his merit as a scientist, but the fact that he would enjoy killing helpless creatures while ignoring what he admits was the prick of conscience, is somewhat unsettling.

One surprising thing I learnt from the book is that Salim Ali was not a kind man, not in the conventional sense. The age old saying goes, you can judge a man by how he treats animals or servants. Salim Ali performs poorly on both counts. Example 1: He once got a servant harshly beaten for alerting him not to take pictures of a religious establishment. Example 2: On a trek in the Himalayas, Ali came across a lost pilgrim family. When they asked Ali for help, he refused, with what was some truly derisive humour, because they should have known better what they were getting into. Example 3: Ali mentions a stray dog who would sneak into his house and mess up his field notes, till Ali shot him dead, "with no regret whatsoever."

Mean old man, that would be my verdict, if I didn't know who I was talking about. But you or me judging him for things like these, in the wide picture, does not amount to much. If not a nice one, he did seem to have a big personality. Most of this book is interactions with people he made acquaintance with over the years. And what a large social circle he had, in spite of that mean streak. (I am not flinging accusations. An article by his grandson calls him ill-tempered. And one by a younger colleague narrates that even in company if he got bored of a topic, he would simply take out his hearing aid.)

He did not let politics affect his relations with either his Indian friends or the English. British India from his perspective is fascinating. He talks about Sarojini Naidu's sense of humour and how she would refer to Gandhiji as Mickey Mouse, which he accepted as a compliment "with lighthearted toothless gaiety." A whole chapter is dedicated to his favourite brother who was a District Magistrate. And another to Loke Wan Tho, a Singaporean businessman-turned-ornithologist who might well be the most interesting person in the book. Ali proudly mentions how Nehru gifted his book to Indira Gandhi, who recommended it to a US Senator, who then nominated Ali for an award that is like the Nobel prize for ornithologists. Needless to say, he won it. He talks about his achievements with an almost surprised pride, which makes him sound astonishingly humble.

Even as I write this review, I am reminded of a quote I keep quoting from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, about how writers can be wholly different from their books. This is not exactly the same, but even so, it is a case of discovering what your childhood hero was really like, stacking achievements alongside failings, and loving him for all of them. A crazy, beautiful read - is how I would sum it up. The Fall of a Sparrow has been on my wishlist for a long while and it was entirely worth my time. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

My spoken Hindi is shaky at best. But I can read Hindi fairly fluently, one reason being that it shares its script, called Devanagari, with my mother tongue. A little detail I love about the cover of Dreaming in Hindi is how the title of the book is fashioned to look like Devanagari, squiggly letters with a line running across the top.

One of the harder aspects of learning Hindi for an English-native must be this script, which unlike English, is perfectly phonetic and has no letters for vowels. We add additional markers on each consonant letter for any following vowel sounds and consonant clusters. So the name Priya consists only of two letters (प्रि and या) in Hindi - a fact that must take a while to wrap your head around. We in turn find it difficult to make sense of all the vocalic variations in English and spend long hours scratching our heads over why the word lose sounds no different from loose... I digress.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich is a book for language lovers by a language learner. Which makes it basically, very subjectively, the best kind of book. Having recovered from a long cancer treatment, American journalist Kathy Rich finds herself wanting to escape. And in what I have been told is a rather Eat, Pray, Love-esque way, sets out to remote India on a freelance writing assignment. A Hindi learning course takes her to Udaipur, a small city in the desert of Rajasthan. Kathy describes it as exactly the sort of exotic mess that the word India would bring to mind - dust and scorching heat, women in billowing sarees, lavish palaces, narrow streets, and minds steeped in old tradition.

Dreaming in Hindi follows Kathy's experience of learning by-immersion a strange foreign tongue, the struggle to make meaning when thrust into a new reality, the myriad misunderstandings it leads to, the peculiarities of the Hindi classroom, the cultural demands from a white woman in semi-rural India. Kathy's accounts also describe the political situation in the country, beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, which happens shortly after her arrival in India. Nearly a year later, even as she exchanges emails with her American friends about the tragedy, the India around her is cocooned in its own suffering, with many instances of communal violence leading up to the 2002 riots in Gujarat... it is a book that teaches vital lessons in empathy. 

