The Remains of the Day

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I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style in modern times. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.

Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is ostensibly to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married and to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.

The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.

But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.

Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.

There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to show it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”

Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a penchant for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- in that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.

Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.

The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.

This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?

Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.

*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066

 

 

 

 

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Non-Fiction Under the Guise of Fiction

It was a long and excruciating wait for the fans of Arundhati Roy’s fiction, dazzled by The God of Small Things, her Booker prize winning debut novel. It was not a literary hibernation as it is made out to be. Roy had never stopped writing. She was just delving into a different genre. She had turned her attention to people’s movements in India and published articles and books on political topics ranging from environmentalism to government corruption and land rights of tribal communities. And now after a hiatus of twenty years, the publication of her second work of fiction is taking the literary world by storm just like its predecessor. Everyone who has read it has a strong opinion about it. Most people either love it passionately or hate it vehemently. Some have gone as far as  comparing it to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez and La Condition Humaine by Malraux.  I fall somewhere in between the two categories of readers and have mixed feelings about it just like I did about The God of Small Things.

Roy’s lush and lyrical prose in The God Of Small Things instantly transported me to the personal and private world of Rahel and Estha’s Ayemenem in Kerala. I soaked myself in all the sights and sounds made alive by her sensuous imagery but the ending ruined it for me ( It’s not a trope I’m comfortable with) although I understand her reasons for concluding the story the way she did. I was fortunate enough to obtain a signed copy of her new fiction at The Old Church in Boston earlier this year where she read an excerpt from her book and participated in a question answer session beginning with a quip :”There is a Hindu nationalist movement in India and I’m talking from the pulpit of a church.”

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The Hindu nationalist movement has been the butt of her criticism and the new novel doesn’t spare it either. In fact the fiction feels in parts like non-fiction. And therein lies the failing of what could have been a powerful work. It’s an ambitious but disjointed novel with a plethora of plots and characters- a kaleidoscope of a huge diverse nation with huge and diverse issues and she seems to have addressed them all- the caste system, Hindu- Muslim rivalry, the Kashmir insurgency , cow vigilantism, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Gujarat riots, the riots of 1984 to name a few.

There are two distinct plots: one, the story of Anjum, an intersex individual born as Aftab and the other of Tilo, an architect turned activist presumably modeled after Roy herself. Anjum, is a Hijra ostracized by society for being neither boy nor girl. She eventually retreats from the ‘duniya’ or the outside world to live in Khwabgah ( dream house)  in the company of other hijras. She starts raising a child called Zainab,  has a series of surgeries and revels in her femininity by wearing sequined clothing, flashy jewelry and bold makeup. Eventually she moves out of the khwabgah and constructs a home on a graveyard aptly named as Jannat ( Paradise) Guest House as it becomes a sanctuary for other outcasts living on the fringes of society. One of them is a dalit ( ‘untouchable’ ) who assumes a Muslim identity by changing his name strangely to Sadaam Hussein after his father gets lynched by a crowd who accuses him of killing a cow.

I enjoyed the story of Anjum as it shed light on a community shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Hijras are cross-dressers, intersex and transgender individuals who make up what has recently been recognized as the third sex by the Supreme Court of India. The stereotypical image of a hijra is a somewhat aggressive and intimidating person who accosts you for money at traffic signals. They have been part of the subcontinent long before labels like transgender became de rigueur in the West. They have a paradoxical position in society- they are revered and considered auspicious and are invited to dance at weddings and bestow blessings on the birth of a child but at the same time they are discriminated against and are one of the most marginalized communities in India. The conflict within the hijras who defy binary constructions of gender is a metaphor for the religious struggle and identity crisis within India. As one hijra in the novel tells Anjum: “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.” The novel could have been a brilliant one if only Roy had stuck to Anjum’s poignant story.

But the story abruptly shifts to Tilottama and the three men in her life who have all loved her at some point. Tilo, Musa, Naga and Biplab called “Garson Hobart”  have all known each other from their theater days in college. Years later their paths cross again. Garson Hobart is Tilo’s landlord in Delhi and later becomes an officer in the Intelligence bureau. Naga becomes an incendiary journalist. Tilo travels to Kashmir where she meets her old flame Musa whose wife Arefa and daughter Miss Jebeen have been killed in a riot. Musa supports the separatist movement in Kashmir with the aim of overthrowing Indian rule. He butts head with the ruthless Major Amrik Singh, the Indian military officer who represents the atrocities of the Indian occupation of Kashmir in handling counterinsurgency efforts. The two disparate plots converge when Anjum and Tilo wish to save an abandoned newborn baby, Miss Jebeen the second.

