The Year Gone By – 2016

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Over the last few days, the lawn outside my window has alternately been painting itself in green and snow white. As I get down to write this post, a few names conjure up. There is no immediate reason for this. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the green grass gives away temporarily to the snow. Some writers and writings are like that.

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My Documents by Alejandro Zambra was without doubt the most invigorating book I read this year. It’s a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. All the stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile, the characters being usually unsuccessful men. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see how Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired by the experience. The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. (longer review here)

After-Dinner Declarations Nicanor Parra
I had not read Nicanor Parra before so it was quite a revelation to read the works of perhaps the oldest living poet who advocated “anti- poetry”.
Here are a couple of poems from the collection: Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2016”

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Fragments of a life

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra (2015)22542595

My Documents by the Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, is a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. It wasn’t until I read the fourth story that I realized that the book wasn’t a novel, but a set of interrelated short stories. There are a number of reasons why it is so.

All stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile. The characters are usually unsuccessful males — drug and porn addicts, wife beaters, men unsuccessful in love and work. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s name, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see that Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired. Continue reading “Fragments of a life”

Where did the Indians go?

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Statesbhupinder
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Beacon Press (2015)

In my many years of professional life in the US and Canada, I have worked with people from many nationalities but not encountered even one Indigenous person.

As I read through Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, it became easier for me to understand why this is so.

Dunbar-Ortiz delves into the history that is missing from the mainstream US history’s obsession with biographies of great men. Dunbar-Ortiz contends that the depopulation of the Indigenous people from around 100 million when Columbus reached the place was not just the result of diseases that the Europeans brought to the Americas, as is commonly perceived.

It is her well-argued conviction that it was the result of a genocide carried over the last five centuries.

Read the full review at Cafe Dissensus

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Discreet Hero (2015) is one of the most readable and among his more optimistic novels in recent years, thoughthediscreehero his own claim that it is his “most optimistic novel” is a bit of an overstretch. The optimism may have more to do with Llosa’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, for one cannot ignore that a deep pessimism is instrumental in building the plot of this novel.

In his style familiar to his avowed readers, there are two alternating stories in the novel revolving around three sets of fathers and sons, sucked into a grim vortex of blackmail, threats and intimidation. Two stories of intrigues that are as fast moving as a soap opera and keep the reader glued to the pages, follow.

Common Threads

While the life stories of each of the men are different in many ways, what unites them is the disappointment that their sons turn out to be. The optimism of the hard-working fathers is offset by the pessimism of their descendants. The perceived optimism is limited to that of the two businessmen fathers enriched during Peru’s neoliberal upturn in the 1990s. Continue reading “The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies”

Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Capital: the Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta

Katherine Boo Capital

“He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent, yet beautiful at the same time?”

Chris Abani

Quoted in “The Planet of Slums” by Mike Davies

India’s recent spurt in urbanization pales in comparison with that of China, where the urban population has increased from 26% in 1990 to 50% in 2010. During a similar 20 year period India’s urban population went up from 25% to 31%. However, it is a significant shift when seen in the context of the pace of the preceding 90 years — it took 90 years for it to increase from 11% in 1901 to 25% in 1991.

According to a recent report, an astonishing 49% of India’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the super rich.

Behind these statistics are the lives of the people and individuals who are living through these transformative years. Two recent books, focused on the two largest cities in the country–Delhi and Mumbai, explore these lives in the times of this transition.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is by an American journalist, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo married to an Indian and the other Capital: The Eruption of Delhi is by the British-born writer of Indian descent, Rana Dasgupta, who is married to an Indian as well and now lives in New Delhi. The contrast between the two books is remarkable- Boo explores the lives of the poor in one of Mumbai’s slums while Dasgupta converses with the rich and super rich of the country’s capital city.

Katherine Boo’s tells us the humane stories that we just don’t hear any longer in the mainstream media or even popular cinema. The characters in Boo’s book live in Annawadi. This Mumbai slum of 335 huts and 3,000 residents is next to the international terminal and surrounded by four 5-star hotels, is home to people segregated by boundaries of caste and community. There is a Tamil dalit community in one part, a Maharashtrian in another and a Muslim section, all cramped into the one acre area. Continue reading “Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city”

The Year Gone by- 2014

         9780670085095    

        

2014 for me was the year of reading long e-books, on Kindle as well as books borrowed from the local library using Overdrive. I finished not one, but 3 books, each more than 300 pages long. For someone who has struggled for the last few years to use an e-reader, it is a feat in itself.

