Saturday, 31 March 2018

Book of the Month: An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)

An Officer and A Spy is the first novel I read of Robert Harris. Harris shot to international fame with his debut novel, Fatherland, and, as the cliché goes, has never looked back, since. Harris, when he was a BBC-reporter in the 1980s, wrote a few non-fiction books, one of which was the endlessly riveting Selling Hitler, which I have reviewed on this blog.

I picked up An Officer and A Spy, not so much because it was written by Harris, or, not entirely because of that, as because the subject interested me. The Drefus Affair, which took place in France at the turn of last century, is one of those historical event, I should imagine, many would be aware of, or, heard of, but of which, most would not know the details. (That Harris wrote the novel also made the decision easy; I might not have been inclined to read the book if it were written by someone whose name I did not recognise).

Alfred Drefus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was convicted in 1895 of treason. Drefus was found guilty of passing on French army secrets to the Germans. He was sentenced to solitary confinement on the Devil’s Island, an ice-free island near the north-eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (near Venezuela), where he was subjected to emotional torture of very impressive proportions—Drefus was forbidden to speak to anyone during the entire period of his incarceration. The Drefus affair, as it came to be known, aroused strong public emotions in France at the time, and public opinion was sharply divided as to whether justice was done. Latent Anti-Semitism as well as hurt French pride and the inevitable French paranoia towards the Germans, following the heavy defeat of the French army by the Germans in the 1870 war (resulting in Germany appropriating French regions bordering with Germany), played a vital part in how Drefus was treated and viewed throughout the trial. That Drefus was a German Jewish did not help. The Drefus case is considered as a great miscarriage of justice in French history. Emil Zola was one of the many influential intellectuals in the French public life who were disturbed by the handling of the investigation by the French army, and took up the case of the convicted Jewish officer, which eventually led to the exoneration of Drefus.

It is highly likely that the higher echelons of the French army were aware that Drefus was innocent, but allowed, nevertheless, for him to be the fall-guy, and, when they became aware that truth might come out, went to great length to suppress it.

It would, however, be wrong to say that everyone in the French army was complicit in the conspiracy (and, by association, an anti-Semite). There were French army officers who were uneasy about what happened to Drefus, and showed great courage and righteousness, in the face of intimidation and threats by the increasingly unsettled French army, in revealing truth.

The French army-officer who played a major role in the re-trial and eventual exoneration of Alfred Drefus, whose name has disappeared under the sand of time, was Colonel Georges Picquart, the protagonist of Harris’s absorbing novel.

The story is narrated from the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, of French army. Picquart comes to hold the belief that Alfred Derfus did not receive a fair trial. Picaquart, a member of French army’s General Staff, has witnessed the court martial of Drefus in his capacity as a reporter. Within six months of Drefus’s conviction Picaquart is promoted to the position of the chief of the operational arm of French army’s intelligence section, known as statistical section. Picquart has no, or not many, warm feelings towards Drefus. Drefus is a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole de Guerre (French army’s war college) where Picquart was his teacher. Drefus, with his somewhat standoffish manner and a tendency towards viewing any unfavourable decision as resulting from crypto-anti-Semitism, has not made it easy for others to develop warm feelings towards him, and Picquart is no exception. Picquart, the novel hints, might have had a smidgen of anti-Semitism in him—all the more remarkable, then, that he fights tenaciously and even risks his own military career to prove the innocence of Drefus, once he is satisfied that Drefus is the fall guy, and the real traitor is someone else. Picquart has always believed that the case against Drefus was weak—he has told the French war minister, General Mercier, who has had Drefus arrested in an unseemly hurry in the absence of any clear proof of Drefus’s guilt, that Drefus’s acquittal was the likely outcome of the court martial. Picquart is, therefore, surprised and uneasy when Drefus is found guilty. When Picquart takes over the reins of the statistical section he sees the photocopy of the letter, which was considered in the court martial to be the incontrovertible evidence of Drefus’s guilt. Picquart realises that the handwriting is not Drefus’s but that of one Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, a feckless, inveterate liar, whom Picquart suspects to be the man who was passing the secrets to Germans. This had indeed been the case. At the time of the court martial several hand-writing experts had rejected the notion that handwriting in the letter was Drefus’s, until an obliging one came along and gave the army the opinion they wanted to hear. An army officer lied to the tribunal, and, just in case if this was not enough, a secret file, full of forged documents and confirming Drefus’s guilt, was passed on to the tribunal, with full knowledge of Mercier, keeping the legal team representing Drefus completely in the dark. As Picquart’s suspicions grow that the wrong man has been sent to gaol, he also begins to suspect that those who conspired to frame Drefus are in his own department and, backed up by the powerful army brass, will do the same to him. Picquart begins to carry out his secret investigation. As Picquart delves deeper into he realises that the rot goes right to the top of the French army. Picquart begins his fight against echelons of French army to prove the innocence of a man he has disliked but who, Picquart believes, is innocent. 

Robert Harris has narrated a gripping tale that conflates the historical narrative as well as the personal perspective (of Picquart). Harris’s prose is dry, sardonic, but also elegant. The Georges Picquart that emerges from this narrative is emotionally aloof, at times cynical, but also someone with a strong sense of where his moral compass should be and uncompromising on his principles once he makes up his mind.  If I have to make criticism I’d say that the novel does not give you a good enough idea of the rabid anti-Semitism that was affecting at least part of the French society at the time. One, therefore, might wonder whether the decision of the French army to make Drefus the fall guy was motivated only by cynical opportunism of the army combined with the determination of the army generals to not be seen to have made a mistake or whether some of the higher army officers were also affected by the anti-Semite fervour.  Harris made the decision to make Picquart, and not Drefus, the hero of his story. Picquart, in some ways an army-insider himself, and, more pertinently, is focused on the injustice he felt was done to Drefus. Picquart is uninterested in the wider, cultural ramifications of anti-Semitism that might have influenced the decision of the French army to scapegoat Drefus. The absence of the details of historical backdrop to the Drefus affair, thus, is understandable, but it still seems like a gap.

