Archive for the ‘Current Reading’ Category

‘Swerving to Solitude’

July 18, 2018 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

Nice to receive a copy of the poet Keki Daruwalla’s new novel, ‘Swerving to Solitude: letters to Mama.’ It’s an interesting and idiosyncratic meditation on history with some evocative scenes of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

Forthcoming, Simon and Schuster India.

Two Assamese Novels

November 28, 2017 in Current Reading | Comments (3)


Rita Chowdhury’s compelling historical novel, Chinatown Days, is about a community that was founded by a handful of Chinese workers who came to Assam in the 1830s at the behest of the British East India Company, which was then attempting to establish a tea industry in India in order to reduce its dependence on Chinese tea. The descendants of those early migrants became a thriving and prosperous part of the ethnic mosaic of Assam. Its members spoke fluent Assamese and developed deep roots in the soil of the region. After 1947, they regarded themselves as citizens of independent India. But then came the India-China War of 1962 which stirred up a maelstrom of anti-Chinese prejudice. Chinese-Indians were arrested en masse and sent away to internment camps in distant parts of the country. Their links with their former neighbours were forever sundered and they were set cruelly adrift in the world.

Chinatown Days tells this shocking story by following the life-histories of a few characters. Rita Chowdhury is an energetic and empathetic story-teller; her novel is a moving saga about a terrible injustice wrought upon a group of blameless people.

Originally published in Assamese, in 2010, under the title Makam (taken from the name of the principal Chinese settlement in the region) the novel was hugely successful: it was re-printed ten times in its first year of publication. The English translation, which appears to be the work of the author herself, is thoroughly readable: the simplicity of its diction is a perfect match for the directness of the story.



Soon to be published by Pan Macmillan India, Chinatown Days deserves to find a wide audience, not only because of its many merits as a novel, but also because it tells a story that ought to be better known.









Jangam (‘The Movement’) is a translation of the late Assamese writer Debendranath Acharya’s novel about the exodus of Indians from Burma during the Second World War. Jangam won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982, and to the best of my knowledge it is the only Indian novel devoted entirely to this sadly-neglected episode in modern Indian history. As such it is a historical document of inestimable value.

The novel has been translated by Amit R. Baishya, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma. In his introduction, Amit Baishya writes: ‘I learnt that the author composed the novel from childhood recollections of conversations with returning soldiers and the personal research he conducted, especially at the British Library when he attended a school for engineering in the UK. Given the relative paucity of accounts by Indian survivors, Acharya’s views on the exodus may have been coloured by the material he had access to.’

Unfortunately the novel is marred by prejudiced and stereotypical depictions of Burmese characters. Nor is the text always well-served by the translation, which is riddled with infelicities and simple errors (for example, the name of the town Myitkyina is rendered throughout as ‘Misina’; Hoolock gibbons are referred to as ‘Hooluk monkeys’ etc.).

Nonetheless, Jangam is an invaluable addition to the existing literature on the exodus from Burma and the book’s translator and publishers (Vitasta, New Delhi) deserve our thanks for making it available to the public.


I am told that The Glass Palace served as an inspiration to both Amit Baishya and Rita Chowdhury: this is, of course, deeply gratifying to know.



Extreme Reading

July 28, 2016 in Current Reading | Comments (2)


Tabish Khair, picture by Christopher Thomsen

Rarely has a novel seemed as timely as Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane.[i] As the title implies, this is the story of a radicalized young British-Muslim woman who goes to Syria to join the jihad. The narrative is presented as a first-hand account, recounted to the writer by the protagonist, Jamilla. The form is ingenious: it circumvents all the problems of plausibility that such a project might otherwise have entailed.






The setting of the novel is not so much Syria as England, the country in which its principal characters have come of age: the experience of Muslim immigrants in Europe is thus central to it. This is familiar territory for Tabish, who is of Indian-Muslim background and has long been a resident of Denmark where he teaches at the University of Aarhus (I should add that I have known Tabish for many years and have written the foreword for an anthology that he co-edited).