The most important book of the year was undoubtedly “Kanshiram” by Badri Narayan, and the first long book read on the kindle app.

The biography was long overdue about the man who single handedly was responsible for changing the face of North Indian politics and bringing Dr BR Ambedkar to the center stage. The lingering image that I have carried from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar is when he spent a night under a tree because, despite his appointment to the court of the prince of Gaikwad, no one in the town was willing to rent out a house to him because of his belonging to the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste.

The image that I carry from Badri Narayan’s book is that of Kanshiram sitting on a stack of the paper that he brought out and carried around on trains scouring the length and breadth of the country.

On a related note, “The Chamcha Age” by Kanshiram (available as a free pdf), was an eye opener. This is the closest to a ‘theoretical’ tract that Kanshiram ever wrote and provides a glimpse into his critical take on contemporary Dalit politicians and the subsequent praxis of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Continue reading “The Year Gone by- 2014”

Kanshiram- Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan: A Review

9780670085095Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan Published by Penguin India 2014

Dalit politics in the late 20th century India owes its rise to the vision and work one man–Kanshiram.

The bedrock for this movement was laid in the mid-20th century by its tallest leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Despite his brilliance and lifelong commitment to the cause of the dalits, Dr Ambedkar had been largely forgotten in the national consciousness till the rise of the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and then the Bahujan Samaj Party- both creations of one man, Kanshiram.

Born in a Ramdasia Sikh family in Punjab, Kanshiram was named after a local baba who apparently predicted that he would grow up to be a big leader. He grew up more or less unaffected by the stigma that his caste was subjected to in most of the country.

Kanshiram’s eyes opened to the reality of caste oppression when he was employed with a government research laboratory in Pune. Spurred by the extant Dalit movement, primarily led by the Mahars in Maharashtra, he went on to dedicate his life to the cause that he took upon himself. He decided not to marry or have any relations with his family. His encounters with his family back in Punjab were sporadic, and interspersed over many years. For a long time, his parents and siblings did not know his whereabouts.

There is limited first-hand information about Kanshiram–he left behind no autobiography or work except a very short pamphlet titled “The Chamcha Age.” Badri Narayan has collected the facts of Kanshiram’s life from accounts of some of his associates and later, with the BSP’s emergence as a major political force in the late 1980s, from the media. Continue reading “Kanshiram- Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan: A Review”

The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos

The Book of Lamentations51ZXl5Fj7ML._SL500_AA300_[1]

Translated by Esther Allen, Marsilio Publishing 1996 pages 400

Exactly twenty years ago, the world became aware of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Though the immediate reason for the revolt was the NAFTA treaty that opened the floodgates for US-manufactured goods into Mexico, it was one among a series of previous revolts in the area since the 18th century. Rosario Castellano’s farewell novel before her death at the age of 49 in 1974 is based on these revolts and located in the early 20th century. The title of the novel recalls the Jewish text also called The Book of Lamentations,a collection of poetic laments about the destruction of Jerusalem.

The proclamation of land reforms by the PRI party in early 20th century forms the background to the events depicted in the novel. Spurred on by an honest and gritty land inspector, Fernando Ulloa and the millenarian prophecies of an Indian woman, Catalina Diaz Puilja, the indigenous Tzotzil-speaking Mayan people of the region rise up against the Ladinos, the landowners of Spanish descent. The end is a bloody defeat of the rebels and Fernando’s calamitous death at the hands of the Ladinos- led by Leonardo Cifuentes, the devious representative of the land-rich ranchers. These three characters form the fulcrum of the story, though there are at least a dozen important characters in the novel.

Continue reading “The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos”

The Year Gone By- 2013

2013 is the year when I discovered Mo Yan- who won the 2012 Nobel prize for literature. (Shifu , You’ll do anything for a laughLife and Death are Wearing me out, and Red Sorghum). Red Sorghum, the Nobel winner’s first novel is somewhat a let down compared to the other two later books that were reviewed earlier this year on this blog.

Everything Flows by Vasili Grossman, one of my favourite 20th century authors did not disappoint. It is at least as brilliant, if not more than his longer and more well known Life and Fate, considered to be the War and Peace of the 20th century.

Khrushchev on Khrushchev, a chance discovery at a down town used books sale, was a wonderful find. The first part that dealt with the days of Nikita Khrushchev are well described by his son, Sergei, giving a human touch to a very significant part of the Soviet and world history. The events leading to the secret speech against Stalin and the subsequent overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev by the neo- Stalinist brigade are described from a keen memory that remembered small and significant details all through the intervening decades. The book was published in 1990, towards the end of the Soviet rule.

