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I discovered Thomas Savage’sThe Power of the Dog‘ by accident while browsing at the bookshop sometime back. Something pulled me and I got the book. Then it lay on my bookshelf for a few months. Then last week it started calling me and I had to take it out and read it.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Phil and George are two brothers. They own a ranch together, are rich, but lead a simple life. They have been sharing a room since they were kids. Phil is forty, George is two years younger. Both of them are single. Phil is smart, reads sophisticated stuff, can quote Greek and Latin poetry. He is also great at being a rancher, handles the animals well and is nice to the ranch-hands. George is a bit shy, not good with people, but is kind, works hard. So Phil is the cool brother, while George is the nice, but not-so-cool brother. Their lives are nice and comfortable. Then George meets a widow called Rose in the next town. And falls in love with her. She has a teenage son, Peter, whom George likes too. One day George tells Phil that he has married Rose and she will be moving in soon. And that is the end of life as Phil knows it. When Rose moves in, Phil does everything in his power to undermine her. Before long she is into a deep depression and starts drinking. And then Rose’s son Peter comes for summer. After showing him contempt initially, Phil decides that he will take Peter under his wing and turn him against his mother.

What happens? Does Phil succeed in his diabolical plans? How does Rose handle the situation? Which side does George lean on – Phil’s or Rose’s? And what does Peter, who is caught in the middle of all this, do? For answers to these, you have to read the book.

The Power of the Dog‘ is a study of family, on what happens when big changes arrive in unexpected ways. It is also a novel about ranches. Its description of life and work in a ranch feels quite realistic and authentic. It also made me think of David Wroblewski’s ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘ which has a similar structure in some ways – two men, a woman and a boy live in a big ranch / farm and there is a lot tension in the air. But the details are different though. There is an interesting afterword to the book by Annie Proulx. One of the things that Proulx says that I found interesting was this – that the book is also about repressed homosexuality. I didn’t find evidence of that when I read the book though – Phil talks a few times about someone he admired called Bronco Henry and later in the story he takes Peter under his wing and shows him a few things. By no stretch of imagination was this evidence of homosexuality. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe when the book came out Thomas Savage gave an interview on what the story was about and maybe he said that it was about repressed homosexuality. Who knows.

I liked ‘The Power of the Dog‘ though I wouldn’t call it one of my favourite books of the year. It was out of print for many years and it was rediscovered in the early 2000s. I am glad it came back in print and I am glad I read it.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book, so that you can get a feel of what the book looks like.

“George never blamed anybody, a virtue so remote and inhuman it probably accounted for the discomfort people felt in his presence; his silence they took for disapproval and it allowed them no chink to get at him and quarrel with him. His silence left people guilty and they had no chance to dilute their guilt with anger.”

“But what was art if not the arrangement of trivia? What was Cezanne but line and color, Chopin but sound, perfume but calculated orders, crackle of linen but flax? The arrangement, like her piano playing, her careful dressing for dinner each night and the foolish picnic beside the road, was meant to please George.”

Have you read ‘The Power of the Dog‘ What do you think about it?

After watching the James Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ last week, I thought I will read the book and compare. Finished reading it today. The basic story goes like this – Bond is driving through some exotic mountain road in Europe. A beautiful woman driving a fast car passes him. Bond tries to catch up with her but he can’t. Later he discovers that she is trying to commit suicide. He saves her. But she doesn’t thank him. She seems to be a troubled soul. Then Bond is kidnapped by some bad guys. It turns out that the kidnapper is a godfather style head of mafia. He is also the beautiful woman Tracy’s father. He asks Bond to marry her. Bond says he will think about it. Meanwhile Bond is in search of his nemesis, the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who wants world domination. Bond ends up in the Alps in a research clinic, where Blofeld seems to be the research doctor. There are many beautiful young women in the clinic. They are all attracted to Bond. And then blah, blah, blah. You have read the book or watch the movie to find out more.