But to be an European of Muslim heritage is not necessarily to possess an understanding of the motivations and aims of those who have joined the conflict in Syria: contemporary jihadism is, after all, a cult-like phenomenon that is very distant from the lives of the great majority of European Muslims. If the novels brims with convincing detail – which it does – it is clearly because a great deal of research has gone into it.

Yet it isn’t research but an aspect of Tabish’s lived experience that is the source of his most important insights into the phenomenon of jihadism. As a teacher himself he grasps, as few have done, that the processes of studying and reading, and the successes and failures of various forms of pedagogy, are central to contemporary fundamentalism (the word Taliban is, after all, the plural of talib, ‘student’).

Jamilla’s journey to Syria begins in school, and a teacher of literature plays an especially significant role in it. The teacher in question is ‘an Indian woman called Mrs Chatterji’ who ‘loved English and English poetry with the sort of fanaticism that only the ex-colonized bring to both.’

Jamilla finds Mrs Chatterji, with her love of literature and her woolly-minded liberalism, utterly ludicrous. Their differences are brought to a head by a poem (Wendy Cope’s Reading Scheme): ‘a dexterous poem,’ Jamilla says of it, ‘using a reading scheme to talk humorously about a suburban mum having an affair with the milkman and being discovered by the husband, all of it narrated through the perspective of her two small children.’

Although Jamilla is perfectly capable of appreciating the poem’s technical virtues she is irked by its content. She responds to Mrs Chatterji’s praise of its cleverness and humour by breaking into the North England dialect which is, effectively, her native language: ‘Maybe ‘tis funny to you… I’ll say ‘tis an obscene poem, ‘tis ‘bout a sin me God forbids. ‘Bout ‘dultery. ‘Raight? That’s nowt to use for cheap laughter.’

Taken aback Mrs Chatterji asks Jamilla to write an essay on the poem. She obeys, and as she writes ‘an ocean of pure vehemence’ wells up in her, ‘anger that seemed to come from beyond me, which left me feeling angrier still.’

Mrs Chatterji’s well-intentioned liberalism proves no match for the certainty of Jamilla’s conclusions: ‘Reading Scheme’ was a depraved poem about adultery, and in this it reflected the depravity of the West, which had long gone against the will of God…’

Mrs Chatterji’s face grows pale as she reads the essay and ‘at the end the papers almost slipped out of her hands. I believe she had to steady herself by leaning with an arm on her desk. Then she said to me, ‘But Jamilla, I don’t think you get the poem; it is not about morality or God; it is, it is about…’ She could not say what it was about. She repeated weakly, ‘I don’t think you get it.’

Jamilla’s victory, and her confirmation in her beliefs, is doubly assured when her family is summoned to a meeting with her teachers. They send her brother to the school and far from admonishing Jamilla he gives the headmaster and Mrs Chatterji an even ‘more emphatic rendering’ of her position, calling for a ‘blanket ban on such poems in school.’ Mrs Chatterji’s defeat is complete.

Although this episode is written in a near-comical vein, it is a powerful commentary on some of the failures of contemporary liberalism, perhaps most significantly its inability to challenge certain values and ideas largely because of a well-intentioned unwillingness to offend. But this is, in turn, an extension of the kind of ‘multi-culturalism’ that has long been practised by some Western governments, whereby state patronage is directed towards conservative religious groups because they, and not their secular counterparts, are thought to be more authentically representative of migrant populations.

Jamilla’s victory over her hapless English teacher serves to strengthen her growing convictions and she becomes increasingly focused on narrow readings of religious texts. In this she finds powerful reinforcement on the Net which by its very nature tends to reduce complex bodies of thought to simple, easily comprehensible formulae. The kind of thinking that results is typified by a fighter whom Jamilla encounters in Syria: ‘His was almost a technological Islam, its pruned rituals as shorn of ambiguity as a hammer or a computer code… It was a do-it-yourself manual – and he had many of those too, on repairing motorcycles, preparing bombs, assembling guns, electricity, carpentry… They were all short, concise, to the point, concerned not with theory but with application, not with thought but with practice.’

