Category Archives: Literature

Murakami’s Magical Madness

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

It happens rarely, but when it does, all the effort that reading takes is justified ten times over. Less than 20 pages down while reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I knew I was in company of a mastermind – in all senses of the word.

Murakami has been one of the many authors whom for some reason I just kept ignoring despite intending all the time to read him ‘a little later’. Finally, after Murdoch’s painfully real Under the Net, I needed some respite from reality. Of what I had read about Murakami, I ventured hoping he would give me some. And lo! he did not disappoint; on the contrary he surpassed all expectations.

Murakami is not a fantasy, fairy-tale, or sci-fi novelist, yet he hangs you at the edge of reality throughout the journey of his book. In terms of a sense of the real, it’s niether here nor there. As his protagonist himself wonders while Murakami takes him on a roller coster ride where the next turn is invisible – truth is not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.

The real genius of Murakami lies in the fact that not only does he weave a magical ‘on the edge of reality’ tale but does it in a way that even the skeptics are bound to love this magic. For the cynics who equate life to mathematical certainity, Murakami is the devil. For venturing into the ‘unreal’ with such precision and logical flow would shatter all the conceptions of our mathematical cynics.

Along the fun ride that Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, Murakami plays around with a quite a few difficult themes – marriage, relationships, loneliness, war, reality, existentialism, et all. He deals with such themes as if teasing the reader to go on to a new one. He challenges your intellect and when you respond, he defies your logic in progression of his plot. 

Many compare him to Kafka, but I do not think that is right. I find him to be original. It is true though that if Kafka’s literature had not been witnessed by the world before his, it would be difficult to the critics to understand him. He might have risked the chances of him being dismissed as nonsensical.

In literary fiction, I believe, it is more common to have a story founded on certain very strong characters, plot taking a second seat. However, Murakami’s characters are far from strong. Except the protagonist and a couple of other ladies in his life, the rest of them are just sketches. All focus is on the plot. Characters come and go, abruptly. But in that brief time, they have moved the plot to another level. You need to read him to understand how magically he makes his characters tell the story without, almost, being a part of it. He’s magical. He’s maddening. He’s Murakami

This was my first Murakami and I am already itching for another one. Any suggestions? Kafka on the shore or Norwegian Wood? Or should I jump to Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World?

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Are book-bloggers killing journal reviewers?

Lisa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post has drawn the book-blogosphere into a debate as to whether they are replacing the book-reviewers from journals and magazines. The crux of her piece satirically titled “Will Blogs Save Books?”  is that unprofessional, shabby, opinionated book-blogs are killing the book editors’ jobs as various newspapers are downsizing their book-review sections and laying them off. The piece also implies that this is a blow to literature and the literary culture.

Lissa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post is an expression of professional frustration. The only way

Huffington Post itself is an alternate medium experiment

Huffington Post itself is an 'alternate medium' experiment

 the post is useful is by triggering a debate on an issue that might be of interest to all ‘lovers of literature’ who blog. However, the response to her piece on various blogs has been as disappointing as her piece itself. We bloggers have responded out of sheer anger than logic. There are, however, some exceptions – like this piece at edrants which gives another aspect to the debate, and logically so.

The simple fact is that the purpose served by professional reviews in journals or newspapers and that by book-blogs is different. I may love to read the New York Review of Books and yet want to pick up suggestions from a blog. Moreover, the whole experience of reading a blog and a professional article is different in so many ways that I can not describe them in this post. 

The journals are supposed to carry literary pieces. More than opinion on books, they are an academically researched and reliable overview of a subject, author, or book. On the other hand, blogs carry personalised pieces on what one has read and what thought process such reading might have triggered. An academic piece being opinionated is a hint of bias. On the other hand, a blog without opinion is a man without soul. Reading a blog post about a book or an author you might be interested in at that point in time is like a friend talking to you about something you want to know. How did one come to read a particular book and what his/her family thinks about it would be absurd in a journal but fits perfectly in a blog.

The target audience, purpose, and effect of the two are different and there is no competition here. No one is shifting because of one to the other. Both have there own exclusive readerships, which may overlap. And if there are blogs which have equally literary pieces and are serious about what they do as a professional, then it is just another free and fair competition. If you think its the medium that’s in demand, float a professional blog and post the same well crafted articles here and compete. No points complaining.

Not only does Lisa Warren’s article miss the point altogether but also it is factually and statistically incorrect. It is a blatant figment of her imagination that bloggers mostly link to professional reviews and provide cogent commentary to the same. In my experience of reading literary blogs in the last couple of years, I have rarely found this to be true. It is also understandable why a book publicist is more bothered about this phenomenon than the critics themselves. Because if you can write good pieces, you will find brilliant readership on blogs. However, for a book publicist, the important target audience is the not-so-iclined reader who stumbles upon a review. For that, we are sorry. Be creatvie, think of alternate ways.

And to the frustrated professional outburst of Ms. Warren, my last word – book editors are being laid off because reading habits are dwindling. Majority is no more interested in reading books let alone book-reviews. Book industry as a whole has been facing this problem. It’s not because we bloggers are fooling your readers into shifting their reading habits. Did it ever occur to you that 90% of your readers are these bloggers themselves? Because we are the ones who actually read.

