Friday, May 31, 2013

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

"1828 - Brilliant young naval officer Robert FitzRoy is given the captaincy of HMS Beagle, surveying the wilds of Tierra del Fuego, aged just twenty-three. He takes a passenger: a young trainee cleric and amateur geologist named Charles Darwin. This is the story of a deep friendship between two men, and the twin obsessions that tore it apart, leading one to triumph and the other to disaster..."

The author could have ensured success for the book by making all about Darwin and The Origin of Species and it would have, indeed, sold. But as the book is about the expedition to Tierra del Fuego, the one that apparently changed the world, Captain FitzRoy is as much a hero (perhaps more) of the book as Charles Darwin. The expedition that seeded in Darwin's mind the idea of natural selection, of an alternative way of the creation of life, also lead to disastrous consequences for FitzRoy, whose ambitions combined with a manic depression (a disorder that wasn't even discovered back then, and was, hence misinterpreted by him as the voice of God) led to disastrous consequences for his career and life.

The book was beautiful, thrilling and tragic. The prominent underlying theme of the book, the shameful, outrageous and atrocious things that the British invaders did to the countries, which they decided it was their duty to "improve" gives the book its title. "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.": it is a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest, which ironically, the sailors themselves seem to have read (going so far as to call a native Caliban and not realizing that they were Prospero, or likewise, in the wrong.) The fact that FitzRoy thought he could bring three savages to London, teach them and release them into the wild (hoping they would then spread the learnings) was ridiculous at best. But he did it, because he thought he was doing God's work (he did later regret it, but the damage was already done by then.) But his behaviour  was also, and this is quite generous coming from a person who is from one of the supposedly primitive, savager-infested countries, in a way, justified. That, of course, doesn't mean it wasn't wrong, it was just not surprising that the sailors were disgusted by the uncivilized, un-London, cannibalistic customs of the Fuegians and considered they were doing the natives a favour by forcing Christianitiy upon them. It was bound to happen. We judge; whether we should or not. 

And it is this inevitability of historical fiction that makes it most impactful. You can't say, "He shouldn't have said that." What he should have done is immaterial, the fact remains that he did it. What the book shows us is this: A long time ago, a brave, proud, smart young man made a mistake and was too stubborn to accept it - and here's why. FitzRoy, who turns out to be the real tragic hero of the book (and not Darwin) was not stupid to have argued with his friend nor crazy to have believed that he was a sort of messenger of God. He was just... born at the wrong time. The book made me realize how lucky we are to have been born in a world where it isn't outrageous to doubt or question something. We are lucky to experience both alternatives and get a choice: religion, rituals, creation of the world by some God (the story of Noah or Manu, here in India) versus science, evolution, natural selection. It is easy to choose a side. It is a lot more difficult to create a side as Darwin did, to create a whole new perspective thitherto unimaginable and while doing so, shatter an entire belief system. But it has to be the most difficult to accept a new side created by someone who doesn't even know in their entirety the meaning and implications of what he's claiming to be the 'ultimate truths'. Reading the book, I realized that it was no wonder FitzRoy considered Darwin a blasphemous madman. I would have too, and I am not nearly as strong or ahead-of-the-times as FitzRoy appears to have been. I wonder how many pugnacious atheists of today would have pugnacious atheists back in the day when atheism wasn't as accessible an option. The point I am trying to make is this: Darwin was unarguably brilliant, but so was FitzRoy, who was rather unfortunately completely overshadowed by his friend. With his daring command over HMS Beagle at the age of twenty-three (the way he handles the first storm they encounter goes to show a lot about him.), his unparalleled contributions to meteorology and weather forecasting, his attempts at compiling the natives' language and his humble, guilty acceptance of his own failures go against any image that an uninformed or misguided modern reader would build of a man like Captain FitzRoy  that he was some random sailor who was silly enough to oppose a great inventor, scientist like Darwin. If only things were as black and white; had Robert FitzRoy really been silly, he would have lived a much happier life and died, satisfied, at a much later age.

