The Black Tulip

It is virtually impossible to grow a truly black tulip. Black tulips are never completely black but more of a deep purple or purplish-black hue. Yet, in the novel, “The Black Tulip”, by Alexandre Dumas, père, a tulip competition takes place to see who can create a jet black tulip which would be the first of its kind. Although the tale is more fiction than fact, it was inspired by ‘tulipmania’, a phenomenon that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century.

It was the golden age in Dutch history when its empire was the greatest power in Europe. It was also a time of prosperity when people indulged in luxury goods. They became fascinated with tulip bulbs and paid exorbitant sums for rare streaked and striped varieties. As the tulip market grew, people began speculating in tulip bulbs. The tulip bubble lasted for three years before the mania died abruptly and the market collapsed. With the backdrop of this event, Dumas recounts the story of Cornelius van Baerle, a horticulturist who dedicates his life to producing a black tulip. But before Dumas gets to the story of the tulip, he depicts another major historical event that took place in 1672- the lynching of the de Witt brothers in The Hague.

The first four chapters describe the horrific incident in gory detail. The de Witt brothers, the Dutch Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt, and his brother Cornelis were much revered Republican statesmen who held influential political positions. Both England and France attacked the Dutch Republic and Johan de Witt was criticized for neglecting the army and relying solely on the naval strength of the nation. He was blamed for the ‘raampjar’, the invasion by Louis the 14thin 1672. He escaped an assassination attempt while his brother Cornelis was arrested for allegedly conspiring against William the 3rd, the statholder. When Johan went to visit his brother in prison, a crowd who supported the Orangist monarchy, had gathered outside and savagely attacked the brothers and ripped them to pieces. There are accounts describing how parts of the cadavers were sold as souvenirs and even eaten by the frenzied bloodthirsty mob.

Although gruesome, the historical background is crucial to the understanding of the story. Fiction blends with history when we are introduced to the fictitious grandson and namesake of Cornelis de Witt, a certain Dr. Cornelius van Baerle who gets embroiled unwittingly in the political intrigue. The Orangists had accused the de Witt brothers of treason believing their correspondence to the French king to be incriminating evidence. The letters were entrusted in the care of Van Baerle and he keeps them safely unaware of the contents. Meanwhile the city of Haarlem offers a generous monetary prize of 100,000 guilders to the person who can grow a purely black tulip. 

Dr. Van Baerle is a tulip fancier who believes that ‘to despise flowers is to offend God’. The tulip fanciers of the time added their own specific embellishments to the aphorism:

“C’est offenser Dieu que mépriser les fleurs.La tulipe est la plus belle de toutes les fleurs.
Donc qui méprise la tulipe offense démesurément Dieu.”

“To despise flowers is to offend God.The tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers.Therefore, the one who despises tulips offends God beyond measure.”

  Van Baerle works assiduously on cultivating the black tulip. It is on the verge of blooming when his jealous neighbor Isaac Boxtel, a fellow tulip grower who spies on him constantly, alerts the authorities and has him arrested for keeping the letters of the de Witt brothers. Boxtel covets the prize himself and resorts to all sorts of machinations to steal the bulbs and acquire fame and fortune for himself.

A distraught Cornelis manages to sneak in three cuttings of the tulip bulbs with him when he is arrested and continues to grow them in prison. Meanwhile he meets Rosa Gryphus, the guard’s beautiful daughter and the two fall in love. He teaches her to read and write and she helps him grow the black tulip secretly. Love blossoms too along with the tulip. The rest of the story is sappy and sentimental and different in tone from the first few chapters.

The black tulip needs the right amount of light and soil conditions to flourish. Love too will only develop with the right amount of nurturing and attention. Love faces challenges but never gives up and blooms in spite of all the hurdles in its way. The obstacles come in the form of Rosa’s own cruel and suspicious father and a mysterious visitor to the prison who takes more than a passing interest in Rosa and her tulips.

 The story lacks the depth of “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Three Musketeers”. The characters are portrayed with no nuance and belong to the distinct tropes of hero, villain or victim. My edition had notes on the historical details. Apparently Dumas got some of his facts mixed up. He confuses William the Silent with William the 3rd and some of the chronology regarding the de Witt brothers does not match up. Also, there are inaccuracies in the research on tulips. Tulips came from Turkey and not from Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) as Dumas claims. The sources he followed were not always accurate. Reading the notes took away a little from my experience but I found the fictional aspects of the novel to be entertaining and was happy to read a lesser known work of Dumas. 

I enjoyed the delightful lovers’ tiffs between the two. Rosa is jealous of the tulip and claims that Van Baerle loves the flower more than her. Of course Rosa is named after a flower herself and one can say that he is caught between the tulip and the rose.

Will the black tulip bloom? Will love triumph in the end? We hope so for after the misfortunes endured by the protagonists, we wish them all the happiness in the world for, “On a quelquefois assez souffert pour avoir le droit de ne jamais dire : Je suis trop heureux.” “Sometimes one has suffered enough to have the right to never say: I am too happy”.

Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri’s early novels and short stories explored the theme of displacement and alienation in the context of the Indian- American immigrant experience. In 2012, Lahiri moved to Italy and adopted the country and its culture. Not only did she learn Italian and become fluent in the language, she made the startling decision to give up writing in English. She wrote her first work in Italian in 2015, a non-fiction piece entitled In altre parole which was translated into English as In Other Words by Ann Goldstein. ( You can read my blog post on the book here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/in-other-words-a-love-affair-with-a-language/ )

Dove mi trovo ( Where I Find Myself) is her second book in Italian and this time she has translated it herself into English as Whereabouts. She has also moved back to the US, coming out a little, if not wholly, out of her self-imposed linguistic exile. Though Whereabouts does not address the immigrant experience, the anxiety of dislocation–that feeling of being neither here nor there- is still the prevailing theme.

In a series of vignettes set over a year and spanning the seasons, Whereabouts chronicles the daily life of a middle aged single woman in an unnamed city, presumably Rome in Italy. The structure is fragmentary and there is no plot as such-in fact nothing much happens. The short chapters read like diary entries. From the few crumbs of details thrown at the reader, we guess that she is a professor at a university and has never been married or had children. She is aloof with her colleagues and her relationship with her parents is fraught. She describes herself as “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around...” She may have some regrets in life but she seems content with her lifestyle despite her loneliness. She derives comfort from her mundane routine and rituals.

