Friday, December 23, 2022

The Sense of an Ending: Our Forgotten History

 “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

If we read the statement closely, we can observe an anomaly in it. It says history is a certainty that is produced from  uncertain memories and uncertain documented knowledge. How can two uncertainties produce a certainty? It probably indicates the subjective nature of history. 

 This definition of history is made by Adrian, a character in Julian Barnes Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. What I read in the novel was an elaboration of this statement. One is certain of what happened in past because he remember certain things he saw and also because there are certain documents that he gets to know, through written or oral accounts. But how much absolutely true is this certainty, that he feels? How reliable are our memory and how correctly we have documented events? 

One day Tony, an old retired, divorced guy knows that he is named in the will of Sarah, his ex-girlfriend Veronica's mother. According to the will he is entitled for some money and two documents. He couldn't possess one of it, the personal diary of Adrian, once his close friend, who went on to date Veronica after Tony broke up with her when he was young. Adrian took his life months after their relationship started. 

The will makes Tony know certain things associated with his past, which he has totally forgotten and to complete the jigsaw puzzle, he contacts Veronica for the first time after decades. Why is Veronica so angry with him? What else has he forgotten? Why is he named in the will of a lady whom he met just once decades before? Why did Adrian kill himself? 

The Sense of An Ending is a rumination on old age and memory. It deals with how our psyche makes us forget uncomfortable events. It tries to remind us that we are always on a process to interpret events in our lives according to our convenience and also use the help of incomplete data available to us for this purpose. It makes us aware of the uneasy reality that we never tries to reach out for truth that us painful and would rather bury it in the past to go on with our lives. 

The Sense of an Ending, the Booker Prize winner of 2011, is a very short novel, but one which is crafted beautifully. With precise words and situations and with delicate characters, Julian Barnes creates an amazing tale, after reading which we ourselves will be forced to examine our own past and wonder what all lies buried in there, forgotten conveniently... 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Three Assassins: Prequel To Bullet Train

 Suzuki's wife has died in an accident caused deliberately by a gangster's son. Suzuki wants revenge and has infiltrated their illegal firm. His cover is about to be blown and his only chance is to uncover the identity of an assassin who is known in the industry as the Pusher, a phantom killer who silently pushes his victim to death on a busy road or a railway track. Intercepting his mission are two other equally ruthless assassins- the Whale, who makes his victims commit suicide and Cicada, who is an expert in terminating entire families, kids and all. 

Three Assassins is a black comedy written by Kotaro Isaka and is a prequel to Bullet Train, of which we talked about before. Basic premise and themes of both novels are similar. But main differences that I could identify lies in the tone and pace of the books. Three Assassins is a bit slow paced than Bullet Train and focuses more on character development. This book is shorter than the latter and is a very easy read. 

Structure of the book is similar to Bullet Train. The story is told in the point of views of Suzuki, the Whale and Cicada. Each chapter follows one character and is named accordingly. Focusing only on three characters makes the novel more easy to follow when compared with Bullet Train, which has more main characters. Some of the characters of this novel makes an appearance in Bullet Train, in person or in mention. 

I was a bit apprehensive at first because the identity of the Pusher which supposedly was the main focus of the story, is evident to the reader from the beginning, though Suzuki is doubtful of it. But the author uses some pretty great twists later and makes up for it. The payoffs are much stronger in Three Assassins. You will find many Chekhov's guns in the plot that comes into play later. (Chekhov's gun is a literary device that insists that if a gun is shown initially in the story, it has to be fired before climax.) 

I loved the characters of all three assassins. The Pusher is a very calm and collected person who carries a saintly, philosophical air. The Whale is the most well portrayed one of the lot. A look into his eyes makes people to take their own lives. He always sees his victims around him as ghosts who converses with him and many times these conversations helps him. He is the most complex and most interesting character due to his great story arc. Cicada is a one note character who is interesting only due to his ruthless nature, unemotional thinking and the overall craziness that he brings with him. 

