Archive for the ‘Current Reading’ Category

Sacred Trash

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’

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

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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