Halfway through this year, I moved back to India. The most tangible change in my life was the immediate loss of access to two of the world’s most well-stocked libraries, which I’d been enjoying for the last three years: the Bodleian and then the Sterling. It’s hard to describe the strange sense of loss that you feel when you read about an interesting book online, and suddenly realise that you can no longer step outside your door, and embark upon a five minute walk to take it down from the shelf where it is certain to be – a loss compounded by frantic searching on Flipkart or Amazon, and the sinking feeling on seeing the prices. Kindle (and torrents) help sometimes, but what is that compared to the sound of rustling paper and the feel of a book in your hand?
I left the United States in the middle of reading Arab novels, and also realised that – barring the odd Naguib Mehfouz – Delhi bookstores carry next to nothing of Arab writing. Per force, my exploration of that genre had to stop, but perhaps fortunately, there was no accompanying dearth of Latin American fiction, which I turned to, determined to carry on a thread begun with Borges a few years ago. Here is 2014 in fiction, with a five-star system of (admittedly reductive) ratings, as ever.
Elias Khoury, Little Mountain: **** and a 1/2 Khoury’s surrealistic, first-person description of Lebanon during the civil war is a beautiful and harrowing read. It has a wonderful introduction by Edward Said, who discusses how and why Khoury’s writing contrasts with the realism of Mehfouz.
Hoda Barakat, Tiller of Waters: *** Also set in Lebanon, also about the civil war, the context here was a little too thick for me to be able to enjoy it as much as I did Khoury.
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North: *** and a 1/2 The canonical post-colonial novel, moving between Sudan and England in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation, a great example of political critique through personal narrative.
Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain: ***** Perhaps the book I loved most of all this year. Set in a fictional Jordan, treats the eternal themes of revolution, youth, poetry and memory in a deft and moving way that no other book I’ve read comes close to doing. Traces of Kundera (and a marked reference to Life is Elsewhere).
Naguib Mehfouz, Children of the Alley **** and a 1/2: From Palace Walk to Miramar to Children of the Alley - Mehfouz varies his style and themes and is yet so effortlessly brilliant. Children of the Alley is a gorgeous retelling of the Creation Story, Fall onwards, all set in a Cairo alley.
Latin American Writing
Carlos Fuentes, Inez: *** Enjoyed it while it lasted, but a little too brief, and the characters a little too under-developed, to make a real impact.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: *** Probably a heretical thought, but I really don’t think that Marquez does love very well. This book started off wonderfully, but had begun to drag towards the end, and some of the last few scenes were deeply disturbing – but not really in a positive way, like One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: **** Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel of a hilarious, riotous relationship between 18-year old writer/newsman Vargas and his 32-year old Aunt Julia, punctuated by “radio plays” written by a once-brilliant, now rapidly deteriorating creative mind, is just an unabashedly fun read.
Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat: **** and a 1/2: Much darker, much grimmer, the retelling of the day that Trujillo, the Dominican Republic dictator, was assassinated, and the reverberations of his regime decades later. Reads like a thriller, but for all that, Llosa’s done some wonderfully painstaking historical research.
Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz **** and a 1/2: The story of Mexico’s long civil war and its aftermath, retold by the dying Artemio Cruz, revolutionary-turned-ruthless-landlord, through thirteen flashbacks of memory. Reminiscent of Pedro Paramo at times, and Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. A heartbreaking section about the Spanish Civil War as well.
Ariel Dorfman, Heading North, Looking South: ***** Hands-down my book of the year. Dorfman’s memoir about living with his American and Latin American roots, struggling with the competing pulls of bilingualism, and above all else, his wonderful description of the last days of the Allende regime make for a devastating read. Language, history, political memory, personal reflections all combine, and not a word feels out of place. Here is a paragraph:
“That Spanish out there contained my future. It contained the words of Garcia Lorca I would say to Angelica one day, Verde que te quiero verde, the lover-like green of desire, and the words of Quevedo I would say to my country, Mire los muros de la patria mia, watching the walls of my fatherland crumble, and the words of Neruda I would say to the revolution, Sube a nacer commigo, hermano, rise and be born with me, my brother, and the words of Borges I would whisper to time, los tigres de la memoria, the tigers of memory with which I would try to fool death once again. I would realize one day that the word for hope in Spanish, the word esperanza, hides within its syllables the sound and meaning of esperar, to wait, that there was in the language itself a foretelling of frustration, a warning to be cautious, to hope but not to hope too much because the experience of those who forged those syllables tells them that we end up, more often than not, being violated by history.”
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden **** and a 1/2: Well, after that memoir, anything would have felt a let-down, but Death and the Maiden came darn close to matching it. A short, intensely-written play about the after-effects of torture upon the individual, and the after-effects of a fraught transition to democracy upon the survivors and the perpetrators of the old regime.
It’s rather interesting to have dipped into Latin American writing immediately after Arab writing, and to spot similarities and differences. I found both sets of novels to be intensely political (which is unsurprising), and also – in some way – speaking to, or trying to deal with, a history of dictators or, at the very least, crushing State power over the individual. Every writer is unique in his own way, both in asking the questions, and in deciding how and whether to answer them, but sometimes the similarity in thought, and even in expression (Nasser and Fuentes on memory and nostalgia, for instance) is startling.