The mediocrity the of the Stalinist gang that overthrew was well represented by the sullen face of Brezhnev. But, as Nikita Khrushchev on the eve of the coup observed- there had been a fundamental shift in Soviet society by the time he was forced out of office.

I have done the main thing. Relations among us, the style of leadership, has changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore, and suggesting that he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear’s gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.

The levels to which the administration went to bug the Khrushchevs’ house and movements look both ludicrous and naive-  particularly as the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s snooping were coming out at the time I was reading this book. The Soviets did the same thing – just more clumsily with a primitive technology.

Down and Out in London and Paris by George Orwell was a failed attempt at re- reading a book that I had enjoyed a lot the first time but did not find it to be the same on a second reading.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an accidental and interesting find, did not hold much interest after a few pages. I would have liked to read it when I was a teenager, and perhaps in Urdu rather in English in which the language is far too ornate. The long and bulky work is considered to be the Indian equivalent of the Thousand Nights.

I read a lot more online this year but reading on a screen is not the easiest mode for the long form- there is too much of a temptation to read shorter articles.

Unfortunately, these don’t make for an annual review of reading, they are easier on the twitter river on the side bar or the face “book”. Yet, I would like to single out these two review essays (both on contemporary Chinese literature) to end this post:

Prison Notebooks and Chinese Whispers- Contemporary Chinese literature through an Indian lens.

[Read posts from past years in this series]

An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan

Long novels tend to wear out the reader, and this one was no exception. Yet I ended up reading Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. In the process, I came to not only respect Mo Yan’s talented writing, but also gained a view of China through the second half of the long 20th century. On a side note, it is quite ironical that what is a very long read, took Mo Yan just 42 days to write, that too by hand since he doesn’t use a computer.

Mo Yan’s writing is humorous as he recounts the ups and down of Chinese history–starting with the Revolution on 1st January 1950 and ending the novel on 1st January 2000. It is not only the turn of the millennium but also a time when China firmly and decisively, veered towards a capitalist future.

Mo Yan’s writing is a page turner, as he gallops through a very grim part of China’s recent history. The writing is marked by a humorous, even comical touch. The style is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Especially in the long middle, the narrative is quirky, marked by tangential diversions and exaggeration. While Garcia Marquez’s style came to be known as magical realism, I would term Mo Yan’s as “comic realism” (I couldn’t find the term on Google, so I may claim some originality for coining it!), given the humour with which the novel bustles. Continue reading “An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan”

Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, is the nome de plume of Guan Moye- the name “Mo Yan” literally means “Don’t Speak.” Apparently, Guan  Moye was so talkative as a child that his mother repeatedly commanded, “Don’t Speak.” So, when Guan Moye decided to become a writer, he adopted Mo Yan as his nome de plume.

It says much about today’s China when Mo Yan explains why he decided to become a writer. He was once told by a student sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution that writers make a lot of money, so he decided to put his gift of the gab to a profitable use. That is how Mo Yan became one of China’s most loved living writer.

The collection of stories in the book under review, Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh, contains 7 of the writer’s stories written over several decades.

The title story is about Ding Shikou, a worker who has been fired from his job just a week before his retirement. In the new capitalist China where making money by hook or crook is as acceptable as for a worker to be laid off close to retirement, Ding Shikou finds opportunites to make money in an abandoned bus  hidden among the vegetation near a beach resort. Observing that young couples often do not have enough privacy at the beach, he starts to rent out the bus after furnishing it with a bed and providing cold drinks to couples- young and not so young. Soon, he has a roaring business. Towards the end of the story, his conscience comes back to gnaw at him. This is by far the best story in the collection, marked by touches of magical realism.

Continue reading “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan”

The Year Gone By- 2012

This post should really have been titled The Seven Year Glitch, for the continuous lack of anything worthwhile that this blog had to share for this reading year. But if it isn’t titled that way, it is because just as I was contemplating this year’s “Gone By” post, snowflakes were falling outside my window, and there was a book that was warming me up. Hope was springing.

But first, here is the small list of the books I read, or attempted to read this year:

The Walk by Robert Walser: Though barely 90 short pages long in a pocket sized edition  I haven’t reached the halfway mark yet. The style is familiar, and though it isn’t as tepid as The Robber that I read last year, it is yet to give the same feel The Assistant with its exquisite prose.