Muslim radicals are by no means alone in practising these instrumental methods of reading: in other religions too, including Hinduism, texts are now increasingly being read as though they were workbooks, couched in language so transparent as to be unaltered by translation. To approach complex theological documents in this way is of course a travesty of textual exegesis as it was once practised. In the past, in all religious traditions, an extensive knowledge of languages and many years of rigorous study were required in order to expound on sacred texts. Most of us simply do not have the skills to read and understand these texts and the traditions of commentary within which they are embedded: in no religion, historically, were believers encouraged to pick up their scriptures and start reading them as if they were self-explanatory. This began at a specific moment: with the Protestant Reformation. Those who decry the lack of a similar reformation in the Islamic tradition need to understand that what the world is now dealing with is the fallout of exactly such a process.

As a teacher himself Tabish understands intuitively both the mysterious power of pedagogy and the nihilism that can result from its failures. This makes Jihadi Jane a uniquely insightful account of a phenomenon that, for most of us, almost defies comprehension. Although Tabish is careful not to condescend to his principal characters his critique of their ideology and motivations is all the more powerful because he fully understands how much at odds they are with the beliefs and practices of the great majority of the world’s Muslims.

This powerful, compelling, urgent novel succeeds in being compassionate towards its principal characters without flinching from the full horror of their choices.


Amitav Ghosh

[i] Penguin India, 2016; to be published elsewhere as Just Another Jihadi Jane.

A Voice for the Anthropocene

October 15, 2015 in Current Reading | Comments (3)


Because of my recently-concluded lecture series at the University of Chicago the Anthropocene has been much on my mind of late. It was serendipitous then that I happened to read Swimmer Among the Stars, Kanishk Tharoor’s debut collection of stories, at just this time.

Not that these stories address the Anthropocene as such: what caught my interest is the manner in which Tharoor breaks with the fictional conventions of this era. It is as though he were conjuring up possibilities that are better suited for times to come. 

Here is the first paragraph of the third story in the collection, A United Nations in Space:

In between sessions, the ambassadors come to the viewing vestibule and search the shadowed half of the earth. They crowd the portholes. Where once they might have seen the bright fuzz of cities and towns, now the dark patches are profound. It’s not simply a case of the electricity being cut, the lights winking out, the streets and homes rolled away. No, Kiribati thinks, it’s as if humanity’s white webs have been coloured black… a black more velvet than the night, continental in its spidery sprawl.

The story continues:

For months amidst its other work, the council has been trying to find a site where it might reinstall itself on earth. Bhutan’s offer of his mountain capital was initially welcomed, largely because the Himalayas seemed the most secure place in a world scoured by the oceans. But then the noise of war spread up the valleys, big countries growled at each other over glaciers, and little Bhutan demurred, saying that this might not be the best time to discuss the logistics of diplomatic license plates. Australia put herself forward, evoking the immensity of the continent, but the island was too remote for many members; one may as well be in near-earth orbit as in the Antipodes. The ambassadors debated the prospects of other sites, none proving palatable for the majority.

The characters in the story are identified only by the names of their countries: Bhutan, Botswana, Kiribati, Mexico. Tharoor refuses to individualize or characterize, in the usual sense; he refuses even to allow his characters any subjectivity. These refusals recur through the collection, like a series of fractures marking breaks in time. The effect is haunting and mysteriously powerful.

Equally striking is the presence of the non-human. The first story in the collection, Elephant at Sea, begins thus:

In the late summer of 1979, the Second Secretary of the Indian Embassy to Morocco received a cable that uprooted his considerable years of training and left him floundering. The message read simply: ‘Elephant en route’. Was it some sort of code? Further investigation only deepened his confusion. The cable had come from the customs office in Cochin, a port in the south of India. No, the customs officials reported back to him, it wasn’t code. It was an elephant – an elephant that along with its mahout, its driver, was now very much headed by ship to Casablanca. The Second Secretary probed: why send an elephant? Here at the customs office, the reply came, we handle only the movement of goods; for the movement of reasons, please refer your inquiry to the ministry of external affairs.