Suzuki is the main character who ties up the plot together. He is a down to earth person and easy to root for, even though in the quest for revenge he has done some mean deeds and never feels sorry. But compared to the general craziness around him, the chapters of Suzuki pulls down the energy level of the plot a bit down. On the other hand Nanao, the lead of Bullet Train is more electric and keeps the madness intact in his story. 

Three Assassins is an interesting and easily read page turner. If you love black comedies, thrillers and books featuring assassins, you are in for a treat due to the crackling plot. It is a great accompaniment to Bullet Train which is a better and more complex sequel. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bullet Train: Quick and The Dead


Instructions given to Nanao was simple. Get on the train, take a suitcase from the luggage rack and get off at the next station. But as always, his luck was way off. Complications arise as he has to fight many assassins, a man avenging his kid, a gangster boss, a teenager hell bent on manipulating the world and his bad luck. 

As name indicates, Bullet train, the black comedy by Japanese novelist Kotaro Isaka, which was recently made into a blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt, is a thriller ride. Once it commences, it relentlessly chugs along to a satisfying climax. An eventful journey on Shinkansen, as the Japanese call bullet trains, it features colorful characters, over the top situations, nail biting suspence and a really vile teenager. 

But the plot is not linear like the train ride. Each chapter of the novel happens in the POV of one of the major character(s) with the character name as it's title. So we have multiple chapters titled Prince, Kimura, Nanao, Fruit and Morning Glory. Once the action is described on the POV of one character, the next chapter may go back to another's perspective and describe what he was doing at that time and how he was affected. This exercise helps the reader to comprehend the plot but never slacken the pace. 

There are many characters in the novel and many more are mentioned who makes minor appearances. Most of the characters possess some extreme trait that makes them standout. Back story of the main characters are given in very minute strokes. More emphasis is given on actions and words of the characters to display their traits. This, I feel was effective in the quick flowing plot. 

This is a novel comprising of grey characters, with questionable morality. All of them are criminals operating in varying levels of hierarchy. No effort is made to justify the actions of any character. Inspite of that, the narration makes us feel an empathy with them. Its as if our own pent up desire for violence and anarchy finds an outlet through them and we feel grateful to these imaginary people for doing so. 

Among the lot, the Prince is the most vivid character. He is a teenager who has this urge to control others, an unemotional problem child who goes to any extreme and exploit the weakness of those around him manipulating them to do whatever he needs. Another great character is Lemon, a hitman who is obsessed with the kid's show Thomas & Friends. Many other assassins with unique skill sets and modus operandi appears or are mentioned in the story. The world building in Bullet Train is awesome. 

If you like reading thrillers with high octane action

and are suffering from craving for adrenaline rush, Bullet Train provides the best antidote. 

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is renowned as the writer of Sherlock Holmes. But if we examine his literary achievements, it doesn't start or end in Sherlock. He has written countless short stories and novels on a variety of themes and genre. I remember his novel featuring Professor Challenger, titled The Lost World, translated into Malayalam and serialised in a children's weekly when I was 4-5 years old. Later I happened to read his collection of short stories titled Conan Doyle stories and novel Maracot Deep featuring Prof Maracot. 

Recently I chanced on a collection of stories featuring a vain French military hero titled The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. When I checked the history of this collection, I happened to know that it was written after Doyle got tired of writing Holmes storiesstories and killed him off in an adventure. While Holmes is about suspense and thrill, Gerard is more satiric and adventurous. 

Brigadier Gerard contrasts Holmes greatly. Holmes is an introvert and deeply profound character, but Gerard is an outgoing and boisterous man, who likes fame and adoration. If we read Sherlock Holmes carefully, we can identify that Doyle ridicules certain traits of his very subtly. In Gerard he amplifies the ridiculing to a substantially higher level. 