The Dream of the Celt by Llosa, Mario Vargas. This book makes it to the maiden review at this blog  in 2012 though I must add that it is because of the blogger’s devotion to Mario Vargas Llosa rather than the quality of the book. Continue reading “The Year Gone By- 2012”

The Dream of the Celt

The Dream of the Celt, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel published in Spanish in 2010, and whose English translation appeared earlier this year, recounts the life of Sir Roger Casement in the earlier part of the 20th century. Born of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Casement served the British Empire well enough to be honoured with the title of ‘Sir’. His life, however, ended tragically when he was executed by the same British state in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland.

As a 20-year-old, Roger Casement joined the International Congo Society’s (AIC) operations in the Congo in Africa. A fervent believer in the idea that the West was spreading civilization across the world, his ideas underwent a transformation when he was exposed to the brutalities the AIC–owned by the Belgian King Leopold II–was committing to further his interests in the extraction of rubber in that part of the world.

Roger Casement prepared a report strongly indicting the rubber company and hence the Belgian monarch. This report led to Roger Casement’s recognition as a great liberator of the Congolese people. He was subsequently sent to South America to investigate the treatment of natives. His report had a devastating impact, and the Peruvian Amazon Company that was responsible for the atrocities was forced to close down.

His fame had, by then, spread to all echelons of British society, and Sir Roger Casement was offered a diplomatic post as the British ambassador to Brazil. It was then that he made a surprising decision. He turned down the offer and instead decided to return to Ireland and dedicate his life to the freedom from the very colonial power that he had served until recently. Continue reading “The Dream of the Celt”

Knowing the Turf

During the last twenty years, there has been a parallel discourse on the economic and social developments in India. On one hand, the votaries of economic ‘reform’ do not tire of singing paeans to what they perceive to be an economic miracle that has transformed India into an economic power. This hunky dory narrative has been consistently challenged by numerous counter narratives, in the shape of numerous studies and in a more accessible manner, by journalists, activists and writers who have reported heart wrenching stories from the ground- P. Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought (1996), Siddhartha Dube’s Words without Freedom (1998), my friend Rahul Banerjee’s ‘A Romantic among the Bhils‘ (2009) readily come to mind.  To this literature Annie Zaidi’s Known Turfis a welcome addition.The book has seven sections, dealing with bandits in Chambal, chai, poverty in Madhya Pradesh and UP, contemporary Punjab, Sufism, the writer’s ruminations on what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary India and ending with the writer’s activism with an urban feminist group and an understanding of what feminism means for her. It is interesting that the the book should begin with fiction- the story of the Chambal dacoits, take the readers from fiction to fact as it were and end with the author’s discovery of her what she calls her turf.
Continue reading “Knowing the Turf”

Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone- a review

Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone by Satnam, translated by Vishav Bharti- a review.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté (a local drink) and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’

– Che Guevara, describing the life of a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata. (The Motorcycle Diaries)

At the age of 23, Che undertook a journey on a motorcycle across South America and wrote a journal based on it. The journal was published in a book form titled The Motorcycle Diaries a decade or so back. Satnam’s Jangalnama could well be a sequel to that book, written in the context of the Red India, as the Maoist controlled belt has come to be known.

There are differences, of course. Che was young, fresh out of medical college. He rode a motorcycle and was essentially on an adventure tour during the course of which he got to see the underbelly of South America and about which he wrote so eloquently. This journey was part of his education in becoming a revolutionary soon after.
Continue reading “Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone- a review”

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography by Francis Wheen

Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen (2008, Manjul Publications, India, Rs. 195)

Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx, published in 2001, was probably the first one to be published after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ‘existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe. He has now written a ‘biography’ of Marx’s magnum opus Das Kapital. Wheen’s central point is that Capital needs to be seen, above all, as a work of art.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorized as a work of economics, Karl Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations of underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world that they inhabit- a world in which humans are  enslaved by the monstrous power of inanimate capital and commodities. (page 7)

Continue reading “Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography by Francis Wheen”

‘Same Same but Different’

peeppeep-fullcoverPeep Peep Don’t Sleep
Author: Ajay Jain
Kunzum
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 350, US $19.95, UK £11.95

Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

By Bhaswati Ghosh

We thought travel was about visiting places, soaking up the atmosphere of new territories, and relishing the journey. Who could have known Road Signs could be part of the travel entertainment package as well? Yes, Road Signs, those inevitable pointers along the way that we take no more seriously than empty coke cans strewn across the terrains we travel through.