The Drefus affair might have happened more than a century ago, but it is still relevant in the twenty-first century. in the As I type this, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is embroiled in a controversy whereby he stands accused of either deliberately being or allowing himself to be the figurehead of racist Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, particularly amongst his noisy supporters).

An Officer and A Spy is a very satisfying read. It is a historical novel which reads like a thriller. Very much recommended.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Brexit Madness

Britain’s painful and protracted divorce from the European Union (EU) grinds on.

You don’t need to be blessed with clairvoyance to figure out that Brexit is going to cause economic damage to both the parties. The EU is going to lose the second biggest contributor (after Germany) to its budget once the UK leaves. As for the UK, barring the bonkers Brexiteers from the Conservative party—madder than a stadium-full of hatters (on acid)—no one thinks that Brexit won’t cause significant damage to the country’s economy.

The latest twist to what is already a high-octane melodrama is the shift announced by Comrade Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition party in the UK, in its position towards the customs union. A couple of days before the Comrade’s speech, Labour’s Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer (who wears the lugubrious expression of someone who buried his mother in the morning), announced in a television interview that under a Labour Government, Britain would stay in a customs union and single market. Starmer also informed in the BBC interview (with the air of the doctor breaking the news of advance cancer) that free movement of people would have to end; however, he added, there would be ‘easy movement’ of people (the doctor explaining that there were first-rate hospices). He neglected to explain what this ‘easy’ movement would look like.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who, by consensus, is born in the wrong decade and in the wrong country—he would have been so much happier if he were born as McDonnellowich and been Stalin’s henchman—revealed himself to be a cunning linguist, and helpfully clarified that Starmer used the indefinite article ‘a’ instead the definite article ‘the’ while discussing customs union and single market.

What did McDennellowich mean? His leader, Comrade Corbyn—once described by an Iranian freedom of speech, whom Corbyn inadvertently exposed in an interview on live Iranian television and who ended up spending time in Iranian prison (reputed to be only slightly better than Luton), as a useful idiot—clarified a day later in a speech, while inexpertly reading from the autocue. Labour would negotiate a bespoke customs union (and presumably a bespoke single market) with the EU.

Comrade Corbyn invited us to believe that under the bespoke customs union there would be frictionless trade between not just Northern Ireland and republic of Ireland, but also between the UK and the EU. The good news does not stop here. The UK will be able to strike bilateral deals with other countries (while remaining in ‘a’ customs union) at the same time, and EU bureaucrats would nod their heads, give an indulgent smile, and say, ‘Go on you rascals!’

Quite how this ‘bespoke’ arrangement would look like Corbyn did not care to explain in the speech, perhaps because he was keeping his cards too close to his chest, or, more likely, because he had no clue (McDennellowich had not explained that to him). But we are not to question this. We must have the faith that the Messiah will deliver. If you don’t you are obviously a capitalist traitor, who, no doubt, supported Iraq war and Blair.

Corbyn’s about-turn on customs union predictably raised the hackles of the Tory nutters who are in the grip of Revanchist fury (turned on themselves) ever since the referendum happened (almost two years ago). The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, took himself to air, the BBC Radio 4, the next day, and removed the last vestiges of doubts from the listeners’ minds that his grasp of Brexit was slightly worse than Donald Trump’s grasp on . . . well, pretty much everything. When the interviewer Mishal Husain (she of seductive voice) asked Johnson about the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, Johnson launched into a long-winded blather, which, even by his high standards, was a spectacular twaddle. He compared the border situation between Northern Ireland and the Republic Ireland to that of two Burroughs of London, and went on to crow how he, Boris, when he was the mayor of London, saved the situation by bringing congestion charges! Husain, unwilling to accept that the foreign secretary was serious, asked Johnson whether he was serious, and Johnson assured her that he couldn’t be more serious. I have seen and heard a few interviews of Boris Johnson (which always leave the interviewers, from Jeremy Paxman to Mishal Husain, shaking their heads in disbelief), and have always wondered whether he is like a not-altogether-stupid-but-lazy-as-f**k pupil, who never takes the trouble to prepare the subject, and hopes to get through by verbiage (hoping that bullshit, when continued without pause, will always baffle brain). It rarely works, but Johnson seems incapable of learning and changing his indolent ways.

In the BBC interview, Johnson was frothing at the mouth at what he saw as Comrade Corbyn’s treachery over the customs union (guessing, probably with good reason, that the ‘useful idiot’ would be persuaded, next, by Starmer (and those in Labour who have some brains) to change his stance over the single market (replacing with ‘a’ single market). Johnson, no doubt trembling with righteous indignation, accused Comrade Corbyn of cynical opportunism, because Corbyn had shifted Labour’s position to that announced in Labour’s manifesto in the 2016 general election: Labour would leave the customs union. Johnson accusing Corbyn of cynical opportunism is a bit like Trump accusing the North Korean potato-head of being mentally deranged. It also suggested the innocent assumption that people bother themselves with manifestos of political parties (and remember them after a year). Finally, it also indicated that Johnson had not cottoned on to the difference between the definite and indefinite articles, as elucidated by the linguist McDennellowich (to be fair to Johnson, no one had).

The trouble for Johnson and Dr Fox, the International Trade Secretary (he is an idiot, alright, but difficult to see what use he can be of to anyone), is that so far there is not so much as a whiff of the free trade deals we have been hearing so much about, and which Dr Fox is presenting to the heads of different countries round the globe (including but not limited to the dictator in Philippines, who once referred to Barak Obama as one can only assume his (the dictator’s, not Obama’s) favourite part of female anatomy).

