Tales from the 1001 Nights – Dali’s Watercolours

To me, for many years, Salvador Dali was synonymous with Surrealism. He painted those bizarre images, which supposedly evoked his dreams and hallucinations.

I was never much of a Dali enthusiast to be honest. His oil paintings didn’t really speak to me. Atleast not in the way Impressionism did (represented by Monet, Renoir, Degas et al). Clearly, I am missing something.

The only painting of his which is etched in my mind is also probably his most famous one – The Persistence of Memory.

Here it is…

Dali the-persistance-of-memory

But what is lesser known about Dali – atleast to me – is that he also produced watercolours. And oh boy, those are completely on a different plane altogether.

To put it simply, they are brilliant.

Many of these watercolours, Dali produced as illustrations for books.

So when a Limited Edition of Dali’s watercolours came out (reproduced in a big book format) for The 1001 Nights (or The Arabian Nights, if you will), it greatly piqued my interest.

dali book

The popularity of the Nights…

There has always been something quite fascinating about The Arabian Nights.  These medieval tales are set in a world that is exotic, magical and other worldly. The main story arch is where Shahrazad relates tales every night to the king to delay her execution.

In world culture, the influence of The Arabian Nights is immense. These tales have been popular subjects for films and have also inspired many pieces of music. They have also greatly influenced a diverse range of authors and writers not just in England but all across the world. Many of these writers have alluded to The 1001 Nights in their own works.

It is hardly surprising then that these tales were also a constant source of fascination for artists and book illustrators – especially Golden Age illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen to name a few.

Here’s what the introduction in the Penguin edition of The Arabian Nights says:

The Arabian Nights is a vast storytelling ocean in which the readers can lose themselves. One story, like a wave, is absorbed into the one that follows. The drift of the narrative tide carries us, like Sindbad, to strange places, and the further from home, the stranger those places are.

Ifrits, jinns, sultans, viziers, beautiful princesses, witches, ghouls, monsters, sorcerors, beasts and birds abound in these tales. Many of the stories are also quite erotic as they are suffused with sex.

Little wonder, Salvador Dali was also seduced by The Arabian Nights and desired to illustrate it.

Dali’s obsession with the Nights…

Infact, it seems that Dali had engineered The Arabian Nights commission himself. Giuseppe and Mara Albaretto, a wealthy Italian couple who became enthusiasts and collectors of Dali’s work, arranged for him to illustrate a series of books for the Turin-based publisher Rizzoli.

The first of these was the Bible in 1963, but Dali, was not as devout a Catholic as Giuseppe was. He insisted that the book he wanted to illustrate was The 1001 Nights.

Why his obsession with the Nights?

Here’s the publisher:

Everything about Dali seemed peculiarly suited to the Nights – his fascination with the Arab world (he believed that he was of Moorish descent), his indomitable and tortured obsession with the erotic, even his improvised approach to composition, which mirrored that of the tales’ narrator Shahrazad. Yet above all it is his imaginative power, his ability not merely to transport his readers to an exotic world, but to take them on an exhilarating sensory and psychological journey, that makes him one of the great interpreters of this collection of stories. Executed in a vivid blaze of colours, his illustrations abound with figures – humans, animals, curious monsters – which shift between the familiar and the disorientating. At once rooted in the tales and departing from them, Dali’s watercolours have an almost hallucinatory effect.

Here’s more on his sumptuous illustrations in the introduction to the Dali illustrated edition of The Arabian Nights:

Dali images

Dali produced a total of 100 illustrations for The 1001 Nights, of which 50 have survived in good condition.

The watercolours (which are occasionally supplemented by pen and ink or charcoal) are all dated 1966.

Indeed, as you will see the illustrations are vibrant with striking colours and pulse with life in a manner that was rarely matched by other artists. They are exciting, inventive and brim with fierce energy. They will transfix and mesmerise you…

I have displayed a few of them here.

Without much ado, let these watercolours speak for themselves…

Dali 1

Dali 2

Here are some more…

Dali 3

Dali 5

More to gush and drool over…

Dali 4Dali 7Dali 6Dali 8

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The Forgiven – Lawrence Osborne

When I had visited Northern Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle a couple of years ago, the dark, remote landscape held a spell over me. To me, there is something quite fascinating about remote, mysterious regions whether in reality or in fiction. And while The Forgiven is not set in cold, freezing Norway, Osborne’s Morocco seemed sufficiently dusty, barren and bleak enough based on the blurb, pushing me to pick up this novel.

It turned out to be quite a read.

The Forgiven

The book opens in Africa, particularly in Morocco, where the Hennigers, David and his wife Jo have just landed.

David is a doctor in the UK, who has recently lost a malpractice suit, and is possibly an alcoholic. His wife Jo writes books for children, although she has been suffering from a major writer’s block and has not written anything for quite a while. They have been invited by friends Richard and his partner Dally for a weekend party at their lavish home, deep in the heart of Morocco, in a town called Azna.

