Sunday, June 4, 2023

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov: An Asylum In The Past

Some months ago, while reading a few popular science books, I became enamoured with the concept of time. In the present context, time is considered the fourth dimension that humans have access to. Though we experience time, we cannot manipulate it. For us, time is always a unidirectional entity, unlike the other three dimensions. We cannot go back in time. It takes our lives from existence to extinction. But there are entities that may have the capacity to curve time and exploit the possibilities of a time warp. There are particles, like photons, that never experience time.

Time Shelter, the International Booker winner of 2023 and a Bulgarian novel written by Georgi Gospodinov, deals with the human psychology that craves the certainty of the past and aspires to break the uni-directional behaviour of time. The future is inevitable, ambiguous, and uncertain, and our march towards it is frightening. But the past is familiar and comforting, and our nostalgia associated with the past invites us towards it. Time Shelter explores this craving for the past and the unescapable consequences when we try to modify the present in an attempt to return to the past.

A psychiatrist named Gaustine establishes a clinic for Alzheimer's patients in Zurich, Switzerland, in which, on each floor, a decade from the past is painstakingly replicated. It is meant to maintain the patients' connection with the past by triggering their memories and making them more open to the diagnosis. The narrator, who remains unnamed, helps Gaustine collect past artefacts. The clinic becomes a resounding success when even non-patients flock to re-experience their past. Soon the project goes out of their hands, and the whole of Europe decides to hold a referendum in each country to decide which decade in the past they want to live in.

Time Shelter, very similar to bomb shelters, something familiar for European nations ravaged by two World Wars, is an apt title for a novel about a generation that is suspicious of the future and needs to be sheltered from its onslaught. The extension of clinics that are meant to shelter the patients who are ravaged by the past into towns and cities and finally into nations, like the recent pandemic situation, is a depiction of the recent surges in nationalist narratives across Europe.

The novel is narrated in first person by an unnamed narrator, though the initials G.G. are used towards the end. The narrator is in the process of writing a novel and has created the character Gaustine and his time clinic. But then they meet in real life, and the narrator becomes the collector of the clinic. As the narration progresses, the identities of the main characters become more and more unclear. We are never sure of the extent to which the narrator describes reality and the figments of his imagination.

The novel uses an ambiguous structure. It doesn't have a conventional plot progression or buildup. In many places, it uses the narrative style of autobiographies, travelogues, and non-fictional books, even when the plot migrates to a dystopian theme towards its end. This style added a chillingly realistic element, along with an underlying sense of humour, to the reading experience. At several places, I could sense a touch of Milan Kundera.

Time Shelter is an important novel of our time that explores themes like the connection or disconnection between past and memories, about how history and our place in it define our present, and about how reclaiming our past is as meaningless an exercise as knowing our future.

Friday, June 2, 2023

The Scent Of An Ancient Paperback

It felt good to pick up an old, ragged paperback after such a long time—to touch and feel the withering edges, to carefully read the fading, dirty-yellow pages, and most importantly, to experience that age-old odour of a book that was published more than three quarters of a century ago. Hemmed inside a fortification of eBooks and audiobooks, I perceived that I never missed the experience of reading a physical book. But when a good friend highly recommended and lent me an ancient copy of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, I decided to take the plunge.

I grew up in a home that was abundant in books and magazines. My father had a collection of hefty classic novels, many of which were published by Penguin. One of my uncles also had a formidable collection of English novels, most of them mysteries, crime, and war novels. At a time when I used to dabble in short Malayalam children's books and periodicals and abridged, illustrated children's versions of English classics, these paperbacks stood majestically on bookshelves or in adult hands, inviting me to enter adulthood quickly and derive the pleasures of paperbacks.

I spent my childhood in a village, and most of my reading activities centred around our village library. Once, when I selected a Malayalam novel, the librarian asked me if I read English books. When I affirmed that I liked reading English books also, armed with the reading experience of a few Hardy Boys novels and abridged classics, he opened a small cupboard in which there was a row of paperbacks in English. I picked an old biography of Bruce Lee, who was sort of a mystical hero for the boys of our generation. Thus started a love story of decades that resulted in devouring all the books owned by my father and my uncle, as well as trips to several used (pre-owned, to use the right jargon) book stores across different cities.

Sometime in 2005, I did something revolutionary. I read a whole book on a computer! I still remember that it was Mario Puzo's crime novel, The Godfather. Though I managed to collect hundreds of ebooks in PDF and Word within days, I read only First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer and a few Asterix comics. Within years, I discovered ways to read ebooks on computers and even on my feature phone (it was the pre-Android days). With my first Android phone, sometime in 2011, I also discovered EPub and fell in love with the format. Along with it, ebooks became my preferred reading method, and the used book craze subsided. Also gone were the whiffs of old paper, mildew, and dead bookworms wafting through my senses when thinking about books.