As their debates turned solely religious in nature only after the voyage, it was a pleasure to read the long conversations between the two Englishmen during the journey. The fictional elements, in that the dialogue, the nicknames and the italicized thoughts of all the characters make the book, ironically, more real. The one-dimensionality (let's assume that's a word) that would have been possessed by a history guide or a non-fiction study of the voyage is absent. Instead of looking at people as anonymous props defining an era or a way of thought, the characters are fleshed out - and what great characters they are, from Darwin and FitzRoy, to Midshipman King, Sullivan, and even the supposedly reformed savages, York Minster and Jemmy Button. The book ends up being not about Darwin as we know him, but Philos, the geologist / philosopher, who suffers from severe seasickness, which can be cured only by positioning oneself horizontally, preferably on top of a table and later, the man who took his kids bug-hunting in his own yard. FitzRoy, the Captain, is characterized not just by his strength of mind and bravery, but by his prudish quintessentially English manners that make him mortally embarrassed by the topless, flirtatious native women and by being the first to try and compile a massive dictionary, if very rudimentary, of the natives' language - in fact, by being the one sailor of this bunch who tried to communicate with the savages in their language (one word: Yammerschooner!)

And do I even have to mention the vivid descriptions of the most beautiful landscapes, the flora and fauna and the interesting conclusions both Darwin and FitzRoy drew from them?

It is an amazing book. Thompson has done something very few biographers manage: made details interesting, strangers personal and has managed, certainly, to engage me deeply in a sprawling history of just two lives.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Often, when I read a book, I end up noting things down along the way. It then turns into a sort of rant-review and I can think of nothing else to write later. This post doesn't have much of a beginning nor an end. Of course, if you've already read Never Let Me Go, this post would make a lot more sense to you than if you haven't. I have to say, though: it is definitely worth a read. From the two books I've read of his, I find the author rather talented, mostly for having produced two quite different books. (The other one I read was An Artist of the Floating World.)

Summary: The book is narrated by a thirty year old woman, Kathy, who has been a carer for twelve years now. She is looking back on her life in this post-war world. Kathy and her friend Ruth were students of a special boarding school "Hailsham." They spent their childhoods there, with the teachers (guardians) being the only people they had in their lives apart from themselves; they had no families and weren't even allowed outside the school. The children were different from the people outside, you know, the "normal people", though none of them knew why. Kathy reminisces about her past, about bonding with the misfit Tommy, losing him to sassy little Ruth, the quiet loneliness that followed, and other seemingly little incidents that build up to the moment when the students realize what fate has in store for them in the outside world. Kathy talks about meeting Tommy and Ruth years later, as their carer and helping them through their donations. Kathy is now about to quit being a carer and finally become a donor herself.

Never Let Me Go was so sad. Great, but very sad. It was depressing, it just got more depressing and more truthful with every page and the ending was so honest, it hurt. I liked it, of course and here's why.

Most post-apocalyptic, dystopian books try to be suspenseful and fail. The plots follow a kind of formula: where there's this post-tragedy futuristic world that's supposedly working just fine, until our protagonist starts to not-fit-in and soon realizes that under the facade of a very well-functioning society lies this whole underground community of rebels. More often than not, the protagonist joins them and almost always, fails in overthrowing the system or loses something of himself in his attempt. Sure, dystopian fiction calls for this pessimistic, "Oh God, is this really how the world's going to end up?" and tragic "No, wait, the world already is kind of like this, isn't it?" flurry of reactions. But an author putting a lot of trouble into making the plot suspenseful, when we all know this is going to happen, gets tiring after a while. The thing that irritated me to no end in The Handmaid's Tale, for instance, was that very silly withholding of information. I couldn't focus on anything, but that aura of mystery the narrator kept trying to create. It was a very childish technique of keeping someone interested, which combined with the overly obvious "message", just didn't have much of an impression on me. Deliberately misleading the readers into thinking something else, while employing the formula anyway is not very creative (unless it's something like I am Legend, all the planning usually just gets in the way of actually sending across a message.)

What's creative is coming up with a whole new approach to the story, which is what I think Ishiguro has done here. He's never kept the pretense of "mystery". It's quite clear from the very beginning why the children are 'special', why they're at Hailsham and how they're going to end up. If you haven't already guessed, I won't say what, but I can promise you, you'll guess before you reach even the seventh page. The narrator, Kathy, assumes we know, since we're from such a school ourselves and focuses on her story, instead. Unlike The Handmaid's Tale, the point of Never Let Me Go, the message that the author was trying to get across, seemed rather subtle. The characters in this book, quite maudlin and immature in their ideas, told a lot more than an unlikely hero would have.