She wanders through the city and frequents its haunts as she goes about her day. You can find her on the sidewalk, at the trattoria, in the piazza, in the bookstore or at the museum. In fact these locations are also chapter titles. Sometimes the titles refer to the weather or the season (‘In spring’, ‘In the Sun’, ‘In August’). There’s one chapter titled ‘In My Head’ and another one called ‘Nowhere’. She moves in and out of these different urban spaces forming tacit and fleeting connections with the people she encounters.The specificity of the location is juxtaposed with the meanderings of the narrator’s mind which jumps between the past and the present. At times on the street, she runs into people she knows. But often she is only an eavesdropper, intrigued by strangers. She follows a couple having an argument and builds up a whole narrative in her head about their personal life based on the few words she hears them speak. She is a voyeur and so are the readers, privy to her innermost thoughts. She takes comfort in crowds but is a solitary woman who prefers being alone. “I eat alone, next to others eating alone”, she muses at a restaurant. She feels less alone in the company of people. She craves for connection but not of the close kind:

This evening as I read in bed I hear the roar of cars that speed down the road beneath my apartment. And the fact of their passing makes me aware of my own stillness. I can only fall asleep when I hear them. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, always at the same time, it’s the absolute silence that interrupts my sleep. That’s the hour when there’s not a car on the road, when no one needs to get anywhere. My sleep grows lighter and lighter and then it abandons me entirely. I wait until someone, anyone, turns up on the road. The thoughts that come to roost in my head in those moments are always the gloomiest, also the most precise. That silence, combined with the black sky, takes hold over me until the first light returns and dispels those thoughts, until I hear the presence of lives passing by along the road below me.

As she goes about her day, she reflects on her life and her relationships. She has had her share of men including married men and a two timing boyfriend. There is also her friend’s husband to whom she is drawn and he seems to be attracted to her as well but they never act on their feelings. She discovers that over time, this hypothetical affair, “which never took hold to begin with, loses its hold over me.” The narrator is prone to anxiety and suffers from tics, headaches, odd afflictions and mysterious pains arising out of the blue. Her mother who was codependent while married, is now a lonely woman who lives alone. Her father’s untimely death has left her bereft but she is not able to forgive him for not protecting her from her mother’s rages and cries out near his crypt: “ …but that magma never touched you, you’d already built yourself an enclosure that was taller and thicker than the marble that encases you now.” She was supposed to go on a trip with him to see a play but he died before that could happen. Her buried anger erupts : “I refused to unpack my suitcase for a month. I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.

The unnamed narrator who vacillates between the need to stay and to leave, to connect and to disconnect is a sort of an ‘everywoman’. It is easy for any city woman to identify with her. She is a flâneuse somewhat like her literary predecessor, Mrs. Dalloway, who ambles around the city, both part of the crowd and separate from it. I thought of how, like the narrator, we crave anonymity and blend in with the crowd but yet we shrink from total solitude. We are happy to sip our coffee alone with a book or our smartphone in a café but we derive a sense of security from the people around us. Even the narrator sees her double, a woman who looks like her and whom she follows and loses in the crowd. “ My double, seen from behind, explains something to me: that I’m me and also someone else, that I’m leaving and also staying.”“Did I imagine her? No, I’m certain I saw her. A variation of myself with a sprightly step, determined to get somewhere, just up ahead.” Variations of the narrator exist everywhere, caught in the hustle and bustle of urban loneliness.

The quiet story has a dreamlike quality and shifts between shadow and light, absence and presence, stillness and movement, till the narrator makes a momentous decision. When she was a little girl, she was afraid to jump from one tree stump to the other while playing with other children at school, but she finally takes a giant leap of faith. And like her protagonist narrator, Jhumpa Lahiri also reinvents herself by leaving her comfort zone to try something different. I appreciate her devotion and dedication to another language. It resonates with me personally, as much like Lahiri, I grew up exposed to many languages and was most fluent in English, which was not my mother tongue, but a ‘stepmother’, to borrow her analogy from In Other Words. I went on to embrace French, a totally different language I could consider my foster mother. I understand her relationship to Italian as I share her passion for living and breathing a foreign language. Yet I am left with ambivalent feelings on reading this book.

Does she have to give up one narrative style to find a new voice in her writing? Does she have to abandon one language to adopt another? I did not quite have the same intense and intimate experience with her Italian books as I did with her immigrant writing. There are a few poetic prose passages I savored, but on the whole I felt that some of her linguistic brilliance, so evident in English, is missing here as she is still in the process of perfecting Italian. I was mostly left with this agonizing question: Will we never get to read another Interpreter of Maladies or Unaccustomed Earth?

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

“I have not only occasionally made a confession of belief in essays, but once, a little more than ten years ago attempted to set forth my belief in a book. This book is called Siddhartha.” Hermann Hesse, My Belief, 1931

Published in 1922, after the First World War, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha struck a chord with Europeans looking for meaning in their lives. Writing this book was cathartic for Hesse too and part of his self discovery as he dealt with his own despondency and existential angst. The book became widely accessible after the 1955 translation into English by Hilda Rosner. It resonated with the hippie generation of the sixties, tapping into their alienation and giving them a flavor of the mystical practices of the East they were turning to for solace.

People mistakenly think that the book is about Gautam Buddha. The confusion arises from the fact that the protagonist’s name is Siddhartha which was the Buddha’s given name. The main character of the book is not the Buddha but a namesake who is a contemporary of the Buddha and whose path in life is analogous to that of the Buddha’s. Hermann Hesse deliberately gives him the same name to prove a point to which I shall return later in the post. Siddhartha is a coming of age story about the spiritual awakening of a man. In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, Moksha or Nirvana is the awareness of the truth or the consciousness of existence residing within you which results in supreme bliss and leads to the ultimate liberation of the soul from suffering or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Siddhartha is on a quest to attain this state of enlightenment.

Thangka of Buddha with the One Hundred Jataka Tales, Tibet, 13th-14th century

The novella traces the spiritual journey of the eponymous character through various stages of his life. As a young man belonging to the priestly high caste of Brahmins, Siddhartha is disillusioned with the ritualistic and dogmatic teachings of the people who surround him and decides to leave his home and his parents with his best friend Govinda to start a life as an itinerant ascetic. The young men join the Samana monks who renounce all material desires and embrace a lifestyle of severe austerity abstaining from all indulgences. They teach Siddhartha to think, to fast and to wait but this lifestyle of self denial and deprivation does not lead to the peace and happiness he sought. Shortly thereafter, he meets the Buddha and is awestruck by his effulgence and grace, but decides to follow his own path instead of becoming a disciple. I love stories where the Buddha makes an appearance. The scene reminded me of the Jataka Tales of ancient India where the Buddha appears in some form or the other in every story with a didactic message. This encounter with the Buddha is especially interesting as Siddhartha defies him and says it is futile to follow a predetermined path. Just like the Buddha he has to reach spiritual enlightenment on his own and not on someone else’s terms even if that someone else happens to be the illustrious and exalted Buddha. He parts ways with Govinda who is more conforming and continues to live with the Samanas.

