Archive for the ‘Current Reading’ Category

Sly Company

Amitav Ghosh | 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

Amitav Ghosh | 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

Amitav Ghosh | 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.’

 

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¹Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago.

 

 

 

 


Modernism and the Museum

Amitav Ghosh | 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

Amitav Ghosh | 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.

 

 

 

 


Sacred Trash

Amitav Ghosh | May 26, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (1)

 

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Schocken, New York, 2011.

The story of the Cairo Geniza – that great treasure-trove of documents from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo – is both fascinating and immensely complicated. It is a tale filled with interesting characters, extraordinary coincidences, deplorable errors and astonishing discoveries. I touched upon some aspects of this story in In An Antique Land and I remember thinking at that time: ‘Why hasn’t someone written a book about this? It would read like a thriller.’

Yet I can’t say I was really surprised that such a book had not been written. To call the task formidable would be to greatly understate the case: no one could even think of tackling it without being conversant with medieval Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and a wide range of European languages. In An Antique Land deals with only a small set of Geniza documents – the letters of Abraham Ben Yiju – and it took me years to acquire the necessary linguistic and orthgraphic skills. To write about the full range of Geniza documents – which include not only letters but also liturgical and scriptural texts, poetry, community records and much else – would be far beyond my abilities.

Well, I am glad to say the story of the Geniza has now been told and it does indeed read like a thriller. Sacred Trash is entertaining, lucid, enormously erudite and extremely well-written. Between them the writers possess all the scholarly equipment and narrative gifts that are required for the telling of this tale, and they have done a marvelous job of it.  The Geniza is one of the world’s richest and greatest archives: Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have given it the biography it deserves.


Current Reading: Gabriella De Ferrari’s ‘Gringa Latina’

Amitav Ghosh | April 22, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

As a schoolboy I was fascinated by the Atacama desert, partly because of the music of the name, and partly because my geography textbook declared it to be the driest place on earth. What would life in such a place be like? I had no inkling until I read Gabriella De Ferrari’s uniquely evocative memoir: Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds.

Although the book is indeed a story of a journey, from South America to Europe and the United States, it is centred mostly on the first of the two worlds of the subtitle: this is the town of Tacna, in Peru, which sits upon the northern tip of the Atacama desert. Gringa Latina reveals Tacna to be a completely unexpected kind of place: the stretches of sand that surround it are rich in mineral deposits, and as a consequence the town is home to many enterprising immigrants. Despite its remoteness it is strangely urbane (the fountain in the main square was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel); even though it hardly ever rains, its markets are well-stocked and its kitchens produce mouth-watering fare. That such a place should be peopled by unusual characters; that its walls should hide many intriguing secrets, is perhaps only to be expected – but that these people, and their pasts, should linger in the reader’s memory is a tribute not just to Tacna, but to the warmth and skill with which the town is brought to life on these pages.

Gringa Latina is a wonderful book, about an extraordinary journey, and it is written with a charm and openness that make it a delight to read. Here are a couple of memorable paragraphs:

I still remember the rains of 1956. So much water came down that the gringo Cooper’s plane could not land. For more than a week we were cut off from the world. When the rain stopped, the thin dust that was usually suspended in the desert air was gone, and everything shone with extraordinary vividness. The pale pink adobe walls of the houses turned a deep salmon shade, and the dusty palm trees glowed a brilliant green. The smell of wet adobe saturated the air with an unfamiliar earthiness, which mingled with the scent of jasmine. The wet ground felt unnaturally soft beneath our feet. Everything seemed refreshed.

A true miracle took place in the desert. The vast landscape, which had been barren and brown, was covered by a mantle of lavender-pink flowers. It was soft and lush, and every day for as long as the flowers lasted my parents took us to roll in them, just as my children rolled in the soft just-fallen snow of the New England winter.

From: Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds by Gabriella De Ferrari

Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995.

Amitav Ghosh

April 22, 2011

Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds


‘Em and The Big Hoom’ by Jerry Pinto

Amitav Ghosh | April 10, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (8)

Em and the Big Hoom

(unpublished ms)
by
Jerry Pinto
Having followed Jerry Pinto’s work for many years I’ve long believed that he would one day produce a great book. Two years ago, when he promised to send me a manuscript I wondered whether that day might not be at hand. But the manuscript never came and nor was any mention made of it again. Then, a couple of days ago, there it was.
‘Em and The Big Hoom’ is the story of a boy growing up in Mumbai with a mentally afflicted mother (she is the ‘Em’ of the title; ‘The Big Hoom’ is the father). Whether it is a memoir or a bildungsroman I do not know and I don’t think it particularly matters. What is important is that it is utterly persuasive and deeply affecting: stylistically adventurous it is never self-indulgent; although suffused with pain it shows no trace of self-pity. Parts of it are extremely funny, and its pages are filled with endearing and eccentric characters. It also gives us vivid glimpses of rarely-seen facets of Mumbai life: the world of Goan Catholics; of the city’s institutions for the mentally ill; of children who read Adorno and Brendan Behan while coping with a suicidal parent…
‘Em and The Big Hoom’is a profoundly moving book: I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this. I don’t know what Jerry’s plans for it are, but I hope it appears soon and has the success it deserves. In the meanwhile, as a foretaste, here are a few paragraphs.
One day, under the huge mango tree that stood in the schoolyard, with a bunch of schoolboys standing around me, mocking me for being the son of a mad woman, I thought suddenly and automatically: “I want to go home.” And then I thought as suddenly, “I don’t want to go home.” I remember thinking, “If I go on like this, I will go mad.” I tried not to think too much about home, as a concept, after that.
But each time Em came home, we all hoped, for a little while, that the pieces of the jigsaw would fall into place again. Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother. Four Pintos, somewhat love-battered, still standing.
I grew up being told that my mother had a nervous problem. Later, I was told it was a nervous breakdown. Then we had a diagnosis, for a brief while, she was said to be schizophrenic and was treated as one. And finally, everyone settled down to calling her manic depressive. Through it all, she had only one word for herself: mad.
Mad?
Mad is an everyday, ordinary word. It is compact. It fits into songs. As the old Hindi film song had it, M-A-D mane paagal. It can become a phrase, “Maddaw-what?” which began life as “Are you mad or what?”. It can be everything you choose it to be: a mad whirl, a mad idea, a mad March day, a mad heiress, a mad mad mad mad world, a mad passion, a mad hatter, a mad dog…
But it is different when you have a mad mother. Then the word wakes up from time to time and blinks at you, eyes of fire. But only sometimes for we used the word casually ourselves, children of a mad mother. There is no automatic gift that arises out of such a circumstance. If sensitivity or gentleness came with such a genetic load, there would be no old people in mental homes.”
Amitav Ghosh
April 11, 2011



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