It’s a long journey there. Before they rent a car, they make their way to a hotel and down a few drinks. It starts getting dark, and probably not such a good idea to drive, but Richard decides to do so anyway. Jo is uneasy.

But still there was a needling reluctance in her voice, a physical disinclination of some kind. She didn’t want to go. She always doubted him in moments of pressure, and when she doubted him, there was a tone in her voice that made him resist at once. So, naturally, they had to go.

‘It’s a bit mad to keep driving,’ she tried.

Jo’s fears are not unfounded. The drinks and the dark make for a deadly brew, as they struggle to navigate the unfamiliar desert roads. Not surprisingly, they are lost.

Infact, there’s something worse in store for them.

The sand darkened the moon, and the outline of the road disappeared for a few moments. And then, as her eyes relaxed, she saw two men standing to the left side of the road. They were running towards the car, holding up their hands, and one of them also held up a cardboard sign that read Fossiles, with an exclamation mark. It seemed like such a ridiculous scam. ‘Stop,’ she said very calmly to her husband, but something in him seemed to have decided otherwise, and their dreamlike momentum continued. The sign flew into the air, and there was a crash of opposing wills. Atleast that was how she thought of it. The car’s metal struck human bone…

We are then introduced to Richard and Dally, who have managed to build an expensive home in Azna. The Moroccan locals look at them with distrust and it does not help that Richard and Dally are homosexuals. But despite their disgust for those two, they are also drawn to their wealth like flies to a jar of honey.

Meanwhile, Richard and Dally’s weekend party is in full swing. The guests are glamorous, their hosts are extravagant and all their whims are catered to by the carefully trained Moroccan staff, led by Hamid.

At five to eleven the bells were sounded and the guests were asked to seat themselves according to the name cards posted around the table. Tall Berber lamps of painted animal skin were lit around it and the sprays of lilies gave up an unctuous golden pollen that people tasted on their tongues; a pink-white glow bathed the tablecloth and the walls turned gold.

Castored ice bowls held the bottles of Santenay and Tempier rose, and they were rolled around the room by the boys.

Later…

The lounge was crammed with people, many of them lying on the floor and eating McVitie’s crackers slathered with majoun, a mix of kif, dried fruits, nuts and sometimes fig jam.

Hamid is the head of staff and a well-drawn character, who tries to find a balance between both worlds. He makes sure that the instructions of his European masters are carried to the tee so that the party is a success – whether it is decanting expensive wines, supervising picnics, and ensuring an unlimited supply of champagne and kif. And yet, deep down he does not really understand their Western ways and his sympathies lie with the people of his ilk.

After hitting the young man on the road, David and Jo finally arrive at the mansion, with the young man’s body because they did not know what else to do with it. That puts Richard and Dally in a predicament because the police will have to be informed and any sort of negative publicity is bad for his party guests.

While the police formalities are being taken care of, we learn that the dead man’s name is Driss. A few chapters are devoted to him – how he comes from a family of fossil diggers (a job Driss loathes), how he escapes and makes his way to Spain, houses with an old couple and then makes plans to head to Paris. That venture eventually fails and he returns to his homeland.

Meanwhile, Driss’ father Abdellah – with a few of his men – travels a very long distance, from a remote, bleak part of Morocco (from Tafal’aalt), to claim his son’s body. Driss was Abdellah’s only son, but he is not a man to openly display his grief.

The men from Tafal’aalt were unlike anyone he (Richard) had encountered in this country. They were bone-dry and minimal in some way, like pieces of driftwood that have been whittled down to their essential shapes. They moved very slowly but with that purposefulness that makes even humble people seem formidable and relentless and aristocratic. Their poverty only accentuated this dangerous, fluid nobility.

One of the main themes that the novel explores is the inability of the Westerners and the Muslim world to really understand each other, and the clash of values this entails. The Westerners, David in particular, look down upon the Moroccans, and think they are thieves ready to take advantage of the whites.

It also explores how ill-equipped the whites are when it comes to understanding foreign lands, and that the rules that govern the West do not necessarily work elsewhere. More often than not, this misunderstanding leads to tragedy.

The Moroccans, meanwhile, detest the Westerners (infidels, they are called) and their shocking ways. And yet, the whites are the ones with the money, thus also envied by those very Moroccans who have to somehow make ends meet. So they are compelled to pander to them, albeit reluctantly. If not directly employed by the Westerners, most of the Moroccans dig fossils to sell them to the Europeans at exorbitant prices.

All these elements make Osborne’s The Forgiven a delicious and sinister read. His prose is stylish and languorous whether he is describing the ‘The Great Gatsby’ like party atmosphere at Richard’s mansion or the dust, wind, bleakness and barrenness of remote Morocco.

