Brave old world Wednesday, Feb 22 2006 

Amitav Ghosh’s Incendiary Circumstances

“Let your words speak not through their meanings
But through them against whom they are used.”

“The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history”

– Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Child of Europe’

“In this mosaic-world of silent
graveyards the difference lies between
death and dying.”

– Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Bones’

Speaking of the ideology of Gandhi and Saad Zaghloul in an essay on fundamentalism, Amitav Ghosh speaks of “a belief in the possibility of relative autonomy for heterogeneous populations”. Nothing embodies such inclusiveness, such an embracing of diversity, as well as Ghosh’s new book Incendiary Circumstances. A collection of essays written over some twenty years, this is a book that covers a lot of ground – literally. Short pieces dealing with 9/11 and American neo-imperalism rub shoulders with deeper explorations of some of the most tortured lands in the world – Burma, Cambodia. Essays dealing with literature and writing are interspersed between articles that talk of cataclysmic events in Indian history such as the Pokhran tests and the 1984 riots. Bittersweet sketches of colourful characters from Ghosh’s stay in Egypt go hand in hand with reports from the Tsunami devastated Nicobar islands, or from a gala dinner (for a good cause) in an upscale restaurant in New York.

And yet all the disparate parts of this book are joined together by a single perspective, a theme that is not so much an idea as an attitude, a belief in the importance of bearing witness, of acknowledging, as carefully and objectively as possible, the faultlines of violence that lie hidden under the surface of our everyday world. Incendiary Circumstances is a hallway of mirrors, an attempt to capture, through a triangulation of glimpses, the face of a beast that lives among us, but that we cannot bring ourselves to look at directly. Ghosh is a writer of quiet strength, and his careful, lucid prose conveys perfectly the solemnity of what he is describing. “Is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject?”, Ghosh asks in the book’s preface. The answer, in his case, is a resounding yes – there is no violence in the tone of the book (though there is plenty in what it has to report), and it is a more powerful book for it.

My favourite essay in the book is a piece called ‘The Greatest Sorrow’, where Ghosh, looking at immigrant writing in recent times, argues that such writing is increasingly becoming more about departures than arrivals. As a generation of writers have been driven not so much towards new lands as away from old ones, as the homelands they loved have been consumed by violence, holding on to the past has become, for these writers, more important than laying claim to the future. This is a fascinating point, and one that Ghosh develops, in my opinion, extremely well (the fact that he uses quotes from Ondaatje and Shahid to make the point stick means I’m entirely biased, of course) so that by the end of the essay one is left with an aching sense of loss, a kind of contagious nostalgia.

The other ‘literary’ pieces in Ghosh’s book don’t quite match up to this standard. The article on Shahid’s death (which is the chief reason I issued the book out of the library in the first place) is well-written indeed, but my own memories of Shahid are too distinct and personal for Ghosh’s perspective to seem right, and I found myself wondering how much of Shahid’s work Ghosh had actually read. Which is not to say that Ghosh doesn’t do an exquisite job, it’s just that his article doesn’t capture, for me, the essence of who Shahid was – as as a poet or as a person. The other pieces on writing – an essay on Mahfouz, another on novels in general and Bankim Chandra in particular, a critique of Jordanian writer Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt novels – are all exceedingly well written (everything in this book is), but you could probably do just as well, for instance, reading the New York Review of Books.

The other essays I really loved in the book were an essay on Fundamentalism, and one that deals with the riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 (‘The ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi’). The latter is really a spectacular work, combining socio-political comment with a deeply heartfelt personal account. My own memories of that day in Delhi are sketchy at best, but if I remember few details the general feel of that horrific day has always stayed with me, the sense of helpless terror so thick in the air that it managed to convey itself even to a five year old who had little idea what was going on. Ghosh captures that sense of horror exceedingly well, twenty years later you can still hear the shock and fear of that day in his writing, but he manages to underlay it with an affirmation – more than anything else in this book, his account of that day is a testament to both the intense brutality of human beings towards each other, and the almost limitless compassion and humanity that they are capable of.

And that, I think, is the true genius of this book, overall. Whether he’s writing of dancers in Cambodia or Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or of rescue workers in Nicobar, Ghosh manages to walk the thin line between optimism and despair. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a bitter battle against the forces of fundamentalism and intolerance, Ghosh tells us, everywhere you look the forces of what he calls supremacism are gaining ground. And yet the battle is not lost – for there are also those who have refused to be cowed down or surrender; ordinary people like you and I who have become, through their exemplary dedication and the quietness of their dignity, true champions of the right. It is time that we acknowledged the struggle that these brave men and women are engaged in, Ghosh’s book suggests, it is time that we, having understood exactly what is at stake, took our own stand against the violence.