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So how does the book compare to the movie? One of my friends says that Bond movies are better than the books. I had mixed opinions on that, but with the evidence of this book, I have to agree. The movie stays faithful to the book mostly, but in many cases the scenes are rearranged in the movie to create a better dramatic effect. For example, in the first scene, the movie improves upon the book. Also, I loved the movie Tracy more than the book Tracy. It helped that Diana Rigg delivered a charming, brilliant performance as Tracy. Also the skiing scenes are breathtaking and spectacular in the movie. And so is the avalanche scene – amazingly spectacular. To be fair to the book, the skiing scenes are pretty well described there – they are very informative. The things where the book scores over the movie are these – in the book, Bond feels like a real person. He is not the cool, stylish Bond of the movie. For example, in the book, when Bond tries to escape from the bad guys by skiing down the Alpine slope, he is not sure whether it is going to work, because he hasn’t done skiing in a long time and he is not great at it. In the movie, Bond just puts on his skis and starts skiing down the Alpine slope like he owns the place and it feels like we are watching  a gold medallist in the winter Olympics in action here. The movie also has other flaws – Blofeld starts as an interesting villain and ends up being like a cartoon villain. Inspite of its flaws, I liked the movie more – the scenes are more dramatic and the scriptwriters have taken liberty with the book in mostly the right ways.

I thought Ian Fleming’s prose was good, but it is passable at best. If I compare Fleming with his Scottish contemporary Alistair MacLean, I feel MacLean was better. MacLean wrote better first pages – his first pages were literary, humorous and spectacular – his prose was gorgeous, he told better stories and the drama and suspense and surprises in his books were better. MacLean’s ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ is better than any Bond novel. I have read it atleast ten times. If you like spy novels, I will recommend highly that you read that. Fleming’s Bond novels are predictable with passable prose. His formula of the handsome British spy who drives fast cars, drinks martinis,  gambles in casinos, charms beautiful women, gets chased by bad guys by cars and boats and planes through exotic locales like Europe and Florida and the Bahamas and how he always wins in the end with the beautiful woman in tow – this must have been irresistible to the readers and movie makers of his time. It is formulaic, predictable, escapist, but it is the kind of reading you might enjoy on the beach on a hot summer day.

Some of the things (mostly useless) that I learnt from the book :

(1) “worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due”
(2) Bond uses Pinaud Elixir, the prince among shampoos
(3) “since Victorian days it has been assumed that ladies do not gamble”
(4) “It was true that this Blofeld had held up Britain and America to ransom by his illegal possession of atomic weapons. But this could not be considered a crime under the laws of Switzerland, and particularly not having regard to Article 47B of the banking laws.”
(5) Bond’s father was Scot and his mother was Swiss! (Take that, English folks!)
(6) ‘The World is Not Enough‘ is the motto engraved in the Bond family’s coat of arms. This Bond family might be related to our James Bond, Spy.
(7) Types of British accents – “the broad vowels of Lancashire, the lilt of Wales, the burr of Scotland, the adenoids of refined Cockney”
(8) There are three kinds of peaks in Switzerland – the piz, the alp and the berg. Piz is the smallest, alp is the middle one, berg is the tallest. Sometimes alp and berg are used interchangeably.
(9) Ursula Andress, who played Honey Rider in the first Bond movie ‘Dr.No’, makes an appearance in this story.
(10) “What did one do when the avalanche hit? There was only one rule. Get your hands to your boots and grip your ankles. Then, if you were buried, there was some hope of undoing your skis, being able, perhaps, to burrow your way to the surface…”
(11) Bond’s boss M is an amateur painter as this passage shows – “M had one of the stock bachelor’s hobbies. He painted in water-colour. He painted only the wild orchids of England, in the meticulous and uninspired fashion of the naturalists of the nineteenth century.”
(12) “there is plenty of evidence for the medical efficacy of hypnosis. There are well-authenticated cases of the successful treatment by these means of such stubborn disabilities as…homosexual tendencies.” Well, if you are a gender scholar or activist, you can start kicking Ian Fleming now. Ian, you might be dead for fifty years, but you are in trouble now, buddy 🙂
(13) Bond’s words of wisdom – “Too much money is the worst curse you can lay on anyone’s head. I have enough. Tracy has enough. It will be fun saving up to buy something we want but can’t quite afford. That is the only kind of money to have – not quite enough.”