Apart from the two plots, we have a dizzying number of secondary characters. To that mix, Roy throws in poems, slogans, songs, letters, entries from dictionaries, quotes and even a Kashmiri English alphabet and an entry from the Reader’s Digest book of English Grammar. She has taken many liberties with the writing style which would never be forgiven in a novice writer. To put it simply, there is more telling than showing. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the penetrating gaze of the omnipresent narrator ( the kind who interrupts the flow of the text with asides in parentheses) whose presence we never forget. Interestingly, there is one section in the book where Tilo remarks on writing a bad novel.  In The God of Small Things, I marveled at Roy’s striking and unexpected metaphors. Here the writing is visceral and raw especially when she depicts the chilling never-ending bloody conflict in Kashmir but we also have passages that are passionate and poetic:

Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the line of control … it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and laborers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully and then put down their books and implements … they stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new pied pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give ever so slightly, … only then did they allow the rage and the shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The book is fittingly dedicated “To the Unconsoled”, The story begins and ends in a graveyard- the in- between world which seems to be the fate of many in India, hanging precariously between life and death. As Musa says, in India only the dead are living and the living are dead. The necropolis becomes a symbol of hope for the abandoned, the marginalized, the misfits in a country whose wounds are still festering. I found the book to be an engaging read in spite of the flaws. Kashmir is an emotional subject for anyone from the sub- continent. For me it was an eye-opening account of the atrocities but I can imagine it to be a frustrating read for people unfamiliar with the political scene in India as there are too many culture-specific allusions with no explanation.

If Roy had just stuck to the personal plight of Anjum and the story of Tilo and let the characters and the stories speak for themselves, it would have been a compelling read. But the digressions into diatribes about the general political scene in India make it read like a history text book or a didactic political pamphlet. I would have liked to see more of Roy the artist than Roy the activist. Her work is as fascinating, incoherent, chaotic and complex as the democracy she writes about. It makes me wonder then if she flouted rules of structure and narration to mirror the sprawling mess of the country. Her novel can be compared to the beautifully woven Kashmiri carpets she alludes to often. She has threaded together her own carpet made of many interesting and intricate motifs in eye-catching hues but in the end it makes for a very busy pattern.

The Turn of the Screw: A Ghastly Ghost Story

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The first page of The Turn of the Screw originally published in 1898 as a 12 part serialization in Collier’s Weekly.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.

Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.

It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.

The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the

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“He did stand there! -But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower.”

governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.

The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.

Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?

Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?

If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay,  The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).

Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?

Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?

Are they sexually abused by the governess?

What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?

Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.

I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her

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“Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window.”

own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:

We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”

But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.

The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.

A Book About Books

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Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.

A Normal Paranormal

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I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne Du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

Don’t Look Now, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

Not After Midnight is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an  atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, Du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology.

The Breakthrough is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

A Borderline Case is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

The Way of the Cross has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.

Bound by Convention

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A Nu shu artwork. (Photo from http://www.womenofchina.cn

 

I am fascinated by books that transport me to an era and culture different from my own. If that culture happens to be Chinese, my reading pleasure is twofold. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is one such book that not only satisfied my wanderlust by transplanting me to southern Hunan province in 19thcentury China, but also immersed me completely in the experience of growing up as a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. I was part of a cloistered world where a woman’s conduct was governed by the Confucian doctrines of the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow, obey your son.”and the Four virtues: “ Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” In this environment where women were accorded an inferior status and expected to be subservient to men, See explores the intense friendship of two peasant girls from their daughter days to hair pinning days, rice and salt days to sitting quietly, in other words, from their girlhood to married life to old age.

Lily and Snowflower are two young girls , from different walks of society who are ‘old sames’ paired in a laotong relationship. A laotong is a contractual friendship arranged by a matchmaker between girls of two different villages just like an arranged marriage. Girls of suitable birth who may share birthdays, birth signs and birth order or other traits in common are brought together in an eternal friendship. A marriage is only good for ‘bed business’, the rather crude but practical manner in which lovemaking is described in the novel. You have to look elsewhere for an emotional connection. Many young women have a community of a sworn sisterhood in their natal homes where they sing songs together, embroider, exchange stories and share companionship .The sworn sisterhood is dissolved at the time of marriage but the laotong relationship is a lifelong commitment. Being a laotong improves your social standing and makes you a more eligible catch for marriage.

Lily is prized for her dainty and exquisite golden lily feet. Footbinding was a strange and barbaric practice that was started in the royal court in China and gradually became widespread in the rest of the country and among all social classes. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet in order to attract a wealthy match. The girls were around six years old when they started the process that would take two to three years to complete. The four little toes were bent underneath the sole of the foot and tied with bandages. The bandages were periodically removed and tightened till the heel was twisted and reshaped. The girls suffered excruciating pain which could last months or even years.