Siddhartha goes from one extreme to the other and decides to indulge his ‘self’ instead of suppressing it. Consequently, he embraces ‘samsara’ or the world by taking the comely Kamala as a lover. The courtesan ( which is just a fancy term for prostitute) initiates and instructs him in the art of love and introduces him to a successful merchant named Kamaswami. Siddhartha becomes a businessman. He makes money and squanders it by gambling, partakes of forbidden food and wine, enjoys all the pleasures of the flesh till his hedonistic lifestyle fills him with nausea and disgust and he realizes that he has died spiritually. He leaves Kamala and her pleasure grove unaware that she is pregnant and he is on the verge of committing suicide by throwing himself in a river when he is saved by the primordial sound of the universe, the sound of ‘om’ resounding from the depths of his soul. Subsequently, he meets Kamala and their son who is left in his care for some time and he is reunited twice with his childhood friend Govinda. He decides to live with Vasudev, the wise ferryman who teaches him to listen to the river which is eternal and ever flowing and reflects the entire cosmos:

  Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection. “

Minor spoilers follow:

When Siddhartha stopped seeking he found himself. He realized that the essence already exists within us and is present in the world in the here and the now. We are not the body- not intellectual or emotional beings but divine souls and the divinity within us is one with the Absolute or the ” Brahman’, the ultimate reality of the universe, ( not to be confused with ‘ Brahmin’ with an ‘i”). The individual self must be discarded to realize the universal self. It is only when the arrogant Siddhartha gets rid of his ego that he experiences that transcendent state of bliss. Govinda who focuses on the long term goal of nirvana fails to live in the moment and misses the tiny signs on the way. There is this climactic and sublime moment when Govinda asks Siddhartha to reveal the secret and when he comes close to Siddhartha’s face, he no longer sees the face of his friend but other faces which all changed and renewed themselves continuously and yet they were all Siddhartha. He saw the faces of aquatic creatures and animals, of a murderer and his executioner, of a newborn, of men and women in the transports of passionate love and faces of Gods.

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths – this smile of Siddhartha – was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.

 In the beginning of the post, I pointed out the confusion that arises from giving the protagonist the Buddha’s childhood name. Apart from the name, there are many parallels to the story. Buddha breaks from the Kshatriya  caste of princes and nobles and Siddhartha from the privileged Brahmin caste of priests and they each follow their own individual paths to salvation. Interestingly, the name Siddhartha in Sanskrit means one who reaches his aim or goal. According to Hinduism there are four ‘purusharthas’ or goals in life ; dharma ( right conduct ), artha ( material prosperity), kama ( desire) and moksha ( liberation). Each has its place in life but moksha or salvation is the ultimate goal for every individual. Both the Buddha and Hesse’s Siddhartha go through and survive the vicissitudes of life before reaching enlightenment. Siddhartha, the Buddha left his wife and child and Siddhartha of the novel leaves the pregnant Kamala unaware of her condition. But the most obvious reason for the name choice is that the Buddha and the Siddhartha are one and the same- there is no difference between them. Nirvana is the realization of this undivided wholeness – the oneness of the universe -when everything and everyone, saint or sinner, merges into one.

End of Spoilers

Even the structure of the novella reflects Eastern philosophy. Siddhartha’s journey represents the four traditional stages of life of a Hindu; that of the student, the householder, the forest dweller and the recluse seeking enlightenment. The book is divided into two parts consisting of four and eight chapters respectively, to represent the Buddha’s teachings of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. Indian philosophy can be metaphysical and esoteric and Hesse has simplified it in the form of a fable which makes it more interesting than reading a non- fiction account. It is a great read for anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with Buddhism and Hinduism. The language is poetic and lyrical, suited to the philosophical tone.

When I first picked the book, I was a little skeptical wondering if it would be dated and just another European’s exotic account of eastern teachings. There are nuggets of wisdom that I will be pondering over but what appealed to me most about Siddhartha is probably what also appealed to the hippie generation- it is a tale of rebellion and non- conformity. It is still relevant- for in an era of religious fundamentalism, cults, conversions and brainwashing, it is refreshing to read the story of a man who decides to think for himself and who carves his own spiritual path.

White Nights

White Nights- St. Petersburg, Russia Image from WeQ live website

P. S. The blog post contains spoilers.You can read White Nights by Dostoevsky for free online on Project Gutenberg if you wish to read the story before reading the post. It is a short story.

‘Toska’ is one of those untranslatable Russian words that elude definition. It denotes anguish, melancholia, spiritual sadness and boredom all at once. According to Vladimir Nabokov: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” The word seems similar to the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ but it is uniquely Russian as to the Russians it also implies carrying the heavy weight of their collective history along with centuries of living in a gloomy climate. I recently read White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky which comes close to capturing this elusive and undefinable state represented by the word ‘toska’.

Published in 1948, this is one of Dostoevsky’s earlier works and lacks the polish of his future novels although it prefigures some of the themes you encounter later. It is a story about a sensitive dreamer and it is a story for all dreamers. I could immediately identify with the character. He is a painfully shy man and a recluse who lives in St. Petersburg and floats through life lost in his own world of fantasies. He roams the streets of the city encountering strangers with whom he never strikes a conversation. Yet, he thinks he knows them intimately. He knows the houses and they know him too. For they appear to talk to him. We don’t come to know much about him. We don’t even know his name. He is around 26 years old and lives alone with his maid Matrona who takes cares of his apartment. He is a hopeless romantic and dreams up romances but has never been with a woman. He is an introverted and introspective man weighed down by an unexplainable despondency. His malaise reminds me a little of Chateaubriand’s René. His dream world offers him a refuge from loneliness. In fact, the novella is subtitled as: “A sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer”.