But this is not a travelogue, Kathy never quite embraces the new. She frequently turns into a carping critic of everything Indian; not once acknowledging it as a natural result of culture shock. Many, many characters populate Kathy's accounts, much like they do the country. Kathy resorts to calling people by descriptors - the Whisperer, Dad 1, Dad 2. She mostly keeps to herself, and despite having lived in a home-stay for fairly long, leaves with hardly any insight into the middle-class Indian mind. Towards the end of the book, even as she waxes eloquent about how she misses Hindi back home, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, she actually liked about it. She is funny, I'll give her that. But her constant acerbic remarks about her peers are petty and take a while to get used to. 

The best moments are when Kathy becomes obsessed with the Bollywood movie Lekin, the time she spends volunteering at a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, learning sign languages, her doctor's visits, and her interactions with the Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi. Such times, when she castes aside her reckless judgement or learns better, are worth it. 

Miracles are limited by place. "If you smile, you heal faster," Dr Aggarwal told the uterine cancer patient, but away from her room, in the dim scruffy hall, he said simply, "If you get cancer here, you die." And her? Too advanced, he said matter-of-factly. He brightened. "To you make a patient smile, you make them healthy," he chimed. So cruel, I thought, breathless with anger, then I saw. That's all he had. All he had were words. 

She intersperses her anecdotes with conversations and consultations she later had with various linguists, academics, pedagogues about language acquisition. It is cool how many sociolinguists cite this book as a good perspective on language learning (most recently I saw it in a book by applied-linguist Vivian Cook.) Kathy also details the most basic theories of language science and its history, throws us interesting tidbits she learns along the way - like how sign languages have dialects, or how you can be dyslexic in one language and not another, and so on... things which, as a Linguistics student, I know and have studied, but are pretty cool either way. 

And these little dollops of information are what makes Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich just the nicest read for anyone interested not only in contemporary India, but its language and most of all, anyone curious to know what linguistics is all about. (More specifically recommended for people who already know a bit about Indian languages.)

Foreign language studies are a rigged operation, I learned. An estimated 95 percent of students "fossilize," the linguistic term for hardening at a certain level. Ninety-five! So accent's a given, perfection's impossible, and odds are you're on your way to becoming a linguistic fossil: good work. At some point, then, the question has to become, Why would you even try?

In Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. "Dhoop khana?" I asked Gabriella Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, first time we hit the phrase. "Sunbathe," she said smiling. "To bask in the sun." My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that's the short-form answer to the question of why you'd try. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I wonder if, had I known my blog would actually find readers, I would have been more stringent about what I posted. My social media presence, blog aside, does not create even a tiny ripple in the vastness of online reality, and while I often find myself idly scrolling through Facebook and Goodreads, I am happy to keep it that way. 

Recently, Amazon renewed its book review policy to apparently include weird new requirements like, you cannot be following the author you review, because fans write biased reviews. Author bullying does happen. From snarky reviews offering no constructive criticism to reviewers pursuing a vendetta. Remember Lynn Shepherd who wrote a spectacularly malicious post on how J K Rowling should stop writing? She invited equal spite on herself with it and her books were methodically bad-rated on Amazon. Perhaps the policy change is drastic, but I appreciate the effort, to stop author bullying and reviewer shaming in one go.

These were the sort of things that floated up to the surface of my mind when I started So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I had some knowledge of online public shaming, I felt. Who hasn't been subject to internet trolling? (Surely I must have done some myself.) Still, when I first read Denise's post about the book, I had no clue how gory the picture would get. The book is framed around a series of interviews of victims of public shaming, not to mention, both the intentional and thoughtless perpetrators of such trauma. The virtual world coolly upholds citizen justice, and Ronson, in his half-amused half-stunned tone, looks at the consequences.

Ronson starts with an anecdote about finding a Twitter profile tweeting mundane oddities in his name, actually a spambot set up by some academics who, despite his requests, refused to take it down. A humiliated Ronson orchestrated a vengeance by recording an interview with the academics, which he posted online and, as they were swallowed up in a storm of online criticism, he brought them to smacking justice. It is this first-hand experience that makes Ronson's writing powerful; he knows what he is talking about. It is a horrible read, but we must experience its horror nonetheless. The book is an intervention of sorts.

Early on, starting with the shaming of Abigail Gilpin in 1942, Ronson gives a history of public punishment in America. Of how it was practised, enjoyed, chronicled by the media; and eventually put an end to, not because it was ineffective, but because it was too brutal. He talks about LeBon's theory of group madness, notes curious stories like that of Judge Ted Poe, who was known to dole out publicly humiliating punishments to criminals instead of fines or jail time. Alongside the interesting are disturbing incidents like that of Justine Sacco's ill-advised humour and the vitriol fired at her. Read this NY Times adaptation from the book, titled "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life."