Well, it is time for me to take a break from escapist summer reading. When the sun gets hotter in May, and nearly melts my brain, I might get back to my next Bond novel. For now, it is time to get back to ‘The Power of the Dog‘ by Thomas Savage, the dark, bleak, depressing kind of book that I read on a normal day. Normal service resumed 🙂

Have you read ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘ or watched the movie version? What do you think about it?

The story told in Sara Naveed’sOur Story Ends Here‘  goes like this. Mehar is graduating from college. She and her friends plan to take a final carefree trip, to the beautiful Swat valley, before they enter the next phase of their lives. Mehar is going to get married soon. Sarmad is a terrorist. He has been an orphan since a young age and he has been brought up by a man who believes in violence to get things done. Sarmad leaves on a mission with some of his fellow terrorists. Mehar’s bus has an accident and she is thrown out of the bus. Sarmad who is there on the scene interrupts his mission and saves her. And their very different worlds collide. As luck would have it, they have to spend the next few days together at a kind stranger’s home while Mehar recuperates. And something happens there – something beautiful and their hearts are drawn towards each other.

What happens between Mehar and Sarmad? Do they reveal their true feelings towards each other? What happens to Sarmad’s mission? Is any real relationship possible between Mehar and Sarmad because of their very different backgrounds? You have to read the book to find out.

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I loved ‘Our Story Ends Here‘. It is a beautiful love story. The way Mehar and Sarmad develop feelings for each other is depicted very delicately and beautifully. The book also depicts Pakistani culture wonderfully – the relationship between parents and children, the food, the clothes, the music, the beautiful weddings, the beauty of nature – I loved that aspect of the book. There were many places where the Urdu version of the English sentence tried leaping out of the page – for example, ‘There’s noor on your face‘ and ‘There were old memories attached to her presence.’ My favourite one was this :

She : I’ve not found love in you. I’ve found life in you.
He : And I have found my heaven in you.

I tried imagining how it would sound in Urdu and it was incredibly beautiful.

The story has some interesting revelations towards the end followed by a huge surprise, which I didn’t see coming. And the ending – I can’t tell you about any of these things. I can’t even tell you whether they are happy or sad. You should read and find out yourself.

I loved ‘Our Story Ends Here.’ If you are a romantic like me and like reading love stories, you will love this. I can’t wait to find out what Sara Naveed comes up with next.

I discovered Shusaku Endo’sSilence‘ through Bellezza’s review of it. I have wanted to read it since and I am glad I finally got around to it.

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Silence‘ tells the story of Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who travels to Japan to carry missionary work, during the middle of the 17th century. The situation in Japan is dangerous and is not conducive to missionaries. Father Ferreira, who was Father Sebastian’s teacher, (it is customary to use the second name with the title ‘Father’ and so it should be ‘Father Rodrigues’ here, but I like ‘Father Sebastian’ more and so that is how I am going to call him) had been there for years, but recent reports suggested that he has been arrested, tortured and forced to apostatize – deny his faith in Jesus and his Church. Father Sebastian knows the dangers awaiting him but still makes the trip alongwith two fellow priests. Once they reach Japan, they are hidden in a village near a mountain, have to meet Christians and conduct services in secret and hide when government officials who are hunting for missionaries and Christians turn up. The story describes the perils and challenges they face, how their faith is questioned and tested and whether they are able to overcome these challenges and pass these tests or not.

Silence‘ is a book about faith. There are beautiful passages in it on the nature of faith, its beauty and profound depth, the ways it can be tested, the real troubling questions that believers can face during challenging times. I loved these passages. It was fascinating to follow Father Sebastian’s journey of faith into an alien land, the Japan of the middle 17th century. The book has fascinating descriptions of the Japan of the middle 17th century – the everyday life, the culture, the power structure. It is fascinating to ponder on how a predominantly Buddhist country can also have a feudal system which differentiates clearly between the haves and have-nots and crushes people at the bottom of the social pyramid – something which is at stark variance with the beautiful, peaceful image that Buddhism has today. The book also descibes how a religion has to change shape and evolve in interesting ways to adapt to a new culture and take into its fold new believers. I was hoping that the story would end in a blaze of glory like a Hollywood movie – either that Father Sebastian would convince the hostile Japanese about the glory of Jesus or he will be tortured and die, leaving the world gloriously like a martyr. But, the book had a third ending, (Martin Scorsese says in his introduction to the book – “his Japanese captors have a keener sense of understanding of Christianity than he realizes“), one which I didn’t anticipate, a subtle ending which makes one think and contemplate.

