Thursday, December 31, 2009

across the walls of separation

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What is a book?

What is a book? It is just a fable with faces! Novels are rubbish, too, written as rubbish, merely for idle people to read: believe me, little mother, trust my experience of many years. And if they come telling you about some Shakespeare or other, saying ' Look, there's Shakespeare- he's literature- then be aware that Shakespeare is rubbish, too, it's all the purest rubbish, and all made simply for the purpose of lampoonery!

from Poor Folk, Dostoyevsky

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Unspoken Word

the unspoken word will always remain unheard
it will simmer in my eyes
behind the trace of the last meeting
it will stay on my lips
behind the tremor of my tongue
it will hang with shadows
and get dragged by my feet
it will blight all my hours
and heave with the darkness of these nights
it will claw my skin
and draw circles on sheets of time

the unspoken word will not enter your world
it will stay in my eyes
behind the shades of your face
it will stay on my lips
beside the sound of your name
it will hang with shadows
and drag me with its weight
it will blight all my hours
and fan the fires of distance
it will claw my skin
as I write your name on sheets of time

Thursday, December 17, 2009

we, who had gathered

We, some friends and acquaintances had gathered to hear the saddest love songs at our favourite cafe bar at the corner of the main street in our part of town, to celebrate these short days and these long nights. The patron, our long time ally in such pursuits, had promised to play, what he described as soul drenching songs, songs about unwhispered and unrequited love, his favourite past time, his preferred pursuit. He started by playing songs in a mutually comprehensible language, in the language of common parlance, to some approval and to some groans. As the night progressed, with occasional flashes of some remembered songs, some half remembered refrains and as it started to approach the hour of midnight, which he said was his favourite hour, he started to play songs from his native heart, that is what he said; for those who could tell, we heard the most soul drenching voice, as he said, of Fairouz, as it drifted amongst us, among the spoons and cups and plates and forks, as it drifted slowly amongst us, for those who could discern, these songs of Fairouz, the best voice in the world he claimed it was and for some moments who could dare to doubt him. And we also heard some andulusian songs, which he said were songs from our al-andalus, that is what he said, these are beautiful songs and you will never hear such songs again, he claimed. The best songs are always about unrequited love, he observed, amid some claps and some noise, always about unwhispered love he went on. It is always unrequited love that gives some meaning to our otherwise useless lives, he said later, love must never be lived he declared, it must remain unrequited.

It had started to rain by now, you know, that light rain, soundless as it creeps on us unawares, and now only the most die-hard fans of these saddest love songs remained, huddled around the spoons and cups and plates and forks and the best log fire as our host claimed, in our part of town, he added. Most of those who remained started to hum the few words that we know, as Fairouz sang az karuni and fi kehwati al mafruq, her great songs he reminded us, we must never forget her cafe song, he said, the one written by Rabbani, it makes my heart beat very fast and my eyes wet, he added. The night had now reached that mournful point where all conversation is useless and words have no meaning and we realized it was time to make our way home, we all thought so. And therefore I decided not to address that one person, sitting with her head touching the wet window pane, across me, that person with long brown hair and brandy eyes, I decided not to translate the song about lovers sitting in a cafe, the song Fairouz had sung and we had heard, for all conversation at such an hour is useless and the translation would have been so tame anyway. And so we left our host and started to make our ways home, in the receding night, in the falling rain.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The She-Devil in the Mirror

"It seems to me that one of the most successful and effective forms of tackling the political is by the technique of the thriller or the detective novel, not only thanks to their virtues for creating suspense but also because with detective fiction it is possible to immerse oneself so deeply in the sewers of political power.” Horacio Castellanos Moya.

Firstly the style....the 190 page narrative is in the form of a clipped, short, crescendo wave like of a monologue, that as the time moves on becomes racy, fast, furious and manic. It matches in tone and pace the mental state of our narrator who we can feel getting breathless, getting more and more excited as things become thick and hot, to borrow the narrator's turn of phrase. It would not have been possible to write this novel in any other way and thus from the purely stylistic point of view, Horacio Castellanos Moya's The She-Devil is a success.

The narrator, Laura Rivera's close friend Olga Maria has been shot and killed in the presence of her two young daughters. Apparently it is a senseless murder, for Olga Maria has no enemies. And as Laura starts her monologue, delivered not to the reader but to another friend, who interjects and interrupts briefly, most of which interruptions are sometimes responded to and at times ignored, the narrator begins to talk about her friend and their friends, all of whom belong to the upper levels of San Salvadoran society, circle of power, politics, finance and sexual and political infidelity. Laura's tirade, initially directed against the incompetent criminal police shifts towards her murdered friend's husband, ex-lovers and against disbelief that Olga Maria could have had an affair with her husband too. There is no dearth of sexual liaisons here, all of them sleeping with the other person.

Laura Rivera, as the moments proceed, then launches into her own investigation of the murdered woman's death and its possible causes. As news spreads of possible financial ruin of her friend's husband and with it the possible ruin of many military officials involved in the civil war, her thoughts become more frenzied and by her own admission more paranoid. Anybody could have ordered Olga Maria's death, from her husband to her other lovers, one of them a possible candidate for the country's presidency. The alleged murderer, called RoboCop, escapes from prison, leading Laura to believe that he might want to kill her. Laura seeks refuge with her friend, recipient of this monologue, which ends in her finally being admitted to a psychiatric unit, treated for possible paranoid illness. Laura contemplates emigration to a safe haven, now that everything and everybody is involved in deceit, murder and a breakdown of law.