The book has quite a lot of quotes and very few paraphrases. It helps that Ronson never sounds preachy or self-important, and manages somehow to tone down the twisted with a farcical effect, without taking away from the gravity of the content. More than anything, he does a thorough job of examining the subject. I don't want to mention more examples than I already have; for more I recommend reading the book. It is accessible, thought-provoking and highly relevant.

I left the Massachusetts Historical Society, took out my phone, and asked Twitter, ‘Has Twitter become a kangaroo court?’

‘Not a kangaroo court,‘ someone replied quite tersely. ‘Twitter still can’t impose real sentences. Just commentary. Only unlike you, Jon, we aren’t paid for it.’

Was he right? It felt like a question that really needed to be answered because it didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether whichever person we had just shamed was OK or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff

"To some, advertising executives exist at the fringes of legitimacy. We are neither hard-core business people nor scholars. We do not control the levers of capitalism nor offer academic insight. In fact, a few believe our profession is inherently corrupt, profiting from base human desires by transforming them into products pumped out of factories like processed cheese.

On self-deprecating days, however, I remind myself that advertising people exist at the intersection of commerce and culture. Our ultimate goals have always been, first, to identify fundamental motivations for behavior and preference, and second, to translate these insights into revenue-generating consumer propositions. No matter what the product category or target demographic, insight and profit margin are inextricably linked. In order to transform a mouse into Mickey Mouse, we must be both amateur cultural anthropologists and unaccredited psychologists."

I really like this book. It popped out to me in the Economics section at the university library, and in spite of its being so different from my usual reads (or possibly because) I picked it up at once. The introduction by Martin Sorrell and Doctoroff's utterly unassuming conversational tone of writing meant it immediately appealed to me.

Tom Doctoroff is the CEO of J. Walter Thompson Asia Pacific. Based for more than a decade in China, he is considered a leading expert in Chinese consumer psychology. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China's Modern Consumer by Tom Doctoroff, reads the cover, with a blurb from Fortune that calls it "an invaluable primer on the culture and buying patterns of the Chinese." It is a major plus that Doctoroff does not require the reader to be informed about China. To the curious, the book will provide dollops of facts and insight.

The book strives to be all encompassing and falls prey to some sweeping generalizations about the Chinese masses. But if taken with a pinch of salt, it sheds light on every tiny aspect of the Chinese psyche. What makes Chinese people tick?, Doctoroff wonders aloud. Their aspirations and expectations from life in contrast to the West, their history and how it has shaped them - the cultural insecurity, the obsession with brands, the stern hierarchy and lack of political flexibility, the anti-individualism - Doctoroff examines the effect each of these has on innovation in the Chinese context. He accompanies his observations and advice with stories of Western corporations that succeeded and failed in attuning to the Chinese interest and of local successes. 

Some interesting chapters, ones that I have already revisited more than a couple of times, are The Chinese Boardroom: Face and Fear, Illegal DVDs: Why Piracy Is Here To Stay, Barbie, Starbucks and Cofco: An Introduction to Chinese Consumerism and Car-Crazy China: Where Ego and Anxiety Collide. My favourite chapters belong to Part 4: Chinese Society. Here Doctoroff becomes more candid, describing some of his colleagues, his visit to the Shanghai Zoo, the Chinese Christmas. China is one, perhaps the only, culture which has remained unapologetically itself over the years, through globalization and advancement. He attempts to explain why. Here, it is strikingly evident that though often critical of its worldview, pointedly frank about its failings, Doctoroff is fond of China. He shows no scruples about being the master manipulator his industry requires him to be, but even so, he respects the Chinese, with all their stubborn foreignness. 

Joy in the corners: Happiness persists. The Chinese, despite limited means and honed self-protective instincts, are happy. The flip side of an insecurity-based worldview is an appreciation of minutiae. The con brio vigor of chess wars, muted by the buzz of gossip, is a delight. New York fireworks elicit howls of laughter. The morning bun hawker derives satisfaction from each sale. Old men take pride in their pet turtles. Every door is surrounded by plants, a sign of emotional investment in one's abode. Weddings are a joyful community affair. Neighbors unfold lawn chairs to relax, often in pajamas, and watch the world go by. 

