Archive for November, 2022

I read Alina Bronsky’sMy Grandmother’s Braid‘ recently, and liked it very much. So I decided to read her first book ‘Broken Glass Park‘. I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Sascha Naimann lives with her mom and her younger brother and sister. One day a tragedy happens in her family. Sascha decides to avenge this and kill the perpetrator. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. This is the vaguest of the vague description of the story. You need to read the book to find out more. Don’t want to spoil your reading pleasure by telling you more 

There is good news and bad news. First, the good news. Sascha is a irreverent, fascinating character. She is also the narrator of the story and she doesn’t mince any words, and she calls a spade a spade. It is very interesting to see the world through her eyes. Alina Bronsky’s writing is sharp and cuts like a knife. It is also filled with style and humour. It is a pleasure to read. The pages just fly. I read most of the book today, and I didn’t know how the pages flew by! One of my favourite passages comes in the beginning of the book and it goes like this –

“My name is Sascha Naimann. I’m not a guy, even though everyone in this country seems to think so when they hear my name. I’ve given up counting how often I’ve had to explain it to people. Sascha is a short form of Alexander and Alexandra. I’m an Alexandra. But my name is Sascha—that’s what my mother always called me, and that’s what I want to be called. When people address me as Alexandra, I don’t even react. That used to happen a lot more when I was new in school. These days it only happens when there’s a new teacher.”

I loved the first part of the book, in which Sascha describes the people in her life and what happened and what she plans to do about it. There is a character called Maria who helps out Sascha and her family, who is fascinating.

Now, the bad news. In the second part of the book, Sascha packs her backpack, leaves her home, and goes on a Holden Caulfield kind of adventure, meeting unknown people and sometimes doing crazy stuff. Some parts of this were interesting, but I didn’t like this as much as the first part. I wanted to know more about how Sascha was plotting her revenge and whether she was able to pull it off. This sidetrack into a totally different story felt like a distracting digression. However, if we look at the story as a coming-of-age story, instead of as a revenge story, it looks much better. So probably I was underwhelmed by the second part because of my own expectation.

Inspite of all this, I enjoyed reading ‘Broken Glass Park‘. Mostly because of Alina Bronsky’s writing. I have to say though that I loved ‘My Grandmother’s Braid‘ more.

Have you read ‘Broken Glass Park‘ or other books by Alina Bronsky?


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I’ve wanted to read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘ for a long time, ever since I discovered it. It is a German epic from the 13th century and it has been regarded as the German equivalent of ‘The Iliad’ by some readers. I finally got to read it today. I have two translations of this epic, an old one by D.G.Mowatt, and a new one by William Whobrey. I read the William Whobrey one, while dipping occasionally into the Mowatt one. I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

The William Whobrey translation

A handsome prince arrives in a land which has a beautiful princess. His desire is to win her hand. The story starts in a fairytale fashion like this. After this, there are lots of adventures, love, romance, friendship, some war in which the good guys win. Then there is jealousy, treachery, betrayal, one of the good characters gets killed, another swears vengeance, and after many complicated happenings, the avenging angel gets her vengeance. But things don’t go according to plan, and nearly everyone is dead in the end.

The D.G.Mowatt translation

I liked the first half of the book, till one of the main characters gets killed. It had all the things I look forward to, in a classical epic – adventure, romance, friendship. The last one-fourth of the book is filled with fighting and violence – it is more bloody than the terrible episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’. Imagine how the situation would be if it is the ‘Red Wedding’ times ten! It is not for the faint-hearted and I found that part hard to read.

One of my favourite parts of the book involved a warrior queen called Brunhild. She gets married, and then this happens.

She said, “My dear knight, let it be. What you were hoping for is not going to happen. You can rest assured that I’m going to stay a virgin until I’ve heard the whole story.”