The book made me think about what 'doing good' means, about double standards and how people like to believe in the ultimate good, even though we're all just as confused as the next person. Do we try to believe our life makes sense only to gain some semblance of control, as we stand on the edge of an infinite pit of darkness, desperately trying to keep our balance. The book has no fairy tale ending. It just leaves a lingering feeling of helplessness that characterizes the lives of the people in the book, not to mention, our own lives. A loss of control that can only be dealt with by acceptance.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Little, Big by John Crowley

My third read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge is a fairy tale of sorts. Neil Gaiman called Little, Big one of his favourite books in the world and I do know why.

The book is massive, not in size but in scope and delightfully intricate, the kind of book that slowly makes its way into your thoughts, till it's all you can think of. It took me a little more than a month to reach the last few chapters of the book, and then, just a couple of hours to devour it completely! It's not a book full of action nor drama. It is quiet, almost lazy, but quite strong.

The book starts as Smoky Barnable journeys by foot to Edgewood to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, whom he was prophesied to marry long before he knew her. What follows is a story spanning a hundred years, of the lives of four generations of Drinkwaters and their relations in a strange country house situated on the border of Fairyland. Daily Alice, her sister Sophie, her parents and aunts and children are all part of a Tale that is still unfolding and yet, is already written in the cards. Most of the family seem to sense the existence of the other land, and many, like Smoky, though unconvinced, go along with it. The odd creatures from the other world rarely make an appearance in the book, but they're always there, watching, manipulating. As the story unfolds, the inevitability of the fate which was written by a mere stack of cards only strengthens.

The book is massive, I said, but it's also small. Little, big, like the title. It's a small glimpse of something that keeps on spiralling into new things, it's a young story from an ancient world. It's Smoky and Alice's boy Auberon writing scripts for a soap opera and at the same time, it's His Majesty Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, being resurrected after an eternity to rule a minuscule land.

The book made me think a lot about people. About me, of course, and about loving someone or losing someone and how both the things are in a pathetic way, quite the same. "Love is a myth", the book tells us, like summer is a myth during a long winter; but it does come and just as surely summer goes away, becoming once again, just a rumour. The book gave me a different perspective on life and a whole new way of looking at destiny: the idea of living without letting the ultimate, total loss of control make you feel helpless. It made me wonder how we automatically assign wickedness to all things unknown, and how wickedness is just a crazy sense of humour. It made me realize how little we are. 

And so, it made me think about the supposed little things, things like the faces in the cracks of your ceiling and the imaginary friends all our parents have caught us talking to, the stories in our head about life, family, goals and jobs and the big secrets that we let rule our thoughts. Little things that make no big difference do make small differences, I guess. The real big things, big enough to be important in this old, wide world are far beyond our reach. And so the little things do matter, because while they may not change the wide world, they're the things that we control and that change us. We're all a part of something small and something unimaginably huge and balancing it out, often in vain, is what life's all about. Right? 

For the first few hundred pages, it felt like I was reading a dream until it occurred to me that I was, in fact, reading a life: the prose, with all its meandering nuances was life, rambling on as it does. The story felt so real, precisely because it was so boundless.

"In the good old days, when polls were as common as house-to-house searches were now, pollsters asked viewers why they liked the bizarre torments of the soap operas, what kept them watching. The commonest answer was that they liked soap operas because soap operas were like life.

Like life. Auberon thought "A World Elsewhere," under his hands, was coming to be like a lot of things: like truth, like dreams; like childhood, his own anyway; like a deck of cards or an old album of pictures. He didn't think it was like life--not anyway like his own. On "A World Elsewhere," when a character’s greatest hopes were dashed, or his task all accomplished, or his children or friends saved by his sacrifice, he was free to die or at least to pass away; or he changed utterly, and reappeared with a new task, new troubles, new children. Except for those whose embodying actors were on vacation or ill, none simply came to a stop, all their important actions over, haunting the edges of the plot with their final scripts (so to speak) still in their hands.
_That_ was like life, though: like Auberon's.

Not like a plot, but like a fable, a story with a point, which had already been made."