Silence‘ is interesting and fascinating for so many different reasons. One of them is that it is written by Shusaku Endo, who is Japanese, but the story is told from the point of view of Father Sebastian, who is Portuguese. Endo was an outsider in his own country when he wrote this book – he was a Christian in a predominantly Buddhist country. That probably must have helped when he wrote this book from an outsider’s point of view. I have to say that he has carried it off brilliantly and the point of view is convincing. The book has a wonderful introduction by Martin Scorsese. There is this beautiful passage in the introduction –

“…on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it coexists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in ‘Silence‘.”

If Marty hadn’t got into movies, he would have made a great writer 🙂 It is amazing how a great artist’s talent manifests itself in many different ways.

Martin Scorsese adapted Endo’s book into a movie. It got rave reviews from critics. It got included in AFI’s (American Film Institute) ten best films of the year. But it was ignored during Oscar time and it bombed in the box office. It is sad. This fan will however be watching it. I know that it will be great – Marty’s adaptations always are.

I have to say one last thing. I read Mary Doria Russell’sThe Sparrow‘ a couple of years back. It had the exact same story. A Jesuit priest goes to a hostile country to preach and do missionary work. And has a crisis of faith there and wonders why God has forsaken him. There are, of course, differences. In Russell’s book that character is called Father Emilio Sandoz. And he doesn’t go to Japan, but to outer space, to another planet 🙂 And there is a fascinating character in the book, a scientist called Anne Edwards, who the author says was modelled after herself, a character I loved. In her interview at the back of the book, Russell doesn’t mention Endo’s book. She says she wanted to write about what happened when two civilizations collided together for the first time in today’s world. I don’t know whether Russell read Endo’s book, got inspired and adapted it with a futuristic plot, with the soul of the original story intact. I think that is what she did. But I don’t know for sure. I might also just be imagining things. If you do get to read both the books, I would love to hear your thoughts.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

Yet his perplexity did not come from the event that had happened so suddenly. What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard, the voice of the cicadas, the whirling wings of the flies. A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened. Could anything be more crazy? Was this martyrdom? Why are you silent? Here this one-eyed man had died – and for you. You ought to know. Why does this stillness continue? This noon-day stillness. The sound of the flies – this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This…this I cannot bear.

Have you read Shusaku Endo’sSilence‘? What do you think about it?

Favourite Books of 2016

I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig

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My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov

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One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal

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One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling

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There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka

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I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.

Novels

(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)

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I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino

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A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!

Science

(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard

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Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

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Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov

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One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

I discovered Minae Mizumura’sA True Novel‘ through this article about giant translated novels that make a mockery of subway reading. When Bellezza suggested a readalong of Mizumura’s book, me and a few others jumped in.

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This book at 862 pages is the longest book that I have read this year. It is also the longest book that I have read on my Kindle. So this is a new experience for me. I realized while I was reading that the pages were flying and the only reason I think this happened was because I was reading a digital copy of the book. I would never be able to read a paper book this fast. I don’t know why we read things faster on a screen when compared to paper.

A True Novel is multi-layered. In the first part of the novel, the author herself is the narrator. There is a preface in the beginning where the author describes how she was inspired to write the book and the story behind it. It makes us think that the story is based on real events. The next  part of the book talks about the narrator’s (that is, the author’s) own life and her experiences while growing up in America and later after she moved to Japan as an adult. Weaved into her story is the story of Taro Azuma, who is a mysterious figure, who works as a chauffeur for a friend of the narrator’s father. No one knows about his past life in Japan, but he works hard and so everyone likes him. In this part of the book the narrator talks about how Azuma comes in and goes out of her life and how she hears news about him through others. Then later, the narrator meets a person called Yusuke, who tells her about Azuma’s life in Japan, before he came to America.