South African Writing
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace **** and a 1/2 An absolutely wonderful novel about race and human relations in the post-apartheid world-turned-upside-down.
Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler **** This, I suppose, might be called magical realism, and Calvino’s hypnotic writing accentuates the magic and makes us forget about realism.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: **** and a 1/2 One of my favourite books of the year. Marco Polo’s descriptions, to Kublai Khan, of all the cities he has traveled to (real or imagined?) is best summed up by a word I learnt recently: “hiraeth” (‘homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire…’)
Carlos Luis Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind *** An utterly disappointing ending was a substantial let-down after some great suspenseful storytelling about books, book-burning, Barcelona and young love.
Leonardo Sciascia, Equal Danger ****: A completely compelling detective/mystery novel about politics and corruption in mid-late 20th century Italy. Featured one of my favourite lines this year: ““It’s the libertines who are preparing the revolution, but it’s the puritans who will make it. They, the two [lovers], the whole generation they belong to, would never make a revolution. Their children, maybe; and they would be puritans.”
Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich **** and a 1/2 A darkly brilliant set of loosely connected short stories (reminiscent of Koestler, at times) about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarian governments. Most of Kis’ characters are ordinary people, easy to relate to, who turn collaborators – which makes this novel seem frighteningly prophetic.
Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess *** and a 1/2 The story of the massacre of Kilvenmani, retold 45 years later, is worth a read simply because of the intriguing meta-fictional style, which doesn’t always work, but is brilliant when it does. Also, through its self-conscious, self-aware style, raises important issues – a la Jean Genet, of authenticity in narration, appropriation, “speaking for vs speaking of”, and so on.
Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozshah Baag: *** More heresy. I couldn’t really relate to Mistry’s detailed descriptions of life in a middle-class Bombay Parsi housing colony, and – like with Tiller of Waters – I felt that the context was too thick to allow me to really soak it in and enjoy it.
Ismat Chughtai, Lifting the Veil **** A wonderfully curated collection of short stories and essays, still as relevant as they were sixty years ago, and the eponymous title story is, of course, a classic for all times.
Mirza Waheed, The Collaborator *** and a 1/2 Waheed’s story about the “collaborator”, who stays behind in the Kashmir Valley while his friends cross the border to join the war, and makes his living stripping killed fidayeen for identity papers and more, stays with you a long time after you’ve put it down. Perhaps it was the effect of reading this book soon after watching Haider, but echoes of Hamlet were everywhere – in particular, ambivalence, delay, obloquy and the failure to act being the burdens carried by the protagonist.
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint *** I sometimes wonder if the detailed descriptions of sexual, excretory and other graphic acts would have felt brilliantly subversive in the 1960s, because reading it in 2014, I often had the feeling that it was simply graphic for the sake of being graphic. Some brilliant moments, nonetheless.
Bruce Chatwin, Songlines: **** I’m aware that this book has been heavily criticised, but I loved reading it. The concept of “songlines” – singing the land into existence as you go along, the connection of places, events and histories through music, and music as the underlying language of all creation – it might be reductive, but there’s something so very appealing about all this.
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest: **** What to say? Nobody has a way with words quite like Oscar Wilde.
Aime Cesaire, A Tempest **** A wonderfully subversive retelling of the timeless Shakespearean play, in which Prospero is the coloniser, Caliban the resisting native, Ariel the ambiguous mulatto, and the conquest of language plays a crucial role.
Lermontov, A Hero of our Time **** Finally got around to finishing this book. Lermontov’s Byron-esque, half-nihilist protagonist is disturbingly easy to relate to, and his grand, sweeping style is ideal for the geographical backdrop – the Caucasus Mountains.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed/Demons **** Didn’t quite rip my heart out by the roots, a la Brothers Karamazov but – like vintage Dostoevsky – left me unwilling to get up and start the day, for a few mornings.
Leo Tolstory, Anna Karenina I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t finish this book. The scenes with Anna and Karenin were brilliant, but the long, unending descriptions of Russian farming simply bogged me down. I will try again.
Flaubert, Madame Bovary **** Unlike Zola, who I found extremely hard going, Flaubert turned out to be a solid, well-paced read, and even the awareness of how the book was going to end did little to dilute its pathos.
Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne **** The compulsory, annual re-read.
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We **** The novel that began the genre of futuristic totalitarian dystopias, the precursor of 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451. Written in Soviet Russia in the first decade after the Revolution. Often, while reading, I’d pause and say to myself – “such a cliche!” before suddenly realising that this book was the first time that it was being used!
Howard Jacobson, J *** and a 1/2: Reviewed this for Strange Horizons – a grim, disturbing and wonderfully-written story about the creation and destruction of identities and narratives, set in a futuristic semi-dystopia, which somewhat resembles Sheldon Wolin’s ‘inverted totalitarianism‘.
Patricia A. McKillip, Ombria in Shadow ***: Like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the point to McKillip is not plot, structure or character, but simply lush prose and a fabulous, atmospheric style. It can’t always carry the novel, though.