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Grave Matters Saturday, Feb 18 2006 

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Llegó con tres heridas
la del amor,
la de la muerte,
la de la vida.

Con tres heridas viene
la de la vida,
la del amor,
la de la muerte.

Con tres heridas yo:
la de la vida,
la de la muerte,
la del amor.

– M. Hernandez (arranged and sung by Joan Baez)

There’s a scene in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada where the young woman who’s tending Mike Norton’s (Barry Pepper) wounds comes up to him smiling, checks to make sure he’s healing all right, hands him his medicine to drink, and then, still smiling, takes a pot of scalding hot coffee and pours it into his lap before hitting him full in the face with the emptied kettle.

It’s a scene that beautifully captures the spirit of the movie – its unexpectedness, its humour, its raging sense of injustice, its violence. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones (in a stunning directorial debut) Three Burials is that rarity in recent cinema, a serious, thoughtful and exquisitely beautiful film that manages to not take itself too seriously.

Three Burials is the story of the killing of Melquiades Estrada, an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a cowboy in Southern Texas, and the retribution that his friend (Jones) extracts from the border policeman (Pepper) who casually, if accidentally killed him. This is a gloriously shot movie – scene after scene captures the stark beauty of the Texan wilderness, doing for it what Ang Lee did for Wyoming in Brokeback Mountain. And the performances are superb – Pepper does a sterling job, and Dwight Yoakam as the pragmatic, reluctant sherrif is wonderful. As for Jones – his performance is a landscape in itself, every crag of expression in it first sharpened and then smoothed to weathered perfection.

But the real joy of the movie is its spirit – part McCarthy, part Llosa, with a smidgin of Ford thrown in for good measure. This is a delightful movie because of the way it alternates between whimsical farce, socio-political drama, and stark human poetry. Jones displays considerable mastery of his craft, blending the comic with the macabre, the tragic with the ordinary, blurring the line between justice, compassion and mania. It’s a movie that constantly surprises you, keeps you off balance and manages to be neither happy nor sad, but both at once. There is a great deal of brutality here, a great deal of almost casual violence, but it becomes, in the movie little more than a part of the scenery, against which the main characters play out their impassioned, desperate and at the same time deeply deluded lives.

Which is not to say that the movie gets everything right. There are too many sub-plots for my liking, too many little tangential stories, and while these are handled extremely well, they rob the movie of some of its momentum, muddy the cleanness of it, its essential clarity. And while some of the shifting back and forth in time (and scenes showing you the same event from multiple perspectives) is interesting, much of it seems contrived and self-indulgent, so that you can’t help wishing (as Anthony Lane does in his characteristically brilliant review) that they’d stuck to a more conventional narrative.

On the whole though, this is a superb film, one that celebrates the art of film-making and story-telling alike, and that serves as a perhaps timely reminder that you don’t have to have some deep political message to make a good movie – all you need is a good story and an instinct for the poetic in all of us.

The Never-beginning story Saturday, Feb 11 2006 

Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

– Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer before Birth’.

“If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows – perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places”

– Carlo Levi, in an introduction to Tristram Shandy (quoted by Italo Calvino)

How do you make a movie out of a book that goes nowhere because it is about a life that goes nowhere? Simple. You make a movie that goes nowhere.

Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a book of (literally) unspeakable brilliance. A book that explores the way our lives get swallowed up by digression and triviality, so that in the end we have barely got started on what we had planned to make our central purpose, and our lives turn out to look very different from the way we had imagined them. A book that does this by being a book that get swallowed up in digression and triviality, a delightful romp of a book that finds, when the last volume is finished, that far from being an account of the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, it has barely managed to be an account of the narrator’s birth. A book that is, by any sane account, unfilmable.

Winterbottom’s great insight in Tristram Shandy: A cock and bull story is that he never even tries to film the book. Instead he films the making of a film that is trying to film the book, which turns out to be a film about how the film about the book that finally emerges turns out to be very different from the film about the book that the characters, in the film you’re actually watching, expected. Sound complicated? One of the chief delights of this glorious movie is the way, with true post-modernist aplomb, it blurs the line between narrator and narrative, creating a palimpsest of mirrors, and taking the idea of a film within a film (so wonderfully explored in Truffaut’s La nuit americaine) to a whole new level.