It was left to Sir Martin Donnelly, a highly experienced civil servant, who, until last year, was the permanent secretary in Dr Fox’s Department of International Trade, to tell some home truths to the fantasists in the two parties. Brexit and giving up membership of single market and customs union for future free trade deals elsewhere, Mr Donnelly said, was like giving up a three-course meal now for a packet of crisps and promise of future. Three-fifth of the UK’s current trade, Mr Donnelley explained, was with the EU or countries with which the EU (as a bloc) has preferential deals with. It beggars belief that the hard Brexiteers are prepared to piss on this in the delusion that the rest of the world is queuing up to strike deals with the UK. As for Corbyn’s nonsense about ‘frictionless trade’ Donnelley warned that it is not even a legal term. Having your cake and eating it, as Donnelley rightly observed, is not an option in the real world, not that it will penetrate Corbyn’s thick skull.

Theresa May might go to India and wear as many bright-coloured saris as she wants, or she might go to China and pose next to the Chinese dragon (looking only marginally more scary), there is no sign, yet, that these two Asian giants are in a mood to give any definite assurance to the UK. As for America, with whom the UK politicians fondly believe we have a special relationship, with Trump in the White House, we will soon find out that the special relationship is the same as the McDonald’s has with cows. Trump does not believe in special relationships. He believes in deals. And any deal Trump has anything to do with has only one winner. Trump.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Book of the Month: Sex and Stravinsky (Barbara Trapido)

V.S. Naipaul attracted a lot of flak when, in an interview a few years ago, he claimed that men and women wrote different kinds of novels. He went on to claim that he could make out within the first few pages of a novel whether it was written by a man or a woman.

 I would have had no difficulty in guessing within the first five pages of Sex and Stravinsky that it was written by a woman. Why? Read this paragraph on page six: 

 '. . . she knows the uses of coconut milk and cardamom pods. While her contemporaries stuck with pulses and tinned pilchards, and mounds of oily grated cheddar she is already making her own pesto with fresh basil which she grows from seeds in flowerpots and her careful student budgeting allows for tiny bags of pine nuts and pecorino cheese. . . She makes glazed fruit tarts. She makes fruit mousse, mixing dried apricots, stewed and pureed, with gelatine, whipped cream and frothed egg whites. For Josh she makes an airy angel whip.’

As you read on, there are detailed descriptions of clothes worn by some or more female protagonists, descriptions of the dressing rooms of houses, so on and so forth.

As it happened I did not have to guess, as I knew that the novel was written by a woman, Barbara Trapido, who, while she will not feature in the top-ten list of my favourite novelists, is a writer I have time for.

Sex and Stravinsky is Trapido’s first novel since the 2002’s Frankie and Stankie, which I thought was brilliant. The autobiographical novel which told the story of two white girls growing up in the apartheid era South Africa was something of a departure for Trapido, whose earlier novels could be best described as romantic comedies or comedies of error. I have read two of them. The Brother of the More Famous Jack, Trapido’s debut novel which won the Whitbread (now Costa) award, and The Travelling Horn Player, which came out in 1998 and was very well received critically. The Brother of the More Famous Jack was, I thought, thematically very similar to an earlier novel by Margaret Drabble (Jerusalem the Golden), although Trapido’s treatment of the subject matter was different and was characterised by what was to become her trademark—light and comic touch. The Travelling Horn Player was an effervescent novel which did not linger on in your mind.

With Sex and Stravinsky Trapido has returned to her terra firma—romantic comedies. The setting of Sex and Stravinsky is South Africa (where Trapido was born and grew up) and Oxford (where she has spent most of her adult life). Like her earlier romantic comedies (for example Travelling Horn Player), Sex and Stravinsky is breezy and cheerful, with—in tandem, perhaps, with the mood of the novel—carefree unconcern for realism. Her comedy is almost Shakespearean in this sense, full of chance meetings and coincidences.

The main characters in Sex and Stravinsky meet one another from time to time, without knowing that they are connected, the pattern hidden behind their movements and decisions being governed by the all-seeing omnipresent fate, or, the writer.