In an epilogue, Doctoroff quotes himself from another book,

"The Chinese are, simply put, the most striving, ambitious yet clear-eyed people on the planet and that counts for a lot. They are pragmatic, yet human, wary yet hopeful, patient yet quick to respond. They are the hope of their future. I'm betting on them." 

Doctoroff has an odd writing style, an uncertain mix of corporate bullet points and bold titles and faux-academic droning on. Some sections looked more like powerpoint presentations than I like my books. A few more anecdotes would have done the book some good; it is obvious that Doctoroff has many unique little experiences in China, it is unclear why he has used his first-hand examples so sparingly. Instead, he gives the same lesson over and over with slight modifications, like a well-meaning school teacher trying to ram it into our heads. "And what was it I said before, class?" "The Chinese are obsessed with brands and status!" "Why yes, now let's repeat that, on the count of three..." The book could have been cut down to half its size. That is the one complaint I have.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig


The picture does not do these books justice, the light is wonky. They are much prettier. I got a great deal from a book sale on campus (for those to whom its relevant, hosted by Best Book Centre, Hyderabad - 'a unique shop for old and out of print books.')

I have been reading the first of the two collections by Stefan Zweig, Kaleidoscope One, for the past couple of days. It has some excellent stories. My favourite so far has been The Burning Secret. On the face of it, the plot is rather straightforward: it is a coming-of-age story of a young boy grappling with the drama of his mother's love affair.

Baron Otto von Sternfeldt, Zweig describes, is popular and sociable; in the absence of company, he is lifeless, like a match unlighted in a box. The impression he gives is that of a narcissistic young ladies' man. On his vacation in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, the Baron comes upon a Jewish woman. She is on holiday with her son, Edgar, who has been ill and needs the time away to recover. The Baron is immediately struck by her beauty and ready for the hunt. Upon observing the woman fawn over her awkward little boy, the Baron devises a plan to befriend young Edgar and use him to woo his mother.

Over the coming days, the flustered boy gets caught up in the game spun by the adults who seem wholly oblivious to his plight. As the Baron's attention shifts from the boy to his real target, the mother, Edgar begins to wonder what he did to deserve being cast aside by his new friend. He wonders what secret the Baron and his mother are concocting and resolves to get to the bottom of it.

Zweig takes a simple story and spins so much intrigue into it. He exposes the innermost secrets of the mind, fleshes his characters in such a manner that each is a complex interweaving of different shades. And he wisely refuses to pick sides, such that you feel empathy for everyone involved, even the cunning fox of a Baron. Frau Blumenthal, for instance, is first a strong mother, then a lady basking in the rare attention of a gentleman; for a flickering second she enjoys her newfound seductive charm and at the next moment, resumes the role of an old woman caught in an unhappy marriage. But it is the apt portrayal of the perspective of the puzzled twelve year old that takes the win in this lurid psychological mystery.

He, too, had his secret. His secret was hate, a great hate for the two of them. 

The tumult of Edgar’s conflicting emotions subsided into one smooth, clear feeling of hate and open hostility, concentrated and unadulterated. Now that he was certain of being in their way, the imposition of his presence upon them gave him a voluptuous satisfaction. Always accompanying them with the compressed strength of his enmity, he would goad them into madness. He gloated over the thought.

Apparently there is a film adaptation of this story. I cannot imagine what a screenplay would do to Zweig's commanding voice and turns of phrase but I doubt the story will stay as powerful on screen. Zweig has masterfully controlled the play of emotions in a drastic tale that with any other writer could turn mawkish. This may not be Zweig's most famous or best work, but the collection is worth your time.

Read The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig online here.

P.S. Notice the new url of the blog, I have finally changed the extremely complex Gilderoy Lockhart spell to a simple www.tabularasabookblog.com. I still haven't quite figured out how to get the site to work without the 'www', so any help will be greatly appreciated. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Language of The Third Reich: A Philologist's Notebook by Victor Klemperer


The German Literature Month, a favourite bloggy event! We are closing in on the end of November and I have only finished my first read. I stumbled upon it in the Linguistics section of the campus library and would highly recommend it to those interested in this chapter of history, language, etymology and philology. I don't think familiarity with the German language is requisite. The Language of The Third Reich is part memoir, part compilation of diary entries, very insightful and wholly absorbing. 