Here were the ergs, the open wildernesses. Tufts of pale, drinn grass lined the road with a hopeless greenery, and here and there a thorn tree rose into the immense morning light, glistening with a mysterious dew.

As they neared the plateau, the land grew almost black, its surface cracked and pitted. It was hard, jagged rock, not the sand he had expected, and before long they were rolling across open country, unbound by the puny formality of a road. In the hot season, the workers fled to the Atlas to make a gentler living, and they left their tool kits and camping gear by the side of the trenches, where they would remain undisturbed until winter. When the temperatures came down, they would return to find their belongings exactly as they had left them. It was like the equipment of a Roman army that had disappeared two thousand years ago, like the camps you could still see surrounding Masada in Israel. The burned plain to the right had a colour of roasted peaches and custard, and across it a single figure made its way in the full anonymity of a morning sun.

You get a feel that Osborne is influenced by Paul Bowles, an author who lived for long periods in Tangier, and wrote novels that explored the same theme. Bowles’ ‘The Sheltering Sky’ is a classic in this genre.

But while The Forgiven explores the theme of clash of values, it is also very much a story about grief and loss…and about atonement and restitution.

Will Abdellah find it in him to forgive David for the crime he has committed? Or will he seek revenge? Will this chain of events take a toll on David and Jo’s marriage? Will David become a changed man?

Osborne has spun a riveting and compelling yarn.

My Top 12 Books of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to look back on the books that I greatly enjoyed during the year, and select the best among those.

I had a tough time whittling the list down to 12, but I absolutely loved the ones that I did end up selecting.

Three of these, I had already reviewed on my blog earlier, the rest I had not. For the ones I had reviewed earlier, I have given a brief snapshot and you can click on the book’s title, which will take you to the detailed review.

Top 12 of 2017

 

Without much ado, here is my list of my Top 12 books for 2017, and why I thought they were special…

A True Novel – Minae Mizumura   

A True NovelThis novel was billed as a Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, and that greatly piqued my interest. I had loved Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it in college, and its tale about a brooding hero, and his tempestuous heroine captured my imagination.

But it would be a disservice to judge A True Novel solely by this comparison, because the novel is strong enough to stand on its own.  Read more

The Blue Room – Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon is an author I had been meaning to try for quite some time. He was a prolific writer well known for his Inspector Maigret series. These were mysteries set in Paris probably akin to Agatha Christie novels. I have read only one Maigret so far and it was an easy, lightweight mystery.

The real meat really is in his non-Maigret novels otherwise called his romans durs or hard novels. These novels are richer, darker with a strong psychological edge.

In other words, the Maigret novels were more commercial and Simenon wrote them as a means of relaxation. The romans durs, however, while short demanded greater focus and had more character.

I was keen to explore his romans durs and began with The Blue Room, which is excellent. Suffice to say that I will be reading more of his work.

The Blue Room

There is a lot going on in the first chapter.

We first learn that the protagonist Tony Falcone has been having an affair with Andrée Despierre. They typically meet in a room at the Hotel des Voyageurs owned by Tony’s brother Vincent.

Here’s how the book opens.

‘Did I hurt you?’

‘No.’

‘Are you angry with me?’

‘No.’

It was true. At that time, everything was true, for he was living in the moment, without questioning anything, without trying to understand, without suspecting that one day he would need to understand.

What would Tony need to understand? We do not know either. Not yet.

But during this conversation, Andrée keeps asking what would happen if she becomes free, does Tony love her, so on and so forth. This scene in the hotel room is an important moment because it is from here that the story moves forward and backward in a series of flashbacks touching on how Tony and Andrée became lovers upto events in the future.

Tony’s affair with Andrée is intense and passionate.

At thirty-three, he had known many women. None of them had given as much pleasure as she had, an animal pleasure, complete and wholehearted, untainted afterwards by any disgust, lassitude or regret.

They have a signal wherein they decide to meet every time in the blue room (the book’s title) of the hotel. It is convenient and Tony’s brother Vincent, obviously aware of the affair, would never rat out on him.

The room was blue, ‘washing-blue’ he had thought one day, a blue that reminded him of his childhood, the tiny muslin sachets of blue powder his mother dissolved in the washtub water for the final rinse, right before she went to spread the laundry out on the gleaming grass of the meadow. He must have been five or six years old and often wondered through what miracle the blue colour could turn the laundry white.

The blue of the room was not just washing-blue, but the sky-blue of certain hot, August afternoons as well, shortly before it turns pink, then red, in the setting sun.

During one such meeting, Tony goes to the window and sees d Andrée’s husband Nicolas approaching the hotel. He manages to escape the room but this incident leaves him with a sense of foreboding.

Why did Nicolas come to the hotel? Was he aware of his affair with Andrée? Who called him there?