Not only are animals present in these stories, they are able to speak for themselves. In one story a stallion addresses a letter to his owner, who happens to be Afanasii Nikitin, the colourful Russian traveler who visited India in the 15th century and wrote The Journey Beyond Three Seas.

For me, you were given some sum. Not once did you stroke my mane, even though you liked admiring me from behind and feeling my muscular haunches. I know. My eyes are on the sides of my head, you see. I have a better sense of before and after than you do. Before me, there was only a man and his horse. After me will come textiles, coins, pepper, more coins, gems, slaves, more pepper and even more coins; you will do well in Hormuz and Ethiopia, be penniless by the time you get to Trebizond, shiver in Crimea. As you die of pneumonia on your way home to Tver, remember that at the beginning we were lonely together. You tried to ride me once, but fell off.

In these stories the nation state – that great motor of contemporary fiction – exists principally as a historical irony. Tharoor depicts a world of connections that both pre-exist and post-date nations: this is a universe in which the boundaries of the modern era have melted away; where Mexico dances with Luxembourg in a space station and she refuses his advances by saying: ‘I’m sorry… I can’t, no part of me can … even my desires feel weightless.’

Among the many refusals of Tharoor’s technique not the least is his evasion of the idea of determinate ‘periods’. Some of the stories slide sinuously over time, both recalling and reimagining the techniques of non-modern forms of fiction.

For a few centuries, many people decided to believe that a medieval Welsh prince sailed to america, discovering the continent long before Columbus. They dated his voyage to 1170… Several men in the seventeenth century claimed separately to have been saved by knowledge of Welsh. Captured by surly Indian tribesmen, they squealed for mercy in their mother tongue… Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to keep his eyes peeled for Indians who spoke Welsh.

Tharoor’s prose is finely wrought, filled with surprises and lexical treats. Here are a few excerpts from the story Icebreakers:

It takes only moments for an icebreaker in the Antarctic to come to the profound realisation that it can no longer break ice…

The captain breathes deeply from his inhaler. I should have known better, he thinks. Misled by weather forecasts and satellite imagery, he let his boat venture deep into the sea ice. Often, polar winds keep channels free, passages that Arctic and Antarctic sailors call polynyas (Russian is the language of ice). The captain steered his expedition down a known polynya, only to find it close around him…

In the Antarctic the silence is so total that even light carries sound.

Kanishk Tharoor is thirty-one; he is thus of the first generation to have come of age in the full awareness of the arrival of the Anthropocene. These stories give us a foretaste of some of the ways in which the uncanniness of the Anthropocene will express itself in years to come.

Swimmer Among The Stars announces the arrival of a writer who is gifted not just with extraordinary talent but also with a subtle, original and probing mind. 

[Swimmer Among The Stars is to be published in India by Aleph in January 2016, and in the UK and US by Picador and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, in 2017].




Some Recent Reading Recommendations

October 3, 2015 in Current Reading,Uncategorized | Comments (2)


Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment (Penguin, 2005): A novel of extraordinary power, written in a voice that is at once lucid and half-crazed with rage; the words explode off the page. This is a performance of astonishing virtuosity.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014): is a work of such monumental significance that it is impossible to do justice to it in a few lines. Suffice it to say that Klein demolishes every argument for ‘market based solutions’, exposes the carbon complicities of ‘Big Green’ organizations, demonstrates why geo-engineering will not work, and after all that even succeeds in finding a silver lining in the clouds. There is more optimism here than the situation warrants, but a dose of hopefulness is perhaps a necessary ingredient in a work that is intended as a call to the barricades.

Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co., 2014): This is the story of the sixth great mass extinction in our planet’s history, the one that is under way right now. A skilled reporter, Kolbert’s account is rigorously detailed and exceptionally vivid. The book is an uncompromising picture of something that can only be described as a spectacle of true-life horror.