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A woman with normal feet next to a woman with bound feet.

Their muscles atrophied and the less fortunate ones got infections like gangrene. Some like Lily’s third sister, died from the ordeal. The girls who survived were disfigured and crippled for life. They would limp and couldn’t walk long distances and had to be carried by men. They developed a peculiar faltering gait which was considered a sexual turn on to men. Footbinding became a way of controlling women and keeping them confined to their homes so they wouldn’t go astray. They were physically incapable of moving far from their homes or the ‘inner realm’ and thus less likely to cheat on their men. They lived in seclusion and were kept subjugated. They learned to tolerate pain and suffering. Of course, it wasn’t just the feet that were bound. The girls were tied to male conventions of beauty, to matrimony, to domesticity and to maternity.

In this sequestered world, women reached out to each other for solace and support. They communicated through nu shu, a syllabic script used in Jiangyong County in Hunan province. Nu shu was used exclusively by women to compose letters, songs and stories either written on paper or on a fan or embroidered on a handkerchief. Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a silk fan on whose folds they take turns writing their thoughts to each other. The fan chronicles all the important events in their life, both joyous and sorrowful. The nu shu gave the girls a voice and a chance to soar in spite of being bound. Their lives become more expansive just like the delicate unfolding of the fan. Lily observes: “Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the field…”

The girls establish a tender connection through correspondence and through Snow Flower’s numerous visits to Lily’s home but Snow Flower’s family does not reciprocate the invitations much to Lily’s mother’s ire. At times their friendship has homoerotic overtones not uncommon in a gender segregated society. The girls go through all the trials and tribulations of life together. With marriage comes a total reversal of fortunes. Lily marries into a wealthy family of good social status but due to circumstances beyond her control, Snow Flower is married to a poor butcher and has to endure hardship and abuse. The sweet and sensitive Lily changes gradually into a different person when her position is cemented as matriarch of the family. There arises a misunderstanding between the two friends that threatens their strong friendship and whether they reconcile or not is the crux of the remainder of the plot.

My main criticism of the book is that the latter half seems rushed and melodramatic. It wasn’t the story of the complex friendship that caught my fancy as much as the insight into ancient Chinese history and culture which was an eye-opening experience. I felt a piercing sadness to learn about the different ways daughters were demeaned within their own community. Their worth only came from their ability to procreate and to produce sons. The protagonists deal with the agonizing pain of foot binding, experience great sorrow on leaving their parents’ homes, endure cruelty in the homes of their in- laws, face the pressure to bear sons, lose children in childbirth and accept their husbands’ concubines. You wonder why strong women like Lily perpetuate the patriarchy by following old traditions. Foot binding was no different from customs like forced marriages, dowry and FGM where women are often complicit in the patriarchal oppression. The rebel in me would have liked to see Lily stand up to injustice. But she ends up being a stickler for rules and is herself ‘bound’ by convention. I understand her powerlessness and realize that being dutiful is her only coping mechanism. At the most Lily can follow her mother in law’s sage maxim: “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”

The atrocities committed on the women made me reflect on my own life and the choices I’ve made and appreciate the freedoms I enjoy and take for granted. Lily and Snow Flower’s world may seem like a world very foreign to our own but yet we can all relate to it to some extent. If you’ve ever felt undervalued as a woman in any way, if you’ve been expected to defer to a man unworthy of your respect, if you’ve taken pains to be beautiful whether going for cosmetic surgery, waxing body hair or wearing stilettos that hurt your feet, if you’ve endured a disparaging remark from an in-law, if you’ve heard the words ‘ I hope this time you have a boy’, then this achingly beautiful novel will strike a chord with you.

The Paris Couple: Love Is A Beautiful Liar

 

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Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson on their wedding day, September 3, 1921

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage during the years of his budding writing career before he was catapulted into fame and fortune. The story is narrated through the perspective of his first wife Hadley who witnesses the nascent writer transform into a legend along with the slow and painful disintegration of their marriage. The young Hemingways move from Chicago to lead a humble life as newly weds in a small flat in the Paris of the 1920s and are instantly thrown into the hedonistic milieu of hard drinking and partying with fellow expats.

Paula McLain, the author, did extensive research studying correspondence exchanged between the couple, reading their biographies and Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. Within this framework of information, she has given a voice to Hadley who was generally relegated to the background in the looming presence of her husband. It would have certainly been impossible for McLain to know every intimate moment and every conversation that took place between the couple and she must have taken liberty with the details but she claims to be as accurate as one could possibly be to their story.