Tony has no clue. Infact, we come to know that this incident and his affair with Andree is told while he is reminiscing as he tries to make sense of it while talking with his lawyer, the magistrate and his psychiatrist.

Indeed, in the first chapter itself, interspersed with details of Tony’s affair, we are told that he is in a prison relentlessly questioned by the magistrate. Clearly, there is a crime that has taken place and Tony has been implicated. He cannot make head or tail of it.

We learn that Tony is married to Gisele, who is tidy, energetic, unassuming, the perfect housewife. They have a daughter Marianne.

Tony loves Gisele in his own way despite his affair. What about Gisele? Does she know of the affair but given her nature chooses not to question Tony about it?

Nicolas, meanwhile, is shown to be a sickly man prone to bouts of epilepsy. His mother Madame Despierre is a headstrong woman and she and Andrée do not get along too well.

After Nicolas’ sudden appearance at the Hotel des Voyageurs, Tony starts becoming uneasy and decides to end his affair with Andrée. Will Andrée agree?

And then Nicolas dies.

That is the brief outline of the story and saying anything more would be spoiling it. There’s plenty more that happens though.

At 156 pages of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, this is a short, taut psychological thriller. It is a story of lust, passion, what happens when it all goes wrong and how it affects everybody. Simenon’s prose is spare, lean and powerful and there is a lot of depth in this story as well as its characters. He coveys masterfully the air of impending doom permeating throughout. Credit also goes to the translator Linda Coverdale for a very smooth translation from the French.

‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle?

 

The Doll’s Alphabet – Camilla Grudova

Good literature has a way of transporting you to another world, offering you a glimpse of an author’s creative imagination and vision. Some authors, though, take their vision to a whole new level, a vision that is dystopian, dark and yet strangely compelling.

Camilla Grudova is one such author and her book A Doll’s Alphabet, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is a treat.

The author write-up at the start of the novel does not reveal much. Grudova lives in Canada, and has a degree in Art History and German. That’s it. But while the bio is minimal, her stories have a lot to tell.

A doll's alphabet 4 motifs

A Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird but in a good way. There’s plenty going on. Here’s a taster of some of them…

The first story “Unstitching” opens thus:

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

In ‘Waxy’, another superb story, the set-up is quite dystopian. Women work in Factories and the men are required to take Exams and bring home Exam money. It is also expected that every woman should have a man otherwise people would become suspicious.

If one’s Man did not do well on Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.

The narrator is a woman who stays in a flat that she shares with a couple Stuart and Pauline. She works in a Factory where she paints the company name on all its sewing machines. When the story opens, she is without a man. One day the woman brings a youngish man called Paul home. She realizes, a little too late, that he has neither Exam books nor identification papers. They decide to keep this strictly a secret between them. In the meanwhile, they become a couple and the narrator gives birth to a baby whom they name Waxy because ‘it was a tiny, waxy child, like a little cheese rind’ and because they are too scared to name it properly. Can Paul’s secret truly remain hidden especially from Stuart and Pauline? What will happen if they find out?

The other strong story in this collection is ‘Agata’s Machine’. This is a story of two eleven year olds, Agata and the narrator. Both of them are loners. But Agata is not tormented in school like the narrator is because she is a genius excelling in sciences and maths. One day, Agata invites the narrator to her home and the two withdraw into Agata’s attic. There Agata shows the narrator a sewing machine…

A gigantic black insect. It was a sewing machine, an old malicious one, black and gold, attached to its own desk with a treadle underneath, wrought metal like the grates over fire stoves and sewers.

Agata begins to pump the treadle. When the lights are turned off, the mason jar next to it begins to glow and the light inside morphs into a Pierrot. When it’s the narrator’s turn to work the treadle, the Pierrot does not appear but what she sees instead is an angel in the garb of a sailor. These are images that mesmerize the two girls and they take turns at pumping the treadle well into the night and for many days. This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

In the last story ‘Notes from a Spider’, the narrator is part human, part spider with eight legs.  One day, he comes across a sewing machine shop and gets besotted by a sewing machine called Florence. He brings it home and employs a string of seamstresses to make the machine work hard and transform the cloth. In Florence’s honour, the narrator also decides to open a sewing machine museum, which will supply a steady stream of seamstresses. However, in the beginning the machine is being fed with cloth, but what will happen later when the narrator begins to feed it his flesh?

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling.

There is also a whiff of feminism in some of them. In the first story, men are portrayed as superficial.

There was also a small minority of men who tried to unstitch themselves with the aid of razorblades and knives, only to end up wounded and disappointed. They had no ‘true, secret’ selves inside, only what was taught and known.