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the future (Columbia University Press, 2014): The writers are historians of science who have specialized on climate change related issues. This book is something of a departure for them; they describe it as an exercise in science fiction, because they are looking back at the world of today from an imagined future (‘the penumbral age’). Based on solid research, it paints a chilling picture of a world that is racing towards self-annihilation.

As a child I loved the stories of the Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandopadhyay (1899-1970), whose most enduring creation perhaps is the detective Byomkesh Bakshi. Thanks to film and television Byomkesh Bakshi has had a remarkable after-life, extending to this year’s Bollywood thriller Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, by Dibakar Bannerjee. But Sharadindu wrote a great variety of stories – romances, detective stories, historical fiction, ghost stories and so on – and these too deserve wider attention. The tales I liked best were about a character called Sadashiv, a Maratha boy-soldier in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s army (although Sharadindu wrote in Bangla, he lived most of his life in Pune). Fortunately there are now some good English translations of Sharadindu’s work, for example the story collections Band of soldiers and The Menagerie and Other Byomkesh Mysteries (both published by Penguin Random House) and the novel By the Tungabhadra (Harper Collins).

Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books, 2011) is an excellent non-fiction work about a very important and little-discussed subject: the political consequences of climate change. The changing weather patterns of our time are exacerbating and even causing many conflicts; and there can be little doubt that the situation will only get worse. Parenti pays particular attention to South Asia, which is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions in this regard. This book is an exceptionally clear-headed look at what the future holds.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s: Before We Visit the Goddess  (forthcoming, Spring 2016 from Simon and Schuster): Tender, bittersweet, beautifully wrought tales about love and longing, exile and loneliness. I was reminded of the songs of separation sung by Bhojpuri women: Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni discovers new nuances in the ‘biraha’ that creeps into the lives of migrants.



Sly Company

September 6, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

Rahul Bhattacharya: The Sly Company of People Who Care, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 2011.


An account of a year in Guyana by an Indian cricket writer who was so taken by that country, on an initial sports-reporting visit, that he could not stay away. The book is not packed with incident: one of the admirable things about it is that the author is not afraid to embrace the truth of travel – which is that it is for the most part very boring. It’s the style that seizes you by the throat – alternately lyrical, abrupt, whimsical, sexy, informative, seductive and always full of surprises, most of them couched in ‘creolese’. The language works a hypnotic magic and you soon feel you’re in Guyana yourself.

This is the best travel writing I’ve read in years.

‘Day-Scholar’ by Siddharth Chowdhury

August 17, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (4)



Day-Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury (Picador, 2010)

An enjoyable tale of life in Delhi University in the 1990s. I was struck by how much the university, and indeed, the cultural climate of Delhi, had already changed since my own university days in the 1970s. Siddharth Chowdhury’s protagonist goes to book-readings and there seems to exist some kind of literary culture that makes it possible to discuss writing, publishing and the like.

In the 1970s book-readings were unheard of in Delhi, and to talk about writing (or even reading) was considered pretentious in the extreme: these were secrets whispered behind closed doors.




‘Brazilian Adventure’ by Peter Fleming

August 15, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

Published in 1933, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure is an immensely entertaining account of a hare-brained expedition into the interior of Brazil. The expedition was mounted, ostensibly, to search for traces of one Colonel Fawcett, a British explorer, who had disappeared in the interior of the Matto Grosso in 1925, with a party of two (including his own son).

Peter Fleming, who also wrote the better-known News From Tartary, was the older brother of Ian Fleming: were I inclined to read a biography of the latter I would not be at all surprised to learn that James Bond owed a thing or two to his inventor’s adventurous sibling. Bond and Peter Fleming certainly have much in common – an off-handedly knowing cosmopolitanism; a keen loyalty to school and country; a partiality for the racial vocabulary of the time; a sort of self-deprecating daredevilry; and, not least, a sure hand with a gun. Fleming may also have partaken of Bond’s proficiency in what a friend of mine calls ‘the Venusian Arts’: he was to marry one of the most famous film-stars of his time – Celia Johnson (best known for her role in David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’).