Welcome then, to the world of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian agency responsible for construction and maintenance of all roads in areas along India’s borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. For, BRO, with its BROtherly (even fatherly at times) attitude, can turn the toughest of driving trips along India’s edges into the funniest. Many a traveler journeying through these often rugged stretches must have enjoyed a smirk or four reading BRO’s imaginative Road Signs. Author-journalist Ajay Jain has, however, done a favour to those of us who are yet to grab the fun for ourselves. With his book, Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep.

Continue reading “‘Same Same but Different’”

Indira Goswami: Out of the Shadow of Kamakhya

It is very heartening when writers in Indian languages receive international recognition. The award of the Principal Prince Claus Award to Indira (Mamoni Raisom) Goswami (link via Aruni Kashyap) is therefore quite  a joyful occasion. My own reading of this outstanding Asomiya writer goes back to her major novel The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker, located in the Assam of the 1950s. Another one is Pages Stained with Blood that is a pretty courageous short novel in the backdrop of the 1984 anti- Sikh pogrom. My admiration for her literary power is highest , however, for the collection of short stories The Shadow of Kamakhya, that was reviewed in an earlier post and re- appears below. Continue reading “Indira Goswami: Out of the Shadow of Kamakhya”

The Assistant by Robert Walser

The Assistant was first published in 1907 in German and has been translated for the first time in English by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions last year.

It caught my eye when I saw a reference to Kafka in a blurb about the novel. Apparently Kafka admired Robert Walser, and looked forward to his writings each week. After a spate of novels and short stories, Walser’s writing career ended quite grotesquely when in 1928, he was admitted to a mental asylum, where he was confined till his death in 1956. He is supposed to have remarked to one of his visitors that ‘I am not here to write, but to be mad’, a statement that to my mind makes his madness suspect. As in the case of all those who blossom early but are then ill fated, he leaves behind a sea of mournful conjectures of smothered possibilities.The Assistant is marked by a minimalist plot. Josef Marti- an alter ego of Walser when Walser himself worked a similar job once- joins an entrepreneur to work as his assistant. A veritable Man Friday, he helps out in the household chores as well. The novel follows Marti’s days as the entrepreneur falls into decrepitude, and his enterprise fails to take off. Marti is not paid for months but lives with the family and shares their bourgeois lifestyle, even if it is lived on borrowed money.The novel is an ode to the little man, the minor character of the everyday wage worker, a clerk in Walser’s time but could be anyone who works for a living and has someone or the other for an often domineering boss.

If the plot is minimalist, the action is still more so. Indeed, the lack of action in the novel might have been nauseating were it not for Walser’s exquisite prose peppered with insights into human behavior that transcend a century between when it was first published and now. I was constantly reminded of Anton Chekhov’s deep humanism while reading the book, especially of a story called The Clerk, though there are obvious differences between Chekhov’s short story and Walser’s novel. Chekhov’s clerk Ivan Tchervyakov is a self- effacing and apologetic character who tragically dies when he is unable to get a forgiveness from a general on whom Ivan had inadvertently sneezed in a theater. Marti, on the other hand, has a series of intermittent and hesitant bouts of rebelliousness, ending in his parting of ways with his financially ruined employer.

Yet, the concern for the small man and the travails of everyday life are the same in both the stories. Vasiliy Grossman, in one of the more unworthily obscure novels of the last century, Life and Fate, had remarked that Chekhov was the most democratic writer among the Russian classic writers. Walser, at least in this work, certainly shares a similar honor.

“Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice”, Walser observes at one point when describing the children in his employer’s household. Elsewhere, when Marti’s employer Tobler is presented with yet another bill that he cannot pay, Walser describes it quite imaginatively thus:

The steep amount presented in this bill was so clearly expressed in the furrows on Tobler’s brow, expressed with almost mathematical precision, that one might have been asked to read the exact figure presented there.

Marti has, at one time, even had a brush with the most modern and provocative ideas of his age- socialism. They, however, hardly spark his imagination or make any impact on his mind and life. Great ideas, great movements of history, even great moments in life bypass the inhabitants of the Tobler household, yet there is a magic of life that weaves itself through the routine banter and the changing seasons.Cross Posted at desicritics
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Read an excellent review here, and via the same site, a wonderful blog dedicated to Robert Walser.