There is an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. For instance, in the story ‘The Mouse Queen’, Peter’s shelves are stocked with green and red Loebs (the origins of classical wisdom, Greek and Latin respectively), his hair is slicked back ‘like a young Samuel Beckett’, and the church where Peter and the narrator marry has a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. In another story ‘The Mermaid’, the character Emmeline is reading Homer and is fond of very old books, while her husband owns a shop called Old Time Things.

In an interview with Culture Trip, this is what Grudova had to say:

“The anachronistic aspect is from my own life, my family didn’t have a television till I was a pre -teen or a computer until I was a teenager, and we never owned a car, the sewing machine was the first machine in my life, my mother taught me how to use it, I made dolls, doll’s clothes, clothes for myself. It was very much an imaginative tool for me so I associate it with writing.

“I like looking for old treasures in the garbage. I find old technology useful to use to think about new technology, like not staring at something directly, maybe looking at its shadow instead.”

Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

The Hideout – Egon Hostovsky

Much has been written about Hitler, the Nazis and the atrocities they committed leading upto and during the Second World War. Prior to this dark period, Europe was a great place to be in. Writers, artists, musicians, painters converged in many of these great cities to practice art and exchange ideas freely. Europe, in other words, was a melting pot of cultures.  Writers, in particular, be they Jews, Czechs, Polish, Eastern European, flourished immensely during this golden period.

But then the Nazis came to power. And everything changed for the worse. Almost all the writers and authors sunk into oblivion as the war loomed large. Many were forced into exile. Others fled the continent to migrate to the United States and begin a new life there. There were also those who could not adjust to the new and grim reality and therefore chose to take their own lives. Stefan Zweig was one such prolific writer who committed suicide during this period (Wes Anderson’s superb film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is inspired by Stefan Zweig’s writings).

But while these writers and their works vanished during those turbulent years, only in recent times have they begun to gain prominence thanks to the emergence of independent publishing houses and the growing output of translated literature.

Pushkin Press, NYRB Classics, Peirene Press to name a few are doing a great job in promoting translated literature and pulling out all these authors from obscurity so that their works can reach a wider audience today. And these efforts are worth it because so much of this output is astonishing.

Which brings me to the novella I’ll be reviewing; Egon Hostovsky’s The Hideout (nicely translated from the Czech by Fern Long). Unlike Zweig’s tragic fate, Hostovsky turned out to be luckier. He was a well-known writer in Czechoslovakia at the time but subsequently fled the Nazis and the Communists, and eventually settled in New York.

The Hideout

Here’s how the novel opens.

Dearest Hanichka:

At last I can hope that someday you will learn the true facts of my strange story. The good people about whom I want to tell you promise me that they can take my notes somewhere to safety, somewhere beyond the ocean, perhaps, and give them to you after the war is over. You are still alive; I don’t doubt that for an instant, and you will be alive long after this awful storm of horror, madness and hunger has blown over.

It is a strange story indeed. When the narrator is writing this letter to his wife, he is doing so from the confines of a damp, dark cellar. He has time on his hands to think back on the events that led to his current predicament.

The narrator is shown to be in a happy marriage with his wife and their two daughters. He is an engineer by profession and is drawing blueprints for some anti-aircraft guns.

A dinner at their house sets the course for future events. The narrator’s boss is present as is a certain Madame Olga. The boss and the narrator get into an argument about the latter’s blueprints for those guns. The narrator decides to abandon the project because the Czech government is not interested and he is against selling it to other governments. Meanwhile, he develops a fascination for Madame Olga.

Madame Olga is based in Paris and the narrator one day decides to just give up his existing life and follow her there. Nothing much comes of their meeting. But the narrator learns that there is a warrant for his arrest by the Nazis mostly instigated by his boss, who it turns out was probably collaborating with the enemy.

And so the narrator’s plan to go back to his wife is derailed and he is forced to flee.

Eventually, he has no choice but to go in hiding and an acquaintance in the countryside puts him up in his cellar. By no means has he been put up there by physical force. He is not locked inside. He is free to leave whenever he wants.

But is he really free? Can he just leave his dismal abode and go about his life? As the novel progresses, the reliability of the narrator also comes into question. After all, he is no longer in touch with the outside world. Has that impaired his ability to perceive reality? Can he ultimately overcome his guilt of leaving his wife?

Alone, alone, always alone! My fear of death must have been stronger than my fear of emptiness, of constant hunger and cold.

At a mere 127 pages in the Pushkin Collection edition, The Hideout is absolutely brilliant and packs in quite a punch. The setting might be claustrophobic and yet there is a feverish, urgent and dream like quality to the writing. This propels the narrative at a breakneck pace.

It is also a novella that makes you think on the kind of extraordinary and tremendously difficult moments that those unwillingly caught up in the war had to face. It was not a war of their choosing and they had to dig deep into their reserves to survive and hope for a better life. During times of war, how often do we read about millions of lives being uprooted and multitudes being forced to flee? On paper, this looks like just another statistic but the difficulties and hardships that every family or individual faced were unique. The mind can barely begin to grapple them.