Gunther was furious at her. He forced himself on her and tore her nightgown, but that remarkable women in turn grabbed a belt, a strong band that she wore around her waist. She made the king suffer with it. She tied up his feet and his hands, carried him to a nail protruding from the wall, and hung him on it for disturbing her sleep. Sex was out of the question. In fact, she nearly killed him, she was that strong.

Then the one who thought he should be the master began to plead. “My dear queen, please let me loose! I know that I can never get the better of you, dear lady, and I promise I’ll never lie so closely beside you again.”

She didn’t care how uncomfortable he was. She was perfectly comfortable in bed, and so he hung there all night until the morning light shone through the window. If he had ever had any strength, there was no sign of it now.

The maiden asked, “Tell me now, Lord Gunther, wouldn’t it be humiliating if your chamberlains found you had been tied up by a woman?”

I laughed when I read that 😆 I fell in love with Brunhild, of course 😊 Who wouldn’t? It is so amazing that the poet who wrote this epic, wrote this scene 800 years back!

Brunhild does some questionable stuff after this scene, but I liked her till the end. I wish there is a story which describes how she became a warrior queen, at a time when women from the royal family stayed inside the palace. That story will be fascinating to read.

I’m glad I finally got to read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘. I won’t say that I loved it, but I liked parts of it, and I’m glad I read it. It was made into a two-part movie by Fritz Lang and  parts of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas are based on this epic. I want to watch them both sometime.

Have you read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nelly Sachs a few years back. I saw her photo and it looked like a photo of a gentle aunt or grandma that we all might have. It was love at first sight for me. I went and got a poetry collection by her and dipped into it. It was mostly moving and heartbreaking poems. I wanted to read her biography, and after some search I discovered this one, ‘Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis‘ by Aris Fioretos . I was very excited! I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Nelly Sachs was born in a privileged family and her father was a small industrialist. She never married and was single all her life. When she was young she fell in love with someone, but her dad didn’t approve of her lover, and so she stayed single. Her dad fell ill at some point, and Nelly Sachs took care of him for years. After he died, her mom fell ill, and Nelly Sachs took care of her mom for years. When her mom passed, Nelly Sachs was sixty years old. Her life was a lifetime of service dedicated to her parents.

Nelly Sachs at around the time she won the Nobel Prize

When the Nazis came to power, and started bringing laws which squeezed the Jewish community, Nelly Sachs and her mom suffered because they were Jewish. At some point, exactly on the day she got a letter from the government that she had to report to a labour camp, she and her mom, with the help of friends, fled to Sweden. Nelly Sachs was fifty years old then. She spent the next thirty years in Sweden, initially as a refugee, and later as a Swedish citizen. During her time in Sweden, Nelly Sachs wrote poems which were mostly about the Holocaust. They were well received and acclaimed, but in small literary circles. In the 1960s, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her moving, powerful poetry.

After her mom passed, Nelly Sachs fell into a deep depression. All the anguish, that she had probably held in her heart for years, appeared to have come out. She imagined that the followers of the Nazis were pursuing her again. She had to get herself admitted to the hospital multiple times to take care of her mental health. Her greatest, most famous years as a poet, when she won many literary prizes, including the Nobel, were also the years filled with deep depression. Nelly Sachs died when she was seventy-nine. Her long life of suffering and anxiety, which was also filled with beauty, friendship and people whom she could call family, came to an end.

Nelly Sachs was virtually unknown in the wider literary world before she won the Nobel Prize. After a few moments of fame, when she won the Nobel, she has slipped into obscurity now, and is forgotten today. It is hard to find her poetry in English translation. For many years a small indie publisher called Green Integer, kept two volumes of her poetry collection in print. Even those two volumes are out-of-print now.

Nelly Sachs had a modest opinion about herself. She said, “I have never been a poet, you know. To this day I’ve never owned a desk – my manuscripts are here in the kitchen cupboard…I’m not a literary person. Actually, I’m a real housewife. Not a poet at all.”