This is the story of two couples Josh and Caroline, and Hattie and Herman. Caroline is an Ozzie while the others are South Africans. Hattie is Josh’s first love but she declined to accompany him to England when he wins a scholarship to study ballet dancing in England. In England Josh meets the super-efficient Caroline and marries her, forgetting, with the passage of time, his first love. Hattie is locked in an outwardly successful but increasingly loveless marriage to Herman who is an acquaintance of Josh at the University and is different from him in every conceivable way. They have three children, of whom the youngest, Kate, or Cat, is at home. Cat, who despises her mother with a passion, is tentatively embarking on what promises to be a successful career in bulimia. Hattie writes moderately successful children’s books on—you have guessed it— ballet dancing. In the meanwhile, Josh and Caroline, in England, are happily married—or so they think. Josh is a dance academic while Caroline is a head-mistress and can command everyone except her caricaturesquely obnoxious mother, who, no matter what Caroline does to please her, is never pleased and always favours the younger daughter, Janet, who lives in Australia and wants nothing to do with her. Josh and Caroline, too, have a daughter, named Zoe who is a minor neurotic. These are the main characters in the drama. Then there is the supporting cast. It includes, in no particular order, Caroline’s ghoulish mother (already mentioned) and ghastly sister (ditto); Josh’s parents—Josh is their adopted son—who are Jewish and are anti-apartheid activists in South Africa; and Jack, the illegitimate son of their Black maid, Gertrude.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about the lives of the protagonists. Caroline, who has gone out of her way to be subservient to her mother and has subjected her family to sacrifices in order to keep her mother sweet but has always been the less loved, unfavoured daughter, discovers that she was adopted (in a manner of speaking—she was given to Caroline’s mother, adoptive mother that is, on a bus in Sydney). This knowledge about her provenance triggers the kind of upheaval in Caroline’s attitude to everything, compared to which the revolution in Russia was a tea party. She turns up in South Africa with her daughter to inform Josh, who has travelled there to participate in a conference, that her mother, though she wasn’t her real mother, had died (although why the news couldn’t wait—seeing as Caroline has decided that the woman was a bitch— till Josh returned from the conference is not clear). And whom should Caroline run into upon landing in South Africa? Why, Herman, Hattie’s husband, who, in the tradition of randy White South African men, is always looking for opportunities to get his leg over. Caroline and Herman hit it off straightaway and the woman whose boldest decision until that time was to add a twist to a lemon meringue pie, allows herself to be taken first to Herman’s house (which is also Hattie’s house), and then to be, well, taken. Josh in the meanwhile has run into Hattie at a local cafĂ©, and the two ex-but-about-to-be-current lovers are visiting museums and galleries and animatedly discussing finer points of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. It doesn’t end here: Herman and Hattie have a lodger named Giacomo, who is none other than Jack, the son of the maid who worked for Josh’s parents. And the man who impregnated the Black maid was none other than Hattie’s reprobate brother James when she worked for her parents, although neither Hattie nor Josh is aware of this link till the very end. Have I missed any more co-incidences? I might have. This is a novel so full of co-incidences that you are left wondering whether co-incidences aren’t travelling around looking for their lost twins.

I shall not be giving away any secrets, I hope, when I say that it all ends happily with the main protagonists realigning themselves with each other’s partners, the arrangements and exchanges taking place more smoothly than a transaction at the Tesco counter.  

Trapido employs the tried and tested literary tropes—secret paternity and adoption, sibling rivalries—to embellish the narrative, mostly to impressive effect. The prose is elegant and has a kind of rhythm and flow to it which, for the most part, carries the novel through.

Nevertheless, reading Sex and Stravinsky is a strange experience. The characters are contemporary; the story takes place mostly in the here-and-now, and when it deals with the past, it’s still twentieth century. The problems and dilemmas faced by the protagonists are real enough; yet they are dealt with in a manner that is very unreal. Towards the end, especially after Caroline’s discovery that her mother was a manipulative harridan, the pace of the novel increases, the co-incidences and chance encounters come thick and fast, so much so that the plot runs the danger of appearing contrived. The narrative tone, throughout, is facetious, almost fatuous; and the resolution of the mismatched relationships is slapdash. It is almost as if the author is begging you not to take any of it seriously because she herself isn’t treating it seriously. There is a token nod to the apartheid inequalities in South Africa, but here, too, in contrast to the superb Frankie and Stankie, in which the heroines come slowly to realise the inequalities of the world around them in which they enjoy privileged positions, the matter is treated with about as much gravity as in a Christmas pantomime.

The title of the novel is a tad misleading. There is no sex and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella has no bearing on the narrative; it plays no pivotal part and is mentioned almost as an aside—a ballet Hattie likes.

Reading Sex and Stravinsky is like eating a happy meal at McDonald’s: it is cheap and cheerful, it will fill your stomach; but if you want a gourmet experience, you will need to look elsewhere.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Book of the Month: Small World (Matt Beaumont)

Small World is British novelist Matt Beaumont’s sixth novel. The story takes place in North London, and involves a long list of characters: a washed up political journalist and his wife (who runs an art and craft shop), their marriage increasingly coming under strain as they try one unsuccessful IVF attempt after another; a stand-up comedian—he steals lines from an Indian waiter, who is his fan—and his (the comedian’s) wife, who is a full-time mother and unofficial agony aunt to her friends, who include the infertile woman; a workaholic, control-freak woman, who is an HR executive—she has become friends with the comedian’s wife at the antenatal classes—and her (HR executive’s) very odd husband who calls himself a graphic designer but has not worked in years, and has a secret crush on the infertile woman, whom he spies on every day for months from the Star Bucks opposite her shop. The infertile woman, who does not know the HR executive woman, has noticed him of course, but she is not sure whether the weirdo is stalking her or her eighteen year old assistant, who comes from a dysfunctional family and hangs out with kids from backgrounds similar to her, one of whom is a tall (and gorgeous despite, or perhaps because of, dread-locks) black boy, whose mother works as a nurse in the Accident & Emergency Department of one of the hospitals in London. The HR executive has an Aussie nanny who, incredibly, does not do drugs, but has an Aussie friend who is also a nanny and does drugs. Then there is a policeman who is more bitter and disillusioned than the share-holders of the Royal Bank of Scotland; his live-in girlfriend is the PA of the HR executive woman. Have I missed anyone? Oh yes! There is an alcoholic bum who does not let his constant inebriation come in the way of stealing things, and possibly raping and murdering (not at the same time) young women; a Czech baby sitter who has a nose longer than the Sidney Harbour bridge and is saving money for a nose job; and a Northern woman who comes to London after her husband has a pulmonary embolism while he is attending a conference—well, not strictly during the conference; he gets the embolism in the evening, after the conference, when he is visiting a prostitute, and is admitted on the same ward of the hospital where the infertile woman is also admitted after she experiences unexpected complications of her treatment in a private clinic (which by the way is lousy), the same hospital in the A & E department of which the black kid’s mother works, the department to which the Aussie nanny brings the son of the HR executive woman twice in space of two weeks—once when he has pneumonia and another time when her druggy Aussie friend inadvertently gives the kid ecstasy. Is this all getting a bit confusing? I don’t blame you; I am getting confused myself. All these characters either meet each other or run into each other—some because they know each other, others by chance—so often that you begin to wonder, like the weirdo husband of the HR executive, whether their lives and meetings are not following an invisible programme, their movements manipulated by an unseen hand (the God or the author?).