The story unfolds over four nights and a day in the nameless narrator’s life. One evening while roaming the streets of St. Petersburg, he meets a pretty girl named Nastenka who is crying on a bridge and comes to her rescue when another stranger follows and threatens her. They become friends over the next few nights and share their hopes and dreams with each other. The two lonely souls come together in their loneliness. Nastenka is a sheltered young girl who during the day is literally pinned to her grandmother’s skirt as the old lady is afraid that she will be led astray by a man. She spends her time reading and sewing and has the freedom to walk around the city only after she manages to untie herself after her grandmother has gone to sleep.

Although she warns the narrator not to fall in love with her, he quickly becomes infatuated with her. She is betrothed to another man who was a lodger in her apartment and is waiting for him to return from his trip. When he fails to show up, she thinks he has abandoned her and is miserable. The narrator is moved by her plight and helps her deliver a letter to the man. He also ends up confessing his love for her. She is bewildered but when it seems to her that her beau will not return, she says she is starting to get over him and that she loves the narrator as as he is the better person. The two start making plans for the future. But when Nastenka’s fiancé returns that very night, she excitedly flings herself into his arms. The narrator’s world comes crashing down. Nastenka herself was a dream and he falls back to reality with a thud.

It is a clichéd story of the man who falls in love with a girl who has given her heart to someone else. Yet, Dostoevsky in his inimitable style imbues it with a freshness and poignancy of its own. It is the first work of literature that I have come across which gives importance to the ‘type’ of a dreamer. The narrator delivers a long monologue on being a dreamer similar to the style of the Underground Man from Notes from Underground. He begins narrating his story in the third person calling himself a hero. He is a melodramatic and excitable man who is very awkward and shy when an acquaintance visits him but pours his heart out to the girl who is virtually a stranger. Nastenka teases him about his poetic verbosity:”You describe it all splendidly, but couldn’t you perhaps describe it a little less splendidly? You talk as though you were reading it out of a book.” It is strange and almost comical to see the way he is overwrought with emotion. Through the dreamer, Dostoevsky shows how humans are afraid to reveal their true selves but yearn for communication and connection. It takes a potential soulmate who appears to share the same temperament as the dreamer to draw him out of his cocoon.

The narrative itself exerts a dreamlike hold on us. You feel you are in a dreamscape for the story takes place during the time of ‘white nights’, a phenomenon that takes place around the summer solstice when the sun does not set completely. St. Petersburg is located near the Arctic circle and experiences the season of the midnight twilight when there is a crepuscular glow in the night sky. In French, the expression for white nights is ‘nuits blanches’ and refers to sleepless nights. The nocturnal wanderings of the narrator take place in this transitional and hallucinatory state between wakefulness and sleep, between dream and reality when our thoughts are unconstrained by our usual mental filters.

The narrator is jolted from his reverie and back to living his monotonous life with the maid Matrona. She used to ignore the cobwebs on the ceiling but after he met Nastenka, it seemed to him that she had swept all the cobwebs. But now after losing Nastenka, the house seems old and decrepit, Matrona seems wrinkled and the cobwebs seem thicker than ever. They end up exactly where they started. Nastenka, meanwhile, announces the news of her marriage in a letter and says she will always treasure the memories she had with the narrator and will view him as a friend and brother. In modern parlance, one would say that he has been ‘friend-zoned’. And here is his sweet and sincere response:

But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness; that by my bitter reproaches I should cause distress to your heart, should poison it with secret remorse and should force it to throb with anguish at the moment of bliss; that I should crush a single one of those tender blossoms which you have twined in your dark tresses when you go with him to the altar…. Oh never, never! May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that moment of blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and grateful heart!  

Aren’t these the most beautiful and heartbreaking lines of unrequited love? In the beginning of the story, the narrator’s feverish ramblings on love made us believe that he was in love with an ideal, but how sincerely he cares for the girl who breaks his heart! He wishes her nothing but the best, and as for him, that one fleeting moment of happiness they shared can sustain him for his whole life.

My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”

*Text of passages translated from the Russian by Constance Garrett

      

The Goat Thief

Language is no bar when it comes to reading good literature provided one has access to excellent translations. I only have to think of all the Russian literature I have devoured without knowing a word of Russian. One area of literature that has remained relatively unexplored till recently is regional writing from India. The market is flooded with works by Indian writers writing in English but the rich range of works in local languages from India has only recently become accessible thanks to dedicated translators who have not only elevated translation to an art but have also made it an industry in its own right.

One such work that I read recently is a collection of short stories entitled The Goat Thief, written by the prolific Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, and translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. Set in rural Tamil Nadu, the stories paint a vivid picture of life in the countryside – the slow and languorous passing of the days, the sprawling rice fields under the scorching rays of the sun, mischievous children climbing up palm trees and the petty gossip of the villagers on the ‘pyol’. The everyday events describing family and village life sometimes take a dark and melancholic turn. It doesn’t take much for the ordinary to become ominous, the mundane to transform into the macabre.

In the Preface to this collection of stories, Murugan compares the art of writing a short story to designing a ‘kolam’ or floor art made with rice flour in many Tamil homes. According to him, it could be a simple design with just four dots by hand or a more intricate one but there is a geometrical pattern and if something is amiss, you fix the flaw by perhaps placing a flower on the design and you follow the same method with a story. Though his stories are very vividly described, I thought they were not developed enough. Murugan succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension but there is no definite plot and the stories end abruptly. I am usually a fan of ambiguous endings. I don’t need all the loose ends tied up but I need something to work with. There should be some sort of a twist or an open ended conclusion at least. In my opinion, the ‘kolam’ pattern is left incomplete by Murugan in almost all of his stories.

Photo- Kolams of India Website

The stories are well-written and I was struck by the importance Murugan gives to inanimate objects. They are often anxiety provoking and they serve to define or explain the characters. They are endowed with human attributes and sometimes even with supernatural powers. In ‘The Well’, a grown man is having a delightful time swimming with a group of children but the story takes on a sinister turn. The well that ‘held a hoard of miracles within’, the well that was ‘full of compassion’ becomes a death pit. Even the innocent children turn into evil ‘demons’.

In ‘Musical Chairs’, an object becomes a bone of contention between a newly married couple. They have a peculiar attachment to a chair which the husband seems to monopolize and the wife insists on purchasing her own chair. He covets her chair too and what ensues is a battle of wills. In ‘Mirror of Innocence’, the parents and grandmother of a little girl are baffled by her constant sobbing in the middle of the night. She refuses to sleep and rejects all her toys. The parents finally realize that she is asking for a ‘uppu kundaan’ or a salt bowl which they use to scoop sugar. A worthless object becomes a source of agony for the child and her parents who pass a sleepless night. 

