Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass

An absolute gem by Grass. The book unfolds through most of before, during and after Second World War. The main character is Oskar. A character so hard to imagine but so vividly portrayed that you actually read the book through his eyes.

Slowly my childhood - the childhood that means so much to me - slipped away. The pain in my gums, foreshadowing my first teeth, died down; tired, I leaned back: an adult hunchback, carefully though rather too warmly dressed, with a wristwatch, identification papers, a bundle of banknotes in his billfold. I put a cigarette between my lips, set a match to it, and trusted the tobacco to expel that obsessive taste of childhood from my oral cavity.

Childhood is the best time of your life - so they say. But for so many, the memory of childhood is merely a burden. You carry so many "symbols of progress" that you wish to imagine all of it never happened. How can you purge it? If only it were as easy as blowing cigarette smoke out.

Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they a busily planning a fifth; in the mean time flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once a ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland's lost, but not forever, all's lost, but not forever, Poland's not lost forever.

Oskar hopes to be forgiven for the poetic effects. He might have done better to give figures, to enumerate the casualties of the Polish cavalry, to commemorate the so called Polish campaign with dry and eloquent statistics. Or another solution would be to let the poem stand but append a footnote.

Out of solicitude for the men's relatives, who would have been crushed by the expense of consuming for so large and flower-consuming a mass grave, the authorities assumed full responsibility for maintenance and perhaps even for transplantation. They had the sandy soil leveled and the cartridge cases removed, except for one - one is always overlooked - because cartridge cases are out of place in any respectable cemetery, even an abandoned one.

The book in a major way laments the invasion of Poland. Having read a bit on the history of Poland, I marvel at the country which had been invaded and partitioned so many times.

The toy merchant sat behind his desk. As usual he had sleeve protectors over his dark-grey everyday jacket. Dandruff on his shoulders showed that his scalp was in bad shape. One of the SA men with puppets on his fingers poked him with Kasperl's wooden grandmother, but Markus was beyond being spoken to, beyond being hurt or humiliated. Before him on the desk stood an empty water glass; the sound of his crashing shopwindow had made him thirsty no doubt.

A person sits behind his desk draining a glass of water before his state-sponsored attackers break into his shop to kill him. What is it about this phrase which I keep reading again and again?

Still, the effect had to be verified. Like a modern painter who, having at last found the style he has been seeking for years, perfects it and discloses his full maturity by turning out one after another dozens of examples of his new manner, all equally daring and magnificent, I too embarked on a productive period.

My dear Oskar, believe an experienced colleague. Our kind has no place in the audience. We must perform, we must run the show. If we don't, it's the others that run us. And they don't do it with kid gloves. They are coming. They will take over the meadows where we pitch our tents. They will organize torch-light parades. They will build rostrums and fill them, and down from the rostrum they will preach our destruction. Take care, young man. Always take care to be sitting on the rostrum and never to be standing out in front of it.

So every artist must find his style and must run the show. If we believe in the show, it is for us to control it or else madness will reign sooner or later. Sooner or later - would the later be when your madness runs the show rather than the art you once believed in?

All three seem happy, as though congratulating one another on their immunity to surprises of the sort that can arise only if one member of their triumvirate should acquire a secret life - if he hasn't had one all along. In their tripartite solidarity, they have little need for the fourth person; all they needed her for was to aim the camera at them, so perpetuating their triangular felicity, photographically at least.

Mama is indulging in a little joke which strikes me as rather good: she has drawn a card and is showing it to the camera lens but not her fellow players. How easy it is with a single gesture, by merely showing the queen of hearts, to conjure up a symbol that is not too blatant; for who would not swear by the queen of hearts?

The others, however - as I have said, there were thirty of them who couldn't make up their minds to run for it - were standing against the wall across the side entrance when Jan leaned the queen of hearts against the king of hearts and, thoroughly blissful took is hand away.
And when he leaned the queen of hearts against the king with the red heart, the edifice did not collapse; no, airily it stood, breathing softly, delicately, in that room where the dead breathed no more and the living held their breath.

Thus it is that even that which we would swear by should fail in the end. So was the burden of being the queen of hearts what made her exit the scene first? Or would the queen of hearts be able to lean against the king with red bleeding heart only in a room where everyone was to exterminated shortly. Did the living hold their breath waiting for the inevitable or were they hoping for a last minute reprieve?

What impressed me most, however, was not the play of light and shade but the sound produced by the dialogue between moth and bulb: the moth chattered away as if in haste to unburden itself of its knowledge, as though it had no time for future colloquies with sources of light, as though this dialogue were its last confession; and as though, after the kind of absolution that light bulbs confer, there would be no occasion for sin or folly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

It wasn't the poverty or the helplessness that disturbed him; it was the thing he would see again and again during the days to come -in the empty windows of photography shops, in the frozen windows of the crowded teahouses where the city's unemployed passed the time playing cards, and in the city's empty snow-covered squares. These sights spoke of a strange and powerful loneliness. It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.

He read something else into the look his friend gave him, and it would stay with him for many years: Muhtar thought he deserved the beating he was about to get. Even with the certainty of his winning the election in four days' time, there was something so unsettling about his composure as to make him seem contrite for what had not yet happened; it was almost as if he were thinking, I deserve this beating not just for having insisted in settling in this godforsaken city but for having succumbed once again to the desire for power; I won't let them break my spirit, but I still hate myself for knowing all this and so I don't feel inferior to you. Please, when you look me straight in the eye, don't throw my shame back at me.

Watching the Kars Border Television archive videotape of the evening's performance, I was struck by the silence in the hall; it was as if the audience had left behind the struggles that defined them - the tussle of fathers and sons, the skirmishes between the guilty and the powerful - to sink into a collective terror; and I was not immune to the power of that shimmering fiction that any citizen of any oppressive and aggressively nationalistic country will understand only too well: the magical unity conjured by the word we

He sees a city that seems to have fallen into some sort of a black hole - forgotten by the rest of the world and even given up on by the people who live there themselves. Was it the fact that he was returning to his native city after all these years that made him feels so? He sees the look on Muhtar's face as one who has aspired for power to escape the drudgery of the city. As if the power would enable someone to rise to a higher level as most often feel. May be it the petty struggles between people that enable them to define themselves in a city as oppressive as this. But would there need to be a terror for the people forget their petty struggles and identify for once with their land? Or does terror cause people to realize how small they are and seek the shelter of a larger entity?

The thing that grieved and distressed him the most was not his terrible unhappiness; it was knowing that, had he acted a bit more intelligently, his entire life might have been much happier. The worst thing was knowing that no one even noticed his fear, his misery, his loneliness.

People who seek only happiness never find it.

He'd been far more relaxed that morning as he sat in his cell awaiting execution. Now he'd managed to save himself, he was already looking ahead in anger, aggrieved to know he'd never manage to do anything in life but generate more wrath.

No happiness lasts very long. But I have no desire to do something heroic that will get me killed just because I know how likely it is that I'll be unhappy again at some point in the future.

The book examines happiness, hope, suffering and despair almost throughout. How many times do you think back about decisions that may have changed the course of your life completely? How ridiculously simple the right decision appears when we think back. So do we make the same mistakes over and over again? The man who doesn't learn from history is condemned to repeat it. But does anyone have the courage to examine their own history? You could lie to others, but you could never lie to yourself. And then again you think sometimes, what difference would it make? I would have sooner or later messed everything up anyway. So what would you see yourself as then? An anarchist who could only take pleasure in destruction, in hoping that he would be remembered only for his crimes. So what of the little happiness that does come his way? Enjoy it while it lasts, before it is business as usual?

For the first time in years, he felt part of a family; in spite of the trials and responsibilities of what was called family, he saw now that it was grounded in the joys of unyielding togetherness, a feeling he was sorry to have known so little in his life.

But now as they welcomed this man to a carefully laid meal, with white cheese soon, he was sure, to be accompanied by raki, it was clear to Ka that such urges had no place at the table of revolutionary leaders, who sat down with an easy confidence known only to those for whom it has become second nature to decide other people's fates.

Contrary to popular opinion, a man can shut out love if he wants to. But to do, he must free himself not only from the woman who has bewitched him but also from the third person in the story, the ghost who has put temptation in his way.

Love and being loved. Possessing and being possessed. A family with a clear hierarchy - would you want the burden of being at the lowest rung even if that means you get spoiled once in a while, or would you want the authority of being at the summit even with all the responsibility that comes with it? Or would you just want to be free, knowing that neither would you ever burden anyone nor would you be the one to decide another's fate? Would that be cowardice - to escape? Or would it be noble to refuse? Maybe the suppressed would only find someone else to suppress them and the suppressors find someone else to suppress. What difference would it make by your escape? So what would it need to escape? Was it really that easy to break a bond? Is it really just the bond that needs to be broken or would you need to deal with larger forces that enable that bond - the third person who has put temptation in your way? and what if those larger forces were too strong to be reckoned with?

Shocked at the beauty of his own words, Ka could not help but ask himself, What does it all mean? It seemed to be a poem someone else had written - this he thought was why he was able to see its beauty. But also, finding it beautiful was a shock considering its contents, considering his own life. How to understand the beauty in this poem?