The second part of the book, which comprises most of the book, is the story that the narrator hears from this new person Yusuke. In this part, a woman called Fumiko, whom Yusuke meets in Japan, tells the story of Taro Azuma. This story is also structured like the first part, in the sense, Fumiko tells the story of her life and she weaves in the story of Taro Azuma into it. Through her we hear about how Azuma started his life and how his circumstances changed when he met the family that Fumiko worked for and about the great love of his life, Yoko.

In the final part of the book, which is small and runs for only a few pages, one more narrator Fuyue tells Yusuke more things about Taro Azuma, things we didn’t suspect.

The story then unwinds and we move out from the innermost story arc to the next outer one to the outermost one where the author-narrator finally shares her thoughts.

I liked this circular narration of the story, moving from one narrator in the outer circle to another narrator in the inner circle. It make me think of classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Cao Xueqin’s Dream of Red Mansions which have a similar structure. No one writes like that anymore and so that made me happy.

One more thought I wanted to share on the narrators was this. It is hard to tell whether the three narrators are reliable or not. For example, is this a true story, as the author-narrator Minae Mizumura says? Or is this a literary device that the novelist adopts – like Somerset Maugham did by making an appearance in some of his novels? Did Fumiko tell the whole truth? Or did she suppress some parts of it, as Fuyue, the third narrator says in the end? Or is Fuyue lying or misinformed? These are interesting topics of conversation.

I also loved the central story, which is the story of Taro Azuma and Yoko. It is tempting to call it a love story and that is probably how it will be known. But love is such a catch-all term and these days it is used mostly to refer to love of the romantic variety. Ancient Greek had four different words for love – Eros, Philia, Storge and Agape. Today, love is generally used in the sense of ‘Eros‘. But the love between Taro and Yoko is complex and deep – it is the way one would feel towards one’s soulmate. It has elements of all the four Greek words, but it also has facets which is hard to describe in words. Taro is from a very poor family and Yoko is from a rich family and the love they feel towards each other, an impossible love in post World War II, class-conscious Japan is beautifully described in the middle part of the book. We also see how Japan, a country with a traditional culture and lots of poverty became the industrialized powerhouse it is today and how the lives of our novel’s characters change significantly because of the overall change that the country goes through.

A True Novel‘ has been compared to Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and when we read the book it is easy for us to see why. It is tempting to assume that Taro is the Japanese Heathcliff and Yoko is the Japanese Catherine Earnshaw, but the similarities end after a while. Beyond the brooding, Taro is unique in his own way and so is Yoko. Though there are other similarities in the story – I won’t write about them here because I want you to discover them yourself, if you choose to read the book – and though Minae Mizumura might have been inspired by the Heathcliff-Catherine legend, I would like to see the book as a classic in its own right, a story which tells us how the lives of a few families across different social strata underwent big changes over the past few decades when Japan herself went through significant changes, economically and culturally.

Mizumura’s writes in vintage, spare, Japanese prose. There is no word wasted. The pages fly as a result. I still can’t believe that I read 862 pages in a week! I loved the places where Mizumura takes a digression from the main story and shares her thoughts on other topics – like how one becomes a novelist, about the different kinds of Japanese novels and about the differences between Japanese and English as literary languages. Those were some of my favourite parts of the book.

So, what are my final thoughts on the book? I loved ‘A True Novel‘. After having a bad reading year, I am glad I ended it with a chunkster that I loved. I am also happy that I have now read a giant-translated-novel-that-makes-a-mockery-of-subway-reading 🙂 Yay! I am also happy that I read a Japanese literary work after a long time. I can’t wait to read more of Mizumura’s work, especially her nonfiction book ‘The Fall of Language in the Age of English‘, which I think is an important book for our times.