Murugan seems to have a strange fascination with excrement. Yes, shit. There are two stories in this collection dealing with the subject. He even penned an entire collection of stories centered around shit entitled Pee Kadaigal ( funnily, the Tamil word for shit is ‘pee’.) or Shit Stories and in the Preface he mentions that the book is often not included or mentioned in the list of books authored by him at literary meetings as people are embarrassed or outraged by the title and theme. I did not find the topic revolting as such but as his descriptions are so striking, I had a hard time controlling the urge to throw up. I could literally see and smell the shit while reading.

In ‘The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl’, a newly married lady is bothered by the foul smell emanating from soggy rice fermenting in the large vat of left over food in the kitchen. Yet she doesn’t reduce the quantity in her cooking in case unexpected guests show up. Her husband solves the problem by pouring the contents of the vat into the toilet bowl. Literally the rice is deposited in shit. The toilet bowl shrieks, screams and howls with hunger pangs every day in anticipation of the left over rice and becomes an insatiably hungry beast. It even assumes the shape of a skull. The lady is so frightened that the toilet or her ‘adversary’ would gobble her up that she doesn’t go to the bathroom when her husband is not home.

Then there is a story entitled ‘Shit’ about five bachelor men who live in a house in a remote suburb enjoying their independence. A horrid stench enters their rooms. The pipe from the toilet to the septic tank had broken in the middle and a shit heap has accumulated at the back of the house.  A sweeper is willing to remove it for 500 rupees but they are annoyed and bargain with him despite his protest: “ I have to put my hand in your shit, sir.” It is heartbreaking to see this man from a lower caste viewed with disgust and treated with derision when he is trying to solve their filthy problem. A tumbler that was a coveted object becomes one of revulsion when handled by the sweeper. This is a powerful story about caste dynamics and the best and the most complete in the collection. Murugan may have a penchant for writing scatalogical stories but unfortunately I don’t fancy reading them despite their brilliance: they are described in such graphic details and are so visually powerful that I could literally feel and smell the shit in a visceral way. My poor olfactory buds were protesting vehemently. Again, in the shit stories, the toilet bowl and the tumbler are objects imbued with symbolic meaning.

Many of the stories have a supernatural element. There is a sense of foreboding in the air. In ‘The Night The Owls Stopped Crying’, the night watchman in a farm house hears that a ghost of a young girl gang raped and killed resides on the property. He believes he senses her presence and starts having conversations with her.  

The stories also capture helplessness and the feeling of being trapped physically. In the title story, ‘The Goat Thief’ when Boopathy, the thief, realizes he is being pursued for stealing a goat, he jumps into a torrent of sewage water-  he is surrounded by all sides by the villagers and escape is impossible. There are thickets of sedge grass and snakes and insects in the water and he gets trapped in a patch of quicksand. His legs are buried deeper and deeper in the mire.

The remaining stories are snapshots of village life in Tamil Nadu. Whether it is the account of an old woman entrusted with the responsibility of looking after her great grandson in the summer or the incident when a grown man regresses to his childhood by playing with young children in the well or the story of an old man with a thatched shed who is tormented by jealousy on seeing a younger man build a house with a tiled roof, Murugan brings the bucolic countryside to life on every page.

The stories are evocative and awaken all our senses. They capture the local color very effectively. As an Indian and specifically as a Tamilian, I could relate to a lot of the cultural elements as observed in the behavior of the characters- applying holy ash on the forehead, praying to the local clan Goddess and believing in the power of the evil eye. The stories have a folktale feel to them- I can imagine them being narrated in the village square in front of a banyan tree. The translator has done an excellent job retaining the flavor of the original idiomatic expressions.

The stories were engaging but I felt they could have been developed further. They also did not resonate that much with me as I felt they were a little androcentric. I understand that they are penned from a man’s perspective but I think Murugan could have focused a bit more on the women and their issues. In some of the stories, he hints at the sense of loneliness and displacement felt by newly married women in their new homes. I wish he would have dwelt a little more on that subject. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start with a collection of his short stories. Perumal Murugan is a prolific writer in all genres and most well known for his novels. I should get hold of one of his novels next for I have a feeling that the ‘kolam’ pattern may then turn out to be not just beautiful and intricate, but complete.

 

 

 

 

Love Song

antique-violin

Today I celebrate Valentine’s day on the blog with a ‘soulful’ poem written by Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet and mystic. His poetry speaks deeply to me, as it undoubtedly does to countless other people. I remember that when I first read a collection of his poems, I bookmarked almost every page as I found something there that tugged at me. His poems have the ability to startle and leave you with the enormous feeling of relief that here is someone who ‘gets’ you.

Love Song

by Rainer Maria Rilke

How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here’s the original in German:
Liebeslied

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Spieler hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied!

There are two distinct parts to this poem. In the first part, the speaker/ poet expresses his fear of falling in love. He is afraid of the closeness to the person he loves. To love is to be raw and vulnerable. To love is to take the risk of getting hurt or rejected. You expose your naked emotional self as you re-open wounds from the past. There is no love without loss. Love and pain go hand in hand. Love is not calm waters but the dizzying heights and crashing lows of waves in the ocean. And that is why he wants to shelter his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” far away from the beloved.

The word ‘yet’ expresses the futile attempt to resist the beloved and links the first part to the second. If you love, you wear your heart on your sleeve. He is irresistibly drawn to the love of his life. Falling in love is inevitable. He cannot hold his emotions in check even if he wants to.

The second part describes the perfect union of souls. The two souls in love are part of an identical energy force; their vibrational frequency is the same. They are no longer disparate and disembodied beings but have merged together and are completely in tune with each other. The concept of soul mates which seems like a modern invention, in fact, harkens back to antiquity. In Plato’s Symposium, the philosopher Aristophanes discusses the concept of mirror souls. Zeus, the King of Gods, split androgynous human beings into two separate parts, male and female, and they spend their whole lives in pursuit of their other halves so that they could become whole again: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”

The two lovers are like two separate violin strings on a violin that vibrates with one sound. They come together to create music. Their oneness emanates from a deep love and understanding. The musical metaphor reminds me of a similar train of thought in Kahlil Gibran’s meditation on love and marriage in The Prophet: ” Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music… “
Two human beings in love can come together to create one whole relationship and still maintain their distinct individuality and not lose sight of their own unique purpose in life.