This novel, from the point of view of its narrator, relishes in a narration that seeks to explore an independent objectivity in a state of affairs where the outsider, not privy to any real knowledge of facts, spins theory after theory. She berates the police chief Handal and his side kick ( the same detectives from Dance with Snakes) of complicity as she does to the others including a maverick detective called Pepe Pindonga ( hired by the murdered persons sister). As we flick the pages, which we do with the same pace as her monologue acquires speed ( we have to, there is no choice), Laura descends into a furious paranoia, witnessing what she later calls her schizophrenic tendencies. Everything is split up, and some of her comments are not only honest but reflect a total lack of tact, confiding as she does her observations to her close friend, who belongs to the same social class. Not only does she come across as prejudiced and class obsessed, she is hostile towards what she calls the Arabs of San Salvador, the poor and the dark skinned people, who are responsible for the mess, as she calls it.

The nature of the economic and political conspiracy is never apparent to the reader and thus the whole monologue, disjointed and interrupted by her stream of consciousness style of observation ( she fears for her life, RoboCop is outside and she wants her friend to change her sofa as it is worn out), never frames or is able to come up with any realistic account of these happenings. Every conspiracy and political corruption, every act of chaos is outside the hands of visible authority, nobody knows anything, not even the President. Power that should allow a sense of sanity is so dissolved and so disjointed that any lead to the murder ends in the narrator's mind as an act of intrigue, with politicians and drug cartels and individuals complicit in perpetuating that sense of helplessness which the contemporary individual, outsider to the doors of power has to bear, live with and mostly invent.

As in Senselessness, which has the political angle attached to the story from the first moment, in The She- Devil, the political gets attached as any new angle catches the narrator's fancy; the aftermath of the civil war feeds and perpetuates the singular loneliness of the individual. Power or lack of it and paranoia are brothers in arms, every new clue must necessarily lead to more reflection to the discerning. The most realistic options then are emigration, the choice for the narrator of Senselessness ( whose monologue is poetic and sonorous and melancholic and long sentenced) as it is for Laura Rivera, whose monologue is short, clipped and filled with her own conceptions of how her society should be and of her own desires, sexual frustrations and that shallow objectivity that breeds on political privilege and corruption, of which she is a part of.

The She- Devil in the Mirror is stylistically accomplished and its ferocious pace forces you to read it in not more than two sittings. It is a total triumph and is the least political novel of all. It shows the fragmentation in each society, the political correctness that one lets slip in front of one's friends, hairdresser or trusted colleague. All class and colour prejudices are shown here in full clarity. It is definitely a great novel, well, a really great novel.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Memed, My Hawk

Memed, My Hawk is the story after the first story, it belongs to the pantheon of first stories, and it also puts an end to all other stories, read or heard. This novel by Yashar Kemal, written several years ago, has the same sparseness and fierce ruggedness of texture and detail that the Taurus mountains have, and the economy of style, the tensions of narration elevate this novel to those heights that are usually reserved for epics. You have heard this before, you have seen it before, this is not new and yet most strikingly original, most brazenly fierce.

I read this novel earlier this year when I had stopped blogging but it had always been my intention to write a few lines in its praise, to share with a few the almost Homeric intensity and pathos of this tale, of a young boy and later man called Memed, those of the mountains, of snow and poverty and cold cruelty, of the widowed mother and the harsh thistles, of naked feet, and the poor villages, of the despotic landlord, the fierce Abdi Agha, at whose word ends the world, ends the law. Memed, wronged and humiliated, seized and tortured slaves himself to extinction. Yet rise he must, one day, and then seize and cut the hand that wields the formidable sword of that order that has gone on being unquestioned since the first story began after the first day.

Memed must also love against all his reason, for love is not his right, at least for the wrong person, the woman who is forcibly betrothed to the Agha's nephew. We have everyone and every thing against Ince Memed, the thin Memed. All seems to be lost in the end,the Agha has his powerful patrons in Ankara but Memed will not be defeated. We want Memed to do something, to restore to stone and thistle what stones and thistles have demanded since the beginning, to scale the mountains in summer and winter snow, to have some consolation, for them at least. The last image sees Memed riding into the mountains, alone and tortured, having lost his lover but having forced his knife into the Agha's breast.

We have heard these fables before and the darkening gloom of times has never faltered in covering these individulas up; but this is also a tale of those whose tales have not been told before. It is epic because it is so serenely magnificent, so unquestioningly accepting of those timeless inequalities that have lumbered man and beast and mountain.This story rises from the soil for it is of the soil, it has the Russsification of detail and melancholy of touch, it is an Eastern epic like only an Eastern epic can be. It is of the marginal but the prose is never so; Kemal gives it the edge of marching troops and sturdy hooves, the palpitations of time, the luxury of the last kiss in a cave high up when all is lost. Yashar Kemal's Memed must be read before all tales are read and after all tales have come to an end.