But Peter Fleming was a more interesting character than James Bond – and he was certainly a far better writer than his younger brother. Brazilian Adventure is compulsively readable and the author comes across as enormously likeable – an impression that is probably the result of a happy union between ingenuousness and artifice. He promises no adventures: ‘As chapter gives place to chapter, and still no arrows stick quivering in the tent-pole, and still no tomtoms throb their beastly summons to the night assault, the observant reader will get pretty fed up. ‘This chap’, he will say, ‘led me to suppose that, once in the interior of Brazil, he would be under almost continuous fire from his dusky brethren. And now here he is in the last chapter proposing to lay down his pen without having sustained so much as a flesh wound from their primitive weapons.’

Fleming and his fellow-explorers are often delayed by mishaps and accidents of one kind or another: ‘When we got back to our hotel, they told us there had been a revolution. It had broken out the night before, and was now in full swing. This meant that there was not a hope of our starting up-country the next day, for the banks were shut and the train service dislocated. We were very much annoyed.’

Fleming is not a man who puts much store in being ‘On The Spot’. In much the same way that people now speak of CNN, he says: ‘Everything nowadays takes place at such long range that the man on the spot ha[s] often less chance of seeing both sides of the medal than the man at a distance… About the Civil War (for it was something more than a revolution) … I was hardly any the wiser for having been to Brazil’. (Can it be that I find this particularly refreshing because of a surfeit of overwrought articles about the recent middle-eastern ‘revolutions’?).

The Fleming expedition is dogged from the start by delays, some of which are mechanical: ‘It was a very hot day. We had a breakdown: it was one of those breakdowns … which everyone believes will be remedied if only the car is pushed along the road for a certain distance. We tried this remedy, several times; but no one – certainly not the car – was any the better for it. We resorted to hanky-panky with a spanner and to grovelling… underneath the vehicle; and in the end this was successful. The car started with a triumphant roar. A quarter of a mile further on we had a puncture.’

But the explorers persevere and are sustained by ‘our sense of Parody… If Indians approached us, we referred to them as the Oncoming Savages. We never said, ‘Was that a shot?’ but always, ‘Was that the well-known bark of a Mauser?’ All insects of harmless nature and ridiculous appearance we pointed out to each other as creatures ‘whose slightest glance spelt Death’. Any bird larger than a thrush we credited with the ability to ‘break a man’s arm with a single blow of its powerful wing.’ We spoke of water always as the ‘Precious Fluid’. We referred to ourselves, not as eating meals, but as doing ‘Ample Justice to a Frugal Repast’.’

On the way, Fleming takes a detour to explain why he has seceded to the ‘Nullah (or Ravine) School’ of Literature: ‘I have always regarded the larding of one’s pages with foreign words an affectation not less deplorable than the plastering of one’s luggage with foreign labels. I swore that if ever I was misguided enough to write a book of travel my italics would be all my own; my saga would be void of nullahs. But I find now that this self-denial is not altogether possible. It appears, after all, that the zareba-mongers had some excuse. Let me try, at any rate, to make out for myself. … First of all, there are the words like batalõa and rapadura and mutum, which denote things unknown outside Brazil, and which it is therefore impossible to translate…. Secondly, there are the words of which a literal translation is for one reason or another inadequate. The word sandbank, for instance,  gives you a very niggardly idea of what a praia is, and the word plage, which conveys an image nearer the truth, has unsuitable associations. Similarly, an urubú is a far more scurvy and less spectacular creature than the popular conception of a vulture. Thirdly, there are a few words which can be translated perfectly well, but which we, in conversation, never did translate: words like jacaré and arara… So it is easier and more natural, when writing of these things, to give them the names under which they live in my memory’ (it strikes me that the Nullah School could use this passage as a standard rejoinder, to be mailed to disgruntled readers who write to complain about unfamiliar words).