As Ka had so often suggested to me, I simply did not understand poetry well enough, nor the great sadness from which it issues, and so there had been a wall between us, a wall that now divided me not just from the melancholy city described in his notes but from the impoverished place I was now seeing with my own eyes.

You could see that the world was one, but you thought that if you close your eyes to this vision, you could be more unhappy and also more intelligent. And you were right. Only people who are very intelligent and very unhappy can write good poems. So you heroically undertook to endure the pains of faithlessness, just to be able to write good poems. But you didn't realize then that when you lost that vice inside you, you'd end up alone in an empty universe.

One of its important ideas was the poet's ability to shut off part of his mind even while the world is in turmoil. If this meant that a poet had no more connection to the present than a ghost did, such was the price a poet had to pay for his art!

A good actor is a man who represents the sediment, the unexplored and unexplained powers that have drifted down through the centuries; he takes the lessons he has gleaned and hides them deep inside him; his self-mastery is awesome; never does he bare his heart; no one may know how powerful he is until he strides onto the stage. All his life, he travels down unfamiliar roads to perform at the most out-of-the-way theaters in the most godforsaken towns, and everywhere he goes he searches for a voice that will grant him genuine freedom. If he is so fortunate as to find that voice, he must embrace it fearlessly and follow the path to the end.

Here I searched the checkout slips on the inside back covers for my friend's name; whenever I opened a copy of Auden, Browning, or Coleridge to find his signature, I shed tears for him and for the years he's wasted away in this library.

True to some extent. You need to isolate yourself for that flame of creativity to ignite. But that flame will burn out eventually. No one can sustain the flame forever. After a extended period of isolation would you be able to step back outside and face the world. The world could have changed so much, you would not even want to be a part of it. And what if after all the dedication, you were to and as a nobody? Or worse still someone remembers you after you were dead. I remember picking up a book of linear algebra in the library. Just browsing through, I saw a handwritten note inside the cover page - "Fantastic". The book did turn out to be fantastic and brought out a love for linear algebra. When out of curiosity I searched for the author, I found that he had passed away a few years back. What were my first thoughts? Sadness? Actually, rather stupidly, I felt hope. A hope that someday, someone, anyone would read something that I written and want to search for me online!

Mankind's greatest error, the biggest deception of the past thousand years is this: to confuse poverty with stupidity. Throughout history, religious leaders and other honorable men of conscience have always warned against this shaming confusion. They remind us that the poor have hearts, minds, humanity, and wisdom just like everyone else. When Hans Hansen sees a poor man he feels sorry for him. He would not necessarily assume that the man's a fool who has blown his chances or a drunk who has lost his will.

Here, perhaps, we have arrived at the heart of our story. How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another's heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known? Even if the world's rich and powerful were to put themselves in the shoes of the rest, how much would they really understand the wretched millions suffering around them? So it is when Orhan the novelist peers into the dark corners of his poet friend's difficult and painful life: How much can he really see?

The book examines Turkey's place and especially rural Turkey's place in Europe several times. Many times in the book it appears as if an appeal is made to the rest of Europe for acceptance. But is it because of Europe's affluence versus the poverty of a remote village like Kars? It throws up an interesting debate between the perception the rich and the poor have of each other.

The idea of a solitary westernized individual whose faith in God is private is very threatening to you. An atheist who belongs to a community is far easier for you to trust than a solitary man who believes in God. For you, a solitary man is far more wretched an sinful than a nonbeliever.

You're deceiving yourself! Even if you did believe in God, it would make no sense to believe alone. You'd have to believe in him the way the poor do; you'd have to become one of them. It's only by eating what they eat, living where they live, laughing at the same jokes, and getting angry whenever they do that you can believe in their God. If you're leading an utterly different life, you can't be worshiping the same God they are. God is fair enough to know it's not a question of reason or logic but how you live your life.

Another interesting debate is the relationship between religion and society. Could a man hold his own private belief in God? Or would God exist only when he prays and repents among others? So would God then be a concept that binds a society together or is God a concept that provides each one an inner strength. If God does bind a society together, would God not be the one to expel an individual who insists on his solitude and peace? If God is a concept that strengthens an individual, would God not then weaken the need for society? So eventually, is there a middle ground? Where both God and the individual can coexist?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

A work of genius.

He would like to believe the last explanation. He would like to believe there is enough pity in the air for black people and their lot, enough of a desire to deal honourably with them, to make up for the cruelty of the laws. But he knows it is not so. Between black and white there is a gulf fixed. Deeper than pity, deeper than honourable dealings, deeper even than goodwill, lies and awareness on both sides that people like Paul and himself, with their pianos and violins, are here on this earth, the earth of South Africa, on the shakiest of pretexts. This very milkman, who a year ago must have been just a boy herding cattle in the deepest Transkei, must know it. In fact, from Africans in general, even the Coloured people, he feels a curious, amused tenderness emanating: a sense that he must be a simpleton, in need of protection, if he imagines he can get by on the basis of straight looks and honourable dealings when the ground beneath his feet is soaked with blood and the vast backward depth of history rings with shouts of anger. Why else would this young man, with the first stirrings of the day's wind fingering his horse's mane, smile so gently as he watches the two of them drink the milk he has given them?

Africa is yours. What had seemed perfectly natural while he still called that continent his home seems more and more preposterous from the perspective of Europe: that a handful of Hollanders should have waded ashore on Woodstock beach and claimed ownership of a foreign territory they had never laid their eyes on before; that their descendants should now regard that territory as theirs by birthright. Doubly absurd, given that the first landing-party misunderstood its orders, or chose to misunderstand them. Its orders were to dig a garden and grow spinach and onions for the East India fleet. Two acres, three acres, five acres at the most: that was all they needed. It was never intended that they steal the best part of Africa. If they had only obeyed their orders, he would not be here, nor would Theodora. Theodora would happily be pounding millet under Malawian skied and he would be - what? He would be sitting at a desk in an office in rainy Rotterdam, adding up figures in a ledger.

Patriotism: is that what is beginning to afflict him? Is he proving himself unable to live without a country? Haven shaken the dust of the ugly South Africa from his feet, is he yearning for the South Africa of the old days, when Eden was still possible? Do these Englishmen around him feel the same tug at the heartstrings when there is a mention of Rydal Mount or Baker street in a book? He doubts it. This country, this city, are by now wrapped in centuries of words. Englishmen do not find it at all strange to be walking in the footsteps of Chaucer or Tom Jones.

A beautiful description of his feelings for his homeland. He realizes the country is heading for a revolution; after all the blood that has been shed, nothing will be forgotten. Maybe he wishes things had been different. But how can he make amends for the crimes that his predecessors had committed and his brethren still commit? Would it be cowardice to leave a land in fear of the retribution that would be inevitable? Or was that the right thing to do after all? To see evil and remain where one is would be to commit evil. What would he like to say to people like Theodora? Let bygones be bygones or that he would want nothing to do with any of them if no action of his can make amends for the sins inflicted on them? Now comes the question of patriotism. Would he be wise to let his country slip away rather than live under the foolish ideal that another way might still be possible.

It was to escape the oppressiveness of family that he left home. Now he rarely sees his parents. Though they live only a short walk away, he does not visit. He has never brought Paul to see them, or any of his other friends, to say nothing of Jacqueline. Now that he has his own income, he uses his independence to exclude his parents from his life. His mother is distressed by his coldness, he knows, the coldness with which he has responded to her love all his life.

That is the worst of it. That is the trap that she has built, a trap he has not yet found a way out of. If he were to cut all ties, if he were not to write at all, she would draw the worst conclusions, the worst possible; and the very thought of the grief that would pierce her at that moment makes him want to block his eyes and ears. As long as she is alive he dare not die. As long as she is alive, therefore, his life is not his own. He may not be reckless with it. Though he does not particularly love himself, he must, for her sake, take care of himself, to the point even of dressing warmly, eating the right food, taking Vitamin C. As for suicide, of that there can be no question.

Question that seems to bother me quite often. Can love be without possession? Can you some love someone without wanting to own them? And is it a sin to break away from a love that threatens to swallow you? Even if it would mean destroying the person who loves you to begin with?

Like Pound and Eliot, he must be prepared to endure all that life has stored up for him, even if that means exile, obscure labour, and obloquy. And if he fails the highest test of art, if it turns out that after all he does not have the blessed gift, then he must be prepared to endure that too: the immovable verdict of history, the fate of being, despite all his present and future sufferings, minor. Many are called, few are chosen. For every major poet a cloud of minor poets, like gnats buzzing around a lion.

T.S. Eliot worked for a bank. Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka worked for insurance companies. In their unique ways Eliot and Stevens and Kafka suffered no less than Poe or Rimbaud. There is no dishonour in electing to follow Eliot and Stevens and Kafka. His choice is to wear a black suit like they did, wear it like a burning shirt, exploiting no one, cheating no one, paying his way. In the way the Romantic era poets went mad on an extravagant scale. Madness poured out of them in reams of delirious verse or great gouts of paint. That era is over: his own madness, if it is to be his lot to suffer madness, will be otherwise - quiet, discreet. He will sit in a corner, tight and hunched, like the robed man in Durer's etching, waiting patiently for his season in hell to pass. And when it has passed he will be all the stronger for having endured.