This has of course been done before—a long list of characters, many of whom do not know each other but keep on bumping into each other, and vitally influence the course of events. Paul Theroux did it in the seventies in his novel, Family Arsenal. Small World follows the same format as that which Beaumont employed in one of his earlier novels, the hilarious The Book, the Film, the T shirt: the story moves forward via first person monologues or narratives of all the characters.  There are more characters in Small World than in EastEnders, and they all like to talk uninhibitedly. To Beaumont’s credit, he juggles them adroitly and does not allow at any time the pace of the narrative slacken.  He does not narrate the same incident from the point of view of different persons; rather a given scenario is taken forward by the first-person narratives of the characters involved. Beaumont has the knack of dramatizing the happenings and the misunderstandings, which further enhances the impact. There are enough twists and dramatic scenes which keep the readers’ interests going.

This book is something of a departure for Beaumont, who made his debut in 2000 with e, the first novel, his official website informs, written entirely in e-mails. Whereas his previous novels were out and out comedies, Small World is a potpourri of many emotions; it is not your routine feel-good novel. None of the characters, with the possible exception of the Aussie nanny, is particularly likeable; some are downright creepy. For the same reason, perhaps, they are very believable: the three middle class couples in Small World could be your next-door neighbours. While extremely funny in parts, the novel essentially holds a mirror to the bleak lives of the materialistic and outwardly conventional middle classes (or to be more specific, the materialistic and outwardly conventional middle classes who live in London). The humour—a lot of it is in the dialogues rather than in the situations—has an edge to it. The casual racism of the police, for example, when they speak about and deal with black and other minorities, manages to make the reader laugh and feel unnerved at the same time. Beaumont makes liberal (and effective) use of irony. He also tries, with a degree of success, big emotions. Small World is like a big roller-coaster ride that is good fun but nonetheless leaves you feeling dizzy at the end:  a laugh-out-loud section is immediately (and unexpectedly) followed by tragedy, or love followed by violence.

A great strength of Small World is its narrative style. Beaumont follows the dictum of keeping the vocabulary simple, as though mindful of the other pressures and constraints on his readers’ time. It works well and the novel, despite being, at four hundred plus pages, humongous, does not weary its reader. Beaumont has effectively captured the lingo of the teenagers, which gives it a pulse of authenticity. (This is not an easy skill to master. Some years ago, I had read a novel by Justin Cartwright, titled The Promise of Happiness: the novel was about everything but happiness, and Cartwright had attempted to portray the speaking style of the younger generation by repeated use of ‘like’, which only made the sentences awkward.)

Small World does not pretend to give a big message, at least not directly or obviously. It does not attempt to ponder on the imponderables. What it does is entertain you with a riveting story, told flowingly, which has believable characters, which throws enough surprises to keep your interest sustained, and which has a bit of twist at the end. It may not be the greatest novel ever written; neither is the format the most original; but it is an easy read and for the most part very entertaining. Not many novels can be said to do it.

(I wonder where Matt Beaumont has disappeared. Following the publication of his first novel in 2000, he published six novels in the next nine years, a very impressive rate. He seems to have fallen silent in the past nine years.)

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Books Read in 2017

Below is the list of books I managed to read in 2017.


  1. My Year of Meats (Ruth Ozeki)
  2. Sellout (Paul Beatty)
  3. Hope—A Tragedy (Shalom Auslander)
  4. We (Yevgeny Zamyatin)
  5. Epitaph for a Spy (Eric Ambler)
  6. Ragtime (E.L. Doctorow)
  7. My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)
  8. The Rose of Tibet (Lionel Davidson)
  9. Shylock is My Name (Howard Jacobson)
  10. Our Kind of Traitor (John Le Carre)
  11. The Evenings (Gerard Reve)
  12. Madonna in Fur Coat (Sabhattin Ali)
  13. Ghosts (Cesar Aira)
  14. Sweet Caress (William Boyd)
  15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Re-read) (Ken Kesey)
  16. Amsterdam (Re-read) (Ian McEwan)
  17. SS-GB (Len Deighton)
  18. After the Divorce (Grazia Deledda)
  19. In Love (Alfred Hayes)
  20. Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)
  21. The Woman who went to Bed for A Year (Sue Townsend)
  22. The Prime of Mrs Jean Brodie (Re-read) (Muriel Spark)
  23. The Outsider (Albert Camus)
  24. Here I Am (Jonathan Saffron Foer)
  25. Oranges are not the Only Fruit (Jannette Winterson)
  26. An Officer and A Spy (Robert Harris)
  27. Different Class (Joanna Harris)
  28. The Laughing Monsters (Denis Johnson)
  29. Days of Abandonment (Elena Ferrante)
  30. Conclave (Robert Harris)
  31. This Must be the Place (Maggie O’Farrell)
  32. Em and the Big Hoom (Jerry Pinto)
  33. Mr Hire’s Engagement (Georges Simenon)
  34. Autumn (Ali Smith)
  35. The End (Hanif Kureishi)
  36. UFO in Her Eyes (Xiaolu Guo)
  37. Electric Michael Angelo (Sarah Hall)