Nelly Sachs’ poetry can be divided into two periods. From the time she started writing till 1940, when she lived her life in Germany, and from 1940 till 1970, when she lived in Sweden. There is a distinct difference between her poems of these two periods – they are like chalk and cheese. The poems she wrote during her German years were like traditional German poetry and were on familiar German themes, on fairy tales, fantasy, love, nature. The poems written during her Swedish years were mostly about the Holocaust. When one of her compilers tried publishing a collection of her poetry in later years, Nelly Sachs asked him to remove the poems from her German years, because she wanted to forget them. Her poems from that time are hard to find now.

This book is a beautiful, illustrated biography, and it talks about all this and more. There are photographs in every page, which are deeply linked to the particular section, photographs of books, places, documents, people, objects. The text with pictures brings us a deeply rich reading experience.

The book is not always smooth going. The biographical parts of it flow smoothly. I loved reading about Nelly Sachs’ friends especially, with whom she had really close relationships, and who were her soul sisters, some of whom took great risk during the Nazi era, and helped her escape the country. I also loved reading about her friendship with the poet, Paul Celan, whom she treated as her own brother, though she was thirty years older than him. Celan described their friendship beautifully like this – “Between Paris and Stockholm runs the meridian of pain and solace.” Outside of her parents, Nelly Sachs didn’t have a family, but these friends were her family, and they helped her and were there with her till the end. As they say, we are born into our biological family, about whom we can’t do much, but we can create our own family filled with the people whom we love and who love us back, and Nelly Sachs did exactly that.

The poetry parts of the book were challenging to read, and demanded a lot of attention. I’m not a big fan of analyzing poetry – I love reading poems and contemplate on them and let them do their magic. So reading the analysis of the poems was extra hard for me. The book has a fascinating section which describes how the Nazis restricted Jewish writers and artists and finally banned them. It was a very insightful and heartbreaking part to read.

I loved reading Nelly Sachs’ biography. This is the only biography of hers available in English. It is a labour of love and the author Aris Fioretos has to be commended for his sensitive portrayal of this beautiful poet as well as his deep research into those times.

I’m sharing one of my favourite Nelly Sachs poems here. It makes me cry everytime I read it.

If I only knew

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

– Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead

Have you heard of Nelly Sachs? Have you read any of her poems?

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I thought I’ll dip into James Joyce’sDubliners‘. I read one story and then another, and before I knew, I was immersed into the book!

Dubliners‘ has fifteen stories. It depicts the Dublin of a hundred years back, through the stories of its inhabitants. Most of the stories are 10 pages or less. One of them, ‘The Dead’ is the longest one, at 35 pages. I think that it is Joyce’s masterpiece in the short form.

My favourite stories in the book were ‘Eveline‘, ‘A Little Cloud‘, ‘Clay‘, ‘A Painful Case‘, and, of course, ‘The Dead‘.

Eveline‘ is about a woman who keeps sacrificing her life and serving her family, and she falls in love. She is torn between her sense of duty towards her family and her desire to pursue personal happiness. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking story. I wonder whether Colm Tóibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ was inspired by this.

A Little Cloud‘ is about a man who meets an old friend who has become successful. This man wonders whether he can change his own life and get away and realize his dreams.

Clay‘ is about a woman who takes off from work and goes to meet her former employers who treat her like family. It is a beautiful story.

A Painful Case‘ is about a shy, introverted man who meets a woman and they fall in love. It is an unusual situation for him, and it makes his life complicated. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

The Dead‘ is about a family celebration during festival time. It is a beautiful, complex story. For a short story, it is quite epic in scope, and it almost feels like a novel. It has some of my favourite passages from the book. This story made me remember Thomas Dylan’sA Child’s Christmas in Wales‘.