How much are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of realizing our dreams? Would we sacrifice all semblances of happiness and a normal life? A hard decision to make - plunging off a cliff versus walking down a grassy path. But then the question is must all be given up? Could we live a semblance of a normal life like Stevens and Kafka and yet produce flashes of genius. I honestly believe so. Almost seems like breaking yourself up into two separate selves. Usually that leads to insanity, but could someone manage to hold those two completely different beings in one consciousness without driving themselves crazy?

The life of the mind, he thinks to himself: is that what we have dedicated ourselves to, I and these lonely wanderers in the bowels of the British Museum? Will there be a reward for us one day? Will our solitariness lift, or is the life of the mind its own reward?

So what of it? Is solitariness so bad that you must wish it to life one day like a prison sentence completed? Would not the company of one's own thoughts born from the books we read be the best companion that we could have? Is it in reality a blessing to be spared the agony of relationships that the rest of the world seems condemned to live, like cars crashing into one another in an amusement park?

He has never liked people who disobey the rules. If the rules are ignored, life ceases to make sense: one might as well, like Ivan Karamazov, hand back one's ticket and retire. Yet London seems full of people who ignore the rules and get away with it. He seems to be the only one stupid enough to play by the rules, he and the other dark-suited, bespectacled, harried clerks he sees in the trains. What, then, should he do? Should he follow Ivan? Should he follow Miklos? Whichever, he seems to follow, he loses. For he has no talent for lying or deception or rule-bending, just as he has no talent for pleasure or fancy clothes. His only talent is for misery, dull, honest misery. If this city offers no reward for misery, what is he doing here?

Now and again, for an instant, it is given to him to see himself from the outside: a whispering, worried boy-man, so dull and ordinary that you would not spare him a second glance. These flashes of illumination disturb him; rather than holding on to them, he tries to bury them in darkness, forget them. Is the self he sees at such moments merely what he appears to be, or is what he really is? What if Oscar Wilde is right, and there is no deeper truth than appearance? Is it possible to be dull and ordinary not only on the surface but to one's deepest depths, and yet be an artist?

Maybe Oscar Wilde is right, there is no deeper truth than appearance. To acknowledge oneself, do the best we can and live the way we want is to live up to the truth. Which on its own brings on an appearance of serenity. Does art really require inner agony?

He is in Cambridge, on the premises of an ancient university, hobnobbing with the great. He has even been given a key to the Mathematical Laboratory, a key to the side door, to let himself in and out. What more could he hope for? But he must be wary of getting carried away, of getting inflated ideas. He is here by luck and nothing else. He could never have studied at Cambridge, was never good enough to win a scholarship. He must continue to think of himself as a hired hand: if not, he will become an impostor the same way that Jude Fawley amid the dreaming spires of Oxford was an impostor. One of these days, quite soon, his tasks will be done, he will have to give back his key, the visits to Cambridge will cease. But let him at least enjoy them while he can.

He hates these confrontations with the blank page, hates them to the extent of beginning to avoid them. He cannot bear the weight of despair that descends at the end of each fruitless session, the realization that once again he has failed. Better not to wound oneself in this way, over and over. One might cease to be able to respond to the call when it comes, might become to weak, too abject.

Maybe we are all on borrowed wings, with keys to side doors that we must return when the time comes. Maybe nothing is really our own, we come and go. Might as well enjoy the trip, so that there is no pain in returning the key when asked.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

This is the third novel by Irving John that I read. A book about a father and son on the run and how it affects their lives or rather the lack of it. Some of the characters seem hard to believe and somehow that makes the book more interesting - the mix of characters.

Danny knew that his father's life had been changed forever because of an ankle injury; a different accident, to the boy's young mother, had altered the course of his own childhood and changed his dad's life forever again. In a twelve-year old's world, change couldn't be good. Any change made Danny anxious - the way missing school made him anxious.

Danny's father Dominic might have become a logger if not for that injury. His life had indeed changed, but for the better or for the worse? If not for the ankle injury, maybe he would have become like Ketchum - a hard riverman who lived among the elements and feared nothing. Instead he became a cook and a husband to a woman who was a school teacher. Throughout the book, there seems to be these two diverging roads - the one that Dominic took and the one that Ketchum takes. The two roads are so incredibly different that it is impossible to compare them. Makes you wonder, what is happiness and what must you have to be happy? Or rather, would not having anything like Ketchum be the ultimate happiness?

Perhaps the photographs of his dead mother were sufficient to make young Dan a writer; he had managed to take only some of them from the cookhouse in Twisted River, and he would miss the books he'd kept her photos pressed flat in - particularly, the novels that contained passages that Rosie had underlined. The passages themselves were a way for the boy to better imagine his mother, together with the photos. Trying to imagine those left-behind pictures was a way of imagining her, too.

Danny becomes a writer but was this why? He had so few photos of his mother and such a poor memory of her, that he felt he had to master words to remember her - words that wouldn't need more photos or more physical contact between humans. Or was it just that Rosie loved books, she might have read his books if she had lived longer? Somehow I came away feeling strongly about the choice of vocations that the characters in the book chose and their reasons for doing so. Maybe the author intended it, maybe he didn't. Dominic chose to be a cook but it was an interesting choice. Dominic being illegitimate had only his mother when he had his injury. And also, his mother had only him. Was that why he chose to be cook? The only way they could really be together? Ketchum was a logger and chose to remain one. Was it because he was estranged from his own children? Was by living like a nomad the only way he could not feel them missing?

"I suppose your mother was too proud to go back to Boston when she had the miscarriage - and she thought I was too young to be left alone when my mother died," Carmella heard Dominic telling Danny. "Rosie must have thought she had to take care of me, and of course she knew that I loved her. I don't doubt that she loved me, too, but I was still just a nice boy to her, and when she met Ketchum - well, he was her age. Ketchum was a man. We had no choice but to put up with it, Daniel - both Kecthum and I adored her, and in her own was I believed she loved the two of us."

But Ketchum had been estranged from his children; he'd already lost them. It wasn't necessarily true that Ketchum was braver, or more bold, than the cook. Ketchum wasn't a father, not anymore; he didn't have as much to lose. Danny only understood that his dad had been doing his best to look out for him. Leaving Twisted River had been a father's decision. And the cook and his son were both trying to look out for young Joe; their mutual fear for the boy had brought Danny and his dad closer.

How can you not see someone as important to you as that? Daniel Baciagalupo was thinking in the Iowa spring rain. More perplexing, his father had not seen Ketchum once in thirteen years. What was the matter with them? But half of Danny's mind was still unfocused - lost in the run-amuck chapter he was blundering about in.

The book throws loss and attachment in a fairly interesting way. Rosie being taken in by Dominic's mother when she was unmarried and pregnant. The act of kindness brings her close to Dominic but she still needs someone like Ketchum. Was the boy who made her pregnant all those years back in any way similar to Ketchum? When Rosie insists that both Dominic and Ketchum share her or that neither of them will have her, was she indeed suggesting a triangle or was it just they remain together as an act of completing one another? When Dominic and Danny leave Twisted River, they almost bid goodbye to their chance of living a normal life, though life in Twisted River may not have been exactly normal. Dominic didn't want to put Danny under any kind of risk though he only exchanged a physical risk with the risk of a lonely life. Eventually, Dominic and Danny had only each other. Why did Ketchum not see Dominic for thirteen years after Dominic left Twisted River? To erase the memory of their years together? But how much could be erased and if they eventually had to meet again, why even bother trying to erase it?

In her letter, Filomena wrote: "I warmly enjoyed your novel, as you no doubt intended - a generous amount of homage with a justifiable amount of condemnation. Yes, I took advantage of you - if only in the beginning. That you stayed with me for so long made me proud of myself, as I am proud of you now. And I'm sorry, if for a time, I made it hard for you to appreciate those inexperienced girls. But you must learn to choose more wisely, my dear - now that you're a little older that I was when we went our separate ways."

Seeing her naked and defiant made Danny realize that what had once attracted him to Katie now repelled him. He'd mistaken what was brazen about her for a kind of sexual courage; she'd seemed both sexy and progressive, but Katie was merely vulgar and insecure. What Danny had desired in his wife only now filled him with revulsion - and this had taken a mere two years to transpire. (The loving-her part would last a little longer; neither Danny nor any other writer could ever explain that.)

He was wondering what his life might have been like if he'd met someone like Lady Sky instead of Katie. Possibly, the skydiver had been closer to Danny's age than he'd first thought. Maybe some bad stuff had happened to her - things that made her look older, the writer imagined. (Danny didn't mean the scar from her cesarean section; he meant worse things.)

Danny goes through a number of women in his life and ends up writing about some of them. Was there ever a parallel between his aunt Filomena and his later wife Katie? The brazenness of his aunt in taking advantage of him was what he probably tried to replace with the brazenness in Katie. He had hoped that Katie's brazenness for a courage that he felt might have been lacking in Filomena. But finally, they ended up the same though Danny still writes well about both of them. It was strange how he awaited letters from Amy (Lady Sky as his on Joe called him). Maybe if he had met Amy before Katie, Amy might never have been jumping naked out of airplanes. He only then realizes he probably was not so badly off - the loss that would break him would only come much later.