  1. Peas and Queues (Sandy Toksvig)
  2. Forever Erma (Erma Bombeck)
  3. All Out War (Tim Shipman)
  4. This Boy (Alan Johnson)
  5. Munich Art Hoard (Catherine Heckley)
  6. Politics of Washing (Polly Coles)
  7. The Renaissance (JH Plumb)
I have taken to buying books from Kindle. I don’t know whether it has become an addiction. It probably is going that way. I have got books on Kindle I bought more than three years previously, and not got round to reading them. You come across names on Kindle you’ve not heard before. You quickly go through some of the readers’ reviews, read the description of the book, and decide to buy the book the author of which you know nothing about. Sometimes the gamble works. Sometimes it doesn’t, as happened with my purchase of Erma Bombeck’s collection of newspaper columns. I can’t now remember what made me buy this collection of Bombeck whose name I had not heard until then (I later discovered thanks to Wikipedia that she was a popular American columnist); probably because it was described as witty. It is not often that I give up on a book, but this book was an exception—a big yawn from beginning to about 20% of the e-book at which time I decided that enough was enough. Sandi Toksvig’s Peas and Queues was similarly a disappointment (although I can’t say that I had not heard of Toksvig, who is a British comedian of reasonable repute). The Italian Renaissance by JC Plumb (another name I had not heard), on the other hand, was first rate—excellently written and very accessible. The Munich Art Hoard is a well-researched account of how an elderly German recluse came to inherit immoral, if not illegal, wealth in the form of paintings of famous artists (Monet, Manet, Chagall, and Munch among others) obtained by his father, quarter-Jewish himself, from the desperate Jewish families hoping to escape the Nazi clutches. The story of Hilderbrand Gurlitt is a lesson of how people who are not inherently evil get corrupted by greed and lose moral scruples. The author of this riveting book is Catherine Hickley who, I was interested to read, is an expert in looted art. I can understand someone being an art-critic or art-expert. What might an expertise in looted art entail? Tracing the provenance of a work of art suspected to have been stolen is a detective work, I would have thought. Perhaps the art expert can confirm whether the discovered piece of art, purporting to be the work of a famous artist is genuine or not. I discovered that there is even a commission for ‘Looted Art’ in Europe, mostly relating to the art looted by the Nazis. Anyway, The Munich Art Hoard is highly recommended even if you don’t have a great deal of interest in what the Nazis got up to. Hickley tells this morally complex story without taking a ride in the morality-hot-air-balloon. The book is an engrossing piece of investigative journalism (it remains that for the best part), but there are passages in the book describing the reclusive Cornelius Hilderbrand (from whom the hidden stash was recovered) which would be worthy to be in a monograph of character analysis by an astute psychologist. I was not a great fan of Alan Johnson, the Labour leader, who was the home secretary for a year towards the end of Gordon Brown’s government. At one point his name was mentioned as the leader of the Labour Party. He has appeared from time to time in the long running satirical quiz on the BBC, Have I Got News for You. In it he comes across as an affable, relaxed man with a gentle sense of humour, who is not exactly groaning under the weight of his personality—one of those men who are nondescript in the sense there is, really, nothing to describe. His memoir, This Boy: A Life, was a revelation. The memoir, which chronicles Johnsons’ growing years, is a moving account of his childhood ridden with indigence, burns with a quiet cadence. It is difficult to believe what Johnson describes was happening not in Victorian times but only sixty years back. Simply written, the memoir is incredibly moving and burns with a quiet cadence.

Another memoir, except that it was packaged as a novel, which I found very affecting was Em and the Big Hoom, the debut novel of the Indian author Jerry Pinto. I came across this novel in the library. I picked it up because the blurb described it as howlingly funny. The novel is not howlingly funny, I should clarify, and could probably have done with better editing. In it Pinto tells the story of his manic-depressive mother (the ‘Em’ in the novel) and her marvellously devoted (and stoic) husband (‘the Big Hoom’). The novel is written with great affection, in simple and tasteful prose, sprinkled with zephyr-like humour. Highly recommended.

My Year of Meats was the first novel that I read in 2017. It was also the first novel of its American-Japanese author, Ruth Ozeki, which I read; and it is Ozeki’s first novel. A lot of firsts. What it was not was a first-rate novel. It wasn’t the most dreadful novel that I have read. It had a good stab at being intelligent and humane. It gave some gut-wrenching (and not wholly germane to the plot) information about cattle ranching and beef treated with hormones (which I suspect are author’s pet topics), but, sadly, I didn’t find it extraordinary, as promised by one of the (selectively edited) reviews on its dust jacket.

Ragtime is the outstanding novel of the American novelist E L Doctorow. Teeming with real-life and fictional characters Ragtime, which starts with the sensational murder (dubbed as the murder of the century), is a riveting account of an important epoch in the twentieth century America. It captures the zeitgeist of the times perfectly. This is a novel about a rapidly changing America and, keeping with the theme, the pace of the narrative doesn’t slacken.

I read two Man Booker Prize winners last year: Sellout, which won the 2016 prize; and Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 award. Neither of the novels appealed much to me. Lincoln in the Bardo is a slender novel with not much of a plot. There is a bizarre and surreal feel to it, and, at times you feel that the bizarreness is an end in itself. Sellout, on the other hand, has a sprawling canvas, and proceeds at a break-neck speed. It is a potpourri of heavy sarcasm, unsubtle messages about the racial tensions in modern day America, and humour like a sledgehammer. A bit too much for me.

Here I Am, the third novel of Jonathan Saffron Foer, is a reflection on what it means to be a modern man in a modern world. Not just any man, but a Jewish man. Better than Foer’s second novel, though not perfect. It is at times an exhausting novel to read, not least because of several subplots and characters, which disappear for long periods only to reappear without warning, which leaves the reader scratching his head.

An Officer and A Spy was the first novel I read of the multi-million-copies-selling Robert Harris. Years ago, I had read Selling Hitler (reviewed on this blog) a cracking account of how a small-time thug swindled one of the biggest newspapers in Germany by selling them Hitler’s forged diaries. An Officer and A Spy is a historical novel of the Drefus Affair in France at the turn of the last century. The novel, written from the point of view of Georges Picquart, the army officer who risked his career to prove Drefus’s innocence, is superb. I therefore read another of Harris’s novel, The Conclave. Not as riveting as An Officer and A Spy, but, still, very readable.