About the book: The Language of The Third Reich is a book by Victor Klemperer, who after serving in the First World War, worked as a professor of Romance Studies at the Dresden University of Technology.

"Under the Third Reich, the official language of Nazism came to be used as a political tool. The existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language. Originally called LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, the abbreviation itself a parody of 'Nazified' language, the book was written out of the conviction that the language of the Third Reich also helped to create its culture. The book is translated by Martin Brady, a film historian and artist."

My thoughts: Klemperer dedicates this book to his wife, and the crisp dedication ascertains the tone of the book - sincere, heartfelt, with the humourless smile of a survivor. He starts with the word heroic and its nazifierte meaning, how for a whole generation of Germans heroism wears a soldier's uniform. The LTI, as Klemperer calls it, breeds military-worship. Heavily romanticized words like heldenhaft (valient) and kämpferisch (gladiatorial) replace the more accurate and narrow kriegerisch (warlike.) Over and over he ironically quotes Schiller, calling the LTI a language that thinks and writes for you. A poison you inadvertently unthinkingly drink, that runs through your being.

In a chapter titled The Star, Klemperer states how from all the suffering in the twelve years of hell, the single worst day for the Jews was 19 September 1941, when it was made compulsory to wear the Jewish star. Over the following chapters, The Jewish War, The Jewish Spectacles and The language of  the victor, Klemperer describes with growing despair how the LTI enters the speech of those who on the face of it don't support the Nazis and even the Jews, how no one escapes the constant venom that has no antidote.

"In the evening I was on air raid protection duty; the route to the Aryan control room passed just a couple of metres from my seat. While I was reading a book the Frederick the Great enthusiast called out 'Heil Hitler!' as she walked past. The next morning she came up to me and said in a kind tone, 'Forgive me for saying "Heil Hitler" yesterday; I was in a hurry and I mistook you for someone I was supposed to greet in that way.' 

None of them were Nazis, but they were all poisoned."

Kemperer calls the Nazified German a language of faith. He reflects on how, in those days, people would express not a leidenschaftlichen (passionate) belief in things but a fanatischen (fanatic) as if fanaticism were a pleasant mix of courage and loyalty. In I believe in him, one of the best chapters of the book, he notes speeches where Hitler calls himself the German saviour, demanding this exalted status from his followers. Excessively used in the National Socialist vocabulary are words that radiate an aura of permanence, like einmalig (unique,) historisch (historic) and ewig (eternal). It is as if the Third Reich were not only unprecedented but infallible, even holy. Klemperer says, "Nazism was accepted by millions as gospel because it appropriated the language of the gospel." 

And then he talks about the people, the cult of followers. The prefix 'Volk-' enters the LTI vocabulary - Volksfest, Volksgemeinschaft, Volksseele, the people's festival, the people's community, the people's soul and even today we still have the people's car. Klemperer talks about the Nazi leadership herding its followers like cattle. Every message must be simplified and the bold underlined golden rule is not to let the Volk think critically. One direct consequence of this is the introduction of foreign terms into the language. An impressive defamieren (to defame) kicks out the German schlechtmachen (to run down.) The LTI prefers using Terror and Invasion to their German equivalents. Foreign words are scarier, they stupefy and drown out thought. 

In the beginning, Klemperer's diary entries bleed a steady against-all-odds optimism, soon a weary hope and finally you find him clinging on to his intellectual instinct as some form of strict self-preservation. Through the book, he attempts to trace the roots of Nazism, muses on his experiences in the First War, on patriotism, fascism, Zionism, race, identity and ideas that were once exotic and largely impersonal. He mentions how as a boy the term 'concentration camp' sounded colonial to him, utterly un-German, and wonders whether it will now forever be associated with Hitler's regime. 

Klemperer analyses every aspect of the politics of language in a methodical Orwellian fashion. I mentioned the irony already and the humourless smile, that is the pull of his writing. He shares many experiences he had, people he met and was in correspondence with over the years; some bring up terrifying images and others helpless sympathy, most incidents left me shaking in disbelief. But he says it all with this recurring clever dark comedy that made me feel at once intrusive and small, and overcome with awe. I'll leave you with one of the early entries, dated 12 August 1935 -

I received from the Bls the first news since they emigrated. I find it very depressing: I am envious of these people's freedom (...) - and instead of just being happy they complain about seasickness and being homesick for Europe. I have knocked off a few lines of verse to send them:

Thank the Lord with all your might
For furnishing your means of flight
Across the sea from grief and fright - 
To where your woes are truly small;
To spew a little in the sea
From a ship that cruises free
Is hardly worth a word at all. 
Lift your weary eyes to view
The Southern Cross beyond the blue;
Far from all the woes of the Jew
Your ship has bridged the ocean. 
Do you yearn for Europe's shore?
It greets you in the tropics more 
For Europe is a notion!