There is a fatalistic tone to the poem as it alludes to a force greater than the two of them that brings them together in union. Maybe their love was written in the stars. Is the musician God and the instrument upon which they are spanned the Universe or Fate itself? Man and woman come together as one to have a common spiritual communion with God. Their love is transcendent as both entwined souls surrender themselves in exultation into the hands of Divinity. Soul mates are your spiritual catalysts too and there is a sacredness to the union.

In the first part of the poem, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘You’ ( ‘ich’ and ‘dich’ in German) are used to convey the separateness.  After the speaker utters ”yet” you have the words ‘us’, ‘me and you’, ‘together ‘and ‘we two’ ( ‘uns’, ‘dich und mich’, ‘zusammen’ and ‘ wir’ in German) to emphasize the fusion of the souls. The poem begins and ends with questions. The frenzied questions about how to protect his heart from love are followed by the description of the bliss of union and more questions revealing the incertitude about their destiny and culminating in the rapturous but resigned sigh that he lets out: “Oh sweetest song!”

This beautiful poem about soul mates touched me to the depths of my soul. Hope you enjoyed it too!

The Vegetarian: A Meaty Book

vegetarian
Daphne becomes a tree- Artwork by Arthur Rackham

As a life-long vegetarian, I was immediately intrigued by The Vegetarian, the title of the three part novella written by South Korean author Han Kang. The story set in modern day Seoul recounts how all hell breaks loose in a family when a young woman makes the sudden and irrevocable decision to become a vegetarian. But the book is not a treatise arguing the merits or ethical considerations of a plant based diet. Vegetarianism becomes a metaphor for personal choice and rebellion against the patriarchy. It’s a book about the violence and brutality women experience at the hands of different men in their lives when they challenge the status quo and the heavy price they have to pay for non -conformity. One could easily substitute vegetarianism with any act of defiance but I think vegetarianism is an apt and powerful analogy to highlight the vile and base nature of human beings not just in regard to animals but towards their own species. The book was rather unusual and unlike any other book I’ve read but it was spellbinding and a page-turner.

After a blood-soaked nightmare triggered by a repressed childhood trauma, Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegan much to the consternation of her husband and the rest of her family. The structure of the book is tripartite; each part narrated from the perspective of a different family member. The first part recounts the story from the husband’s point of view and is written in the first person. The second part viewed through the lens of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law is written in the third person and the third part is in the third person too but written from the sister’s frame of reference. In short it’s a woman’s story presented through the viewpoint of others. Although it would have helped to know the inner workings of Yeong-Hye’s mind ( which is only revealed in sporadic dream fragments), concealing her thoughts is an ingenious narrative device to bring home the point that her voice has been stifled. I found the changing of the narration from the first person to the third person to be slightly jarring but apparently these three parts were distinct stories that eventually coalesced into one novel.

The Vegetarian–  Mr. Cheong cannot come to terms with the fact that his compliant and submissive wife has started behaving strangely. And in Korea, deciding to stop eating and cooking meat is considered strange behavior. In fact he had married her for she was an ordinary and unremarkable woman- a non-entity who posed no threat to him. All this self-absorbed and uncaring man can think about is how the decision will affect him and his social life. Her family is not considerate either. Her father slaps her twice and forcibly feeds her meat which results in her grabbing a knife and slitting her wrist for which she is hospitalized. She spirals down a path of self-destructive behavior as she eats less and less and shows more and more signs of mental illness.

Mongolian Mark–  Yeong-Hye’s brother- in- law is an unsuccessful video artist who becomes obsessed with the idea of painting flowers on her naked body and filming her having sex. His fetichistic interest that slowly turns into a pornographic fantasy was triggered on hearing his wife say her sister hadn’t outgrown her Mongolian birthmark from childhood. While at first you wonder if he is showing empathy towards his sister- in -law, it becomes clear that he is using her in pursuit of his artistic vision and to give a boost to his flagging career. She is the characteristic woman who is depicted as passive to the active male gaze.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated … what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.

The concept of the male gaze in the visual arts was developed by Laura Mulvey, the feminist film critic in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” who posited that Hollywood films depict women from a male point of view -in other words the male gaze is a sexualized way of looking that objectifies the woman. She was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan who had delved into the concepts of  ‘Schaulust’ or the pleasure in looking and ‘scopophilia’ or deriving sexual pleasure from looking at nude bodies and photographs. In the end the male gaze reinforces the patriarchy. The brother-in-law is also taking advantage of a mentally ill woman irrespective of the fact that she consented to be his model. There is undoubtedly an underlying imbalance of power.

Flaming Trees- Through the eyes of In-Hye, we witness the slow disintegration of Yeong- Hye who goes from being a vegan to an anorexic and we learn about her childhood and the abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father. Her husband divorces her and her parents and brother abandon her. She is diagnosed with mental illness and hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. The only one who shows sympathy and takes responsibility for her care is her sister. I was moved by In- Hye’s account of her sister’s descent into madness and how she reflects on her own life choices and wonders if she was a coward compared to her sister:

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…

Gradually In-Hye herself starts showing symptoms of mental illness and has suicidal thoughts, leaving the reader with the sobering thought that men are alike in their callousness and women in their misery.

Slowly as Yeong- Hye starts withering away, she expresses the bizarre desire to transform into a tree. I found echoes of both Kafka’s A Hunger Artist and The Metamorphosis in the novel. The ‘kafkaesque’ heroine is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. The trope of the woman turning into a tree is an archetypal image that can be traced back to antiquity. In the Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid recounts how Daphne, the nymph of Greek mythology entreats the river God Peneus to turn her into a tree so she can escape Apollo’s sexual advances. The woman is safer as a tree in a vegetative state and in a non-human form. It is a defense mechanism to protect herself. A man leaves her with no choice than to regress and efface. As Yeong-Hye withers and wastes away she also becomes more taciturn. Her body, her voice and her mental faculties are all shrinking and becoming invisible.

This is a unique book with a lot lurking beneath the surface. Some people have explained it as an allegory of the political unrest in South Korea but I interpreted it to be a dark depiction of patriarchal hegemony. This book is graphic conjuring phantasmagoric images and the reading experience is visceral and hallucinatory, reminiscent of surrealist paintings. In less than 200 pages, it tackles serious issues like family dysfunction, gender relations, marital rape, body image, eating disorders, voyeurism, mental illness and suicide ideation.