When I picked up the copy of My Family and Other Animals, I did so with a certain reverence. Along with the book, I drifted into a plethora of memories from the past—of a small cupboard in a financially strapped library, of a volume of the collected stories of Mauppasant, of countless basements and dilapidated halls that sell old books, and many, many more. The content of the book also helped, as it was about old memories and remembering all the joyous moments and small pleasures of nature and human behaviour. It is also about remembering all the hardships and sufferings, but then focusing on all their hilarity and laughing off the past while marching into the future.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Malayalam Movie 2018 And The Questions That It Poses

2018 is the Malayalam movie that ended the drought at the Kerala box office. It has achieved great critical reviews and is breaking collection records. I watched it last day, after it ran for almost 3 weeks to packed houses. There were certain sections of society that tried to create controversy out of it. One community accused the movie of failing to do justice to the rescue operations undertaken by them. Supporters of the ruling party allege that the movie doesn't highlight the efforts of the government in a positive way. The director of the movie, Jude, stoked the controversy by claiming that he used a particular actor as the CM so as to deliberately show him as a weak person who struggles to find a way out of the situation. In spite of all these, the common people related to the simple story of the prevailing human spirit, told from the background of suffering that they had firsthand experience of.

Instead of making a docudrama like Virus, which largely had real characters and situations that were documented, 2018 uses the method of the movie Titanic to tell its story. Titanic uses the real incident of the sinking of the biggest ship ever built in human history until then, in its maiden voyage, to tell a fictional story of unrequited romance between two people from different strata of society. The romantic element is used to connect with the imagination of the public so that when the eventual tragedy unfolds, they are more invested in its depiction. Romance provides an added layer to the actual events, even those that don't directly concern the main plot.

Jude Anthany Joseph introduces an array of characters from different social levels and with different ambitions in the first few scenes of the movie, and every one of them has their own crosses to bear. A young man who has eloped from the army and is paranoid of an impending investigation, an upcoming model who is ashamed of his family background of seafaring fishermen, a government officer who has toiled his whole life to build a beautiful home, an IT professional working abroad who is facing divorce proceedings, a truck driver who has fallen for propaganda and hates people from his neighbouring state—all of them are weighed down with identity crises that arise from societal burdens. When the flood happens, invariably all of them find themselves at a crossroads where they have to face their crises and break out of them for the greater good. Thus, 2018 uses simple fictional tales of personal redemption and portrays a much larger picture of a populace facing a deluge and emerging victorious.

But there are certain serious questions that the movie, which champions individual victories, poses to the public. The deluge of 2018 unveiled the inadequacy and serious lack of preparation of our government machinery in tackling such crises of enormous proportions. We saw an MLA begging for help on live television. We saw the inadequate warning systems before the dams were opened and water rushed into the property and houses of unsuspecting citizens at midnight while they were deep asleep. We saw the inability of government departments to coordinate their responses, in spite of most of them doing stellar work themselves. We saw the government depend on the goodwill of fishermen for rescue operations when their own machinery was incapable.

The questions that moviegoers, after watching 2018, should ask our government system are these:

What are the lessons learned from 2018?

What improvement will be there in the responses if, by any chance, another flood hits Kerala in 2023 or 2024?

And most importantly, if another flood hits us, will the burden of rescuing us fall again on the shoulders of poor fishermen?

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Book Review: To The Stars And Other Stories by Fyodor Sologub

I have read many Russian writers and generally love Russian literature. The first Russian novel that I read was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Later, I got to read the works of esteemed writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Chekhov, etc. I am also looking forward to reading the novels of some familiar names like Nabokov and Bulgakov. Till I received the upcoming short story collection To The Stars and Other Stories from Netgalley for an honest review, I had never heard of Fyodor Sologub, who is a celebrated poet and story writer.

Sologub was born into a poor family, and after his father's death, it was his mother who toiled as a houseworker and ensured he got educated. Sologub became a teacher and worked in places far away from popular literary circles. With time, his work started to get noticed, and he collaborated with his wife, Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, who was also a translator. After the Bolshevik revolution, which he didn't favour, he was not able to publish anything in Russia. But he received recognition outside Russia as his works were translated into other languages. The couple applied for emigration, but the application was put on hold. Poverty and uncertainty caused his wife to take her life. Sologub was deeply affected, and he decided not to leave Russia. He spent his remaining days near the place of his wife's death.

To The Stars and Other Stories is a collection of thirteen short stories and a sampling of fairy tales written by Sologub that are translated by Susanne Fusso. Sologub is not a writer who is read widely today, though he was so popular in his time that a collection of his complete works was published twice in his lifetime. Fusso, being a Sologub enthusiast, wants him to reach his deserved audience, and that is the motivation behind this collection.

While reading these stories, I became aware of one thing: Sologub is, first and foremost, an excellent poet. All his short stories have an economy that portrays the most profound and vivid images with the minimum use of words. His stories are realistic in their setting and fantastic in their telling. We get a glimpse of a decaying society that suppresses the creative urges displayed by its members. Though all his stories have common themes and a similar structure, he uses elements from a highly varied cross-section of society, which makes each story a unique experience. It is also important to note that the issues highlighted in them are of universal nature and will find resonance until we depend on a societal structure for our sustenance.