Whereas Dr Watson recounts most of the Sherlock Holmes tales, Doyle chose Gerard to narrate the stories himself. This helps the satirical tone by using the 'unreliable narrator' trope heavily in these stories. All the stories that I read has Gerard recounting his experience after his retirement to probably a village audience. We don't know the reaction of the audience, but it is visible that Gerard regales in his narration, congratulating himself in every opportunity. 

Brigadier Gerard fought in Europe along with Napolean Bonaparte and as per his own account, was a great horse rider, valient soldier and a huge hit with women folk wherever he served. He had participated in several major adventures, involving many prominent persons though none of these find a place in annals of history. By reading between lines, it is evident that he was always behind his peers in promotions and his superiors always viewed him as an expendable. He is of a trusting nature and gets into many compromising positions due to this character. But inspite of all these, the stories are colorful, soulful and elicite hearty laughter from the reader. 

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard features some immensely hilarious military stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stories are entertaining and light satire which proves that he is well versed in humor also. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Satanic Verses: On Migration And The Duality Of Existence As A Migrant

“These days,” she insisted, “our positions must be stated with crystal clarity. All metaphors are capable of misinterpretation.”
From The Satanic Verses

Rushdie knew it. He knew his metaphor about immigration and living in perpetual duality will be misinterpreted. Metaphors can be made to represent religious faith, but making a metaphor on religion for some other idea, is what I believe, costed Rushdie dearly.

I started reading The Satanic Verses when the news of him being attacked reached me. Having read a couple of his books previously and having read a great endorsement of The Satanic verses by Milan Kundera in his collection of essays Testament Betrayed, I was prepared for the roller coaster ride that was ahead...

And it proved to be just that. I had to re-read many chapters to comprehend what I was reading and after reading around 100 pages, I was forced to start again. The narrative parallels between eons and continents, with several characters sharing names, several themes repeating in parallel narratives and most of the happenings in the plot nowhere close to the reality experienced in our normal life. In short, it was an epic read. (Spoilers ahead.)

When a plane crashes above English Channel, two men fall from it and miraculously escapes. Gabriel Farishta is a famous Hindi movie star who is revered for his roles in mythologocal dramas. Saladin Chamcha who had escaped Bombay and his father's clutches, is determined to become a proper Englishman, doing voiceover works in London. The fall ties their fates together and from now onwards they have to enact two opposing characters of the eternal moraIistic drama- that of an angel and the demon.

I believe the novel is a parable about alienation caused after migrating to a strange land. I would like to think both Gabriel and Saladin as two faces of the same coin. They aren't separate persons and their struggle is not at all about good or evil. Gabriel is the part of us who are attached to our homeland and Saladin is the one that want to break the ties with it.

The decision to run away and start anew causes the immigrant to live a dual life in which he is perpetually confused of his roots, his place in the larger history and his allegiance. His eventual destiny is to fight this duality and establish himself. This causes tensions within oneself, within family, within community and every social structure he is a part of. It doesn't help that the natives of the land is totally unsympathetic to his struggle and refuses to acknowledge him. This in turn accelerate his alienation process and eventual rebellion.

The struggle between Gabriel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, which essentially is the experience of the duality of oneself due to migration, is tied to the eternal struggle between the duality of good and evil, of light and darkness, of oneself and others. This is done through the many dreams that Gabriel Farishta experience when he dons the angelous mantle and unsuccessfully struggle to save the others.

Mahound, Hind, Ayesha, Baal and all others are part of his self discovery, where his primal instinct connects to the primal history and tries to identify and tie up his struggles with those of distant past. But none of the old struggles reaches a conclusion and finally devolves into utter confusion and chaos. Singular truth is challenged and historic ambiguity prevails in everyone of them when scribes alters texts and witnesses gives false testimony.

Saladin exacts his revenge on Farishta by a bunch of wrong testaments that causes Farishta to doubt his lover, leading to his eventual tragedy. But decision of Saladin to make peace with his past and forgo his desire to be the other (Englishman), puts and end to the struggle.