I don’t think I have done justice to Mizumura’s book in my brief review. If you love Japanese literature and chunksters, this book is for you.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

Let’s say in ten years’ time I have written numerous novels and am doing quite well for myself. I doubt if the day will ever come, but let’s just suppose that it does. Would I then be satisfied? No, I don’t think so. Most likely, I would still want to know if it was my mission on earth to become a novelist. However prosaic a writer’s work or person may be, a writer is also an artist, and every artist must ask himself whether he was born to do what he does, rather than whether he can live by doing it. Behind the question is a perennial—indeed obsessive—need to believe that in some mysterious way one is destined to be an artist. A novelist is particularly prone to this concern. To become a painter, a dancer, or a musician, two things are necessary: an apparent gift and hard training. In contrast, nothing seems easier than becoming a writer. Anyone can string a few sentences together and turn out a novel practically overnight. Who becomes a novelist and who does not seems almost arbitrary. Hence the strong desire to hear a resounding voice from on high telling one that one was indeed destined to write.

I remembered a time when I often encountered new people in unfamiliar places and spent hours with them. Who it was or where the place was did not matter; what mattered was that those hours cut off from routine could be as intoxicating, as blissful, as time spent drifting on the surface of a deep sea. But after I reached my mid-thirties, this happened less, and I began to feel that new encounters were often just repetitions of old ones. I hadn’t experienced meeting a stranger as a pleasure for a very long time.

…one of the many ways in which it (Japanese) differs from European languages is in how the personal pronouns—I, you, we, he, she, and they—function. In its European counterparts, these pronouns are the pillars of the language and are essential in constructing a sentence, even if they are only indicated by the inflections of verbs. This isn’t so in Japanese. Here, the personal pronouns are elusive, constantly shifting, often absent, and function like any nouns. This becomes most problematic when it comes to the use of the personal pronoun “I.” In their first encounters with Western thought, Japanese people tried to grasp the concept of a “subject”—a concept that has become increasingly important in the modern West. Yet in Japanese there exists no grammatical equivalent to, for example, the English word “I.” There is no grammatical “I” that can be used by anybody—which ultimately means no grammatical “I” that can speak as a “subject” independent of its context. In fact, there is no single word for “I” in Japanese but a variety of “I’s,” depending on who the speaker is and whom he is speaking to—a linguistic feature perhaps unimaginable to those who only know European languages. All this renders the notion of the abstract and transcendent “subject” difficult to conceive of in Japanese. And that may be one of the reasons why Japanese readers continue to look for an actual, specific individual in a story rather than perceive the story as the work of a writer’s imagination.

Have you read Minae Mizumura’s ‘A True Novel‘? What do you think about it?

This is my third and final post for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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I think I first heard of Stefan Zweig through a comment made by Peter Hall in his book ‘Cities in Civilization‘, in which Hall talks about Vienna and its culture and architecture and mentions Stefan Zweig’s thoughts on Viennese culture at the beginning of the 20th century. I still can’t believe that I remember that, but happily I do. Later, I read one of Zweig’s short stories in an anthology. I then got his book ‘The World of Yesterday‘ and read the first fifty pages and loved it, but got distracted and kept it aside for a rainy day. I thought that I will get back to it one day and also read other Stefan Zweig books. I have still not got back to that book, but I discovered this story collection ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ and so I thought I will read this first.

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A Game of Chess and other stories‘ has four stories – two of them are short stories and two of them are novellas. The first story ‘The Invisible Collection‘ is about an art dealer who goes to visit a longtime client. He has never met this client, but has been impressed by this client’s wisdom because he has collected little known pieces of art across the years which have gone on to become extremely valuable. Of course, when he actually meets that client, he ends up in an unusual situation. I can’t tell you more – you should read the story.

The second story is a novella called ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘. In this story, a few people are holidaying in the Riviera. They don’t know each other originally, but get to know each other because they are staying in the same guesthouse. They have interesting cultural and intellectual conversations everyday and some of them even play tennis. At one point the wife of one person elopes with one of the guests. Most of the people are critical of the woman and call her irresponsible. But the narrator of the story takes her side and says that given the right circumstances, anyone can break the prevailing social rules and fall in love or get attracted to a stranger. This leads to a lot of heated debate. Then one of the older women takes aside the narrator, asks to speak with him privately and tells him the story of what happened one day in her life many years back. The forms the major part of the story.