Of course, all this was during the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War. And yet, this is a novel that is very much relevant to our current times. It’s a different war this time, but the plight of the refugees and the immense hardships that displacement and uprootedness bring with them remain the same.

Compass – Mathias Enard

Easily one of the most exhilarating and immersive reads for me this year.

Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.

This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.

Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of passing of the time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion…

Compass

That’s the plot in a nutshell. What makes this novel riveting and accomplished though is the high level of erudition displayed by Enard. It’s also a novel very relevant to our times; times when there is a growing level of intolerance towards different religions, cultures and peoples.

Increasing incidents of terrorism has widened the gulf between the East (largely Muslim) and the West. Certainly, the East is not as developed as the West. But there is this perception that the East is culturally deficient too. It’s the latter view that Enard challenges in this novel.

Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and a lot of Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt a lot from each other.

Enard also talks about the imaginary construct ‘the Orient’. While the Orient is perceived to be the East, it remains an ever shifting term because where really would you draw the line? Is Vienna the westernmost city and thereby a gateway to the East? Or would that be Turkey?  Culturally speaking, the boundaries are quite blurred.

The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.

A lot of western musicians, academics, writers, explorers and archeologists are discussed. Cultural references abound. Agatha Christie, Don Quixote, Balzac, Beethoven, Sadegh Hedayat, Chopin, Kafka, Proust, Thomas Mann, Wagner form just one slice of a large cultural cake. The point being that many of them were Orientalists and the feel of the East and ‘otherness’ was incorporated in some of their works. Lawrence of Arabia, 1001 Nights, Romeo & Juliet, Layla & Majnun are also vividly discussed.

Compass Fitzgarraldo

The cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra in Syria, before the current civil war, have been beautifully described. They are ancient and the traveller in me was mesmerized by this sense of history. Visiting these cities would have been a tremendous experience only that it is now impossible with so much destruction and the war showing little signs of abating.

For someone arriving from Damascus, Aleppo was exotic; more cosmopolitan perhaps, closer to Istanbul; Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, not far from Antioch, homeland of saints and crusaders, between the Orontes and Euphrates rivers. Aleppo was a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens, built around the train station, the southern branch of the Baghdad Bahn, which put Aleppo a week away from Vienna via Istanbul and Konya as early as January 1913…

Istanbul in Turkey and Tehran in Iran are wonderfully evoked too. Particularly, there are passages on the Iranian revolution in 1979, which make for fascinating reading. In the late 70s, inflation had become a big problem in Iran. Ordered to fight it, the Prime Minister Jamshid Amouzegar resorted to a draconian measure – he cut off public investments, stopped large building projects and heavily fined profiteers. In two years, inflation reduced only to be replaced by massive unemployment as economic activity halted. This resulted in the Iranian public turning against the then ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, who by then had no real support in 1978. Even those who had gotten rich thanks to him and benefitted from free education turned against him.

Enard also touches upon the topic of global jihad. It is widely believed that global jihad was instigated by radical Islamists and gained prominence since the 9/11 attacks in the US. The interesting fact is that the call for global jihad was made much earlier during the First World War and that too by Germany! Germany had set up a little known Prisoner of War camp called ‘Half Moon Camp’ just outside Berlin, which was dedicated to turning Allied Muslim soldiers into jihad warriors. The idea being that they rise against their employers notably Britain, France and Russia. This move backfired.

That’s not all. Interwoven through this rich fabric of musings on art and culture, is Ritter’s longing for the unattainable, fiery and independent Sarah. Ritter has his chances and he reflects on missed opportunities and on the course the relationship would have taken had he displayed more courage.

If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff everything would have been different…

At 445 pages (in the New Directions edition; the first picture), Compass is a rich and multi-layered novel and I have only managed to cover some of the themes here.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style as the action takes place inside Ritter’s head. The narration is not linear as Ritter goes back and forth through time and history when reminiscing. But it is not a difficult read. The chapter headings are in the form of time stamps as the hours in the night progress. The language is strong, hypnotic and lucid and the credit here goes to the translator Charlotte Mandell as much as it goes to the author.

In a fascinating interview on the Man Booker Prize website, Mandell touched upon what she liked about Compass.

She says, “I like the rhythm of the prose, the propulsive quality of the narrative, the sort of melancholy, Viennese tone of the narrator’s voice. For me, plot and character aren’t as alluring as language: if a sentence is well-constructed and the language is engaging, I am immediately seduced.”

Enard knows his subject matter too. He has spent long periods of time in the Middle East and is a professor of Arabic and Persian in the University of Barcelona. His knowledge and passion for the East, not surprisingly, is very apparent in this novel.