Even for a profligate age, Fleming’s disregard for wildlife is breathtaking: ‘Perhaps we expected too much from the alligators. I know that we were disappointed, and acquired so great a contempt for these unenterprising creatures that, after we had killed well over one hundred in a month, we almost gave up shooting them’. (I was reminded of the great British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (who anticipated many of Darwin’s ideas). Travelling into the interior of Sarawak, Wallace’s attention was caught by orangutans. Week after week, he shot every orangutan that came within range of his gun. Unaccustomed to being threatened in their own habitat, the animals seemed almost to co-operate: “They do not seem much alarmed at man,” Wallace tells us, “as they often stared down upon me for several minutes, and then only moved away slowly to an adjacent tree. After seeing one, I often had to go half a mile or more to fetch my gun, and in nearly every case have found it on the same tree, or within a hundred yards when I returned.” The one problem the animals posed was that they tended to die high up in the forest canopy, so that Wallace had to call upon the tree-climbing skills of the local people in order to gain access to the carcasses. The process of reducing the animals to perfect skeletons was made more complicated than need be by the local dogs. “I had a great iron pan, in which I boiled the bones to make skeletons, and at night I covered this over with boards, and put heavy stones upon it; but the dogs managed to remove these and carried away the greater part of one of my specimens.” Despite these nuisances, Wallace killed seventeen orang-utans in the space of a few weeks, and succeeded in reducing the majority to ‘perfect skeletons’. Most of these ended up in museums in Britain: the town of Derby counted itself fortunate in receiving not one but several perfect orang-utan skeletons.¹)

To return to Brazil: the irony of  Fleming’s story is that its narrative is sustained neither by the hardships of the Matto Grasso, nor by the discovery of the lost Colonel Fawcett. The tale is propelled rather by a fast-developing antagonism between the author and the self-appointed leader of the expedition, an Englishman by the name of Major Pingle. Their mutual hostility reaches a point where the expedition breaks up, and the two factions resort to a wild race down the Araguaya-Tocantins river system.

It is a tribute to Fleming’s gifts as a writer that he succeeds in turning this absurd chase into a gripping narrative. To give away the end would be unfair to the reader: suffice it to say that Fleming’s summation of the expedition could well be applied to the book –  ‘intrinsically valueless and … absolutely satisfying.’



¹Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago.





Modernism and the Museum

July 21, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


I cannot remember when I last came upon on a book as stimulating as Rupert Richard Arrowsmith’s Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant-Garde (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011).

Arrowsmith is that rare thing, an art historian who is equally well informed about the traditions of ‘West’ and ‘East’, ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’. He holds a Doctorate in English Literature from Oxford and has also spent a great deal of time in Asia; his web page informs us that he has lived for three years in Burma, where he was also ordained as a Buddhist monk.

The premise of his book is this: ‘There is a problem with the study of Modernism as a global phenomenon. Histories of the period have been written, until very recently, by scholars with little or no knowledge of culture provinces other than their own… this situation has led to a distorted view of Modernism as essentially a European invention, with comparable movements on other parts of the globe characterized as imitative of ‘advanced’ art and literature in Europe… The possibility of multi-directional, transnational exchange in aesthetic concepts, art-historical knowledge, and literary and artistic technique is thus discounted, played down, or at best acknowledged in tentative and misleading ways’ (p.1).

Arrowsmith sets out to correct this with much gusto and panache. Modernism and the Museum is a marvelously rich work: in illuminating some of the neglected conjunctions and confluences of the past Arrowsmith also shines a light towards exciting new possibilities ahead.

6 Tanyin Alley, Liu Zongren

July 18, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


Liu Zongren: 6 Tanyin Alley, China Books, San Francisco, 1989.

A deeply affecting story about China’s turbulent ’50s and 60’s, as seen through the eyes of the people who live around a single courtyard in Beijing (6, Tanyin Alley). Written in lucid, direct English,  6 Tanyin Alley is a gritty yet restrained novel: its power comes from a gradual accumulation of details.

I came upon the book at a yard sale in Brooklyn: it appears to be out of print.





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