When, after that year had passed, Danny Angel could finally bear to reread what he'd written in Baby in the Road, that accidental killing of that two year-old in diapers, which once began in the book, not to mention the subsequent of the dead toddler's parents, seemed almost inconsequential. Wasn't it worse to have a child escape death the first time, and grow up - only to die later, a young man in his prime? And to make the story worse in that way, in a novel - to make what happens more heartbreaking, in other words - well, wasn't that actually a better story? Doubtless, Danny believed so. He'd rewritten Baby in the Road from start to finish. This had taken five, almost six years.
Not surprisingly, the theme of the novel didn't change. How could it? Danny had discovered that the devastation of losing a child stayed very much the same; it mattered little that the details were different.

After the discovery that Lady Sky had written to him, Danny had received a few more letters from his fans who'd lost children, but he'd been unable to answer a single one of those letters. There were no words to say to those people. Danny knew, since he was one of them. He would wonder how Amy had managed it; in his new life, without Joe, Danny didn't think it would be all that hard to jump naked out of an airplane.

Amy had told him that she'd lost her little boy when she was much younger; she'd already lost him when Danny had met her as a skydiver. Amy's only child had died when he was two - little Joe's age at the pig roast. That death had aged Amy when it had happened, and for a number of years immediately following her boy's death. It wasn't that Amy was over her son's death - one never got over a loss like that, as she knew Danny would know. It was only that the loss didn't show as much, when so many years had passed. Maybe your child's death ceased being as visible to other people, after a really long time.

Danny actually rewrote the book about Joe's death. Was he expecting Joe to die to begin with? Danny worried about Joe from the very beginning - he probably was worried that Joe had his mother's recklessness. Was Amy driven to jumping out of airplanes by her boy's death? Joe called her Lady Sky and thought she was an angel. Would that have been the reason why she finally sought Danny out in the frozen wilderness? She was no angel is she couldn't be there for those who believed in her.

Sometimes, especially when Ketchum was drunk, Danny had seen the way the logger looked at his left hand; it was the way he had stared at his cast last night. If Injun Jane had seen Ketchum staring at his case, she might have taken this as a sign that Ketchum still thought about cutting off his hand. (But why the left one? Danny Baciagalupo would wonder. Ketchum was right-handed. If you hated yourself, if you were really taking yourself to task or holding yourself accountable, wouldn't you want to cut off your good hand?)

As Danny knew, the aspirin hadn't been "for the pain"; knowing Ketchum, Danny believed that the old riverman had probably relished the pain. The whiskey wasn't for the pain either. Both the aspirin and the whiskey, the writer knew, were strictly to keep Ketchum bleeding; the logger had little forgiveness for anyone who had a job to do and did a piss-poor job of it. (Only Ketchum could kill Ketchum, right?)

Little Joe was gone, but not a day passed in Daniel Baciagalupo's life when Joe wasn't loved or remembered. The cook had been murdered in his bed, but Dominic Baciagalupo had had the last laugh on the cowboy. Kecthum's left hand would live for ever on Twisted River, and Six-Pack had known what to do with the rest of her friend.

As for the river, it just kept moving, as rivers do - as rivers do. Under the logs, the body of the young Canadian moved with the river, which jostled him to and fro - to and fro. If, at this moment in time, Twisted River also appeared restless, maybe the river itself wanted the boy's body to move on, too - move on, too.

Ketchum wanted Twisted River to have his left hand in the same way Twisted River had taken Rosie. After all his left hand was Rosie's hand, his good hand. Ketchum maybe have felt that he let down Danny by letting Dominic get killed by the cowboy. But Danny was alive because of him - or at least the gun he gave Danny. Was that why Ketchum decided to end his life - because his duty to Dominic and Danny was done? Now he could give back to the river, the only part that was good in him. So finally, the river begins and ends everything.

He'd lost so much that was dear to him, but Danny knew how stories were marvels - how they simply couldn't be stopped. He felt that the great adventure of his life was just beginning - as his father must have felt, in the throes and dire circumstances of his last night on Twisted River.

The book has a beautiful ending. There are times when it is absolutely hilarious. Like all of John Irving's books, a pretty long one. But one hell of a read!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

"One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls."

This is where the title of the novel comes from - an old poem. The novel has been dedicated to the women of Afghanistan and quite rightly should be as it brings out the agony and suffering of Afghan women in a way few other books or movies before have. The main characters of this book are Mariam and Laila who despite their vastly different upbringing end up sharing abuses in the same house.

She feared she might say hurtful is she stayed: that she knew the jinn was a lie, that Jalil had told her that what Nana had was a disease with a name, that pills could make it better. She might have asked Nana why she refused to see Jalil's doctors, as he had insisted she do. why she hadn't taken the pills he had bought for her. If she could articulate it, she might have said to Nana that she was tired of being an instrument, lied to, laid claim to, used. That she was sick of Nana twisting the truths of their life and making her, Mariam, another of her grievances against the world.
You're afraid, Nana, she might have said. You're afraid that I might find the happiness you never had. And you don't want me to be happy. You don't want a good life for me. You're the one with the wretched heart.

The book gives little mention of Nana but it is worth pondering how much that first relationship affected Mariam. Nana, an outcast, living outside city limits, is possessive about her daughter Mariam, but yet makes Mariam believe that she was her burden and the origins of her sufferings. Mariam makes the mistake of trying to prove Nana wrong by seeking out happiness in the world that rejected her mother. Almost everyone grows up under some kind of a cloud, a presumption that something would be unattainable for them. Could you resist the urge to reject this presumption without burning yourself out to prove it wrong? And to whom are we trying to prove anything anyway? As the book unfolds, there are conflicting parts where Mariam is convinced that she has won the battle only to concede at a later stage that Nana's words were painfully right.

Mariam signed her name - the meem, the reh, the ya and the meem again - conscious of all the eyes on her hand. The next time Mariam signed her name to a document, twenty-seven years later, a mullah would again be present.

This was a piece of genius by Hosseini - "conscious of all the eyes on her hand". The sign that would seal her fate? Relieve the onlookers from this burden that had fallen on them and was refusing to go? The fact that Mariam signs her name only twice in twenty-seven years shows how little she can do with her life. And even those instances were under the watchful eyes of people who had no intention of letting her have her way.

She looked at this photo for a long time. There was something vaguely unsettling about the way Rasheed seemed to loom over this woman. His hand on her shoulders. His savoring, tight-lipped smile, and her unsmiling, smiling face. The way her body tilted forward subtly, as though she were trying to wriggle free of his hands.
Later, as she was doing laundry, she regretted that she had sneaked around in the room. For what? What thing of substance had she learned about him? That he owned agun, that he was a man with the needs of a man? And she shouldn't have stared at the photo of him and his wife for as long as she had. Her eyes had read meaning into what was a random body posture captured in a single moment of time.

Mariam had seen something about Rasheed in the photograph - his possession over his wife. Even in the photograph, the wife seems to shrink from him. But still Mariam brushes it away. Another attempt to prove her mother wrong? Refusing to see before her own eyes what she should not have missed and what would later prove to be agonizingly right.

It was dizzying how quickly everything unraveled.
The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism. Massoud called for peace and patience.
Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed. The Hazaras wit their long history of being oppressed and neglected, seethed.
Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. Meetings were angrily called off and doors slammed. The city held its breath. In the mountains, loaded magazines snapped into Kalashnikovs.
The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.
Kabul's day of reckoning came at last.
And when the rockets began to rain down on Kabul, people ran for cover. Mammy did too, literally. She changed back into black again, went into her room, shut the curtains, and pulled the blanket over her head.

The book does contain several mentions of the wars in Afghanistan that seem factually right. But the interesting phrase in the above paragraph is "Kabul's day of reckoning came at last." So far the wars had been fought in the mountains, the countryside. The people of Kabul had not felt it though they waited for their sons who had gone off to fight to come back to them. Now these people couldn't escape. Because this war was for power.

Laila examined Mariam's drooping cheeks, the eyelids that sagged in tired folds, the deep lines that framed her mouth - she saw these things as though she too were looking at someone for the first time. And, for the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered, twenty years from now?

When you see the face of someone from the previous generation, do we not think "are these the footsteps we need to follow?" So now the question arises, if we avoid the ending, are we betrayers? Is it foolish to expect it to be any different? Or would be cowardly to escape the ending?

Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind. A dry, barren field, out beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment. There, the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice hope, a treacherous illusion. And whatever those twin poisonous flowers began to sprout in the parched land of that field, Mariam uprooted them. She uprooted them and ditched them before they took hold.

Mariam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Mariam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.

It seems cruel of Hosseini to have chosen Mariam for all this - almost like choosing a mouse as a control specimen in an experiment. But Mariam symbolizes the entire generations of women who lost everything in those decades the country was ravaged by war. This book is worth reading for Mariam if not for anything else. A gem of a book and I wish it had a happy ending for Mariam.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Dean's December by Saul Bellow

“The Dean's December” is an absolute dynamite of a book by Saul Bellow with incredibly powerful dialogues, self-introspection and analysis. The Dean here is Albert Corde who is with a university in Chicago. Though he is not a hard-core academic, his publication in a magazine ruffled the feathers of several powerful people in Chicago. The book is to a large extent a flashback of his life as he is cooped up in Bucharest with nothing to do.