Oddly, the book bore an uncanny resemblance to another favourite: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. They are both so richly... magical. It's odd, because when it comes to the content, they're very different. The magic itself is vastly different. But both books carry that air of something initially mysterious and incomprehensible and at the end, honest and strikingly witty. Reading both the stories was like trudging through a long winding road, expecting a concrete destination, maybe a final showdown and realizing at the end just what the road was all about. It was when the pieces fell together, so to say, that I realized that they always were together; the picture was always complete, I just hadn't deciphered it. The experience, though fascinating and intriguing, left me feeling almost silly both times, like when you first notice the faces in Rubin's vase and wonder how you could have missed them. Perhaps the next time I read such a story, I won't be fooled. And so, it would, I imagine, be an altogether different journey to re-read either of these books. I am curious to know whether I'd discover, learn everything then, that I've overlooked  now.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino

Summary: The book opens as Ayane, a beautiful young patchwork-artist decides to kill her husband Yoshitaka Mashiba. He is about to leave her as she cannot get pregnant, and that is the only reason he got married in the first place - to have a child. He already has a new girl in mind who could father his baby, and she happens to be Ayane's favourite student Hiromi. Ayane doesn't object to the break-up, but does escape to her parents' place for a few days, seemingly to calm herself down. In the meanwhile, Hiromi and Yoshitaka meet up and make plans. On the next day, when Hiromi shows up at Yoshitaka's house for a dinner date with her lover, she finds him on the floor, dead, poisoned. It is up to Tokyo Police Detective Kusanagi and his assistant Utsumi, who enlists the help of genius physics professor Dr. Yukawa, to solve the mystery.

My thoughts: If you ask anyone, what a good crime novel is all about, they say it's a book that keep you guessing. There are different ways of keeping a howdunit / whydunit like this one mysterious, and Higashino somehow doesn't get them - in neither his previous book The Devotion of Suspect X, which was quite a phenomenon nor Salvation of a Saint. We already know who did the crime and as the book progresses we watch the police and detectives try to figure it out, trying ourselves to figure how Ayane committed the murder and why. The investigation goes around in loops; junior detective Utsumi suspects Ayane, but couldn't tell you why and Kusanagi, our hero, seems to have fallen for the beautiful widow. For the first hundred pages of the book, it is impossible to guess just what might have happened - the reason being, nothing new really comes up - the same conversations with the same few suspects, minutely detailed descriptions of feelings and analyses and different perspectives on the same thing. The investigation becomes a drag (although I rather believe real-life investigations would be just as repetitive and unlike the fast-paced action most books provide.) The detectives' constant state of being confused forms a major part of the book. And just when, somewhere in the middle, the writer lets slip the first obvious clue of why the crime could have happened, figuring out the whole reason is a piece of cake. Infinitely easy. So, I could guess the whydunit there and then and that part of the mystery was lost. Then came the howdunit. You know the man was poisoned, you know, from the prologue, that a bag of white powder was somehow involved in the crime. You couldn't possibly figure out the method used to poison, but when you know who and why, does 'how' really matter? Enough to read half a book? If it does, well, let me tell you, I could vaguely guess what must have happened forty pages before it was revealed, or could at least guess the components involved in arranging that crime (let's put it that way, if we want to avoid spoilers.) And when I did find out the whole truth it wasn't as ingenious as I would have liked it to be - in fact, it was kind of ludicrous (and also kind of moot, which you'd understand if you've read the book; tragic how Ayane went through so much only to be caught.)

If a good crime novel really is one that keeps you guessing, this isn't it. But I think people put too much weight on suspense. For me, a good book is so much more than "What happened? What happened? What happened? Oh! THAT happened! Wow."

The book deals with many social issues; you almost relate to the killer, which is saying something. There is no definite bad guy, just a string of unfortunate situations and behaviour that spiraled off to a murder. It makes you wonder how sordid the world has become, how biased and superficial our actions and emotions are, how helpless we often feel and how blurred the line between right and wrong is. The motive for the murder is just typical enough to be believable, the characters are really fleshed out. Ironically, I could connect to them better, because they were almost irreparably selfish and flawed.

(By the way, good work by the translator as well, the words flow in a way that makes it hard to believe it's a translation - as I remember, The Devotion of Suspect X was a bit clumsy: which is odd, considering it's the same translator.)

Like I said, if you're looking for a fact-paced thriller, surprising, crime mystery novel thing, this is probably not it. You would probably enjoy The Devotion of Suspect X a lot more. But if you want a good book, one that lingers on your mind long after you've finished reading it, I would suggest you go ahead and read this one. I certainly liked the book.

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