I loved ‘Dubliners‘. I’m glad I read it. It made me remember one of my favourite books, ‘Up in the Old Hotel‘ by Joseph Mitchell, which is about the New York of a bygone era, seen through the stories of normal people and some eccentric characters. ‘Dubliners’ is probably the first and last book that James Joyce wrote in the traditional style for a normal reader like me. Then he decided that he was done with it, and went and wrote experimental and difficult books like ‘Ulysses‘ and ‘Finnegans Wake‘ which are beyond the comprehension of a reader like me. Wish he had alternated between the two kinds of books, so that there are more accessible books for readers like me. Unfortunately, this is all there is. But I’m glad that he atleast wrote this one accessible book. I’m thankful for that.

Have you read ‘Dubliners‘? What do you think about it?

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There was a package with books inside which I got a few years back, which I had stuffed in a remote corner of the house, out of sight, because there was no other place to keep it, at that time. Today, I took that package out, and looked at what was inside. I was very surprised and excited at what I found!

I always knew that I had got Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens sometime. So, it was nice to see it again. I read the first few pages and it is beautiful. So tempted to drop everything and continue reading it. But I am in the middle of German Literature Month and so this will have to wait.

I’m very excited about the Fitzgerald collection. It has all the novels and many of his short stories. I’ve read The Great Gatsby before. I’ve always wanted to read Tender is the Night. So inspired to get started on this. Have always loved Fitzgerald’s prose.

I was happy to see Dubliners in the James Joyce collection. I haven’t read that yet. I can read it now. I’ve read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Hope to read Ulysses someday. Just checked the first few pages of Finnegan’s Wake in this volume. It looks unreadable. I don’t know whether I can get through 500 pages of this.

The Lewis Carroll collection was the biggest surprise for me. I don’t know why I got it. I already have beautiful editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I like Carroll but I’m not a passionate fan like other readers are. But when I browsed the book, it immediately pulled me in. There is a two novel series called Sylvie and Bruno which I’ve never heard of before, which looks very appealing. Carroll’s poetry is very beautiful and readable. And there is one story in the book, which has a mathematical puzzle at the end of every chapter. It looks very fascinating! Why didn’t I know about this before?

I don’t know which book I’ll start first. The Dickens biography and Lewis Carroll are pulling me right now. But I’m so happy that I found these treasures today. As the old story goes, sometimes we search for treasure through the whole world, and at the end, we find it in our own garden. Life is endlessly surprising 😊

Do you like finding surprising treasures in your own home? Do you like these writers? Have you read some of these books?

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Favourite quotes from the book, as promised 😊 You can find my review of the book here. Read this for German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Ingrid Bergman as Joan Madou in the film adaptation of ‘Arc de Triomphe

“The cool bright face which didn’t ask for anything, which simply existed, waiting – it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream into it anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities…It depended on the one who filled it. How limited by comparison was all that is already completed and labeled –”

“Because I love you.”
“How she handles that word, Ravic thought. Without deliberation, like an empty bowl. She fills it with something and calls it love. With how many things had it been filled already! With fear of being alone –  with stimulation through another ego – with the boosting of one’s self-reliance with the glittering reflection of one’s fantasy but who really knows? Wasn’t what I said about growing old together the stupidest thing of all? Isn’t she far more right with her spontaneousness? And why do I sit here on a winter night, between wars, and spout words like a schoolmaster? Why do I resist, instead of plunging myself into it disbelievingly?”

“The early day blew its pure breath from afar, across all the dirty backyards and the smoky roofs, into the window, and there was still the breath of woods and plains in it.”

“Love! How much that word had to cover! From the softest caress of the skin to the most remote excitement of the spirit, from the simple desire for a family to the convulsions of death, from insatiable passion to Jacob’s struggle with the angel. Here am I, Ravic thought, a man of more than forty years, trained in many schools, with experience and knowledge, who has been beaten down and has risen again, sifted through the filter of the years, having become more callous, more critical, colder – I did not want it and I did not believe it, I did not think it would come again – and now here it is and all my experience is of no avail, all the knowledge makes it only the more burning – and what burns better in the fire of the emotions than dry cynicism and the stacked wood of the critical years?”

