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Melissa, from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’ wrote about her personal canon, her list of alltime favourite books, recently. I saw Aeschylus‘ ‘Agamemnon‘ on the list and I was excited. ‘Agamemnon‘ is the first part of the tragedy ‘The Oresteia‘. I have wanted to read ‘The Oresteia‘ for a long time, and though I knew the story through other sources, I wanted to experience it through the original. But a copy of the book was hard to get. I was excited when I was finally able to get the book, but then I put it in my shelf to be read later. I decided that, that ‘later’ has arrived and it was now and took it down and read it.

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I must be the last person to read ‘The Oresteia‘, but if you haven’t, here is the story. It is filled with spoilers – I am not leaving anything out – and so please be forewarned.

The Oresteia‘ has three parts – Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides. In the first part, Agamemnon who is Menelaus’ brother, returns home after the Trojan war. His wife Klytaimestra (or Clytemnestra as her name is popularly spelt) receives him warmly, but behind his back gets together with one of his enemies and plots to kill him. Her reason for doing that is that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan war, because the priests told him to. (Clearly George RR Martin borrowed that in ‘Game of Thrones‘!) Klytaimestra could never forgive him for that. Klytaimestra does her dark deed and Agamemnon is dead at the end of part one.

In part two, ‘Libation Bearers‘, Orestes the exiled son of Agamemnon, returns home in disguise to visit his father’s grave. There he bumps into his sister Elektra, who has come there to perform a formal ceremony, pouring libations on her father’s grave. Brother and sister get together and plot against their mother and decide to punish her and avenge their father’s murder. Orestes gets into Agamemnon’s home in disguise as a messenger, is able to get his mother Klytaimestra and her new partner together and kills them both. The second part ends here.

In the third part, ‘Eumenides‘, the Furies, which are dark, really bad creatures which live in dark places, are chasing Orestes. The Furies have a special place in the world of that time – they chase murderers who have killed someone of their own blood and torment them and kill them and continue tormenting them in the after-life. No human, whether king or pauper, who has committed this grievous act is safe from them. Orestes flees from them and asks for help from the god Apollo. Apollo asks him to go to the temple of Athena and pray to her. The Furies chase him down there. Athena arrives too. She hears both sides. Orestes says that he killed his mother because she killed his father. The Furies say that anyone who kills his mother should face the consequences as meted out by the Furies, which was the ancient law. Athena constitutes a court of wise people from Athens, asks both sides to present their case, and asks the jury to vote. They get a hung verdict. Athena has the casting vote and she decides in favour of Orestes. The Furies are enraged. They swear to destroy the city of Athens. But Athena mollifies them, provides them a place of residence there, and elevates them to the status of gods. Everyone lives happily everafter. Except  for Agamemnon and Klytaimestra, of course. Because they are dead.

I loved ‘The Oresteia‘. Though I knew the story through other sources, it was wonderful to experience it through Aeschylus’ original. There are beautiful lines throughout the book and the poetic beauty and elegance of Aeschylus’ lines glows through every page. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the original Greek. In one place there was this sentence – “I am bereft of thought’s resourceful care“. It was almost like reading Shakespeare. Then I realized that the Bard had probably borrowed his style from the ancients. In addition to lifting all plots of his plays and eighty percent of his lines from elsewhere, it looks like he also borrowed the style. Thank you, Will, I learn new things about you, everyday 🙂

In a revenge story, we all take sides, and traditionally, Klytaimestra has been regarded as the bad person, atleast from what I know. But when I read the play, it was hard for me to not like her. She was avenging her daughter’s unnecessary death and we could feel the deep pain of her heart, the heart of a mother in mourning. And because of that I was cheering for the Furies in the end. I have never liked the Furies before, and I have always found them scary, but when I read this, I could see their point of view. I loved most of ‘Eumenides‘ because the Furies have a huge part to play in that and they speak some powerful lines.

The end of the play is interesting, because it has always been regarded as the dawn of a new world, with the old giving way to the new, and custom and tradition giving way to the rule of law. But the translator, Michael Ewans puts paid to all such thoughts when he quotes another scholar in his introduction – “the cliché we have heard repeated all our lives, that the Eumenides depicts the transition from the vendetta to the rule of law, is utterly misleading…This trilogy is not an allegory of the evolution of civilization, or of divinity.” That is depressing. But I am a firm believer in Mark Twain’s advice – “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So, I am going to ignore Ewans’ advice and stick to the popular interpretation, that the end of the Eumenides signifies the dawn of a new era.