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Hemingway outside of his residence at 113 Rue  Notre-Dame-des- Champs, Paris

McLain has beautifully evoked the atmosphere of depravity and debauchery that characterized the era of the Lost Generation in post war Paris. I felt a voyeuristic thrill as I was transported to Paris with the Hemingways, frequenting the cafés and restaurants along with them, accompanying them on their skiing trips to Austria and bull fighting spectacles in Spain and visiting the glitzy homes of their friends on the Riviera, hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and James Joyce among others. After finishing the book, I  rushed to read The Sun also Rises and A Moveable Feast to prolong the joy of living vicariously through them in that wonderful bygone era.

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From L-R at the table, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway and Hadley in Pamplona, Spain

 

Both Hemingways entered the marriage with a lot of baggage. Hadley had a difficult childhood where she lost both her sister and her father, the latter to suicide. She herself suffered from many nervous spells. Ernest spent a few years fighting in World War 1 and sustained an injury to his leg. The chemistry between the two is undeniable. They both call each other ‘Tatie’ and have a host of endearing nicknames for each other. He thinks they are essentially alike, ‘the same guy’ but they couldn’t be more different from each other. He has a charming and colorful personality. She doesn’t exactly fit into the bohemian lifestyle in Paris and she refers to herself as ‘victorian’ as opposed to ‘modern’ but she strives hard to please her husband and is exceedingly agreeable and accommodating. She helps establish his writing career, reads through his drafts and even supports him financially. She is his rock but he has a roving eye. He needs her to feel safe but at the same time values his space. Besides, she has to make a lot of sacrifices. She has to live frugally while the other women around her wear chic clothing. An unexpected pregnancy prompts Ezra Pound to warn her that it would be a dire mistake to let parenthood change Hemingway. They have their bonny baby boy and things still go on smoothly. It was not parenthood (although their parenting style would leave much to be desired in contemporary times) but fame that eventually affected their marriage. When Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, Hadley remarks: “ He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy.” In their early married years, Hadley loses his valise containing all his work to date. You have to wonder if he ever forgives her for that blunder and if that incident represents a turning point in their marriage along with the entry of the other woman.

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Hadley and Ernest Hemingway with their son “Bumby” in Schruns, Austria

The other woman is Pauline Pffeiffer, a wealthy socialite who insidiously creeps not only into their domestic life by befriending both of them and calling them ‘my cherishables’ but also into their bedroom. What would you do if a beautiful naked woman crawls under the sheets on your husband’s side of the bed? What did Hadley do? She pretended she was asleep. Now suddenly there are three of everything in their lives: three oeufs au jambon, three steaming brioches, three glasses of juice, three breakfast trays, three terrycloth robes, three wet bathing suits on the line and on the rocky path three bicycles stood on their stands: “…You could see how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes on the skeletons of elephants or like love itself.” A ménage à trois forms gradually without either of them realizing or wishing it. What does Hadley get out of the relationship? Is she an enabler? She comes across as an insecure woman madly in love with her husband and tolerant of his wayward behavior. The Paris Wife reveals a lot about the Paris husband too. Hemingway appears to be a needy, narcissistic, jealous and unkind person- in one word, a jerk. He is critical and dismissive of his friends. Yet, you understand where he is coming from and look at him from a sympathetic standpoint. There are a few chapters narrated from his point of view and he does reveal a soft and tender side. The War had a devastating effect on those who fought and survived. Hemingway suffered from what we refer to as PTSD today. The war also brought about a change in values. Gone was the moral rectitude of the Victorian age.  Besides, he was an artist married to his art which leads us to the interesting question if being an artist justifies a bohemian lifestyle. Hadley seems weak but she shows a lot of grace and strength as her marriage crumbles and finally calls him selfish and a coward before leaving him.

 

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Hemingway’s passport, 1923

From the beginning Hadley has a premonition that her marriage is doomed. A passage that struck me in particular in the beginning of the book describes her walks to Les Halles, the open air market where she would linger to admire the lavish meats on display, the bushels overflowing with vegetables and fruits. But in the alleyways behind the marketplace, fruit and meat rotted in crates and reminded her of the gutters in the Place de la Contrescarpe where colored dyes ran freely from the flower vendors’ carts. The lush exterior hides an ugliness underneath and reminds her of the words Ernest had uttered way back in Chicago: “Love is a beautiful liar.” The Paris Wife is a touching and bittersweet love story with some degree of closure in the end. Hadley remarries and leads a contented life and Ernest calls her years later over the phone before committing suicide. While looking back on the Paris years, Hadley remarks: “ Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.” In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway poignantly writes,” I wish I had died before I had loved anyone but her.” The Paris wife or the early or first wife was but one wife in a long line of wives and lovers but perhaps she was the one despite everything and even despite the fact that love is a beautiful liar.

 

The photos are part of the Ernest Hemingway Collection in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.