Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Slaughterhouse-Five [1969]

Slaughterhouse-Five works beautifully along multiple facets – as a farcical and psychedelic nonsense literature, a cheekily revisionist sci-fi parable, an irreverent and darkly comic political satire, and a deadpan exercise in surrealistic metafiction. But what this iconoclastic Kurt Vonnegut work – part of both Time and Modern Library’s lists of 100 Best English-Language Novels of 21st Century – remains above all is a powerful anti-war novel whose tonal levity and absurdist depictions belie its disconcerting content and commentary, thus placing it on the same page as the Heller masterpiece Catch-22, or for that matter, such movies as Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; the book’s alternate title, viz. The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, perfectly illustrates the author’s grim stance. The story revolves around the infamous Firebombing of Dresden – referred to as “the Florence of the Elbe” for its cultural significance – by the Allied Forces near the end of WWII. Billy Pilgrim, a most unlikely protagonist, is a pitiful non-hero, an optometrist, an admirer of the obscure yet surprisingly prescient sci-fi author Kilgore Trout, an unintentional time-traveler who has become “unstuck in time”, and a subject of interest for the extraterrestrial species Tralfamadorians. That he was also a hapless member of the American war machine, was a prisoner-of-war upon falling in Nazi hands, a survivor of the Dresden massacre and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, added deeply melancholic and troubling contexts to his seemingly fantastical existence. The narrative zigzagged back and forth, in rapid succession, to various points in Billy’s life, and in a further touch of formal bravura, the book opened and closed with a nameless narrator (Vonnegut himself) trying in futility to pen down a book on the Dresden episode. That Vonnegut’s war-time experiences closely mirrored Billy’s, makes one realize that this brutal, madcap book, through the belly-laughs it evokes, was in essence an attempt to come to terms with scarring memories and make sense of mankind’s unparalleled lunacy.

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/War Novel/Science-Fiction/Nonsense Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jagori (The Vigil) [1945]

Satinath Bhaduri was as much a writer as he was a political activist – he was actively embroiled in the struggle for independence in British India, and spent considerable time in jail, and his books, therefore, were a direct outcome of his politics. In his most well-reckoned work, Jagori, he infused strong semi-autobiographical elements and his own shifting ideologues (Bhaduri was initially a member of the Indian National Congress, but later veered towards the Socialist Party), thus making this novel a stirring blend of the personal and the political. He made use of a stream-of-consciousness, fractured and multi-perspective narrative, and these formalist devices made this an important political and modernist work in the annals of 20th century Indian literature. With the 1942 Quit India Movement as its backdrop, the tale’s central tenet revolves around the imminent execution of Bilu, a young revolutionary, who’s sentenced to death for political crimes. Slated to be hanged at the first stroke of dawn, the story opened on his last night leading to this scourging eventuality, and is chronicled from four different points of view – Bilu, a mild-mannered guy with strong political convictions, who’s alone in the cell for the condemned prisoners; his ageing father, a former school teacher who’s dedicated his life to Gandhian principles, who’s in the same jail but in a different block housing prisoners from all political walks; his loving mother who’s been arrested for the most trivial of reasons; and his younger brother Nilu, a brazenly confrontational young man with equally strong political convictions, whose witness served as the most decisive nail in Bilu’s fate. Employing the devastating imminence and irrevocability of capital punishment as the key hinge, the novel explored, through a mix of matter-of-factness and mordant humour, the anxieties, memories, the here-and-now and the inter-connected experiences of the 4 characters, along with reflections on social structures and hypocrisies, discourses on rationality vis-à-vis religious rituals, and wry observations on prison corruption, among others.

Author: Satinath Bhaduri
Genre: Political Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Hound of the Baskervilles [1902]

If there’s one book which comfortably overrides every other output, and not just from those belonging to the Sherlock Holmes Canon, in Conan Doyle’s prolific bibliography, it would clearly be The Hound of the Baskervilles. Its enormous and enduring popularity has turned it into a pop-cultural icon; that it’s also a darn fine work has further cemented its legacy. Ironically, this would never have come into being had he not decided to resuscitate Holmes 8 long years after having got the legendary sleuth killed in The Final Problem. The tale revolves around the so-called curse of a spectral hound that has possibly led to the death of Sir Charles Baskervilles; Holmes, being a rabid believer in logic and rationale, refuses to fall into the supernatural trap and takes up the case of protecting the successor to the Baskerville estate, and, more importantly, unearthing the gruesome quagmire. The gradual revelation of the central mystery, in the mould of a classic whodunit, is bound to keep one engaged; but what made this even more captivating lay in the extraordinary moodiness, the constant sense of fatalism, and the haunting atmosphere that Doyle imbued the tale with. The enormous Bakerville mansion, the harsh and bleak wastelands of the Devonshire moor, the incessant air of melancholic doom that perpetuates the brilliantly paced proceedings, and the ambience of terror that seems to lurk from the hazy backgrounds, elevated this beyond the confines of a regular detective story into the domains of Gothic horror. The best parts of the novel for me, in fact, was the middle section in which Holmes was physically absent from the scene, with Watson trying to make a sense of the eerie unknown, including the carefully etched characters part of the sparsely populated setting. The roaring success that the novel turned out to be when it was serialized in The Strand Magazine, ensured that Doyle would never again bump off Holmes like the way he did when the super-sleuth fell off Reichenbach Falls with his arch-nemesis Moriarty.