Corde, who led the life of an executive – wasn't a college dean a kind of executive? - found himself six or seven thousand miles from his base, in Bucharest, in winter, shut up in an old fashioned apartment. Here everyone was kind – family and friends, warmhearted people – he liked them very much, to him they were “old Europe.” But they had their own intense business. This was no ordinary visit. His wife's mother was dying. Corde had come to give support. But there was little he could do for Minna. Language was a problem. People spoke little French, less English. So Corde, the dean, spent his days in Minna's old room sipping strong plum brandy, leafing through old books, staring out of the windows at earthquake-damaged buildings, winter skies, gray pigeons, pollarded trees, squalid orange-rusty trams hissing under trolley-cables.

So this essentially is the pun behind the title. Corde spends this December almost reviewing his declining life and career in an alien land. Perhaps being in this alien land has given him that special vision of his life that he didn't have when he was in the midst of it in Chicago.

Rick Lester's face had the subtracted look of the just dead. He had crashed through the window of his own third floor apt, and his skull was broken on the cement. His longish hair was damp (with blood?) and hung backwards. His slender feet were dirty. The cops said he had gone out barefoot earlier in the night. Making the rounds of the bars, he had driven his car without shoes. Many young people removed their shoes in hot weather – as if they were surrounded by woods and fields, not these broken bottle, dog-fouled streets. What did these charmed-life children think Chicago was? The expression on Rick Lester's face suggested that he would have given up this sort of caper if he had lived. The folds of his mouth, his settled chin, gave him a long white mature look of dignity. More adult, more horsey, a different kind of human being altogether. Corde was inclined to think that his hurry-up death had taught him something. Since he had been subtracted once and for all from the active human sum, you could only try to guess when that lesson had been given. Illumination while falling? A ten-second review of his life?
An experienced man and far from young, Corde had not expected to feel this death so much. He couldn't see why. His feelings took him by surprise. Something seemed to be working its way upward, treading on his stomach and his guts. The pressure on his heart was especially heavy, unpleasantly hot and repulsively melting. He had no use for such sensations; he certainly didn't want the kid's death bristling over him like this. He had seen plenty of corpses. This one got to him, though. Corde believed that it was the evil that had overtaken the boy that did it. For he was a boy, with those slender feet curled apart. Corde didn't know him well enough to weep for him. So perhaps it wasn't the boy, entirely, but some other influence. After the identification was made and the face covered again, Corde's revulsion-depression, or whatever it was, took a different turn. He was unwilling to let the administration take over and follow its usual pattern depending upon the homicide police, who would investigate at their own pace. It was beyond him to explain why he became so active in this case. He had had to handle student deaths before, mostly suicides, and deal with parents. He wasn't particularly good at this, never saying what people expected of him although he chose his words with care. His pallor and the dish-face and the deep voice were not effectively combined into a manner. He wanted to say what he meant sensibly or warmly but he was so unsuccessful with horrified families that he horrified himself - “I can't make sense of this senseless death,” was what he tacitly confessed – and the odd phases that came out only puzzled grieving parents and probably depressed them further.

Corde had become unnecessarily involved in the death of the student Rick Lester, that is what quite a few people thought. But the passage above largely indicates what made his launch his attack on Chicago. A student dies a violent death and for some reason, Corde can't turn his back and let the wheels roll on. Maybe this is just one of the straws that broke the camel's back, made Corde take a deep look at what Chicago was doing to its youth. Maybe he just wanted to react what he thought to be normally to an unexpected death and do what little he could instead of being diplomatic and hurting others even more.

There had been the army – mess halls, KP – but it would be foolish to bandy experiences with Mason. Corde let this pass. He waited while the second hand of the electric clock on the wall made one full cycle, like a long-legged fly. Mason's message was clear: Lucas Ebry was real, others (Uncle Albert, for instance) were not. Uncle Albert had no business to be messing with people who were wrapped up in an existence, in a reality that was completely beyond him. For those people the stakes were life and death. What did Uncle Albert stake? Let him stick to his fancy higher education – seminars in Plato and the Good. Those people of the underclass, dopers or muggers or whores: what were they, mice? To the “thinking population,” to establishment intellectuals, they were nothing but mice! Thus Corde spelled out, parsed, his nephew's message. He even agreed, in part.

Mason was Albert Corde's nephew and a friend of Lucas Ebry who was accused of killing Rick Lester. So this is where the investigation took Corde. Into a mess where he appeared to be a class-conscious snob. There is this current that separates the educated elite from the working class in any city. An educated elite who had forgotten where they may have come from several generations ago and were now immersed in theology, philosophy, fine arts and music. The working class trying to fight their way through poverty, crime, violence to the surface.

Most of the callers were elderly ailing people of breeding. They were aware how seedy they were, and seemed to shrug when shaking hands, as if to say, “you see how it is.” To Corde, they looked as it they were gotten-up for a depression party. They chatted in rusty French, for his sake, sparing him their worst English; and as they talked they tried of course to make out the American husband who sat there, hand-loose. He had pulled his clothing on half-dazed, and felt insufficiently connected with his collar, socks, shoes, jacket. The Dean had not bought a new suit since getting married, five years ago. He no longer needed to make himself attractive, to divert attention from his thinning hair, long neck, circular face (“something like a sunflower in winter,” were is in words). Still not awake, he answered polite inquiries with matching politeness, depending upon the measured bass voice to get him through. At least the Rareshes' only daughter had married an American who spoke some French. French was highly valued here, French was a delicious accomplishment. He explained that he had lived in Paris once, but his conversational powers were limited. He drank a glass of brandy; he ate a slice of Tanti's raisin cake, chased it with a cup of tea. He observed that everybody present was trying to tell him something, to convey by various signs what conditions here were. He gathered, moreover, that the colleagues and cousins were extremely proud of Minna's scientific eminence. He was with them there. It wound him to think how much there was also of the human side; if it had been appropriate to let himself go, he would have told them how much she was in human qualities. There was just would have been glad if the Dean had spoken intelligently about the United States in world politics. After all, he was from the blessed world outside. The West. He was free to speak. For them it was impossible. All conversations with foreigners had to be reported. Few people were bold enough to visit the American library. Those who sat in the reading room were probably secret agents. It was one of the greatest achievements of Communism to seal off so many millions of people. He wouldn't have thought it possible in this day and age that the techniques of censorship should equal the techniques of transmission. Of course, as in France under the occupation, these captive millions were busy scrounging, keeping themselves alive. In the sadness of the afternoon, the subdued light of the curtailed day, the chill of the room, the callers would have been grateful if he had something so exotic as an intelligent American; words of true interest , words of comfort too – this Dictatorship would not last forever. But he hadn't the heart to tell them things. Besides, Corde was not altogether with it.

The man from the free west looks upon the captive in the east. He can't speak openly to them for he would get them into trouble. They can't seek information on their own for that would get them into trouble. Behind the Iron Curtain were these millions who had seen an entire life go by in almost captivity. Right now how many people would there be in this world who live in fear? Too many to count, but too many to forget?

So it was evident that Albert Corde was a spoiled case. Dewey pressed him about his motives for writing those Harper's articles. What was the real explanation? Again, the high intention – to prevent the American idea from being pounded into dust altogether. And here is our American idea: liberty, equality, justice, democracy, abundance. And here is what things are like today in a city like Chicago. Have a look! How does the public apprehend events? It doesn't apprehend them. It has been deprived of the capacity to experience it. Corde recognized how arrogant he had been. His patience was at an end. He had had enough. He was now opening his mouth to speak. And now, look out!
In the American moral crisis, the first requirement was to experience what was happening and see what must be seen. The facts were covered from out perception. More than they had been in the past? Yes, because the changes, especially the increase in consciousness – and also in false consciousness – was accompanied by a peculiar kind of confusion. The increase of theories and discourse, itself a cause of new stage of blindness, the false representation of communication, led to horrible distortions in public consciousness. Therefore the first act of morality to disinter the reality, retrieve reality, dig it out from the trash, represent it anew as art would represent it.

Corde had launched a vicious attack on Chicago in articles published in the Harper's magazine. He wonders what made him do it. He knows he was arrogant. But he had felt something and needed to experience the reality to be able to transfer those feelings to paper. He needed to see the city for what it really was, speak to the people who made a difference and present it the way he felt it was. But then again it was just his perception. He spoke to a great many people – interviewed them. Did he wonder what they thought of him? The pseudo-academic digging around in a trash heap. In the end he probably would just end up dirtying himself.