“Something had gone wrong, at some point the ray of his imagination had failed to hit the mirror, the mirror that caught it and threw it back intensified into itself, and now the ray had shot beyond into the blind sphere of the unfillable and nothing could bring it back again, not one mirror or a thousand mirrors. They could only catch a part of it, but never bring it back; by now its specter moved forlornly through the empty heavens of love and only filled them with radiant mist which no longer had any shape and which could never again become a rainbow around a beloved head. The magic circle was broken, the lamentation remained, but hope lay shattered.”

“Could he have held her? Could he have held her if he had been different? But what could be held? Only an illusion, little else. But wasn’t an illusion enough? Could one ever attain more? Who knew anything about the black whirlpool of life, namelessly seething beneath our senses, which, out of empty uproar, turned it into things, a table, a lamp, home and You and love? There was only a foreboding and a frightening twilight. Was it not enough?

It was not enough. It was enough only if one believed in it. Once the crystal had burst under the hammers of doubt one could only cement it together, but nothing more. Cement it, lie about it, and watch the broken light that once had been a white splendor. Nothing came back. Nothing reshaped itself. Nothing. Even if Joan came back it would not be the same again. A crystal cemented together. The hour had been missed. Nothing would bring it back.”

“Suddenly heavy thunder rumbled over the city. Raindrops splashed on the bushes. Ravic got up. He saw the street mottled with black silver. The rain began to sing. The heavy drops beat warmly against his face. And suddenly he no longer knew whether he was ludicrous, or miserable, whether he was suffering or not – he only knew that he was alive. He was alive! He was there, it held him again, it shook him, he was not a spectator any longer, not an onlooker from outside; the great splendor of uncontrollable feeling shot through his veins again like fire through a furnace; it scarcely mattered whether he was happy or unhappy, he was alive and he was fully aware that he was alive and that was enough.

He stood in the rain which was pouring down upon him like heavenly machine-gun fire. He stood there and he was rain and form and water and earth; the lightning from the horizon crossed within him, he was creature, element; nothing any longer had a name and was thereby made lonesome, everything was the same, we, the pouring rain, the pale fires above the roofs, the earth which seemed to swell; there were no longer any frontiers and he belonged to all this and happiness and unhappiness were empty husjs cast off by the overpowering sensation of being alive and feeling it.”

“He…placed a pile of books on the table by his bed. He had bought them two days before in order to have something to read in case he was not able to sleep. It was a strange thing about books – they were becoming more and more important to him. They were not a substitute for everything, but they reached into a sphere where nothing else could reach. In the first years he had not touched books; they had been lifeless in comparison with what had happened. But now they had become a wall; if they did not protect, at least one could lean against them. They did not help much; but they kept one from final despair in a time that was racing back into darkness. That was enough. Once thoughts had been thought that were despised and ridiculed today; but they had been thought and they would remain alive and that was enough.”

Which of these three quotes do you like the most? 😊

Quote 1

Kate : “Which century would you like to live in, Ravic, if you could choose?”

Ravic : “In this one. Otherwise I’d be dead and some idiot would be wearing my costume to this party.”

Kate : “I don’t mean that. I mean, in which would you like to live your life over again.”

Ravic : “Just the same. In ours. It is the lousiest, bloodiest, most corrupt, colorless, cowardly, and dirty so far – but nevertheless.”

Kate : “I wouldn’t. In this one. In the seventeenth. Or in an earlier one. In any only not in ours.”

– From ‘Arc de Triomphe’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Quote 2

“Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.”


Quote 3

“Someday, all centuries will end up looking alike under the stars’ dust. For now I’m content just to cherish my favourite centuries, beginning with mine, so fierce and sly, brilliantly fuelled by science, unquenchable in its rage against nature.”