I don’t know how Michael Ewans’ translation compares with the others – especially Richmond Lattimore’s and Robert Fagles’ – because I haven’t read the others and I don’t know Ancient Greek, but as a general reader, I liked it. Ewans, in his introduction, talks about how plays were staged in Ancient Greece, how Greek theatre is different from today’s theatre and on the challenges of translating Aeschylus into English. He is an academic in classics who has spent many decades teaching and staging ‘The Oresteia‘ (he says it all started with his doing his PhD in it) and so he must know one or two things about it. I will take that. The edition I read also had notes in the end stretching to more than one hundred pages – nearly half of the book – and it had detailed commentary on the scenes and on how they were probably staged originally and how performers can stage them today. A very useful resource for theatre artists.

I discovered that there are two other plays which cover the same story, but probably from a different perspective. Both of them are called ‘Electra‘. One is by Sophocles and the other is by Euripides. I can’t wait to read them and compare them with ‘The Oresteia‘.

Have you read Aeschylus‘ ‘The Oresteia‘? What do you think about it?

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While discussing books recently, one of my friends highly recommended Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil‘. I haven’t read a Maugham book in years and I wanted to read ‘The Painted Veil‘ when the movie came out, but couldn’t at that time. Now after my friend gushed about it, I thought I will read it now.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Kitty is married to Walter, a bacteriologist, who is stationed in Hong Kong. They are very different – Walter is the bookish, nerdy type who likes being left alone while Kitty is the social butterfly and likes being with people. Before long Kitty starts having an affair with Charlie, who is the one of the top ranked diplomats there, and is like Walter’s boss. But one day Walter discovers this. Kitty knows he knows. And there is a deathly silence at home. Before long, Walter tells Kitty that he has to go deep inside mainland China to help out, as there is a cholera epidemic there. He hopes Kitty will come with him. When she refuses, he tells her that he knows about her affair and if she doesn’t come with him he will file a case against Charlie. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter and she wants a divorce as she and Charlie are planning to get married. Walter says that he will agree to the divorce if Charlie’s wife agrees to the divorce with Charlie and Charlie promises to marry Kitty within a week of the divorce. Kitty thinks that should be easy. But when she talks to Charlie, she realizes that that is not what Charlie wants. All the sweet nothings he had whispered in her ear were just that – nothings. Now Kitty is caught between the devil and the deep sea – Charlie has abandoned her and Walter is punishing her. She opts for the punishment and goes with Walter to the place deep inside China. And there she meets some fascinating people has some interesting experiences and she undergoes a deep awakening which hasn’t happened to her before. You should read the book to find out what happens to her.

I liked ‘The Painted Veil’ very much. Kitty Fane was not a very likeable character in the beginning, but to be fair to her, in the era she lived, it was hard for a woman to do what she wanted, and Kitty did what she had to, to find love and happiness. She made me think of Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary and Kristin Lavransdatter. I liked the transformation Kitty undergoes in the second part of the book – it is beautifully depicted and we can’t resist falling in love with her. She is still imperfect and flawed as evidenced towards the end of the book, but she knows that now, and it is hard not to love her. In one place she says –

“I think you do me an injustice. It’s not fair to blame me because I was silly and frivolous and vulgar. I was brought up like that. All the girls I know are like that…It’s like reproaching someone who has no ear for music because he’s bored at a symphony concert. Is it fair to blame me because you ascribed to me qualities that I hadn’t got? I never tried to deceive you by pretending I was anything I wasn’t. I was just pretty and gay. You don’t ask for a pearl necklace or a sable coat at a booth in a fair; you ask for a tin trumpet and a toy balloon.”

Such powerful, thought-provoking lines.

I loved many of the other characters too – Walter and the Mother Superior, Sister St Joseph and Waddington who come in the second part of the book. Even Charlie, who is not exactly likeable, has his part to play.

I was expecting a Victorian type happy ending – Kitty and her husband will get back together and live happily ever after – but that was not to be. The actual ending is complex. I won’t tell you what it is – you should read the book to find out. The blurb says that the book was published to a storm of protest and it is not hard to see why. It was published in 1925, and it feels very contemporary today, with respect to the themes it addresses and the way it describes the relationship between women and men. If something feels contemporary today, it must have been in the banned books list or close to that during its time 🙂 Maugham was famous for talking to people, taking detailed notes and fictionalizing actual events and developing them into a novel. He seems to have done that here too and that might be another reason for the storm of protest. Maugham himself says in the preface to the book that he and the publishers were sued when the story was first published and they had to settle and change some of the names to keep the story in print. I wonder what happened to the real world Kitty Fane – I hope she found happiness.

I have read four Maugham novels before – Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Six Pence, The Razor’s Edge and Cakes and Ale. The Painted Veil is my fifth one. I loved all of them. That is 5-0 for Maugham. He must be doing something right.

If you love Maugham’s work and you haven’t read this one, you should. If you have never read a Maugham book or even heard of him, but you don’t mind dipping your toes into the water, you can start with ‘The Painted Veil‘.

Here are some of my favourite passages to give you a feel of the book.

“Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that other possess it for our pleasure.”

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”

“But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in the river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.”

Have you read ‘The Painted Veil‘? What do you think about it?

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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