Without doubt, the best read of the year was Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, a result of the young Indian journalist’s investigation into the extrajudicial killings of Sohrabbudin and others and its cover up by a network of government functionaries, civil and police officials and the majority of the mainstream media. Indeed, the key change in the last few years has been the throttling of the media as it has become corporatized and aligned with the government in power. Ayyub took on the identity of an Indian American filmmaker to gain access to middle and senior level officials.
Her own employer recalled her just when she was about to get direct access to the Chief Minister of Gujarat (and now the Prime Minister of India), Narendra Modi. The key person allegedly involved in the execution of the extrajudicial killings by the police was the then Home Minister of Gujarat and the current national president of the ruling Hindu right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s not just the courage of the journalist and the depth of her findings but also the breezy narration, which reads like a crime thriller, that makes Gujarat Files such an engrossing read. In more open times, a book like this would have shaken the government.
On a related note, the 84 page booklet The Amit Shah School of Election Management by another young journalist Prashant Jha provides a number of insights on how the far right Modi- Shah election machine continues to roll on- with the BJP being the ruling party in 18 out of 29 states in India this year.
A book I picked up randomly just because I haven’t read recent Russian literature for a while was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. The novel is about the late Soviet period, a time that hasn’t inspired any great works of literature. The Queue is a notable exception. The book is a subtle take on the dreary years of scarcity in the last few years of the USSR and an insightful look into the lives and minds of the ordinary citizens. The absurdity of the situation is revealed in the dramatic end, as funny as it is ironic.
The novel is written entirely in dialogues, a form I have come across only in the works of Manuel Puig. Despite the anonymity and occasional ambiguity of the characters and the situations, the dialogues, and the resulting novel, were eminently readable.
Along The Road; Notes And Essays Of A Tourist by Aldous Huxley, which I picked up at a used books store, is a collection of essays on travel writing from the 1920s. The book, published in 1925, reads decidedly snobbish in places and even has some racist tinges but is still interesting, mainly because of the quaint nature of travelling at the time. Even the language and vocabulary has an old-world colour to it — there are a number of words that have since fallen into disuse – philoprogenitiviness, blackamoors,diplodocus, meridional and ermetic.
The book has a few notable insights and quotable sentences. Sample the following:
Old guidebooks, so out of date as to be historical documents, make excellent travelling companions. An early Murry is a treasure. Indeed, any volume of European travels, however dull, is interesting provided it be written before the age of railways and Ruskin.
There are interesting asides into the writings of Balzac and Chekov and on how differently Joseph Conrad and Catherine Mansfield wrote about the characters that one encounters while travelling:
There are fewer pleasanter diversions than to sit in cafes or restaurants, looking at one’s neighbours and listening to such scraps of their talk as are wafted across the intervening space. From their appearance, from what they say, one reconstructs in imagination the whole character, the complete life history.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano wasn’t good at playing soccer, but he wrote a book that is as fast paced and exciting as the sport as he dribbles his way through a century. Galeano recounts how soccer has been an instrument of politics — against colonialism, racism and class privilege, even as he brings forth the passion of the game’s players and fans. He illustrates this through short and snappy anecdotes and incidents.
In one of the most hair-raising episodes he describes, two Mexican journalists who risked their lives to report the Serbian civil war in 1992 were hauled up by soldiers as suspected enemies. Literally under the gun, one of them pulled out his passport and showed it to the commander, who, the moment he saw “Mexico”, exclaimed “Hugo Sanchez!”, hugged the two men and released them.
As he approaches the later part of the 20th century, Galeano also narrates incidents that show how the game has been commercialized and become a handmaiden of corporate profits. Yet, popular fascination for the game not only survives but continues to thrive.
Much of Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag feels like watching a social drama from the 1950s Indian films — redeemed only by the open-ended twist towards the end. The prose is simple and written in the first-person narrative as it chronicles the transformation of a family that becomes rich, almost overnight, when the younger brother of Appa switches to a business to trade in spices. To those in India (or any other third-world country) who grew up within limited means, many of the intricate descriptions of daily life will sound very familiar.
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra is a short book, structured in the form of multiple choice questions. It’s a sarcastic take on tests in Chile (and elsewhere), part of a schooling that is meant “to train, and not educate.” Innovative as this form is, the collection seems like a sequel to My Documents –– I might have liked the book a trifle better had I not read My Documents. Nevertheless, it is a delightful collection.