– From ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon‘ by Nicole Brossard

Have you read ‘Arc de Triomphe‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Erich Maria Remarque’sArc de Triomphe‘ for a long time. I discovered it through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat‘) recommendation. I finally started reading it at the beginning of this month, but I couldn’t make much progress because I was following the cricket world cup. The world cup ended a couple of days back, and then I did a couple of days of readathoning and here I am. I read it for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

The story told in ‘Arc de Triomphe‘ goes like this. It is the year 1936. A man walks in the streets of Paris in the middle of the night. He finds a woman on the way, who looks lost and despondent. This man offers to take her to her home or wherever she is staying. She refuses to go back. Then he decides to take her to his place. Who is this mysterious woman who is out late in the middle of the night? Who is this man? What happens between them? You have to read the story to find out 😊

Arc de Triomphe‘ bring the Paris of that era vividly alive. We meet refugees who don’t have any documents and who live in constant fear of being deported. (Nothing much has changed today.) There are refugees who are doctors who help people by performing surgeries. But it is illegal, and if they are caught, they’ll end up in prison. Refugees fall in love, but the future of their lives looks uncertain. The political situation is also uncertain with war looming ahead. There are also refugees who live in constant fear of meeting their Nazi torturers again.

In the midst of all this, Erich Maria Remarque tells us a beautiful love story. Yes, that is right. This is a love story. Atleast, a big part of it is. I didn’t expect that. Remarque’s stories always have a love story embedded in, but predominantly his books are about war or about the onset of war, or life between wars. But a significant part of this book is about love and the relationship between two people. Remarque shows us that he is very good at writing a love story, and those parts of the book are a pure pleasure to read, because the prose zings and pulls our heartstrings.

There are two complaints I have about the book though. The first is the title. The original title of the book is ‘Arc de Triomphe’. It is the name of a monument in Paris. The translators have translated it to ‘Arch of Triumph’. I reject the translated title and refuse to use it. It is frustrating when translators do stuff like this. Please leave the Arc de Triomphe alone. The second complaint I have is about the ending. Remarque does what he normally does. He goes and kills off one of the main characters. In other books of his, sometimes there is reason and logic in this. But in this book, it was just thrust in without any reason. It felt like a cinematic ending forcibly thrust into the story to make the reader cry. Why Remarque, why?

So where does ‘Arc de Triomphe’ stand in the pantheon of Remarque novels? I’ve read only three till now – ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘, ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die‘ and now ‘Arc de Triomphe’. They are all different books and I loved them all. I think ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die’ is probably my favourite, but if I think again, it is so hard to choose. They are all beautiful.

There are so many beautiful passages in the book that I’d like to share. But I’m too tired and too lazy now to look through the book again. Maybe, I’ll do that later and write a separate post with my favourite quotes.

I loved ‘Arc de Triomphe‘. There is a film adaptation of the book starring Ingrid Bergman. I want to watch it sometime.

Have you read ‘Arc de Triomphe‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other Erich Maria Remarque books?

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I finally got around to watching the film adaptation of Kalki’s classic historical novel, ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ (‘Ponni’s Son’). I wanted to watch it in the theatre, but being the couch potato I am, I just sat on it, and when it came out on Amazon Prime, I watched it in the last couple of days.

What is the story about? Well, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has a long, epic, rambling plot. I’ll just repeat here, what I wrote in my review of the first part of the book, last year. You can find the whole review here. ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is a historical novel set at around 970 C.E. It is about the Chola king and queens and princes and princesses and their friends and enemies. It has everything that one would expect in a historical novel – many characters, intricate plot, conspiracies, palace intrigues, romance, war, amazing adventures, secrets from the past, charming characters, spies, badass villains, many surprising revelations. The influence of Alexandre Dumas is deeply felt in Kalki’s book – there is a young man, Vandhiyadevan, who looks like D’Artagnan, there is a beautiful woman, Nandini, who looks like Milady de Winter, and there is even a minister like Cardinal Richelieu. Of course, the actual plot and characters are different and fascinating in their own way.

