Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ibsen, Markandaya, and De Lint

In Which I Review Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve,” and Charles De Lint’s “The Onion Girl.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. There are so many books and so little time (until the end of the summer!) Hopefully I can get in a few more to review before that point. Here’s three, at any rate…

“The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor

Courtesy of The Duck Song

“RELLING: Well, I’ll tell you Mrs. Ekdal. He’s suffering from acute inflammation of the conscience.”

“The Wild Duck” is not about a duck. It’s about a happily-married family…or so it seems. There’s a huge secret at the heart of the marriage, and the husband’s friend is trying to expose it. Frankness will make everything better, right? Ibsen thinks otherwise…

The first few acts felt very confusing. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on until the last few acts. With that being said, the rest of the play was good. Ibsen was great at dramatically revealing characters’ secrets and ulterior motives.

However, he wasn’t so great at making sure the play’s theme was actually supported by the story’s events. Ibsen seemed to want to say that idealism was destructive. But in the play, things seemed to be destroyed not because of idealism, but because of unyielding self-delusion. Or at least, idealism wasn’t the only culprit. That disconnect between the stated theme and the illustrated theme made for a very interesting reading-experience.

Also, parts of this play reminded me a lot of plays written later. A lampshade symbolized concealment in “The Wild Duck,” and a paper lantern symbolized concealment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Aside from that, the two plays were very different, but it was cool to see how influential Ibsen was.

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend this play.

Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

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“Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew– or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the Intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be.”

This is a story about Rukmani, a child-bride in a changing India. She and her husband live in a village, cultivate the land, endure hardship, and experience joy.

Reading this book made me realize how rare it was to read about a sympathetic husband in literature. It felt very refreshing.

Also, the story itself was very engaging. The author clearly cared a lot about her characters, and the story’s ending was beautiful. When rereading its beginning, the story’s ending became even better.

What’s also impressive is that Markandaya wrote this book based on research rather than on any experience of poverty (she came from a wealthy family), but it still felt very realistic. It read a little like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, only better, since Markandaya’s characters were more engaging.

So this book has great characters and a great story. It’s also very short. Definitely read it.

The Onion Girl, by Charles De Lint

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“‘I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel, or unconnected to each other. We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”

This is a book about Jilly Coppercorn, a woman in her thirties who likes to paint magical beings. She gets into a car-accident, figures out how to enter a magical land called the Dreamworld, and has to confront the trauma of her past to heal from the trauma in her present.

The story was very psychological, which was cool to read about, especially in a fantasy book. A warning: it does contain very dark themes. Even so, the dark themes were handled well, and the book felt more hopeful than nihilistic.

The world-building was also very interesting. The Dreamworld felt fresh and immersive. It didn’t outweigh the characters, though, which made the story even more enjoyable.

Even so, parts of The Onion Girl‘s plot felt formulaic and predictable, which took away a little from its overall impact. Same with some of the descriptions of places and characters. I’d find myself guessing how sentences would end (“The room looked dark… but cozy anyway?”) and then read something very close to that guess. This is probably subjective, though.

The book also could have been much shorter than its actual length of 600ish pages. A lot of the sentences in the book just repeated what previous sentences said, which reminded me of a similar thing that once happened to Dostoyevsky. Finally, entire chapters of The Onion Girl were devoted to explaining the moral of the story. This was entertaining up to a point. Then it felt a little preachy.

Overall, this book had very interesting psychology and world-building, but it was also formulaic and repetitive. If you’re looking for the greatest speculative fiction ever, you might want to consider reading other books (like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast), but if you’re looking for something that’s still pretty good, you might enjoy this.

Until next week!