I read SS-GB, the masterpiece of Len Deighton (a very favourite writer of my father) after I watched the BBC drama. I did not really understand it, not only because the plot was more convoluted than my intestines but also because all the actors mumbled. I like convoluted plots. When I read them, they make me feel intelligent. And plots don’t get more convoluted than Deighton’s alternative history of the Second World War. A smashing read.

Orange are not the Only Fruit is the autobiographical debut novel of the British writer Jannette Winterson. It is a coming of age story of a girl, raised by a religious-nutcase adoptive mother, who discovers her sexuality (the girl, that is, not the mother). The novel progresses at two levels. The first (far more accessible and crackling with dry wit) is the story of Jannette (Winterson gives the protagonist of this ‘fiction’ her own name); the second is a fable. Quite what the relations of the fable is to the life of Jannette (the fictional protagonist) was not clear to me. The novel is narrated in a style that keeps the emotions at arm’s length. I don’t know whether this is Winterson’s prose-style in general (I have not read her other novels) or whether she adopted this style specifically for this novel.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Italian author Elena Ferrante’s four-volume Neapolitan novels, because it was chosen by the book club of which I am a member. The book was not appreciated by the book club, the main criticism being the supporting characters in the novel lacked individuality.  I don’t know about that. What I do know that I loved the novel. It is the story about two girls from a working-class suburb of Naples, their friendship and rivalry and aspirations. This is an expansive novel, with a large cast of characters, told in a luxuriant prose (full marks to the translator, too). I was so immersed in the novel, Scarlet Johansson could have walked into the room in the altogether and I wouldn’t have looked up. I vowed to read the other three volumes. Instead I read Days of Abandonment, Ferrante’s debut novel. It is an extraordinary novel of the disintegration of a marriage. The novel is almost too painful to read in part.

Albert Camus’s The Outsider (The Stranger, in some English translations) starts with the famous line (apparently translated differently in different translations): ‘[My] mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’. It sets the tone of the rest of this short novel. Camus, as has been pointed out in many learned reviews of the novel, explores many philosophical strands in the novel, such as absurdism or existentialism. The protagonist of Camus’s novel is a profoundly bored, uninterested and apathetic man, who, as he himself observes towards the end of the novel, is condemned because he is not able to react to situations in a manner that is deemed to be socially appropriate.

Xiaolu Guo was chosen by Granta as one of the best British young novelists, in 2013. Guo, who grew up in China learnt English as an adult. UFO in Her Eyes is a gentle satire, and the theme is alienation. It is a well-crafted, easily accessible novel suffused with mild humour.  

Finally, I re-read a few novels last year, which re-affirmed my original impressions. Amsterdam: disappointing; The Prime of Ms Jean Brodie: superb; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: entertaining, if slightly dated. 

This is the third or fourth year in a row in which I did not manage to read an average of one book per week. Oh well. Below are my top ten novels of 2017:

1.       Days of Abandonment

2.       The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie

3.       An Officer and A Spy

4.       My Brilliant Friend

5.       Em and the Big Hoom

6.       Ragtime

7.       SS-GB

8.       The Outsider

9.       Epitaph for A Spy

10.   One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Book of the Month: Trumpet (Jackie Kay)

Trumpet is the debut (and so far the only) novel of the British poet Jackie Kay. First published in 1998, Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The protagonist of Trumpet is a renowned jazz musician called Joss Moody. Moody is a famous trumpet player. Joss Moody around whom the novel revolves never speaks directly to the reader because he is dead. As the novel starts the reader learns that Moody has died, leaving behind his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. The world of Jazz music has lost one of its great exponents. However, this is not the only reason why Moody, in his death, is dominating the headlines in the tabloids. In his death Joss Moody can no longer keep the secret he lived with all his life. Moody, who lived life as a man, and was married and adopted  a son, was born a woman. Anatomically, he remained a woman all his/her life.  The discovery of Moody’s true gender attracts lots of unwarranted media attention, complete with prurient speculations about the sex lives (and sexual orientations) of Moody and 'his widow'.

Trumpet  tells Joss Moody's story  through different voices: the funeral director (who discovers the true sex of the famous trumpeter); the drummer in Moody's band; an avaricious journalist who is trying to make a name for herself out of the drama of Moody’s life with the sensitivity of an elephant trampling the jungle in Jumanji;  Millie, Moody’s 'wife', who knew all along that her 'husband' was a woman; and last, but not the least, his son Coleman, who doesn’t know that the man he thought was his father was in fact a woman.

The premise of Trumpet is not as preposterous as it might seem. The novel is based on the life of a real life American Jazz musician called Billie Tipton. Tipton was born a woman—Dorothy Tipton. A piano player, Tipton started her musical career in the 1930s. She used to appear as a man during public performance, but, by 1940, began living as a man even in private. Tipton went on to have a series of relationships with women, some of which lasted for several years. Tipton adopted three sons in the 1960s when 'he' was in a relationship with a woman, and, upon separating from her, carried on living with his three sons who remained blissfully unaware that their father was in fact a woman even when they reached adolescence. The sons became aware of their father’s anatomy when Tipton, at the age of 74 became ill (he had resisted for months going to the hospital) and paramedics were called. Tipton never explained or left behind any note explaining why he chose to live the way he did. It has been speculated that the scene of Jazz music was dominated by men in the 1930s when Tipton started out, and s/he probably felt it necessary to take on the persona of a man in order to have a career. Some of his professional colleagues felt that Dorothy Tipton was a lesbian because during the years when she was appearing as a man only during public performances, she lived with another woman.