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott

I have been awfully out of touch with all things literary, even the latest Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling release whizzed past my notice. Anyway, here is a long overdue book review. I stumbled upon this book at my new library (best birthday gift ever, by the way.) The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott is an odd book, but one that is right up my alley.

Setting: Paris, July 1815, Wellington has defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Daniel Connor is a young Englishman, a medical student on his way to Paris to study anatomy under the guidance of Georges Cuvier. He carries with him rare corals and important documents. On the train he meets a strange woman. Lucienne is a follower of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, with shocking views on evolution and species. The next morning, Connor wakes up to find Lucienne gone and his precious specimens missing. In Paris, he enlists the help of Inspector Jagot, a fiendish ex-thief, who convinces Connor to stay away from the dangerous woman. But Lucienne reaches out to Connor himself, with a proposition, that he help her in return for the stolen possessions. Soon Connor finds himself caught up in an uncanny jewel heist and an even stranger tangle of revolutionary ideas and political upheavals.

The Coral Thief is not without its flaws - a naive guileless narrator, characters who aren't active agents but simply let the story happen to them, frequent purple prose. But they cease to matter in the light of Stott's meticulous research and attention to historical detail. A romantic thriller, a scientific mystery, categorize it however you may, this book is an ode to an atmosphere abuzz with change and discovery, and the tumultuous history of Paris.

Deeply woven into the consciousness of its time, the story has a "slice of history" feel. The Coral Thief begins with a quote by Charles Darwin from his voyage of the Beagle. An obvious choice for a book that explores the fresh sprouts of a young theory of evolution. Even as Professor Cuvier disregards the doubters, Connor is drawn to the study of molluscs and tiny organisms and the possibility of an alternate version to his Biblical truth.

'Imagine an arm,' Ramon said, slightly drunk, stretching out his own arm. 'According to the priests, human history starts out with Adam and Eve in the garden up here on the shoulder and reaches down to the tip of the finger - the present - where you are now. Here's Herodotus near the shoulder and here's Napoleon down towards the end of the index finger. But the real truth is that all human history can be contained on a single fingernail. All of this, all of this from the shoulder down to the fingernail here, is pre-human history. So now you have to look for Herodotus and Napoleon with a microscope. And us, well, where are we in all of that abyss of time and where is now? Time doesn't stop for us. La marche.'

I had overheard fragments of conversation about transformism in the coffeehouses and taverns of Edinburgh, where the medical students talked politics. But Erasmus Darwin was mostly ridiculed by the students in Edinburgh; there was a whole set of jokes about whether we had descended from cabbages or oysters. (...) But Fin's friends talked openly about transformism, and rationally, not speculatively, or apologetically, but as if the hypothesis were beyond question. They - the heretics and infidels - now fascinated me. 

The atmosphere is charged with radical new beliefs and questions and Stott has captured this energy on paper. The politics of Lamarck's theory of species transformation, the "dethroning" of man as one of the characters aptly puts it, its interpretation as a shift of power from the royals to the masses, is most intriguing. The book makes it plenty clear that politics was of no interest to Lamarck, whose curiosity only rested in science. But a thought cannot be contained in a bubble, and The Coral Thief shows us this and other waves of consequence that stirred the sentiments of the Parisians.

The book neither criticizes nor picks sides and Connor's perspective of an alarmed outsider works rather well, as you are led through glimpses of the reign of terror, of Bastille and finally Napoleon's abdication, the resilience of a city swarmed with foreign troupes, a shocked city that still whispers of Napoleon's return. Stott's lyrical writing amplifies the drama, certainly, but it is not maudlin.

Connor's story is interspersed with fleeting moments from Napoleon's point of view that in my view it could have done without. Without giving away the plot, I must add, the mystery itself is not entirely stable in its construction either. But these are minor grievances in a magical whole. If you are a stickler for well researched stories and like history, all things French, thought provoking fiction (not a good old carefree airport read) and don't mind the occasional clumsy narrator, do pick up The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott.