Tag Archives: Literature

A bunched up Book Review

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Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I do not why I have lumped these three books together – there must be a method behind the apparent madness.

The first two are American, the last British. The first two are anti-war while the third is on political philosophy.

But they do have some similarities. They all are from the middle of the last century, all sad-funny, what is called dark-humor. All have an underdog at the center of it, though the ‘underdogs’ in the last are the farm animals ‘minus’ the pigs and the dogs.

All these books have sensational quotes; all of them can be read happily by children and adults alike without meaning anything to them; all of them are depressing, for they ask you to abandon hope and try to understand the society ‘as it is’. All of them are against regimentation through ideology.

***

The central theme of Slaughterhouse Five is on the bombing of Dresden; but is also about Vietnam and other wars that will follow. It is about a person who is ‘unstuck’ in time and exists at all times of his life, all the time. I understand that to be merely living in memory, for the science fiction bit in the novel is really not very important.

Kurt Vonnegut was in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allied forces, for no apparent reason, killing over a hundred thousand civilans – more than the Hiroshima atom bomb. So, the novel is partly autobiographical, and probably that is why it is so rich in detail.

The anti-war sentiments are spot-on and the most beautiful passage is where it describes a war movie running on a rewind.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed
.”

But like I said before, the novel is dark and offers no solution:

That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why
.

***

Another beautiful anti-war novel is the famous Catch-22. Here is how the novel describes the clause “Catch-22” –

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

The confused question of relevance of nationalism that has become so central to the ordering of our lives is brought out thus –

What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

The book is scathing at places, and truly insightful –

“It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Again, as is common with all the books reviewed here, it offers no hope. The society wants a total submission and eventually the life of the individual; the individual instinctively resists, for it is not in his DNA to die for others; much persuasion and heartburn later, the matter remains unresolved. Such novels, after all, can only raise questions and warn against the prevailing lies.

***

The last in the list is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This one does not have a war as its backdrop, and I probably include it to underline the fact that it is not war that is at the root of our problems – war is only a symptom, an inevitable result of the way we have ordered our society and brainwashed ourselves.

Let’s begin with the story, for it is beautifully-childish. The farm animals overthrow the regime of a cruel man and take it upon themselves to run the farm in the best possible manner, in the interests of the animals. But the newly named ‘Animal Farm’ under the democratic rule of the pigs fast degenerates into a dictatorship of ‘Napoleon’, the brightest pig, and his family, who use a group of dogs as their ‘musclemen’. They mainly use ideology and oratory to keep the other animals satisfied, but have to use ‘muscle’ eventually, when even the dumbest start to understand the true nature of the new order. The last lines of the novel shows the animals peeping inside a cabin where the pigs are having a party with the neighbouring humans, and the author concludes –

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The beauty of the novel is that it simultaneously attacks capitalism and communism. And because of that, the novel comes to an inevitable dead-end, where human greed and cruelty comes out victorious once again.

Not surprisingly it was banned in both the US and USSR at one point of time. Written in 1944, it was before the excesses of Stalin era came to be, and so we can also salute the foresight of the author. But the worrisome part is not the “I told you so smirk”, the worrisome part is that the book is so ‘universal’ – reading it you know that this cycle of greed and domination will happen again and again. The way children pick up the same comics to read, again and again and again, despite knowing what will happen.

***

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The Obstinate Hero: A cautionary tale for young writers

I have been had, treacherously, by my own hero. Only Julius (Et tu Brute) Caesar can truly understand my plight. For the others, I will always be the funny guy who slipped on the banana peel, the guy who could not write his first novel. It is true that I yielded to a force of unprecedented resourcefulness, but I shall still do what is right – I shall caution the young innocent writers of the world by telling them my story, as a cautionary tale.

The writing of my first novel began sometime last summer, on a happy note. I had the plot all tied up. It was as follows: The story begins with a flashback- a young law graduate (to be known as ‘the hero’ from here on) is married to a spoilt rich girl who is mentally unbalanced and a pest. Over the year he struggles hard to raise his five kids and becomes a successful lawyer. He is humble, compassionate, steadfast – a true hero. Cut to present – the five children of the hero are insensitive, repulsive, rebellious, and ungrateful. The hero ponders over life and its meaning, and sees hope in the smile of his grandchild, before putting in his papers.

Brilliant, as far as plots go. I am sure you will be reminded of Dickens and Tolstoy and Marquez, and rightly so. ‘An Epic’, the critics would no doubt have said, had the novel been written and published. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been!”

The problem between The Hero and me began from the first scene itself. As I was describing the hero as a sober, solid man of mettle, though a little sad and melancholy, The Hero made his first intervention in my mind, with a nasty comment.

“No young man is so dull. It is un-natural,” he said in a tone of unpleasant insolence.

Overcoming my surprise, I said in reasonable yet firm tone – “I actually know such a person, trust me.”

“You must not have known him well enough,” he said, raising his voice, “and in any case, that’s not me.”

Face with such intransigence, I decided to reveal more – “The person described here happens to be my grandfather, and the facts are true.”

“Facts! Bah,” the hero retorted.

I had to yield to that – no one can have a monopoly over facts. “You know different?” I challenged.

“I am your grandfather, I should know better,” he retorted, throwing Surrealism at me.

“You can never be him. You are my imagination of him,” I corrected him, falling into his trap.

“Exactly. And you are not imagining me right,” he said, with an irritating grin.

“If it is my imagination, surely I have the right to do whatever I want with it,” I said. But this conversation was going nowhere, and I was getting increasingly irritated. I took a deep breath and began again.

“So what should be changed, according to you?” I asked.

“The hero should be a fun person, and the heroine should be a fun person too, only a little temperamental. Five children are too many, though keep them if you want. I think more focus on the courtroom dramas would be better, especially the one where the British judge praised me,” he began in right earnest. I noticed that he knew everything about my plans for the novel, though I had not yet spelt them out in my draft plot. I also noticed that his idea of the novel was very different from mine. It was sort of a Perry Mason rolled into a Mills and Boon.

“I am seeking to present a relatively true story of a man I admire. I cannot fudge with facts to make it popular, if that is what you want,” I tried to reason with him.

“You are trying to be too literary and bombastic. A normal man lives a normal life, and the epic battles have to be shown with a light brush, maybe like James Joyce,” he said.

James Joyce light!! Give me a break.

I was not toying with literary greatness – I wanted to write an honest story, I tried telling him, but he would have none of it. The Hero would have to be made into a dashing figure, at least some of his children had to come good, and he would not die at the end, he insisted. The novel should end with reconciliation with either the wife or a daughter, on a happy note, with a possibility of sequels like it happens in the novels of the famous Horace Rumpole of Bailey.

“But the hero in my story is not like that at all,” I wailed in dismay.

“Then it is not I,” he replied, his grammar dubious, his tone final.

For a few days I struggled with the novel, but I was getting tired with the attitude of my hero. He would not even agree with the clothes that I gave him to wear – much less with the description of the heroine. I distinctly remember my grandmother of being short in height and having a small nose. But no. He remembers her as medium height with sharp nose and…well, he goes into great detail about her anatomy, none of which matches my memory of her.

To cut the story short, I had to reluctantly shelf the project. There was no other way. I would rather not have a novel, than write something in which I did not believe.

I know some sniggering critic would say that I did not have sufficient ability to control my material. But let me tell you this – no one could ever tell my grandfather what he should do, and the very idea that his memory can be controlled and molded to anyone’s wishes is laughable. Let the critics try, if they are so clever. I will give them all the facts.

***


A Poet’s world

A poet lives on a rainbow.
When he descends
to write about the poor,
he fails to notice the tattered clothes,
or the stench of disease
in their sweat, in their breath –
he can only see a brave man
loved by the Gods.
 
The landscapes in his poems
are either sunrise or sunset
(preferably on a beach);
and when he writes of deserts
he misses
the fierce mid-day heat,
the searing sand,
the cacti and the scorpions.
 
The world of a poet
is rhyming, metered, musical.
His ears are not tuned
to register the jarring note
of jealousy and sarcasm.
He believes
that all laughter is joy,
and all smiles are honest.
 
Let us drag the poet
to a market and make him sit
with the ledgers, or the beggars;
let’s make him carry coal
on an empty stomach.
And in the evening, let’s take him
into the graying lanes
where the mobs feed on the innocents.
Let’s squeeze poetry
out of the poet.
 
***
 

I feel pretty stupid, writing poetry

I feel pretty stupid
Writing poetry, and not,
Let us say, investing in stocks.
The poetry shall never
Be listed; it will not
Rise and fall or become
Gilt or junk. It will not
Be auctioned at Sotheby’s
And shall not be coveted
By the rich, or hidden in the vault
Of an unknown Japanese oligarch.
 
I feel pretty stupid
Writing poetry, that no one reads.
I have given up efforts
To waylay friends, and read to them
My ‘latest’. I realize, if I persist
I stand a good chance of losing
The few friends I have. However,
I secretly plan to assault
The unsuspecting world
With a printed version
Of my muse. Some day.
 
I feel pretty stupid
Writing poetry, that does not inspire,
Or wake passions, or praise
The worthy, and raise the ideal,
One notch up. (I lost my belief
In passions and ideals long back.)
Catching moments in their off-color mood,
Invoking the despair of the soul,
Or sighing over words unsaid-
My poetry shall do little for mankind-
It is unlikely to go places.
 
I feel pretty stupid,
But I still write poetry.
The words, when they come,
Tumbling out, pour surprise upon surprise
And look innocent and confused
Or play the fool,
Or act like grown-ups-
I cannot but love them.
I hug the words,
Though I feel stupid,
And laugh and cry with them.
 
***
 
 

The baby drives a car

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Stomping feet, tantrums, ‘I can, I can,’
And you give in. The baby sits on your lap
Steering firmly in hand, eyes wide,
And with the cry of ‘Zooom, Zooom,’
The car takes off. Yes, takes off,
To some distant galaxy.
 
The cautious hands, the worried eyes,
The tense legs control
This flight of fancy. The passersby
Smile at the proud young man.
‘Bang, bang,’ some aliens
Are taken care of, on the way.
 
‘See, I told you, I can drive.’
And you say, ‘I know, great,’ and smile,
Happy in his happiness.
 
I am the kid on the wheel, my poems
The car. (I think we are passing Andromeda!)
Meanwhile, you smile, and say, ‘I know. Great.’
 
***
 

Catch them young

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Let me capture the moods
When they are young.
For a novice like me
It is easier to catch them
When they are innocent
And true.
 
Anger, when young,
Is destructive,
But not conniving.
I can recognize
Its fiery eyes and
Its tantrums easily.
Later, when it grows up
It will hide
Behind a smile.
 
Love, when young,
Will jump on you
And follow you
Like a puppy
It will fall, and
Hurt itself, and cry.
Later, when it grows up
It will hide
Behind poetry, and shyly
Avoid you.
 
I could go on
About hate, jealousy,
Joy or fear.
They are all the same
When young – boisterous,
Spontaneous, honest.
It is only later,
When they grow up,
That they hide,
And are difficult
To catch.
 
***

Shakespeare and the monkeys

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I am one of the million monkeys
Hammering away at the keyboard,
Trying to produce another Shakespeare.
 
(I wonder how the monkeys did it
The last time; with pen and ink pots,
They must have made quite a mess! )
 
Tapping away feverishly
About love, life and rage- I hope
It will another Shakespeare make.
 
(How did the monkeys of yore
Know so much about mankind?
I suspect the hand of a traitor! )
 
Do not belittle us monkeys on Twitter.
Though we make no sense now,
There are gems hidden in our chatter.
 
(I know the recipe – mix Othello’s jealousy,
Shylock’s greed and Romeo’s love, and add
The super-confidence of the monkeys! )
 
We smart monkeys of today, shall not
Create another Hamlet- we do not
Know the meaning of indecision.
 
(I do find the idea somewhat strange,
When I come to think of it,
That monkeys did not write about monkeys?)
 
I know a lot about monkeys
And I know a lot about men –
Let’s see what this one turns out to be on.
 
(Some people say Shakespeare was actually
Sir Francis Bacon. I have a suspicion
They now think that Bacon was a monkey! )
 
I wonder how many taps its shall take,
How many centuries, before we hit upon
“The world’s a stage….” once again.
 
(Did the monkeys write the sonnets too?
I wonder whether they could appreciate
The beauty of love expressed therein?)
 
One should ask the monkeys of today
To keep tapping randomly. We cannot
Produce another Shakespeare consciously.
 
(I wonder how the monkeys
Got the people to read their stuff?
It is so difficult to get readers now-a-days! )
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

(The poet. Illustrations are from the net)

***

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