The body of this powerful man was significantly composed in the executive leather chair. If you had met him in the days when he was a paid executioner, if he had been waiting for you on a staircase, in an alley, you would never have escaped him. He would have killed you, easy.
How many people he had murdered, he didn't care to say. But then he nearly killed himself with an overdose of heroin. Someone should have warned him how strong it was. After he took it he recognized it for what it was. As it began to take effect, he saw that he was dying.
A friend came and put him into a tub of cold water, but he saw that Toby was dying and beat it. He lifted himself from the tub and just as he was, in wet clothes, he went down into Sixty-Third street and caught a cab to Billings Hospital, to the detoxification unit. Because of his terrified looks, the receptionist signaled the police, who grabbed him in the lobby but they had nothing to hold him on at the station, only vagrancy and loitering. “I bailed myself out. Always a big bankroll in my pocket. I got another cab back to Billings, but this time I stopped in an empty lot and tore the leg off a table. I went it with it under my coat and I showed it to the receptionist. I said I'd beat her brains out. That is how I got upstairs. They gave me the first methadone shot. I was in a hospital gown, and I went to the toilet and sat on the floor to wait for the reaction. I put my arms around the commode and held tight to it.”
Until now Winthrop had sat immobile in his chair, but now he turned and to Corde's great surprise, began to lower himself to the floor. What was he doing? He was on his knees, his big arm stretched towards the floor, his fingers hooked upwards. “You see what we have to do? Those people are down in the cesspool. We reach for them and try to get a hold. Hang on hang on! They'll drown in the shit if we can't pull them out. Some of them we'll get out some of them will go down. They'll drown and sink in the shit – never make it.”
“You are telling me the people who come here ...”
“I'm telling you professor, that the few who find us and many hundred of thousand more who never do and never will – they are marked out to be destroyed. Those are people meant to die, sir. That's what we are looking at.”

Probably the most vivid and powerful dialogue in the entire book. Corde meets ex-hitman Toby Winthrop, a giant of a man who had killed for the rich and powerful of city and who had been kept out of jail by those same people. But he finally bit the dust, realized what he had sunk to, what he must swim out of after the almost fatal heroin overdose. What does Corde hope to achieve with this interview? A mouse asking a lion why the lion stopped eating meat? Or was it to take a glimpse at a survivor, someone who had been swimming in the currents of city's violence and finally manged to swim ashore? In the end, does Corde learn what he came for? Did he want to learn that all the people caught up in the cesspool of drugs and violence are doomed whatever Corde might write in his articles or how much ever Winthrop would fight in his shelter?

The thought I had then I can recall clearly. I said that America no more knew what to do with this black underclass than it knew what to do with its children. It was impossible for it to educate either, or to bind either to light. It was not itself securely attached to life just now. Sensing this, the children attached themselves to the black underclass, achieving a kind of coalescence with the demand-mass. It was not so much the inner-city slum that threatened as the slum of inner most being, of which the inner city was perhaps a material representation. As I spelled this out I felt that I looked ailing and sick. A kind of hot haze came over me. I felt my weakness as I approached the business of the soul – its true business in this age. Here a Dean (or a writer of magazine articles) came to see a public defender to talk about a limited matter and their discussion became unlimited – their business was not being transacted. I was losing Mr. Varennes. Anguish beyond the bounds of human tolerance was not a subject a nice man like Mr. Varennes was ready for an ordinary day. But I, starting to collect material for a review of life in my native city, and finding at once wounds, lesions, cancers, destructive fury, death, felt called upon for a special exertion – to interpret, to pity, to save! This was stupid. It was insane. But now the process was begun, how was I to stop it? I couldn't stop it.
The Dean said, “Let me make it clear to you what I think. Your defendant belongs to that black underclass everybody is talking openly about, which is economically 'redundant,' to use the term specialists now use, falling farther and farther behind the rest of society, locked into a culture of despair and crime – I wouldn't say a culture, that's another specialists' word. There is no culture there, it's only a wilderness, and damn monstrous, too. We are talking about a people consigned to destruction, a doomed people. Compare them to the last phase of the proletariat as pictured by Marx. The proletariat owning nothing, stripped entirely bare, would awaken at least from the nightmare of history. Entirely naked, it would have no illusions because there was nothing to support illusions and it would make a revolution without any scenario. It would need no historical script because of its merciless education in reality, and so forth. Well, here is a case of people denuded. And what's the effect of denudation, atomization? Of course, they aren't proletarians. They're just a lumpen population. We do not know how to approach this population. We haven't even conceived that it may be a problem. So there's nothing but death before it. Maybe we've already made our decision. Those that can be advanced into the middle class, let them be advanced. The rest? Well, we do our best by them. We don't have to do any more. They kill some of us. Mostly they kill themselves ...”

Corde thought that he wasn't advanced enough to be the artist of this singular demanding sense of his. In fact he had always tried to set it aside, but it was there, he couldn't get rid of it, and as he grew older it gained strength and he had to give ground. It seemed to have come into the world with him. What, for example, did he know about Dewey Spangler? Well, he knew his eyes, his teeth, his arms, the form of his body, its doughnut odor; the beard was knew but that was knowledge at first sight. That vividness of beard, nostrils, breath, tone, was real knowledge. Knowledge? It was even captivity. In the same way he knew his sister Elfrida, the narrow dark head, the estuary hips, the feminized fragrance of tobacco mixed with skin odors. In the case of Maxie Detillion the vividness was unwanted, repugnant, but nothing could be done, it was there nevertheless impossible to fend off. With Minna the reality was even more intimate – fingernails, cheeks, breasts, even the imprint of stockings and of shoe-straps on the insteps of her dear feet when she was undressing. Himself, too, he knew with the variant of the same oddity – as for instant, the eyes and other holes and opening of his head, the countersunk of his ears and the avidity expressed by the dilation of Huegenot-Irish nostrils, the face that started at the base of the hairy throat and nose, open, to the top of his crown. Plus all the curiosities and passions that went with being Albert Corde. This organic, constitutional, sensory oddity, in which Alert Corde's soul had a lifelong freehold, must be grasped as knowledge. He wondered what reality was if it wasn't this, or what you were “losing by death if not this. If it was only the literal world that was taken from you the loss was not great. Literal! What you didn't pass through your soul didn't even exist, that was what made the literal literal. Thus he had taken it upon himself to pass Chicago through his own soul. A mass of data, terrible murderous. It was no easy matter to put such things through. But there was no other way for reality to happen. Reality didn't exist “out there”. It began to be real only when the soul found it underlying truth. In generalities, there was no coherence – none. The generality-mind, the habit of mind that governed the world had no force of coherence. It was dissociative. It divided because it was itself, divided. Hence the schizophrenia, which was moral and aesthetic as well as analytical. Then along came Albert Corde in diffident persistence, but wildly turned on, putting himself on record. “But don't you see ....!” He couldn't help summarizing to himself what he should have said to Minna.
He would have told Minna, “I imagine, sometimes, if a film could be made of one's life, every other frame would be death. It goes so fast we are not aware of it. Destruction and resurrection in alternate beats of being, but speed makes it seem continuous. But you see, kid, with ordinary consciousness you can't even begin to know what's happening.”

More or less summarizes the theme behind Corde's decline. He realizes he can't harness his hyper-sensitivity. He wanted to find out the reality behind the city that he saw – the city that really was. He interviewed a number of people who he felt could show him what he wanted to see – the administrator of a prison, a public defender, an ex-hitman. He finally published a series of articles that he hoped would shake the foundations of the city but only ended up make him an outcast within his university and his circle of friends. So what if he has a heightened consciousness that has enabled him to see life in a different way, could he make a difference in the end? Or does it matter whether one makes a difference?

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

My second Murakami novel after Norwegian Wood. The book is all about love and loneliness is modern times. Written in the first person, the main character tries to capture the love he felt for Sumire and depicts the love that she felt for another woman. Several biting pieces from the novel that I just couldn't resist quoting. It ends in tragedy finally as Sumire disappears mysteriously.

In the spring of her twenty second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing fields up int eh air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado's intensity doesn't abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and everything, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be 17 years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all ended. Almost.

About the main character with respect to whom the book is written in the first person.

The upshot of all this is that when I was young I began to draw an invisible boundary between myself and other people. No matter who I was dealing with. I maintained a safe distance, carefully monitoring the person's attitude so that they would not get closer. I didn't easily swallow what other people told me. My only passion were books and music. As you may guess, I lived a lonely life.

To some extent, I am able to feel for him. Sometimes, a bibliophile's life is lonely but quite often it is out of choice rather than necessity. You immerse yourself into books of all kinds, imagine yourself in all kinds of roles, and draw parallels between the books you read and your own life. In the end it seems better than the real thing. Why venture out into the world when a book in your hand lets you feel just about everything that mankind has ever felt?

I imagined how wonderful it would be if indeed we could be lovers. I longed for the warmth of her skin on mine. I pictured us married, living together. But I have to face the fact that Sumire had no such romantic feeling for me, let alone sexual interest. Occasionally she'd stay over at my apartment after we'd talked into the small hours, but there was never even the slightest hint of romance. Come to 2 or 3 am and she'd yawn, crawl into bed, sink her face into my pillow, and fall fast asleep. I'd spread out some bedding on the floor and lie down, but I couldn't sleep, my mind full of fantasies, continuous thoughts, self-loathing. Sometimes the inevitable physical reactions would cause me grief, and I'd lie awake in misery until dawn. 
It was hard to accept that she had almost no feelings, maybe none at all for me as a man. This hurt so bad at times it felt like someone was gouging out my guts with a knife. Still, the time I spent with her was more precious than anything. She helped me forget the undertone of loneliness in my life. She expanded the outer edges of my world, helped me draw a deep, soothing breath. Only Sumire could do that for me.