The book opens with the story To The Stars, which is about a kid called Seryozha who cannot bear the behaviour of adults. He associates this with the daytime and craves the presence of nights and stars. He creates a world of stars in his imagination and believes it beckons him. This is a common motif that is present in most of the stories in this collection: a kid or kid-like person who cannot handle reality and aspires for fantasy. This alternate, imaginative life ends in ultimate tragedy. Most of the stories have a pessimistic viewpoint, but Sologub approaches death in a reverential manner. It is as if death is the eventual comfort for a human being suffering to align with a society that doesn't care.

But it's not just doom and gloom that is prevalent in these stories. Most of the stories have a humorous undercurrent, which again adds to their poetic nature. In some stories, like In Captivity, where two boys' search for magic words ends in expletives, and The Two Gotiks, where a boy sees his doppelganger running out of the house at midnight, the humour is overt. There are stories like The Youth Linus and In The Crowd in which humour is used to accentuate the horror and leaves the reader feeling a bit queasy after reading. The White Dog, a story in which an old seamstress decides to transform into a howling dog, embraces the supernatural, which is a rarity in the collection. Another one called Death by Advertising is also a supernatural plot about a man calling his death upon him by answering an advertisement.

The Road To Damascus, a story that he co-wrote with his wife, is a unique story in which the ending is very uplifting. The Kiss of The Unborn Child is also a story that ends with optimism, though it starts with the death of a boy who shot himself. There is another story of a young man who shoots himself. It is about a club of young girls who take turns masquerading as the fiancee of any dead single man. Nina is in anticipation when her turn comes and she has to attend the funeral of a man who shot himself as his fiancee. This is my favourite of the whole collection. Stories titled Beauty and The Sixty-Seventh Day are unabashed celebrations of the human body. The former ends in despair, while the latter, against which a pornography charge was applied and the publisher prosecuted, has a very hopeful ending.

The Lady In Shackles is a story about a widow who invites men to torture her every year at the exact time that her abusive husband died. It has an interesting psychological angle that is unearthed in its final sentence. Finally, we find a collection of fairy tales and parables that stands on the fine line that separates poetry from prose. Each of them is a very minimalist exercise that conveys a lot more to the thinking mind than it appears.

To The Stars And Other Stories by Fyodor Sologub is a collection of unique stories that blend reality and fantasy, poetry and prose, despair and hope. These stories share the pain experienced by a silent demography that struggles to keep up with the dictates of an unsympathetic society, fails to assimilate, and attempts to build a new reality for themselves.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Book Review: The Sorcery Of The Senses By Tanima Das

A divorced man stumbles on a family heirloom when he visits his deceased parents' house. It opens a portal through which he is able to converse with the five senses. They make him see his previous lives, where he, as the chosen one, spectacularly failed in spite of possessing amazing powers. In this life, he is an overall failure and doesn't have any superpowers. The Senses believe that this may help him take on the evil versions of the five senses, who are out to make the universe a hell.

After re-reading the above synopsis, I realised that if this novel was written as a comedy, reading it would have been great fun. But this is not a comedy, and I didn't have much fun reading it. The Sorcery Of The Senses is the debut novel of Tanima Das. It is a fantasy novel that checks every box on the fantasy story checklist. The plot has magical elements and characters with special powers doing interesting feats. The world-building in the novel is not bad. There are three distinct worlds described in the story, and the writing is immersive enough to transport you there. Characterization is excellent, with all the major characters getting a good story arc and making the reader empathise with them even when they end up doing foolish deeds, which is almost every time.

Every fantasy needs an intricate quest for the protagonist to undergo and a formidable nemesis who severely impairs his progress. The novel lacks on these two accounts. This is the first part of a series of books. Though there is definitely a quest, it just begins at the end of this book. Also, we never get a good look at the antagonists, though they are mentioned briefly. These turn out to be the handicaps of the book, and owing to them, the book ends without a hook—something that can compel the reader to grab its sequel when it is released.

The protagonist, Dhruv, doesn't feature much, as most of the story told in this book deals with his two previous lives. But the character, with all his flaws, manages to make an impact. I really loved the realistic way in which his marital issues are depicted. His ex-wife also turns out to be a very sympathetic character, though I guess the author may surprise me in the sequel. The three senses that make their appearances in this volume unfortunately turn out to be damb squibs. Their relevance in the plot is reduced to providing exposition. The characters of the two past lives of the hero are far more interesting, especially the story of the blind princess. The first one had an issue with everyone making really bad decisions, but still, the characters were colourful and interesting.

There are no gimmicks employed in the narration, as the author decided to plainly report the story. But the simple narration turned out to be impactful, especially when magical elements were described. Ghriz moving into the poison forest and Mong curing the illness of the king are two very interesting segments that benefitted most from the plain-sailing narration.

The Sorcery Of The Senses by Tanima Das is the first part of a fantasy series that doesn't make the reader crave its sequel. It is well narrated and inhabited by good characters, though it lacks a hook for the reader in its climax. I do feel that the author missed the chance to make something crazy with material that had the potential for an over-the-top plot. Still, it is a pretty good debut, and fantasy lovers will not complain after reading it.