Indeed, The Vegetarian offers us a lot to chew on. ( And yes, I have an affinity for puns however trite they may be!) Originally published in 2007, it won the 2016 Man Booker Prize after Deborah Smith’s translation made it an international success. Much as I was glad to have read the brilliant book, I found the utter despair without a flicker of hope or any chance of redemption difficult to digest. I confess that once I finished the book, I had to rush to read an Agatha Christie mystery to get rid of the bitter aftertaste.

 

Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot_031
Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :

Fiction:

The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

 

 

Forbidden Stories From North Korea

Bandi

 

The Accusation is a collection of seven stories and two poems written under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’ or firefly by a dissident writer still living in North Korea and set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong Il. The stories are a window into the secret world of the hereditary dictatorships of the Kim family characterized by propaganda, corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic ineptitude where the government controls every aspect of a citizen’s life. While there are many works published by writers who have defected to South Korea, this is presumably the first collection written by a writer still living in North Korea to cross the border. The author risked his or her life to make these harrowing stories see the light of day. The account of how the manuscript made it out from North Korea into South Korea is an interesting story in its own right and is included as an afterword.

The chilling and profoundly sad stories are fictional but based on the experiences of real people and they all share a common thread. They reveal the fear and despair of the citizens, who, living under the watchful eye of authority, have to be constantly on guard as anything can be construed as conspiracy against the state. Each and every story is about an accusation. A person could be banished to the countryside, forced into a life of hard labor or even executed for a slight infraction, real or perceived.

Record of a Defection reveals how you have to atone for the sins of your ancestors. A peasant was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and of sabotaging the Party’s agricultural collectivization project as he was not abreast with the latest technology of growing rice seedlings in greenhouses. Years later his entire family suffers the consequences of his actions. His young grandson cannot run for Class President at his school. One black mark against you which can be a trifling offence or even an absurd non-offence can taint not only you and your family but many future generations.

City of Specters– A two year old is frightened by the gigantic posters near Central Square of Karl Marx and Kin Il-Sung visible from his apartment window. He mistakes them for monsters. His mother tries to allay his fears by drawing the curtains but the neighborhood is expected to exhibit uniformity in appearance for the upcoming National Day parade and her action is viewed as an infraction. Although she is a privileged woman, she has to pay a heavy price for this misstep. It is a richly symbolic story. These specters of Communism haunt not just the little boy but all the citizens in all of the land.

Life of a Swift Steed– A decorated war veteran  had planted an elm tree in his youth as a symbol of the growth of a new socialist state. He had envisioned a life where everyone would live in a tile-roofed house, eat meat and rice and wear silks but the reality is that the people are living in poverty and there is a dearth of fuel in the freezing weather. The state wants to cut down his beloved elm which is interfering with a power line. The tree ends up being a symbol of his disillusionment as he comes to the painful realization that his medals mean nothing and that his entire life has been a sham.

So Near Yet so Far– Myeong-Chol, a hard-working miner wishes to visit his sick mother in the countryside but the state will not give him a permit to leave his province as there is a Class 1 celebration for the leader in his mother’s town and travel is forbidden to the district. After his application for a pass is denied three times, the man who has always been a stickler for rules, decides to make the journey illegally with the help of a friend. He gets tantalizingly close to seeing his mother as the title suggests but will he see the dying old woman and what will be his punishment for violating travel regulations?

Pandemonium– An old woman is traveling with her husband and granddaughter to visit her pregnant daughter but they end up being trapped in a crowded railway station. All traffic has come to a halt as the Great Leader Kim Il- Sung is about to visit the area. In desperation, she sets out on foot to visit her daughter and ends up getting a ride in the leader’s personal entourage and accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of her happy laughter is in striking contrast to the pandemonium at the station where her husband and granddaughter suffered injuries.

On Stage– Even a month after the demise of the leader, authorities would monitor how many times people put flowers at his altar. The people risked venomous snakes and landslides to pick flowers to demonstrate their grief.  Grief was closely monitored and people became experts at faking it. An improvisational comic skit had once landed a young man in hot water. He was suspected of being brainwashed by South Korean anti-Communist freedom broadcasts and now, much to the ire of his father, he is in trouble again for having held the hand of the daughter of a political prisoner and for picking flowers in a state of intoxication. He explains to his father how living in North Korea is akin to being on stage.

The Red Mushroom– A man requests a journalist to clear his uncle’s name. He has become a scapegoat of the party when the bean paste factory where he works runs short of supply due to mistakes made higher up. Unfortunately, even sincere journalists have to toe the party line:

“Eventually, he decided that he had no other choice than to knuckle down, amend the article so that the praise was meted out as the Party demanded it be, and submit it to the newspaper, all the while heaping curses on the field of journalism which he had been unfortunate enough to enter….”

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah Smith who has translated these stories beautifully into English retaining the local color and turn of phrase. The writing is stark but yet imbued with poetry. Whether it is a description of a cuckoo ‘crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood’ or of people assembled in the square like ‘blocks of tofu’ or of a person shedding ” a pitcher’s worth of tears from a cup of sadness”, the similes and metaphors startle and suit the melodramatic nature of the tales. Many of the stories are repetitive but the repetition only serves to reinforce the shared plight of all the citizens whose fates are determined by the accident of birth and hang precariously on a piece of paper in a bureaucratic office.

There are Orwelian overtones in the stories but sadly this is not a dystopian world. It is a scathing indictment of a dynastic totalitarian regime which hasn’t changed much since the time the stories were written. In The Red Mushroom, the last story of the collection, the municipal building which stands for the red European specter is compared to a poisonous mushroom, the root of all misfortune and suffering and the story ends with the protagonist’s heart crying out the collective silent yearning of the people: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!” 

The afterword to the stories reveals the interesting trajectory of the manuscript as it made its way to South Korea thanks to a relative of the author who enlists the help of a human rights activist. We learn that Bandi is a writer of the Chosun Writers’ League but other biographical details have been altered to protect his or her identity. Bandi who sees himself or herself as a firefly illuminating the darkness that engulfs North Korea includes, in lieu of acknowledgements, a poem imploring us to read his words. We owe it to the daring author to honor his request. Please read his book as an act of solidarity.

The Hideaway of a Young Girl : A Literary and Historical Pilgrimage

523px-AnneFrank1940_crop
Six year old Anne at Montessori School in a happier time.