But I couldn't love her. For whatever reason, that unconditional, natural intimacy Sumire and I had just wasn't there. A thin, transparent veil always came between us. Visible or not, a barrier remained. Awkward silences came on us all the time – particularly when we said goodbye. That never happened with me and Sumire. Behind with this woman confirmed one undeniable fact: I needed Sumire more than ever. 
After the woman left, I went for a walk alone, wandered aimlessly for a while, then dropped by a bar near the station and had a Canadian Club on the rocks. As always at times like those, I felt like the most wretched person alive. I quickly drained my first drink and ordered another, closed my eyes and thought of Sumire. Sumire, topless, sunbathing on the white sands of a Greek island. At the table next to mine four college boys and girls were drinking beer, laughing and having a good time. Ann old number by Huey Lewis and the News was playing. I could smell pizza baking. 
When did my youth slip away from me? I suddenly thought. It was over, wasn't it? Seemed just like yesterday I was still only half grown up. Huey Lewis and the News had a couple of hit songs then. Not so many years ago. And now here I was, inside a closed circuit, spinning my wheel. Knowing I wasn't getting anywhere, but spinning just the same. I had to. Had to keep that up or I wouldn't be able to survive.

"When did my youth slip away from me?" How many times have I thought the same? And how many times have I been glad to be rid of it? In the end, if you feel any pain for lost time, continue feeling it so that you make the most of the times ahead. He has a girlfriend who makes him happy. Yet he longs for Sumire. So what if his girlfriend doesn't make him feel the same as Sumire?

But all I felt was an incomparable loneliness. Before I knew, the world around was drained of colour, from the shabby mountaintop, the ruins of those empty feelings, I could see my whole life stretching out into the future. It looked just like an illustration in a science fiction novel I read as a child: the desolate surface of a deserted planet. No sign of life at all. Each day seemed to last for ever, the air either boiling hot or freezing. The spaceship that had brought me there had disappeared, and I was stuck. I'd have to survive on my own. 
All over again I understood how important, how irreplaceable, Sumire was to me. In her own special way she'd kept me tethered to the world. As I talked to her and hear her stories, my mind quietly expanded, and I could see things I had never seen before. Without even trying, we grew close. Like a pair of young lovers undressing in front of each other, Sumire and I had exposed our hearts to one another, an experience I never had with any one else, anywhere. We cherished what we had together, though we never put into words how very precious it was. 
Of course it hurt that we could never love each other in a physical way. We would have been far happier if we had. But that was like the tides, the change of seasons – something immutable, and immovable destiny we could never alter. No matter how cleverly we might shelter it, our delicate friendship wasn't going to last for ever. We were bound to reach a dead end. That was painfully clear. 
I loved Sumire more than anyone else and wanted her more than anything in the world. And I couldn't just shape those feelings, for there was nothing to take their place. 
I dreamed that someday there would be a sudden, major transformation, even if the chances of it coming true were slim, I could dream about it, couldn't I? But I knew it would never come to. 
Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again. 
We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our lives. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it is gone for ever. What I had lost was not just Sumire. I had lost that precious flame.

All good and great things come to an end. That is what he means by nurturing a flame. The only way to nurture a flame may be to not let it burn all out. But would that feel the same in that case? Is there no other way to let oneself go and yet let the flame live on forever? Would sure as hell like know the answer to that one.

Tomorrow I'll get on a plane and fly back to Tokyo. The summer holidays are nearly over, and I have to step once more in that endless stream of the everyday. There's a place for me there. My apartment's there, my desk, my classroom, my pupils. Quiet days await me, novels to read. The occasional affair.
 But tomorrow I'll be a different person, never again the person I was. Not that anyone will notice after I am back in Japan. On the outside nothing will be different. But something inside has burnt up and vanished. Blood has been shed, and something inside me is gone. Page turned down, without a word, that something makes its exit. The door opens; the door shuts. The light goes out. This is the last day for the person I am right now. The very last twilight. When dawn come, the person I am won't be here any more. Someone else will occupy this body. 
Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the Earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?

I guess this is the usual existential angst. Most of us feel so in these modern times, when all other basic needs are taken for granted. So eventually it is love that burns us out. But can we not look at love as an abstract concept? A concept that can be carried over in another form when one dies out?

So that is how we live our lives. No matter how deep and how fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that is stolen from us – that is snatched right out of our hands – even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Another masterpiece by Coetzee. It tells the story of Michael K who escapes the city during a civil war with his ailing mother with aim of taking her back to the house where she grew up as a girl in the countryside. But eventually ends taking her ashes instead when she dies on the journey. The story vividly tells the day to day struggles of a man who survives the harsh countryside, trying to go back to the old ways of tending to a garden and growing his own food. He is eventually captured but has lost all the will to live in the "system".

K closed his eyes and rested his face on his hands. It was clear to him that it was not soldiers who were camping at the dam, who had earlier camped at the house, but men from the mountains, men who blew up railway tracks and mined roads and attacked farmhouses and drove off stock and cut one town off from another, whom the radio reported exterminated in scores and newspapers published pictures in pools of their own blood. That was whom his visitors were. But they seemed to him like nothing so much as a football team: eleven men young men come off the field after a hard game, tired, happy, hungry.
His heart was pounding. When they leave in the morning, he thought to himself, I could come out of hiding and trot along behind them like a child following a brass band. After a while they would notice me and stop to ask what I wanted. And I could say give me a pack to carry; let me chop wood and build the fire at the end of the day. Or I could say: be sure to come back to the dam net time and i will feed you. I will have pumpkins and squashes and melons by then, i will have peaches and figs and prickly pears, you will lack nothing. And they will come next time on the way to the mountains or wherever it is the go by day, and i would feed them and afterwords sit when them around the fire drinking in their words. The stories they tell would be diff from the stories i head at the camp. Because the camp was for those left behind, the women and children, the old men, the blind, the crippled, the idiots, people who have nothing to tell but stories of how they have endured. Whereas these young men have had adventures, victories and defeats and escapes, they will have stories to tell long after the war is over, stories for a lifetime, stories for their grandchildren to listen to open-mouthed.
Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoe laces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness to the firelight to turn himself in. K knew the reason why: because enough men had gone to war saying that the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once the cord was broken the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why.
Between this reason and the truth that he would never announce himself, however, there lay a gap wider than the distance separating him from the firelight. Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which understanding baulked, it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong.

Parasite was the word the police captain had used: the camp at Jakkalsdrif, a nest of parasites hanging from the neat sunlit town, eating its substance, giving no nourishment back. Yet to K lying idle in his bed, thinking without passion (What is it to me, after all? he thought), it was no longer obvious which was the host and which parasite, camp or town. If the worm devoured the sheep, why did the sheep not devour the worm? What if there were millions, more millions than anyone knew, living in camps, living on alms, living off the land, living by guile, creeping away in corners to escape the times, to canny to put out flags and draw to ourselves and be counted? What if the hosts were far outnumbered by the parasites, the parasites of idleness and the other secret parasites in the army and the police force and the schools and the factories and offices, the parasites of the heart? Could the parasites still be called parasites? Parasites too had flesh and substance; parasites too could be preyed upon. Perhaps in truth whether the camp was declared a parasite on the town or the town a parasite on the camp depended on no more than on who made his voice heard loudest.

Finally, a letter written by the camp doctor where is taken after being captured by soldiers and accused of helping the rebels.

