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Summer 2008 Round-up

A round-up of what I have seen/read/done over the past couple of months. I thought it would amount to excessive narcissism, but some people have actually asked.

  • · Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw; 1913): A professor of phonetics tries to transform a Cockney street-girl into a refined lady. The professor, Henry Higgins, is funny, but nothing extraordinary. I found it to be too Victorian to be enjoyable. Though I will use the phrases “squashed cabbage-leaf” and “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” from now on.
  • · Waiting for the Barbarians (JM Coetzee, 1980): Absta-fucking brilliant. There’s a Phillip Glass (of the Qatsi Trilogy fame) opera based on this novel, and I’m trying to find it. Set in a frontier town of an unnamed empire, the town magistrate (the narrator) finds his rather peaceful existence at an end when the Empire sends troops to deal with barbarians, who are supposedly preparing to attack the Empire. The expedition brings back a number of “barbarian” captives, mostly civilians and even children. The captives are tortured as part of their interrogation, a young boy dies as a result, but the soldiers let the captives go after repeated questioning turns up nothing substantial. The magistrate becomes involved with a girl, left behind crippled and blinded by the torturer, but his love is almost fetishistic. Ultimately, he decides to take her back to her own people, and succeeds after a dangerous, life-threatening journey across a hostile landscape. On his return, he finds the town crawling with Imperial troops, and is accused of collaborating with the barbarians. Stripped of his position, imprisoned, beaten and humiliated, his plight ends only when Imperial troops flee the town after a disastrous expedition. The book is rightly regarded as one of Coetzee’s finest works, and the Nobel Committee caled Waiting for Barbarians “a political thriller in the traditions of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naivete opens the gates to horror.” A must-read.
  • · Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1985): Typical GGM. A grand, sweeping tale set over half a century, I found it heart-warming. I won’t say much about it: GGM is God, infallible, and mere mortals like me dare not pass judgement upon him.One particular line from the book has etched itself into memory: “Unfaithful, but not disloyal.” Brilliant.
  • · Lust for Life (Irving Stone, 1934): A huge let-down.His other major work, The Agony and the Ecstacy (based on Michelangelo Buonarotti) is far better. Lust for Life is a fictional biography of Vincent van Gogh, and large parts of it seem to have been copy-pasted from the letters exchanged between Vincent and Theo van Gogh. It does have it’s bright spots, like Vincent’s life with the Parisian art crowd, his time as a preacher in the dirt poor coal pits of the Borinage (Belgium), and his initial brush with madness. I first read The Agony…, and I expected a lot out of this one, particularly when it came to Vincent’s epilepsy. Sadly, the author messes it up – the part about Wheat Field with Crows is clumsy. The climax of his fit would always be a descending swarm of crows, with bad, bad description. Maybe alright for someone who doesn’t really know much about van Gogh.
  • · Amaresh Mishra: Only for the most hardcore of history fans – consider yourselves warned. His 2 volume set on 1857 is intimidating to look at, with over a thousand pages each. A lot of it seems to be randomly chronicled, making little sense. But it does change one’s perspective on one of the most crucial, yet one of the most under-reported events in Indian history. And the British version (read ribs 11 and 12 for NITK Rostrum junta) seems closer to a steaming pile of dung.
  • · Voltaire: Simply superb. I read Candide, Micromegas, Zadig, The Ingenu, and The White Bull. The man positively rips apart anything and everything he does not agree with. Micromegas is one of the first works of science fiction, and his heavily influenced by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Zadig, or The Book of Fate is less a historical narrative and more a thinly disguised attack on socio-political problems of Volataire’s own day. The main protagonist, Zadig, is a Babylonian philosopher whose fortune oscillates wildly, raising him to prosperity and leaving him destitute before he finally ends up as King of Babylon. The book is deeply philosophical, portraying human life to be in the hands of a destiny beyond human control. Candide is the tale of Candide, a young nobleman residing in a Paradise, and indoctrinated with the philosophy of optimism by his tutor, Dr. Pangloss. What follows is a series of hilarious adventures, as Candide is kicked out of his Paradise, forcibly enlisted as a soldier, he escapes to Lisbon which is then hit by earthquake, tsunami and fire, he is then arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition, declared a heretic and flogged, but he escapes again, finds El Dorado, returns carrying incredible amounts of money and jewels, but ends up losing it all to end his days as a peasant in Turkey. Voltaire is especially ruthless when it comes to the Church. In The Ingenu, he satirizes both the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as the unjust nature of pre-Revolution France. The Ingenu is a Huron Indian who is transported to France, but he finds it difficult to reconcile his common sense with the corrupt nature of contemporary French society.
  • · New Left: I’ll deal with this in other posts.
  • · The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Neil Faulkner, 2002): The title is, as the author acknowledges, a not-so-original take on Edward Gibbon’s classic. But it is a decent read, dealing with day-to-day lives of the Romano-British, while keeping track of the overall history of the Roman Empire, and how it played out in Britain, from Caesar’s invasion to the Roman abandonment in 410 AD. I’d seen the author before, in a documentary on Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. He was described as a historian with a deep distrust of Rome, and that distrust ensures that the book is free of any grand, sweeping tales of larger-than-life figures, making it much more readable.
  • · The Periodic Table (Primo Levi, 1975): Statistically, Primo Levi must’ve been the luckiest man to have lived – he was a Jew who survived Auschwitz. He was working as a chemist in Milan, when the Allied invasion of Italy led to German occupation; all Jews were rounded up and shipped out to death camps. The book begins with the years leading up to Auschwitz, moves on to life in the death camp itself, and moves on to the author’s attempts to come to grips with life after the war. The book is different, it is written by a chemist, and he describes the events of his life using metaphors from chemistry. Every chapter is named after an element, which sets the tone for the story to follow. Good stuff.
  • · Jonathan Swift: Random pick. Read some short stories, but 16th century English gets to you after a while.
  • · The Castle (Franz Kafka, 1923): A man’s struggle against unreachable authorities who control every part of his life. Franz Kafka at his neurotic best.

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