The other chief delight is simply how unbelievably funny the movie is, how willing to satirise itself. Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan, an up and coming British actor playing what he constantly needs to be assured is the lead role in a film version of Tristram Shandy, a novel that he’s never read but gives confident interviews about, loudly extolling its virtues as being eighth on the Guardian’s list of great books of all times (“Wasn’t that a chronological list?” the interviewer asks.). Rob Brydon plays Rob Brydon, Gillian Anderson (the one from X-files, NOT the one from Baywatch) is called at the last minute and agrees (miraculously) to play Gillian Anderson and Stephen Fry puts in a cameo as a bemused and erudite professor. This is the making of a film at its chaotic best – budgets have to be balanced (how are we ever going to afford that final battle scene at the end?), producers impressed (even if this means putting a hot chestnut down your trousers), costumes made suitably authentic (no, Steve, that is exactly how low coat pockets were in those days), egos massaged, giant plastic wombs tried out (no, Steve, you have to climb in head first and naked – we want it to look realistic), script ideas tossed around and rewritten (“I still think we should have the part about the Widow Wadman”), girlfriends kept happy, affairs flirted with, newspaper men appeased and people who wax eloquent about German cinema listened to with due reverence, even though you have no clue what they’re blathering on about. And in the midst of all this, Rob Brydon will need to have his ego constantly massaged as he goes on about his bald spot, the colour of his teeth (“they’re not quite white, are they?”) his inability to act with Anderson, who has a huge sexual thing for. This is comedy at its British, tongue-and-cheek best, and a movie more shockingly true to Sterne’s book is hard to imagine.

Watch this film. If Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing, this is a movie about nothing too, except that it comes to that conclusion reluctantly, starting out with the intention of being about something (realising it can’t be about everything) and ending up wanting to be about anything, anything at all. Sterne would have laughed himself silly.

P.S. Oh, and don’t leave before the credits are done. You’ll miss the most hilarious exchange of Al Pacino impersonations ever. One minute you’re walking down the aisle on your way out. The next minute you’re rolling in it.

Flights of Aborted Fancy Wednesday, Feb 8 2006 

Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled

Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled came to me highly recommended. A friend whose taste in books I have the greatest faith in sent me desperate mails begging me to read it, and another friend gave me pitying looks when I told her I’d never heard of it.

Thinking about it, that might be one of the reasons I found the book underwhelming. Because the truth is, there’s much to like about this book. The opening gambit – a group of travellers, stranded for the night, telling each other stories – is interesting, if unoriginal (forget the Canterbury Tales, for the most sublime use of that device EVER read Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies) and certainly no one can fault Dasgupta for insufficient appetite. The 13 stories in this book cover the widest possible range, spanning multiple geographies and genres, defying classification. They are tales of the wildest invention, heady concoctions of magic and street-smartness, mixing fantasy with a delicately comic humaneness. There are some real gems of ideas here, and there are moments when the Dasgupta’s sheer inventiveness leaves you breathless.

What the book lacks, I think, is purpose. Structure. A sense of inevitability. Truly fantastic writing is not just about being imaginative, it is about a constrained optimisation of the imagination, about the tension between the writer’s manic inventiveness and the bounds that he chooses to impose upon himself. Like Houdini escaping from his chains, the truly great writer thrills us by making the impossible come alive within the confines of the everyday. This is what gives Calvino and Marquez and Kundera their magic – that fact that all that overwhelming invention is tightly bound to a superstructure of political reality, narrative device, or philosophical perspective. Great writing is about creating variety through variation.

Dasgupta lacks any such anchor, so that his stories, both internally and across the book, seem drifting and directionless. There is a great deal of fervid imagining here, but the stories seem less assembled than carelessly stapled together, a collection of brilliant tangents, of loose threads that Dasgupta dishes out with dizzying facility, but never quite manages to reel back in. It’s precisely this sense of potential that makes the stories ultimately disappointing. Again and again I found myself let down, puzzled, when I looked back on the story, by why Dasgupta had not made more out of it, surprised to find that some of the best advances in the plot turned out to be little more than digressions, put in for no other reason than to give Dasgupta the chance to show off his undeniable talent.

Overall, my sense is that Dasgupta is trying too hard. The opening gambit turns out to add little value to the story, the constant change in settings is gratuitious, and many of the side stories are, in the end, more distracting than anything else. Again and again, Dasgupta sacrifices the larger intensity of his story for the sake of a quick witticism, a clever observation, a well written line. This would have a been a much finer book if Dasgupta had pared such digressions out.

What Dasgupta needs, I think, is a much better editor. Someone who will question the relevance, the necessity of much of the flab in the book. Someone who will take Dasgupta to task for the frequent laziness of his writing (he’s capable of really good prose, but much of the book is filled with lines that seem awkward and with dialogue so clunky it makes you wince). Give this man an editor like that and his next book could be a truly brilliant one.

Bottomline: Tokyo Cancelled is a book of considerable but frustrating promise. A collection of short stories that seduces you with how good it could have been, then fails to deliver on all but the most average of its promises. A book that, in the end, never manages to match up to the appetite it creates in you. It’s a cancelled flight of a book, one that is just good enough to make you hang around in the airport, waiting for Rana Dasgupta to finally take off.