So, what do I think about the film adaptation? I think that the film is well made. The settings look natural and real and it brings the Tamil period of a thousand years back, vividly alive. The songs all sound natural and feel part of the story, and they don’t feel forcibly tucked in. The acting by all the actors and actresses feels quite natural and they represent the characters very well. The cinematography is excellent. The last scene with the ship stuck in the storm is amazing and realistic and beautifully made. I haven’t seen something like this in a Tamil movie ever. Mani Ratnam has definitely broken new ground here.

Now something on the cast and the characters.

From left to right : Vandhiyathevan, Kundavai, Aditha Karikalan, Nandini, Arulmozhi Varman

Aishwarya Rai as Nandini was perfect! I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. I think Ramya Krishnan in her prime would have been perfect in that role, but outside of her, I don’t see anyone else as good. I think this might be Aishwarya Rai’s finest role ever. Glad to know that Mani Ratnam and Aishwarya Rai got that right.

Aishwarya Rai as Nandini
Aishwarya Rai as Nandini
Nandini as depicted in the book

Trisha as Princess Kundavai was very good. Not like the Kundavai from the book, but still very good.

Trisha as Kundavai
Kundavai and Vandhiyathevan as depicted in the book

Kundavai’s best friend, Vanathi, is very different in the movie compared to the book. In the book, Vanathi is a shy, introverted character, who is in love with the prince, but in the movie, Vanathi is a cool, stylish, mischievous, extroverted character. Very different! But still, the movie Vanathi is good, and Sobhita Dhulipala depicts her very well.

Sobhita Dhulipala as Vanathi
Vanathi and Kundavai as depicted in the book

The boatwoman Poonguzhali in the book is a quiet, introspective, melancholic character, but the movie Poonguzhali is different. She is definitely not melancholic. But the character of Poonguzhali in the movie is very well depicted and Aishwarya Lekshmi plays that character very well. I liked the bantering she does with Vandhiyathevan.

Aishwarya Lekshmi as Poonguzhali
Poonguzhali as depicted in the book

There are too many characters in the story to talk about in detail, but I’ll just talk about two more. Karthi as Vandhiyathevan is very good. He shows style, humour, flirts with women. But he is not the Vandhiyathevan that I imagined. The Vandhiyathevan of the book is a legendary figure, and he is probably the greatest character that Kalki ever created. It is hard to get him perfect on the screen. I think MGR in his prime would have been a great Vandhiyathevan. He would have been perfect. Maybe Kamalahasan in his prime. Maybe Parthiban in his prime. I can’t see anyone else playing that role. But these actors are older now or they are not around. So the director has done the best he could. Karthi has done pretty well.

Karthi as Vandhiyathevan

I never thought that Jeyam Ravi would be Arulmozhi Varman. I always saw him as an angry young man. Arulmozhi from the book is a prince who never gets angry, who loves peace, and everyone loves him. But Jeyam Ravi does his best to depict this Chola prince, and one can’t fault him for that.

There is one thing though, that I’d like to nitpick. The screenplay. The story as depicted in the movie is an open book. We know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and what is exactly happening. There are no surprises. That is not at all how the book is. The book is filled with surprises and that is one of the pleasures of reading it. The movie reveals everything upfront. For example, in the first scene in the movie, the crown prince Aditha Karikalan calls Vandhiyathevan and tells him that he has to go on a mission and gives him all the details. This is not how the book starts. In the book, Vandhiyathevan is riding his horse near the lake during festival time. We don’t know why he is there. Lots of surprising things happen after that, and the truth is slowly revealed. Even when things are revealed, we have a suspicion that there is still more to it. This is how Kalki keeps the reader riveted to the book. But in the movie, there are no surprises. If I have to give an analogy, in the first Harry Potter book, we see Harry living in his uncle’s and aunt’s place, being treated badly. Then one day, suddenly, a giant man arrives, and frees him from there and takes him to a strange place. This is how the book starts. This beginning of the book has got a lot of unexpected surprises that we don’t see coming. If the movie version of the book didn’t start with this, but started with a conversation between Dumbledore and Hagrid, with Dumbledore asking Hagrid to bring Harry to Hogwarts, then there are no surprises. The pleasure of the surprise is lost. This is what I saw in the Ponniyin Selvan film adaptation.

