In Search of Macondo

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There are few places, known to us through literature, that let themselves be re- discovered. One of them is the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the site of some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century- the   novels of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It is easy to fall into the trap of missing the actual place when visiting a place that one has known through literature. This is not true,however, when in Colombia that Gabriel Garcia Marquez made immortal through his works, as a re-fabricator of its facts. Some of his greatest works, particularly his best known work, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ as well as ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and ‘Of Love and other Demons’, derived much from two places that he lived and grew up in- the mofussil, and a rather nondescript town of Aracataca and the colonial city of Cartagena in Caribbean Colombia.

If Latin America found its literary voice in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ it is ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ in which Latin America found its hope and destiny. It was also the book and Macondo, the fictional place inspired by Aracataca, that encapsulated the whole of Latin America. Macondo became a byword for the school of writing that Garcia Marquez came to be associated with- that of magical realism. While his knowledge of Aracataca was deeply personal that of Cartagena was based on his knowledge that he gained while working as a journalist in that city from 1948 to 1955.

Like most readers of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I was bewitched by the place that he created his little universe in the fictitious land of Macondo. Almost three decades after I discovered ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ on a samosa wrapper made from the previous week`s newspaper  drenched in oil, I had the opportunity to visit the town that has renamed itself Macondo, and where reality seems to aspire to its literary image.

In Search of Macondo

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”

 – One Hundred Years of Solitude

The two of us travelled to Cartagena and Aracataca in March of 2019 to discover some of the places where Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works are based. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, affectionately called Gabo in his native country Colombia, shot to worldwide fame with the publication of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in 1967, winning the Nobel Prize for literature fifteen years later. Continue reading “In Search of Macondo”

The Year Gone By – 2018

It has been a year of ‘reading’ audio books and books from the local used book store.

The former has made it possible to ‘read’ books during my drive to work and enabled me to read books that I found difficult to read before. Picking up books from the local used book store has made me discover forgotten or unheard of books, besides the fact that they cost practically nothing.

Audio books have constituted a majority of the books that I ‘read’ this year and the few non- audio books are marked to indicate otherwise (* indicates a paper book and ** an e-book). I have also used ‘listen’ and ‘read’ interchangeably when referring to audio books.

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Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2018”

The Year Gone By – 2017

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.

Random Picks

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. Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2017”

A Decade in Blogging: A literary journey to Latin America-III

south_america2The Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War gives a glimpse of the deep involvement of poets, writers and revolution in Latin America. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes that “It was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”.

Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the warts and subsequent failure.

I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.

Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A literary journey to Latin America-III”

A Decade in Blogging: A Literary journey to Latin America – II

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Map depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 -3 of this post.

(Continued from Part I of the post)

Among the writers who have looked at the impact political dictatorship in suppressing natural human instincts is Manuel Puig (1932-1990). One of the first post-Boom writers, he’s best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Llosa once said about him,

Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig.

The plot of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, Manuel’s first novel in English, is seemingly straightforward. Ramirez, an Argentinian trade union-organizer and revolutionary, is tortured after the military coup in 1976. He manages to find his way to a sanatorium in the United States via a human rights organization and is provided an attendant who takes him around in his wheelchair. The novel is little more than a series of conversations, a continuous stream of dialogue between the two, as the attendant, Larry takes Ramirez around New York. Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Literary journey to Latin America – II”

A Decade in Blogging: A Literary Journey to Latin America – I

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Map depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 -3 of this post.

Latin American Literature is like the Amazon river, massive in its expanse and meandering across many thematic streams. The most well known of these is its association with magical realism and what has come to be called the “dictatorship novels.” But there is more to it. It has explored fantasy, the eternal theme of love as well as that of sexual suppression and, of late, the psychological life of the individual as the collective village communities give way to urban angst.

There is a lot more to Latin American literature than magical realism.

Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Literary Journey to Latin America – I”

A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia

Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. Before I knew it, 10 years of writing the book annual digest on this blog had passed. Reading them makes me nostalgic and occasionally rekindles my interest. At times, my own words sound surprisingly unfamiliar. Taking a view of a decade gives me a perspective that is not discernible when I look back at the end of each year.

Quite a lot of my reading has been at the blurry edges of literature and politics, between paradise and labyrinths. These labyrinths traverse across many lands and times. They have taken me to to places made familiar by past reading- Russia, Hungary, various countries in South America — all places I have visited only via books. In the last decade, a few new countries surfaced on my literary map — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Norway and Bolivia.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

But nowhere feels as familiar a home as Russia does when it comes to literature. The universal themes of Russian literature make us all feel Russian at heart. For me, this started during adolescence and continues to be of interest, though less intensely, in the decades since.

The reason isn’t too far to seek; the classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature. More often than not, it was a means for communicating ideas and philosophical reflections. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes, what with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and forging ahead on the trail. .

If Latin American literature is an Amazonian river, Russian literature is like a constellation providing direction to lost voyagers– as we all are at some point or the other.

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During the last decade, I have journeyed through 20th-century Russia through some of its novelists of this period. Some of the more significant writers that I read in the last decade are Andrey Platonov, Vasili Grossman, Evgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Boris Akunin. What follows is a digest of this journey through my reading lens. Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia”

The Year Gone by- 2014

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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”

Now, who will tell the tale

My obituary on Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6, 1927- 17-April-2014), at DNAIndia.

My Nobel is in the pocket of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” (Carlos Fuentes) said, adding, “the prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez was for my whole generation. We celebrated. We will go on celebrating it.”

With Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death last week, a day before Good Friday, the world lost the most well-known Spanish writer after Miguel Cervantes. Gabo to his admirers, Marquez was the star of the Boom generation of Latin American literature of the 1960s and 70s. At the age of 40, his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude was published. This book catapulted him to world fame, selling 50 million copies worldwide since.

Continue reading “Now, who will tell the tale”

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]

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.

Eric Hobsbawm: An Uncommon Life

Eric Hobswam (1917- 01 October 2012) is no more.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were the years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Hobsbawm’s writings, particularly his 3 volume trilogy  formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

It was the late Mohit Sen who introduced me to Hobsbawm’s works. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to Hobsbawm- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen over the decades.

Both went on to recount those years in their respective biographies, though Mohit must have felt very crestfallen on discovering that Hobsbawm had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, while Mohit  spent considerable ink on his former teacher.

Continue reading “Eric Hobsbawm: An Uncommon Life”

Switching to an ereader

Having prevaricated about using an e- book reader, I switched over to one recently, albeit with an initial skepticism which was soon belied. The Barnes and Noble’s Nook turned out to be quite a charmer.

For one, the Nook enables one to read the numerous books available as pdf files, particularly the ones that are out of print or those for which copyrights have expired. Even the ebooks that are available for purchase are cheaper than the printed ones- a random check at Amazon and BN.com shows that the average price tends to be around $10. Using the calibre e-book management software, converting different formats to the ePub standard is a breeze. Given that a number of newspapers are also available for download, one can read the news without the distracting advertisements.
Continue reading “Switching to an ereader”

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Exasperatingly Long Wait

Five years ago, when the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa was asked his opinion on the possibility of his winning the Nobel prize were, he replied:

“Let us not even think of it…”

Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa’s turn at the Nobel has come in exasperatingly late, when not only him, but many of his admirers had given up on the honour coming his way.

In the words of Carlos Fuentes, when Garcia Marquez (Gabo) won the award in 1982, he won it ‘on behalf of all writers of his generation from Latin America.’ Twenty-eight years later, the Nobel to MVL is a restatement of the recognition that the Amazonian flow of literature from Latin America- during and after Gabo’s generation so richly deserves.

Llosa’s relative lack of recognition in the English-speaking world is probably the reason that I came so late to his writings, a decade after discovering and relishing Gabo’s writings.

A few years ago, while on a short visit to the US, I came across a book on the Zapatistas. In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, the masked Marxist leader Subcommandante Marco explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, despite his ideas.

This last observation flummoxed me. How can an author influence one’s mind despite his ideas?
Continue reading “Mario Vargas Llosa’s Exasperatingly Long Wait”

End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.

Re- experiencing the classics

Even though I could not find Stendhal’s The Red and the Black there, the chance discovery of the Dailylit site (viaVincent McCaffery’s twitter feed), has made me go back to re- reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov with gusto. There are many sites that have for long provided digital books, particularly of out-of-copyright books. I haven’t had a very good experience reading them, unless the books are short enough to be printed on a regular printer and then read later. Reading long texts on MS Word is possible since there is the provision of adding bookmarks. However, it is tedious, and returning to where I left off reading a book is not always possible. What makes Dailylit very unique is it  has the option of sending the text of books in installments, via email but more usefully, as an RSS feed. Since Google reader is part of my daily routine, I find it much more convenient reading a book via the RSS feed. At the end of the feed, there is a link which when clicked posts the next installment into the reader, making it self- paced.

I remember the time when I started reading the Russian classics as a student- they were bought at a Soviet book outlet in Chandigarh, and sometimes borrowed from the local state or university library, then read in a frenzy- sometimes overnight. A regular job now makes it impossible to devote nights, let alone days, to such reading. However, it is still possible to snatch a few moments when I can read during work. The duration of such frenzied reading  is now reduced to  moments stolen between meetings and other such professional hazards- which is why, for me, the possibility of reading via RSS feeds is so exciting.

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”

Why I may switch to an e-reader

My initial reaction to ebook readers like the Kindle and the Sony reader were Luddite. I now feel they were knee jerk as well.

I realized this a few months back when I was relocating from the United States to India for an uncertain length of time. Three boxfuls of books had piled up during a little over four years. Not even half of them had been read. The Hamlet- ian question was whether I should ship them back to India or leave them in the US. Given my indecisiveness regarding where in the world I want to be, I decided to leave them with a friend in the US. It was in those moments between packing and then driving them down to his place that sealed my decision as far as switching to an ereader was concerned. For the very least, I wouldn’t have to lug around these paper versions. For another, I would have access to my books where ever I was. A look at the Sony reader at the local bookstore convinced me of the inevitable, though at $350, the price was still a deterrent.
Continue reading “Why I may switch to an e-reader”

What is the People’s History of the World?

British writer Chris Harman, author of A People’s History of the World (2008) explains in an interview about why he wrote the book at the blog Grits & Roses

I wrote the book out of frustration at the fact that although there were many radical accounts of particular episodes and phases in history, mainly influenced by the insights of Marx and Engels, there was not over-reaching account. In the earlier part of the book the major influence was the Australian archaeologists of the first half of the 20th Century, Gordon Childe. But his account had to be updated to take into account new research by archaeologists and radical anthropologists like Richard Lee and Eleanor Leacock since his death in 1957. For the Roman period there was the writing of St Croix, for India the work of D D Kosambi, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar, for the rise of slavery, Eric Williams and CLR James, for Britain that of Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson, for the French revolution Albert Soboul and Andre Guerin,…and so on.
Continue reading “What is the People’s History of the World?”