Is it important to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures if we humans want to learn and grow and widen our minds? Or should we bandy around the ‘nationalist’ theme and give in to the clamour to close borders? Enard gives a big thumbs up to the former.

Compass then is a sweeping and gorgeous read. An ode to Otherness. Erudition personified. A literary feast not to be missed.

A Separation – Katie Kitamura

When I visited Paris recently, more specifically the iconic bookshop Shakespeare and Company, I had a list in mind of the books that I wanted to buy. Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was one of them. The book had received favorable reviews on the blogosphere and naturally it piqued my interest. So when I was browsing the shelves in this Parisian bookstore, I suddenly came upon this book and pounced on it.

Did I like it then? Yes, very much so.

A SeparationThe book is narrated in the first person; a woman but not named. In the opening pages, the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law Isabella asking her the whereabouts of Christopher (Isabella’s son). The narrator does not know. Indeed, she and Christopher have separated but they have decided to not reveal this to anyone; not yet. Naturally, Isabella does not know of their separation either.

We come to know that Christopher took a trip to Greece to research material for a book he is writing. Isabella wants the narrator to travel to Greece and find him.  The narrator feels she has no choice but to go.

I supposed it would be my last dutiful act as her daughter-in-law. An hour later, Isabella called to tell me which hotel Christopher was staying at – I wondered how she had obtained this information – and the record locator for a ticket she had booked in my name, departing the next day. Beneath the unnecessary flourishes of character and the sheen of idle elegance, she was a supremely capable woman, one reason why she had been a formidable adversary, someone I had reason to fear. But that was all over, and soon, there would be no battleground between us.

In the meanwhile, she decides that once she meets him in Greece, she will ask for a divorce. After all, she has now moved on and is also in a relationship with Yvan, Christopher’s friend.

Once she reaches Greece, she heads to the remote village and the hotel where Christopher was supposed to be staying. He has not checked out but no one seems to know where he is. The narrator decides to wait for a few days for him to return.

Greece, in the meanwhile, is in the midst of an economic crisis. Unemployment in Athens is high and the people in the villages see no point in migrating to the city.

In this remote village, forest fires have raged and blackened the earth. The environment is as scorched and dried as the narrator’s marriage.

As she roams around the village while waiting for a meeting with Christopher, the narrator throws some light on him and their marriage in particular. It turns out that Christopher is a wealthy and very charming man prone to having affairs. One such affair was with the hotel receptionist, Maria. Maria in turn is loved by Stefano, the hotel driver, who takes the narrator around for sightseeing.

We come to know that Christopher was writing a book on the mourning rituals in Greece.

It was a strange project for a man who had hitherto lost nothing of significance, whose life was intact in all its key particulars. If he had cause for grief, it was only in the abstract. But he was drawn to people who were in a state of loss. This gave the people the mistaken impression that he was a sympathetic man. His sympathy lasted as long as his curiosity, once that had gone he suddenly withdrew, making himself unavailable, or at least less available than people might reasonably have expected, given the sudden and violent intimacy he had forced upon them in the first place.

The narrator meets Stefano’s mom who practices these rituals and whom Christopher may have met too.

The ancient practice was rapidly dying out. There were only a few parts of rural Greece where it was still practiced, the southern Peloponnese, a region called Mani, was one of them. There, every village had a few mourners – weepers or wailers, as they were sometimes called – women who performed the funeral dirge at a village burial. What intrigued him about the practice was its externalization of grief: the fact that a body other than the body of the bereaved expressed its woe.  

Indeed, the more the narrator interacts with Maria, Stefano, or Stefano’s mom, she realizes that they have been as opaque and inscrutable as Christopher.

The book then is a meditation on infidelity, grief, loss and the possibility that we may not really completely know the person we are married to.

Our marriage was formed by the things Christopher knew and I did not. This was not simply a question of intellect, although in that respect Christopher again had the advantage, he was without doubt a clever man. It was a question of things withheld, information that he had, and that I did not. In short, it was a question of infidelities – betrayal always puts one partner in the position of knowing, and leaves the other in the dark.

Kitamura’s prose is detached, but dreamy and lush as she unravels the story entirely through thoughts flashing through the narrator’s mind. There is a rhythmic quality to her writing as she slowly peels off the layers so that more revelations come to the fore.

Does Christopher come back? Or does his disappearance remain a mystery? I will not reveal that. Whatever the case, A Separation is a remarkable novel composed in a dizzying language and one to savour slowly like good wine.

A Sport and A Pastime – James Salter

James Salter is one of those American authors who would readily find a place in my top 10 authors list should I sit down to compile one. I have been steadily working my way through his oeuvre enjoying gems such as ‘Light Years’, unarguably his masterpiece about an upper middle class married couple, and ‘The Hunters’, a poignant and searing tale of the exhilaration and disappointments of being a fighter pilot.