The third story, ‘Incident on Lake Geneva‘ is about a stranger who ends up in the shores of Lake Geneva and the people of the town don’t know what to do with him as he speaks a strange language and it is war time. Who he is and what happens to him form the rest of the story.

The fourth story, a novella, is the title story ‘A Game of Chess‘. A ship is leaving New York for Buenos Aires. It has the World Chess Champion Mirko Czentovic in it. Our narrator wants to engage the champion Czentovic in some way. But Czentovic avoids people. The narrator tries to catch his attention by engaging in a game of chess with a fellow traveller. The trick works. Czentovic agrees to join them next day for a game or two. And he easily defeats them. But the story doesn’t end there. One of the spectators joins the amateur players against Czentovic. He is able to see the World Champion’s tactics and strategy many moves in advance and gives the right kind of advice. Before long, the amateurs are able to hold their own against the World Champion. Czentovic is impressed and calls for a game next day with this mysterious traveller. Meanwhile our narrator goes to meet this mysterious traveller and this mysterious chess genius tells the story of how he got so good at the game.

I loved all the stories in the book, but I loved the novellas a little bit more. I can’t decide which is my favourite story, because I liked both ‘A Game of Chess‘ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’ equally well. All the stories had beautiful passages that I liked very much. Most of them had an interesting structure – a narrator starts to tell us the story and this narrator meets another person who takes over and tells us the rest of the story, the important part of the story. This is how stories used to be written once upon a time, in which the original narrator doesn’t play an important part in the story. It made me smile. There is a description of the Riviera in ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘ which is incredibly beautiful which I loved. ‘A Game of Chess‘ has been called the best chess story ever written. I don’t know about that, but it definitely had one of the most beautiful passages on chess that I have ever read.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’

Most people have little imagination, and what does not impinge on them directly, or run a sharp wedge insistently into a sensitive spot, generally fails to arouse them. On the other hand, something quite minor can put them in a towering passion if it happens right before their eyes or touches off their most immediate feelings. So, in a sense, the rarity of their emotional involvement is offset by the unwarranted and excessive vehemence they show in such instances.

You know the Riviera landscape. It’s always fine, but it offers its rich hues complacently and with picture-postcard flatness to the eye, rather like a sleepy, languid beauty who is content to be touched by every gaze, almost oriental in her ever-luxuriant display. But sometimes, very seldom, there are days when this beauty rises up with a purpose and cries out for attention, sparkling with madly garish colours and flinging her myriad blooms triumphantly in one’s face, her sensuality burning bright. And just such an effervescent day had dawned after the stormy chaos of the night. The rain-washed street gleamed white, the sky was turquoise and on all sides lush bushes catching the light flamed like green torches. The mountains seemed nearer and more distinct in the crisp, sunny sky, pressing forward inquisitively on the glittering, brightly polished town.

From ‘A Game of Chess

But are we not guilty of belittling chess by calling it a game at all? For surely it is also a science and an art, poised between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique fusion of all opposing pairs : ancient yet eternally new, mechanical in its arrangement yet requiring imagination for its effect, limited to a fixed geometrical space yet limitless in its permutations, forever evolving yet sterile, a thought process without purpose, a mathematics that solves nothing, an art form with no artworks, an architecture without materials, and nevertheless demonstrably more enduring in its essence and being than any book or artefact. It is the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, and no one knows which divinity brought it into the world to stave off boredom, sharpen wits and firm up the spirit. Where is its beginning and where its end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any bungler can try his hand at it, and yet from within its small, unvarying square field it brings forth an extraordinary and incomparable species of virtuoso, people whose peculiar gifts make chess their only possible vocation. In this type of genius, vision, patience and technique operate in the same proportions as with mathematicians, poets and composers – only these elements are differently layered and combined.

I don’t think I have done justice to this beautiful book in my review. ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I will definitely be reading it again. I can’t wait to read more Stefan Zweig.

Other reviews

The Invisible Collection (Jonathan’s review – Intermittencies of the Mind)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Lisa’s review – ANZ Lit Lovers)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Melissa’s review – The Book Binder’s Daughter)

A Game of Chess (David’s review – David’s Book World)

Have you read ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘? What do you think about it?