Dear Michaels,
The answer is: because I want to know your story. I want to know how it happened that you of all people have joined in a war, a war in which you have no place. You are no soldier, Michaels, you are a figure of fun, a clown, a wooden man. What is you business in this camp? There is nothing you can do here to rehabilitate you from the vengeful mother with flaming hair who comes in your dreams. Do I understand that part of the story correctly? That is how I understand it anyhow. What is there for us to rehabilitate into you? Basketwork? Lawn-mowing? You are like a stick insect, Michaels, whose sole defence against universal predators is its bizarre shape. You are like a stick insect that has landed, God knows how, on the middle of a great black bare concrete plain. You raise your slow fragile stick legs one at a time, looking for something to merge with, and there is nothing. Why did you ever leave the bushes, Michaels. That is where you belong. You should have stayed all your life clinging to a nondescript bush in a quiet corner of an obscure garden in a peaceful suburb doing whatever that stick insects do to maintain life, nibbling a leaf here and there, eating the odd aphid, drinking dew. And – if I may be personal – you should have got away at an early age from that mother of your, who sounds like a real killer. You should have found another bush as far as possible from her and embarked on an independent life. You made a great mistake, Michaels, when you tied her on your back and fled the burning city for the safety of the countryside. Because when I think of you carrying her, panting under weight, choking in the smoke, dodging the bullets, performing all the other feats of filial piety, you no doubt performed, I also think of her sitting on your shoulders, eating out your brains, glaring about triumphantly, the very embodiment of Great Mother Death. And now that she is gone you are plotting to follow her. I wonder what it is that you see, Michaels, when you open your eyes so wide – for you certainly do not see me, you certainly do not see the white walls and the empty beds of the infirmary, you do not see Felicity in her snow white turban. What do you see? Is it your mother in her circle of flaming hair grinning and beckoning to you with crooked finger to pass through the curtain of light and join her in the world beyond. Does that explain your indifference to life?
Another thing I would like to know is that what was the food you ate in the wilderness that has made all other food tasteless to you. The only food you have ever mentioned is pumpkin. You even carry pumpkin seeds with you. Is pumpkin the only food they know in the Karoo? Am i to believe that you lived for a year on pumpkin? The human body is not capable of that Michaels. What else did you eat? Did you hunt? Did you make yourself a bow and arrows and hunt? Did you eat roots and berries? Did you eat locusts? Your paper say that your are opgaarder. A storage man. But they do not say what i was that you stored. Was is manna? Did manna fall from the sky for you? And did you store it away in underground bins for your friends to come and eat in the night? Is that why you will not eat camp food – because you have been spoiled forever by the taste of manna.
You should have hidden Michaels. You were too careless of yourself. You should have crept away in the darkest reach of the darkest hole and possessed yourself in patience as the troubles were over. Did you think you were a spirit invisible, a visitor on our planet, a creature beyond the reach of the laws of nations? Well, the laws of nations have you in their grip now: they have pinned you down in a bed beneath the grandstand of the old Kenilworth racecourse, they will grind you in the dirt if necessary. The laws are made of iron, Michaels, I hope you are learning that. No matter how thin you make yourself they will not relax. There is no home left for universal souls except perhaps in Antarctica or the high seas. If you will not compromise, you are going to die, Michaels. And do not think you are simply going to waste away, grow more and more insubstantial till you are all soul and you can fly into the aether. The death you have chosen is full of pain and misery and shame and regret, and there are many days to endure yet before release comes. You are going to die and your story is going to die to forever and ever, unless you come to your senses and listen to me. Listen to me, Michaels. I am the only one who can save you. I am the only one who sees you for the original soul that you are. I am the only one who cares for you. I alone see you neither as a soft case for a soft camp nor a hard case for a hard camp but a human soul above and beneath classification. A soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring with wings within that stiff sarcophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. You are precious, Michaels, in your way; you are the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age, like the last man to speak Yaqui. We have all tumbled over the lip into the cauldron of history: only you, following your idiot life, biding your time in an orphanage (who would have thought of that as a hiding place!), evading the peace and the war, skulking in the open to an old dream, have managed to live in the old way, drifting through time, observing the seasons, no more trying to change the course of history that a grain of sand does. We ought to value you and celebrate you, we ought to put your clothes on a Marquette in a museum. Your clothes and your packet pf pumpkin seeds too, with a label; there ought to be a plaque nailed to the racetrack wall commemorating your stay here. But that is not the way it is going to be. The truth is that you are going to perish in obscurity and be buried in a nameless hole in a corner of the racecourse, transport the acres of Woltemonde being out of the question nowadays, and no one is going remember you, unless you yield and at last open your mouth. I appeal to you, Michaels, yield!
A Friend.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A good read with all the classic features of a Le Carre novel - characters trying to salvage themselves and their failed lives over something they eventually would have no control of.

Brue took a slow tour around the room
Why, on earth did you do it dear father of mine?
Why, when all your life you traded on your good name and that of your forebears and lived by it in private and in public, in the higher traditions of Scottish caution, canniness and dependability: why put all that at risk for the sake of a bunch of crooks and carpetbaggers from the East whose one achievement had been to plunder their country's assets at the moment when it had most need of them?
Why throw open you bank to them? -  your beloved bank, your most precious thing? Why offer safe haven to their ill-gained loot, along with unprecedented terms of secrecy and protection?
Why stretch every norm and regulation to its snapping-point and beyond, in a desperate - and as Brue had perceived it, even at that time - reckless attempt to set himself up as Vienna's banker of choice to a bunch of Russian gangsters?
All right, you hated Communism and Communism was on its deathbed. You couldn't wait for thee funeral. But the crooks you were being so nice to were part of the regime!
No names needed, comrades! Just give us your loot for five years and we'll give you a number! And when you next come and see us your Lippizzaners will be lily-white, full-grown, runaway investments! We do it just like the Swissies, but we're Brits so we do it even better!
Except we don't, thought Brue sadly, hands linked behind his back as he paused to peer out of the bay window.
We don't, because great men who lose their marbles in old age die; because money relocates itself and so do banks; and because strange people called regulators appear on the scene and the past goes away. Except that it never quite does, does it? A few words from a choirboy voice and it all comes galloping home.

Yes, Mitzi, I am flushed and busy. No, I am not Friday night. I just gave away the best fifty thousand euros of my life and yet have to work out why. Buy time for him? What are you going to do with him? Get him a suite at the Atlantic?
This Friday night I walked all the way home on my own. No cab, no limousine. Lighter by fifty thousand euros and felling better for it. Was I followed? I don't think so. Not by the time I got lost in Eppendorf.
I marched through flat, straight roads that all looked the same and my head refused to tell me where to go. But that wasn't fear. That wasn't me shaking off pursuers, even if there were any.  That was my compass going on the blink.
This Friday night I hit the same crossroads three times, and if I were standing there now, I still wouldn't know which way to turn.
Look back on my eventless life, what do I see? Escape. Whether its been woman trouble, bank trouble, or Georgie trouble, dear old Tommy's always been halfway out of the door by the time the balloon goes up. It wasn't him, it was two other people, he wasn't there, and anyway they hit him first: that was dear old Tommy for you.
Whereas Annabel - if I may call you so - well, you're the other way aren't you? You're a collision girl. The real thing -which is presumably why I am thinking Annabel, Annabel, when I should be thinking: Edward Amadeus, you mad, dead beloved man, look at the mess you've left me in!
But I am not in a mess. I'm a happy investor. I haven't bought out, I've bought in. That fifty grand was my ticket of entry. I'm a partner in whatever plan you've got up your sleeve. And the name is Tommy, by the way.

Who've you got, Annabel? Who do you talk to - now this minute? Who do you share yourslef with when you hit the bottom of the sea?
One of Georgie's radical blowhards with long hair, no fifty grand and and no manners?
Or some older, richer man of the world who can talk you down when you go off-scale?
Fathers, he thought as the pill began to take a hold of him. Mine and Issa's. Brothers in crime, riding into the sunset on pitch-black Lippizzaners that refuse to turn white.
And your father, who's he when he's at home? Another one of me. Rejected and reviled - with justice? Only loved, if at all from a range of eight thousand miles? But he's part of you all the same, I can feel it. I can feel it in your self-assurance, in your whiff of social arrogance, even when you are saving the Wretched of the Earth.
Issa, he thought. Her foundling. Her tortured man-child. Her black-arsed Chechen who is only half a Chechen but insists he is a whole one, while he spouts ironies at me like those bearded Russian emigres who used to hang around Montparnasse, every one of them a genius.
Issa's the chap who should go walk around Eppendorf, not me.

I am doing this for my client Magomed, she told herself as she fought for clarity in the mayhem of her mind.
I'm doing it for my client Issa.
I'm doing it for life over law.
I'm doing it for me.
I'm doing it because Brue the banker gave me money, and the money gave me the idea. But thats not true at all! The idea was growing inside me long before Brue's money. Brue's money only tipped the scales. The moment I sat down with Issa and heard his story, I knew that this is where the system stops, that this was the unsavable life I must save, that I must think of myself not as a lawyer but as a doctor like my brother Hugo and ask myself: what is my duty to this injured man, what sort of German lawyer am I if I leave him in the legal gutter to bleed to death like Magomed?
As long as I think like that, I'll keep my courage.

That Annabel, the family rebel, had even succumbed to the law herself was a continuing mystery to her. Was it to please her parents? Never. Perhaps she had imagined that by entering their profession she could demonstrate her difference from them in language they understood; that she would wrench the law from the hands of the rich and easy, and take it to the people who had most need of it. If so, nineteen months in the sanctuary had told her how wrong she was.
And she was right. Come the day, come the client: Issa.
Except that before Issa, Magomed had come, and it was Magomed - stupid, trusting, abused, not particularly truthful Magomed -  who taught her, never again.
Never again the too-lat dawn rush to the airport; or the plane for Petersburg standing on the runway with its passenger door open; or the trussed figure of her cleint being bundled up the steps; or the hands - were they real or imagined? - the cuffed hands helplessly waving goodbye to her through the cabin window.

He's simply another client, she repeated angrily to herself as she closed the door behind her and snapped shut the aged padlock.
A client who is in need of special attention, granted. Unorthodox attention. Illegal attention. But a client for all that. And soon he'll get the medical care he needs as well.
He's a case, a legal case with a file. All right, a patient too. He's a damaged and traumatized child whose had no childhood, and I'm his lawyer and his nanny and his only connection to the world.
He's a child but he knows more about pain and captivity and the worst of life than I ever will. He's arrogant and helpless, and half the time that he's saying bears no relation to what he's thinking.