A significant time had passed since I last read him; now the time felt right to explore some more of his work. So I picked up another of his popular novels, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’.

A Sport and a Pastime

It begins with our unnamed narrator travelling to a small town in France, Autun.  His friends Billy and Cristina, a well to do couple, have a house there and they have agreed to rent it out to him for a while. Billy and Cristina’s world is one of good food, parties and social gatherings. And it is in one of these soirees that he meets a young man and the principal character in the novel, Phillip Dean.

In the earlier parts of the novel, we learn that Dean is a brilliant student at Yale but decides to drop out as he is too bored. He and our unnamed narrator strike up a close friendship. Dean is everything, the narrator is not; confident, daring, with a remarkable zest for life, which only makes the narrator conscious of his own insecurities.

Dean then meets Anne-Marie and the two embark on a sensual relationship. That’s the plot and nothing much happens otherwise. Dean and Anne-Marie travel to various provincial towns in France in a vintage Delage, a car Dean has borrowed from a friend. They stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, walk around the town and make love.

But the interesting thing – this relationship and the description of all its intimate details are imagined by the narrator. This is no spoiler.

In the earlier pages itself, we get a glimpse of the unreliability of the narrator:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.

In a novel such as this in which there’s not much of a plot to speak of, the language has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story. This is where James Salter clearly excels. His prose is luminous and he has a way with words unlike any other author.

Here is a para at the start of the novel where the author beautifully evokes the French countryside as it flies by when the narrator is making his way to Autun in a train:

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens.

And another one here where he is describing Anne-Marie:

Anne-Marie sits quietly and as Dean talks, becoming drunker, his mouth wetting, I try to watch her, to isolate elements of that stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorizing the reflections of a diamond. The slightest movement and an entirely different brilliance appears.

Another area where Salter is really good is writing about sex. The American author Toni Morrison once wrote Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text.

Salter clearly believes otherwise. There’s a lot of sex in this novel and in some passages more explicitly described than in others. But he carries it off; something not a lot of authors can do successfully.

And yet it’s not a perfect novel. Although Salter writes beautifully, the novel does sag midway and that is my main quibble with the book.

How will Dean and Anne-Marie’s relationship pan out? And will the narrator’s fascination with Dean continue?

One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish.

Bird In A Cage – Frederic Dard

One of the great things about independent publishing houses is that they release excellent books that have either been out of print or did not somehow get the attention that they deserved when they were originally published. Most of them are also champions of translated literature.

NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press are some of these indie presses that have consistently introduced strong books to readers and brought back authors into the limelight who otherwise had sunk into oblivion.

Frederic Dard’s Bird in a Cage comes from the stable of Pushkin Press, under its crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo. Frederic Dard is one of those prolific authors with no fewer than 284 books under his belt. Very popular during his times, especially in the post war years, strangely he has been completely forgotten since. Not surprisingly, I had never heard of this author until Pushkin Press decided to gradually release his titles. Bird in a Cage (ably translated by David Bellos) is the first of many to come.

Bird in a Cage

The first few sentences just grab you.

How old does a man have to be not to feel like an orphan when he loses his mother?

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity.

Albert’s mother died four years back and he has come on Christmas Eve to her small flat. Why has Albert waited to come four years after her death? Why not then? Where was he for six years?

These are the questions that come to mind when the novel opens but we will only get an inkling later on.

It is not until he is in her flat, that her death really hits Albert hard. Suddenly he feels claustrophobic and depressed. He decides to go out for a walk.

On the way he passes a shop selling Christmas decorations from where he purchases a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust. This purchase will gain much significance as the novel progresses.

Gripped by loneliness, Albert enters a big restaurant and settles down nicely to a warm meal. He looks around the room and at a table spots a young girl with a woman who he assumes is her mother.

The child was with a woman, presumably her mother. She had seen me turn towards them and was smiling at me, as all mothers smile when you look at their child. I had a shock.

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed.

Who is Anna? Why does this woman remind Albert of Anna? We do not know yet. But it is enough to make Albert obsessed. So when mother-daughter leave the restaurant, Albert decides to follow them.

Albert is trying to throw us off guard though. But can we believe him?

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

They end up meeting in a theatre and after the movie, she invites him to her flat. Albert can’t resist the invitation.

All of this takes place in the first chapter itself. From thereon, Albert begins to feel that he is embroiled in a nightmare as a series of events take place in her flat that completely baffle him. Yet, he is so besotted with this woman, he can’t let go of her. This then is the brief outline of the plot.

For a novel of barely 120 pages, Bird in a Cage packs quite a punch. It is an unsettling, gripping tale and cleverly constructed. A sense of unease prevails throughout and there is a dream-like quality to the story.

Albert can’t make sense of what is happening initially. Is he hallucinating? Is he in a nightmare? What will happen later on, when he begins to get some sort of a grip on events?

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do…