Trumpet makes no attempt to explain the fictional Joss Moody’s sexuality. Was Moody a lesbian? A transvestite? A transsexual? Kay is not interested in spelling this out for the readers. Just as Dorothy Tipton, the real life inspiration of Joss Moody, never explained what motivated her to live the most whole life as a man, Trumpet leaves it for the reader to speculate why Moody lived his life the way he did. What Kay is interested in are identity and love, and she explores these themes with great subtlety. On the one hand we have the dead Joss Moody who, for all outward appearances, had no conflict in his mind about his identity, which, to most, would seem more complicated than Christopher Nolan’s Inception; on the other hand there is Moody’s adopted son, Coleman, whose sexual identity is straightforward enough, but who has struggled all his life to come out of the shadow of his famous father, and, not having any musical (or any other skills) to speak of, is drifting in search of an identity. The revelation of his father’s gender triggers a riot of emotions in Coleman’s mind compared to which the Bolshevik revolution was a tea party, and makes his struggle for identity more convoluted. Coleman’s struggle to accept his father for what he was is a powerful strand of the novel. Millie, Moody’s widow, is also grappling with the issue of identity, though there is no confusion in her mind. Millie, who has always known that Joss was a woman, views herself as straight, and does not accept the media’s depiction of her as a lesbian. To Millie it matters not a jot that Joss Moody was anatomically a woman. She loved Joss for what he was. Although not explicitly stated, it is implied that Joss Moody considered himself a man, and that is good enough for Millie. The sections describing the relationship between Joss and Millie are very moving without ever descending into the maudlin. The ending has a twist but it’s not gimmicky.

Trumpet, at its heart, is a love story; but it is also a psychological thriller and an exposition of identity. Jackie Kay is a renowned poet and has an extraordinary feel for language. She knows how to select, what to focus on, how make her characters sparkle and how to make her scenes vivid. The different voices of the novel are handled with great aplomb and are utterly convincing. All—even the slightly stereotypical, unlikeable journalist—are treated with compassion. Not an easy thing to pull off, one would have thought, but Kay manages it.

Trumpet is a wonderful novel. Humane, poignant, wise and insightful, it’s one of those novels that give you a rich sense of satisfaction when you reach the last page.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Demise of Quotation Marks

I recently finished reading Autumn, the recent novel of the British novelist Ali Smith. The novel was short-listed for the 2017 Man-Booker Prize.

I am not planning to review Autumn in this post; I shall do it some other time. Suffice to say that I did not like the novel. It was reasonably riveting in parts; it even brought a smile to my face a couple of time; however, it lacked focus and coherent narrative, I thought.

Smith has a peculiar writing style. Not my cup of tea, I have to say. I have read reviews of Smith’s novels, which are encomiastic of Smith’s narrative style. Smith’s writing is often described as lyrical. I find the sentence structures clunky. Smith sometimes uses words, which, while they broadly convey the accepted meanings, are employed to perform syntactic roles that are unconventional. For example, in Autumn, Smith uses the word ‘maudlin’ as a noun, and not as an adjective which is its accepted role.

I can live with that. Thus when a character in Autumn declares that she is descending into 'the maudlin' I have no difficulty in understanding what is being conveyed.

What I find not easy to countenance is Smith’s use of punctuation marks which could be described, depending on your turn of mind, quirky or maddening. In Autumn Smith has dispensed entirely with quotation marks. I can’t remember whether she has done this in her earlier novels. I had read a novel of Smith a few years ago, the unusually named There but for The. I don’t remember anything about this novel other than that it was (like Autumn) an easy enough read, mildly amusing in parts, but overall, something of a let-down. Perhaps Smith did not use any quotation marks in that novel either.

Smith is not the only novelist who has decided that quotation marks, like NHS and EU-membership, are indulgences the British public can do without (although, throughout Autumn (the novel, that is, not the season) there is an undercurrent of despair at the UK’s exit from the EU, which suggests that Smith is not as much against the EU-membership as against quotation marks). There are other novelists, including some American novelists, who have stopped using quotation marks in their novels.

I don’t know about you, but I find reading books which do not use quotation marks while directly quoting someone irksome. You can argue that the quotation marks are not necessary to indicate a dialogue; anyone with two neurones to rub together will understand a dialogue even when there are no quotation marks. I wold say that quotation marks make it easy and obvious to the reader when a dialogue is being reported or quoted in the book. Absence of quotation marks makes reading a bit more tiring (and tiresome) for me. In Smith’s novel, for example (as in some other novels I have read but can’t remember), a comma serves the purpose of indicating to the reader that the character in the novel is speaking.

I read an article in the Guardian which suggested that the practice of not using quotation marks is relatively recent. The Guardian traced it to an issue of Granta magazine, in 2012, when its then editor, the American novelist John Freeman, decided to remove all the quotation marks in the magazine. Freeman’s purported intention was to make the writing ‘more immediate, more with it’. I have no idea what Freeman meant by this. I also wonder whether Freeman envisaged that some novelists would take to this practice like Damian Green to Internet porn and make a bonfire of quotation marks.

Authors going back as far as the first century have used some or the other symbol to indicate noteworthy text, so I read in the article in the Guardian. The quotation marks as we know them have been used for close to two centuries. They were preceded by double commas to indicate quotations.

Some novelists like Ali Smith are doing away with at least two centuries of conventions when they dispense with quotation marks in their novels. One can only speculate what their intentions are; perhaps, like John Freeman who started this trend, they feel that their writing becomes more direct to the reader when they remove quotation marks. To this reader the writing does not become more direct when quotation marks are removed. It becomes irritating. I am glad that this practice is not widespread.