The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my most cherished childhood books. I was around the same age as Anne Frank when I first read the book and like many other adolescents, I could relate to the young girl and her angst. I was vaguely aware of the chilling horrors of the holocaust but at that age I mainly found a kindred spirit in Anne for she was a normal teenager like all of us encountering the same problems –squabbles with her sister, feeling misunderstood by grown-ups, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, the onset of the first period and crushes on boys. Anne poured her heart out in her diary, her friend and her confidante whom she lovingly addressed as ‘Kitty’, during the two years she spent in hiding in ‘The Secret Annex’ with her family when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. Little did I imagine that one day I would be entering this personal space so vividly described by the spunky and precocious teen! I re-read her diary before going on a trip to Amsterdam and had quite a different perspective on it as an adult. The book, along with the moving and sobering experience of visiting the house, brought home with full force the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.

IMG_2069

The Anne Frank Huis located at No. 263 in Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for twenty-five months during World War 2 along with the van Pels family and the dentist, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. They hid in the Achterhuis or back house (Secret Annex) located at the back of the Opekta and Pectacon office and warehouse where her father, Otto Frank, ran businesses making spices and seasonings for meat and pectin for jelly. Otto decided to find refuge here when the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews to send them to Westerbok, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen before deporting them to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Sobibor in German occupied Poland where they were ruthlessly exterminated.

IMG_2068

Otto’s employees and friends played an important role in keeping the businesses running and the family safe. I am going to name them all as they risked their lives to protect the family- Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan Gies, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan Voskuijl. They did grocery shopping and brought food for their survival and books and magazines to entertain them and were their only contact with the outside world. Bep signed up for correspondence courses in shorthand and Latin in her own name to continue the children’s education. These well-wishers whom Anne referred to as ‘helpers’  represented hope in their small acts of kindness and show us how human nature is as capable of compassion as it is of cruelty.

The self-guided audio tour began in the warehouse which has a door to the left which immediately leads to a staircase up to the first floor where the offices were located. The interactive displays and audio clips shed a lot of light on the era and prepared us for what was to follow. We then entered the storeroom to access the secret annex which is connected to the main house by passageways. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase expressly constructed for this purpose by Bep’s father, Johan Voskuijl. It was a surreal feeling to step behind the original bookcase and enter Anne’s world. The living space was only 540 square feet in area. On the first floor we walked through the room shared by Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith and her sister, Margo, and then entered a small room shared by Anne and Fritz, the dentist who got on her nerves. On the wall we could see posters of celebrities just like the room of a typical teenager.

On the second floor is the area where the van Pels lived. It is the largest room of the annex and also served as the communal living room and kitchen as it had a stove and sink. Next to it is their son Peter’s room which is just landing space coming down from the attic. The house is bare other than a few photos and mementos but that adds to the poignancy and as a reminder of how the Nazis ruthlessly stripped them of their lives along with their belongings. Yet there are a few things here and there that make you well up with tears like the original strip of wallpaper where Otto marked the girls’ height as they grew.

IMG_2077
Canal side entrance to the museum

Anne’s diary reveals how during the day they had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the place, tense and fearful,  lest they be discovered by the workers of the warehouse. They washed and got ready before the workers came in and then they got busy with their reading and school work. They prepared their own meals and canned food for future use. They were most relaxed at night after the workers left. They would listen to the BBC and Radio Oranje and discuss the war and politics. They celebrated birthdays, Hannukah and Christmas and tried to keep their spirits up. But they also had arguments living in such close proximity to each other and as the war progressed the tiffs got worse when they started running out of supplies. Often sleep was elusive as air raid sirens and bombings could be heard throughout the night. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers they faced, Anne’s diary was laced with her youthful idealism and optimism:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

volle_boom_zolderraam
“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” Photo courtesy of annefrank.org

 

The entrance to the attic was barred. I was eager to climb up the stairs and take a peek in the area which served as a meeting place for Anne and Peter and their budding romance and which also had a narrow window from which they could furtively look outside into the world. Anne loved looking at a giant chestnut tree in the courtyard, a little slice of nature to soothe her confined soul. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go there but immediately realized how painful it must have been for the inhabitants who couldn’t go anywhere and as prisoners had nothing but the little hurried glance from the window to content themselves with. They were deprived of fresh air, of sunlight, of nature, robbed of all the little freedoms we take for granted every day.

After the tour of the annex, I descended to the museum area which houses photographs, documents and objects that belonged to the family including Anne’s original diary. It was heartbreaking to see the pictures of the family in happier times. There are touching video clips with interviews with people who knew the family including Miep Gies who was particularly close to Anne and Anne’s friend who met her on a few occasions at the camp and managed to survive the war. Anne made her last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Their hiding place was revealed on 4th August, 1944 when they were betrayed by someone who tipped the Gestapo and they were taken to the Westerbok transit camp on a passenger train and eventually to Auschwitz on a freight train.

Only Otto Frank survived the war. It broke my heart to imagine the pain of the man who lost his entire family all at once. Anne’s mother died of tuberculosis at Auschwitz and the girls contracted typhus at Bergen- Belsen where they were transported to from Auschwitz. And isn’t it a cruel joke of fate that they were on the verge of freedom, that their camp was liberated just two weeks after their death? It was Miep Gies who gathered Anne’s papers and notebook after the hiding place was ransacked and gave them to Otto who sent it for publication. Somehow the Gestapo had left these papers alone. Anne had expressed a wish to become a famous writer in her diary. Ironically, her wish came true but not in the way she wished for it to happen. Who knows what she would have achieved if she hadn’t been plucked before her prime? A young life was robbed of its potential. Millions of lives were robbed of their potential.

I stepped out of the building with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat. Outside it was business as usual in the city with the hustle and bustle of tourists and their bikes and boats calmly floating down the same canal from Anne’s time and the same chiming of the bells of the Westerkerk that Anne heard regularly throughout the day. But a small nondescript corner in this bustling city will forever bear witness to the tribulations and trauma of not just one family but a race at large and to the resilience and indomitable spirit of a young girl who showed so much dignity in her suffering. And as for the old chestnut tree, unlike Anne it died a natural death. It finally succumbed to disease but not before scores of cuttings were taken from it and planted all over the world to grow new trees. And similarly Anne’s legacy lives on through her story which continues to inspire countless people everyday around the world.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: I recommend booking tickets online in advance before visiting the museum. The lines outside can be very long if you decide to purchase tickets on the spot. I had tried to buy my tickets online a few weeks before my trip but they were already sold out. I tried again a few days before my visit and luckily I was able to obtain them as they had some cancellations. Keep trying even after they are sold out. There are always people cancelling the last minute. Photographs are forbidden in the museum not only to preserve the original artifacts but also as a respect to the sanctity of the place.