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Detective Novel/Crime Thriller/Mystery/Gothic Horror
Language: English
Country: UK

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Study in Scarlet [1887]

A Study is Scarlet was the novel through which Arthur Conan Doyle, then a struggling 28-year old doctor dabbling in writing while waiting for patients, introduced the world to the arresting and compulsive world of Sherlock Holmes and his amiable companion Dr. Watson; this had served as my introduction as well to this iconic sleuth back in my school days. Consequently, revisiting it – and Holmes in general – after over 15 years, was an interesting experience. This story – one of only 4 full-length novels in the Holmes canon – therefore, served the dual purpose of providing a prologue to the two lonely men who would form the perfect foil to each another, including a bitingly funny and ingenious initial summation of Holmes by Watson shortly after they move in to 221B Baker Street, and Watson’s first chronicling of Holmes’ brilliant, self-assured prowess in solving grisly and befuddling crimes. Doyle made use of a multi-linear strand while narrating the tale – in the present, narrated by Watson, a violent double murder sends the battling and self-important Scotland Yard detectives running to Holmes for his advice, who, to Watson’s bafflement, deciphers the seemingly difficult problem through his singular mix of uncanny intelligence, precise logic, smug confidence and a bit of deprecating humour; in the past, which takes place in the American West and narrated in 3rd person, revealed the motive behind the vicious crime and the various players are revealed in what was a story in itself. The distinctively cinematic, if tad far-fetched “past”, with its harsh and unforgiving tale of tragic romance, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and an inter-continental odyssey in search of vengeance, and set against the savage frontiers of human civilization, made for a dramatic shift, both tonally and stylistically, from the cheeky wit and Victorian charm of the “present”. Though my reaction to this novella wasn’t as high this time around as it had been many years back, one would still do well to begin one’s Sherlock Holmes journey with this.

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Detective Novel/Crime Thriller/Western
Language: English
Country: UK

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Lonesome Traveler [1960]

Beat iconoclast and serial wanderlust Jack Kerouac’s books, the monumental expression of which was his seminal masterpiece On the Road, were breezy chronicles of his dizzying, chaotic and liberating road trips crisscrossing the American landscape in search of experiences. Lonesome Traveler, a lovely collection of 8 sketches written in his distinctively fragmented style of spontaneous verse – a manic burst of sensory experiences flowing directly onto the pages, thus doing away with grammatical sanctity and narrative restrictions – provided a peek into his actual road trips which he fictionalized in his novels. Meeting up with a crazy old friend at San Pedro in ‘Piers of the Homeless Night’; sauntering into an opium den and watching a bull-flight, in company of Mexican drifters, in ‘Mexico Fellaheen’; working as a brakeman in San Francisco, missing his first train despite a mad dash on the rail-tracks, and nights spent on dirty sofas, in ‘The Railroad Earth’; his messy but short-lived employment in a dank ship, with the anarchy among the workers juxtaposed against the orderliness demanded by officers, in ‘Slobs of the Kitchen Sea’; an intoxicating tour through the numerous jazz joints, Village cafes, Time Square bars and other Beat hangouts, in the city he clearly loves most, in ‘New York Scenes’; an intricately reflective tryst with solitude while deployed for 63 nights on Desolation Peak to lookout for forest fires, in ‘Alone on a Mountaintop’; long-walks and drug-fueled sessions with William Burroughs in the North African town of Tangiers, savoring Cezanne’s Aix-en-Provence, falling in love with Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur, Louvre (in particular, Rembrandt and Van Gogh) and the Parisian streets, and earning the Scotland Yard’s suspicions for arriving in London with just 35 Shillings, in ‘The Big Trip to Europe’; and finally, like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, ruminating, with nostalgia and pathos, ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’. Kerouac, like Henry Miller, was a poet of the urban grunge, and this lively, uninhibited, freewheeling travel memoir is an elucidation of that.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Non-Fiction/Travelougue/Memoir/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: US