Babble Wednesday, Jan 24 2007 

Babel

[some spoilers]

“To be intelligible”, Oscar Wilde famously said, “is to be found out.” It’s a dictum that director Alejandro Inarritu and script writer Guillermo Arriaga seem to have taken to heart. To watch their latest collaboration – Babel – is to be desperately hustled; like witnessing the professional hokum of a witch doctor, who hopes that if he chants his spells seriously enough you’ll believe in them without asking what they mean. Because that’s all that Babel is in the end: an exercise in beautiful gibberish, a testament to the idea that no matter what language they speak, people everywhere have nothing meaningful to say. (more…)

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The Invention of Pain Monday, Jan 22 2007 

Martin Amis’ House of Meetings

“Russia is the nightmare country. And always the compound nightmare. Always the most talented nightmare.”

– Martin Amis House of Meetings

How could any novelist resist?

Martin Amis’ new novel House of Meetings is a book about the compound nightmare that was / is Soviet Russia – more specifically, it is the story of two brothers, one a war veteran and ‘heroic rapist’, the other a pacifist, who are thrown into a labour camp under the Stalinist regime and must spend the rest of their lives coping with the realities of political oppression, both during their imprisonment and after it. The book is also, nominally, a love story (the two are in love with the same woman) but this is at least somewhat of a red herring. As Amis unnamed narrator puts it, “I and my brother are characters in a work of social history from below, in the age of titanic nonentities.”

At this stage, it is reasonable to ask what Amis, born and brought up in England, is doing writing a novel about political oppression in Soviet Russia. “You must try hard to imagine it”, Amis writes, “the disgusting proximity of the state, its body odour, its breath on your neck, its stupidly expectant stare.” But what does he know about it? Isn’t he imagining it too?

The truth is (and this is the key reason why the book works) that House of Meetings is not so much an imagined account of political oppression as it is an account of what oppression does to the imagination, to the human spirit. Amis is not writing about a police state, he is writing about a state of mind. In the grand tradition of Dostoyevsky and Conrad (two authors he explicitly acknowledges as influences) this is a book not about oppression per se but about the idea of oppression and about the response of what we could once have called the soul. (more…)

The Big Sikh Sunday, Jan 14 2007 

Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

Once upon a time there was a writer who lived in a world of great corruption and great hope, a world where everything glittered and only some of it was gold. He lived in a world where a dream shared by millions was turning sour even as it became real, where the small hopes of ordinary men were either flaring into great achievement or being cruelly snuffed out. And yet men dreamed, and believed in opportunity in a way they never had before, and yearned for things their parents or grandparents could never have imagined, and the frenzy of ambition was in every heart and no one was counting the cost.

And this man, this writer, decided to capture the spirit of that time by placing in its midst his most memorable character – a small-time crimefighter, a loner, a drinker, a realist, a man of few scruples and little ambition, not strictly law-abiding but honest, in his own way an idealist, even, perhaps a closet romantic. In this character’s strange blend of cynicism, street-smartness, ruthlessness and reluctant chivalry, in his capacity for both violence and wit, in his sense of irony matched with the bitterness of his grace, the writer created an iconic hero for his time, a man who contained within himself all the swirling contradictions of his age. (more…)

Towards Bethlehem Wednesday, Jan 3 2007 

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

“The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

– William Butler Yeats ‘The Second Coming’

The first thing you learn when you open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is about the lack of visibility. “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.”, McCarthy writes. “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” And it is this atmosphere of gloomy nearsightedness that is the keynote of his new novel.

Indeed, there is a sense in which The Road is a novel that centres entirely on atmosphere. The plot of the book is simple indeed – in a world devastated by some unspecified apocalyptic event, human civilisation (as well as animal and plant life) has been entirely destroyed, and the few humans who remain have turned to scavenging and cannibalism, eking out a miserable and shortlived existence among the stripped remains of their past. In this hellish landscape a man and his son are on a nightmare journey to nowhere, or rather to anywhere that they can get to, their only real objective to keep body and soul somehow together. (more…)