I can understand why the director and screenplay writers made this significant change. A movie filled with surprises at every turn and in which we are not sure about the intentions of the main characters, is pleasurable to watch. But in the past, when Tamil filmmakers experimented a little like this, they were taking a big risk, and the movie bombed at the box office. It is a surprising thing, because the same audience watches English movies and French movies and are able to enjoy the mysteries, and the twists and turns, and the subtext. But when they come in a Tamil movie, they reject it. It is one of the mysteries of the Tamil movie audience which is difficult to fathom. So with a big budget movie like this, I can understand why the director didn’t want to take any risks and revealed everything upfront. For movie goers who’ll never read the book (most won’t because the book is more than 1500 pages long), this change in the screenplay won’t have any impact, because the movie is excellent. But for fans of the book, this is a significant change, which makes the story as told in the book, much better and more pleasurable than the movie.

I enjoyed watching the film adaptation of ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘. Can’t wait for the second part! Now I have to go and dust the copy of the book I have (I have atleast 4 editions I think) and read it from the beginning before the next part of the movie comes out.

I also hope that this is the start of an era when more Tamil historical novels will be adapted into movies. Kalki’sSivakamiyin Sabatham‘ (‘Sivakami’s Oath’) deserves to be adapted into a movie. So does Sandilyan’sMannan Magal‘ (‘The King’s Daughter‘) and Akilan’sVengayin Mainthan‘ (‘The Tiger’s Son‘). There are more, there are lots. Tamil historical fiction is a field which is rich and which is a gift that never stops giving.

Have you watched ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Peter Handke’sA Sorrow Beyond Dreams’ through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve been hesitant to read Peter Handke because of all the controversies surrounding him, but this book was about his mom and so I couldn’t resist. I read it for German Literature Month (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ which is celebrated for the whole of November, and which is in its 12th season this year.

The book is not really a book. It can be called a long essay. It starts with Peter Handke describing his mom’s suicide. Then he describes her life, as much of it as he has discovered, how she grew up in poor and challenging conditions, tried escaping from it, but things didn’t go as planned, and how she came back to it. It was very moving and heartbreaking. When Handke becomes a writer and is able to help his mom, things get better, but this story doesn’t have a happy ending as the story of Édouard Louis’ mom has in ‘A Woman’s Battles and Transformations’.

Peter Handke’s story about his mom is moving and heartbreaking. It was published nearly fifty years back and I’m surprised that it was not that well-known until recently. It is up there with the great stories of mothers by Annie Ernaux, Édouard Louis and Erwin Mortier.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten—like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext. These two dangers—the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”

“She read newspapers, but preferred books with stories that she could compare with her own life…“I’m not like that”, she sometimes said, as though the author had written about her. To her, every book was an account of her own life, and in reading she came to life; for the first time, she came out of her shell; she learned to talk about herself; and with each book she had more ideas on the subject. Little by little, I learned something about her. Up until then she had got on her own nerves, her own presence had made her uncomfortable; now she lost herself in reading and conversation, and emerged with a new feeling about herself. “It’s making me young again.” True, books to her were only stories out of the past, never dreams of the future; in them she found everything she had missed and would never make good. Early in life she had dismissed all thought of a future. Thus, her second spring was merely a transfiguration of her past experience. Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but showed her it was too late for that. She could have made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave some thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a little less about what people might think.”

Have you read ‘A Sorrow Beyond Dreams‘? What do you think about it?

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