A complex behemoth of a novel, The Satanic Verses is richly rewarding to a reader who is ready to indulge in some subtextual reading and who is ready to appreciate the subtle humor of the whole enterprise.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Heaven is a short novel by Mieko Kawakami, which was published originally in Japanese in 2009. But it was teanslated to English only in 2021. Heaven is the story of a teenager who has a severe case of squinted eye (whose name is never revealed), being bullied by his classmates. He is befriended by Kojima, the girl in the class who is also bullied due to untidy appearance. Heaven explore their mutual friendship amidst a peer group that refuses to acknowledge their individuality. 

What made Heaven special for me is the refusal of the novelist to romanticise their relationship or the suffering they endure. Bullying parts are portrayed brutally and paints a vivid picture of the psychology of acceptance by the bullied person of their situation. They are ready to face this cruelty daily, sometimes even looking forward to it and identifying their weakness as a kind of strength. More than their tormentors, they are anxiuos not to reveal their wounds and scars to their parents or teachers, which makes their plight all the more deplorable. 

But Heaven makes an attempt to unveil the thought process of the bully also, which is a rather unconventional step in a novel like this. Through the voice of a passive bully, we find out how bullying is a very normal practice in the adult world too and how we call it with other names and refuses to acknowledge what actually it is. Even the ending refuses to oblige to the conventional narratives of teenage novels. 

It's available in Audible for free for subscribers. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sinbad: A Mirror on Us

Kurt Vonnegut's Sinbad is a young man who gets ship-wrecked and lands in an island inhabited by just 6 people, who are leading a primitive social life. They consider him insane because the rum they drink feels like water to him..! Sinbad tries hard to find out who they are and how they ended up there. 

Sinbad is a long story or a short novelette. It's available in Audible. It's a deceptively simple story with a cliched plot. But the brilliance of Vonnegut lies in the crisp writing, slow built up of suspense and unpretentious story telling. 'It's written and you can take what you want from it' seems to be his motive behind writing it. 

I felt that Vonnegut tries to draw a parallel of the life of these inhabitants with human social structure. We consider those who question our established norms as insane, just like how Sinbad is considered a nut-loose case by them. It's as if Vonnegut holds a mirror on to us

Monday, December 5, 2022

Zen Confidential: In And Out of A Monastery

 Spirituality and religion always brings with it an aura of righteousness. Being spiritual is popularly accepted as being viceless and knowledgeable. I believe the best achievement (and the only) of Zen Confidential, a spiritual memoir by "wayward" Zen monk Shozan Jack Haubner, is the total demolition of this concept. 

Jack Haubner who used to be a liberal screenwriter and comedian, son of an arms manufacturer and hailing from a Catholic right-wing family, decides to embrace Zen Buddhism due to the influence of his mentor, a gay janitor, who indulged in pleasures of the world as hard as he meditated. After a decade in monastry, being promoted to an osho eventually, he decided to return back to the world and write about being a monk. 

The book is advertised as comedy. Though humorous in parts, it is not out and out funny. Even the humor is pretty uneven. The first few chapters contains most of the potty jokes in the book. Once you survive them, there are a few chapters that are really good and poignant. The final chapters doesn't offer much value, as they are mostly nostalgic trips of the author. These may be deeply personal and important for the author, but of much less value to a casual reader. 

As mentioned initially, the book portray Zen philosophy different from the usual serene, peaceful, picture-perfect images one associate with it. The author emphasizes that Zen is not a solution to all problems. According to him it is more of an unlearning process. It enables the practitioners, not to fly above the problems, but to go through it much more patiently. It is a way to see oneself above oneself and transcend ego, the root of all problems according to Buddhist philosophy.

Most of the better chapters of this memoir, like the one where he happens to see his doppelganger in a homoerotic porn movie, or the one where he returns to his parents for one week and confronts his (and their) past, finally to make amendments, deals with the tussle between ego and Zen practice. He interestingly asserts that it is not the withdrawal from vices that Zen preaches, but being aware of oneself even while indulging in them. I am not sure how many other Zen practitioners will agree to this view.