In a mere 74 pages, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, builds a little universe around the fancies of Tochtli, the young son of a drug baron in a remote area of Mexico. Even a whim as frivolous as his desire to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus doesn’t stop the reader from turning the pages quickly. This whim turns out to be the primary thread in the child’s evolution from the innocence of his lonely existence to the acceptance, and even celebration, of the macabre subculture of violence, drugs, sex and betrayal that surrounds him. The novella is clearly experimental and is reminiscent of similar short novellas by Cesar Aira, inspired in this case by what has come to be known as “narcoliteratura” or narco literature.
Contesting Marginalisations | Ambedkarism & Social Justice by Vidya Bhushan Rawat has been reviewed in a separate blog post.
FIND of the year: Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The contemporary Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez has been hailed as the finest Colombian writer after Gabo. Both thematically and stylistically, he is poles apart from Gabo. The themes of the four novels that have been translated so far into English are dark, and I must confess, not always easy to read. But there is something addictive about his writings.
Vasquez’s works probe into events related to Colombian history through the memories of his protagonists who are typically intellectuals — lawyers, writers, law academics and journalists.
In The Informers, a young man writes the biography of a woman he has known as almost a family member, and his book draws a highly negative newspaper review from his well-known and respected law academic father. The woman was a Jewish immigrant from Germany in the years before World War II. A few months later, the father dies under mysterious circumstances. The author then begins to probe the infamous episode in the history of modern Colombia, when in the 1940s lists of suspected Nazi sympathizers were prepared at the behest of the US government. This had grave consequences for those on the list, rightly or wrongly.
In Reputations, the central protagonist Javier Mollarino is a cartoonist. At the age of 65, four decades after being with the El Independencia newspaper, he realizes that “his longevity was not a virtue, but an insult: forty years, and nothing around him had changed.” A famous cartoonist whose drawings and words could make an impact on the minds and actions of his countrymen, realizes late in his life that what he perceived to be a dutiful, even courageous act on his part, may have not always been so.
On the other hand, his cartoons might have even inadvertently harmed some individuals while making no overall difference on the politics on the dark and dangerous life in contemporary Colombia.
In The Secret History of Costaguana, Vasquez explores the decolonizing process that includes rewriting the history of a former colony. His fascination with memory continues in this novel, which recasts Joseph Conrad’s novel “Nostromo”, to re-imagine, and uncover, the history of how Colombia lost Panama. This particular book is a bit convoluted as it is non-linear, and in some places there are far too many references to historical figures (generals in particular) and events — a familiarity with Colombian history might help but for readers like me, it is an education, albeit an exasperating one at times.
The latest work of Vasquez available in English is the novel, The Sound of Things Falling, where a promising 26-year-old law lecturer makes an acquaintance with an older man at one of the many billiards clubs in Bogota in the late 1990s. What follows is a devastating account of the evolution of the drug trade in the early 1970s and its lasting and contradictory impact, as poor but ambitious young men and women were sucked into its vortex, lured by the promise of easy money.
One looks forward to the translation of Vasquez’s La Forma de las ruinas (The Form of the Ruins), published in Spanish last year.
Many years ago, I read War and Peace in something like six months. This year too, I spent six months reading … a short story. Only, this 40-page story, part of the collection (Cuentos del Abuelo or Grandfather’s Tales) by Guadamiro Rancaño López narrated by a grandfather to his three grand daughters is in Spanish.
Having started learning the language sometime back, I took this as a logical next step thinking it was time to start reading children’s books instead of boring lessons. I couldn’t have been more naive. The book (of which I could just complete one short story this year), uses advanced vocabulary and grammar. It turned into a grilling but very educative experience, thanks to a native Spanish speaking friend who guided me through it.
Subsequently, I found a series of graded books at the local library- and thanks to having read Abuelo’s story, reading these has been a breeze. The series I read over the last couple of months is by Jordi Surís Jordà (La chica del tren, El secreto de las flores, Trapos Sucios) and a similar one Vaccciones del sol by Lourdes Miquel López.
Beginning to read and understand a new language is in some ways beginning to read and understand for the first time and experience the thrill of falling in love with books all over again.
My planned reading list for 2018.