Under the Net of Iris Murdoch

People used to the metro lifestyle would definitely recognise this phenomenon, where you know a stranger quite well and yet he remains a stranger nonetheless. As in, let’s say some guy you have never spoken to, who happens to take the same train or bus every morning for work. There is a similar phenomenon for readers who read about books and reading almost as much as they read the books themselves – an author sounds so familiar as if you have been reading him/her for ages. Whereas, in fact, you may not have read a single word penned by him. At least, this happens to me a lot. To remedy that situation, I have been picking up certain authors at random just because they have been floating in my head for quite sometime. Iris Murdoch happened to be one of them.  

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Under the Net impressed me from the beginnig, however, if I said I was dazzled by the book and it turned out to be one of the best I have ever read, that would be lying trough my teeth. The first reaction at finishing the book was “What was the point?”. However, if you let it sink in, Under the Net does cast a spell, though not as ‘magnificient’ as you may have expected from Murdoch’s only title in the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century List by the Board of the Modern Library (a division of Random House). 

There is nothing ‘fantastic’ about the plot or the characters. On the contrary, all is quite normal. However, probably to add that magical hmour, there definitely are events that you may not expect to experience every day. Having said that, let me add that the element of humour hangs at some little corner throughout the story, even at times when you are made to wonder at some profound implications of certain conversations.

Iris Murdoch’s existential inclinations are well-known. It is my belief that the novel is a marvellous achievement in that respect. It is in the character of youth to be dazzled by the ever prominent struggle between action and ideas in life. Whereas all within feels profound, everything tangible is uninspiring. This gap that has prevented so many potentiatialities from being realized is so vague that to be able to describe it in a story as simlple as this one speaks volumes about not only the literary skills of the author but her clarity of thought.

The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“. This simple sentence is the essence of all that Murdoch has woven the novel around. Throughout the book, there is a mention of ‘extraordinary, profound, and interesting’ conversations between the protagonist and his best friend which just eludes us till the end. This best friend happens to be one of the most interesting characters of the book, and in a frustatingly teasing manner, Murdoch keeps him silent most of the times.

A failure to find inspiration to act has been the nemesis of many great artists and thinkers and many others who never shall reach that stage of recognition so as to be categorised even as a ‘failure’. The life of the ‘ordinary’ in the wake of great potential is probably one of the most difficult. Somewhere on these lines, Murdoch kepps you under her net throughout the journey of this book and when you least expect it, lets you go. Disappointed we sulk and ask – What was the point. Murdoch answers, “The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“.

Contemplating Blake

For quite sometime now, William Blake’s Poems and Prophecies had been Everyman's Library Editionstaring at me from my bookshelf. Therefore, I finally have started reading it. I have finished the Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Each word of Blake seems to be worth contemplating for ages.

My first introduction to Blake’s words was through Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Colin Wilson in this masterpiece not only described the social problem of ‘the outsider’, but also studied the various solutions lived by certain outsiders. One of the solutions was Blake. Blake happens to be one of those first artists who lived what has today become famous as the ‘spiritual religion’. His poems deal quite often with life’s ultimate questions, but with majestic simplicity. Like all artists, ‘truth’ holds a special position for him and after some arguments, he declares as a primary truth – Energy is eternal delight. Complete dismissal of all dogmatic religious practices, Blake lives in his own world where “Man has no body distinct from his soul“. “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake probably was the first of the Prophets amongst the artists.

Every single poem in the collection titled Songs of Experience is a human portrait painted in beautiful words with Blake’s extraordinary insight into human condition. Some lines from the collection as evidence:

(Nurse’s Song): Your spring & your day are wasted in play, / And your winter and night in disguise.

(The Garden of Love): And Priests in black gown were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.

(A Little Girl Lost): Know that in a former time / Love! Sweet Love! Was thought a crime.

I was amazed while reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for itshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/ surprising parallels with Nietzsche’s thought. Energy is eternal delight. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free. Blake’s Energy is Nietzsche’s Pure Will. As Blake says, Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

Finally I leave you with a few lines from my favourite poem by Blake called The Fly. Interpretation of these are mysteriously wide and vague – insights into which are welcome:

If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly
If I live
Or if I die.

A Cat and Mouse Chase (Me and the Holocaust)

Yes, the Nazi genocide has been chasing me. I have no idea why. First, it was the Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Then it was Imre Kertsze’s Liquidation. And now, I just finished reading Gunter Grass’s Cat and Mouse. And as if that was not enough, I ended up watching The Pianist today.

It is not that I want to stay away from the holocaust history – the fact is that I am as far from it as can be. I live in a country where there are not many Jews, none of my acquaintance have anyone who has anyone having faced that trauma. It is also not that i was never aware of (in general terms) what Hitler had done to the Jews. However, for some reason I kept myself away (consciously) from any literature or movie that describes the Jewish execution. It leaves me shaken to the core.

But the cat catches the mouse, sooner or later; only this time I was the mouse. First the books, then the dilemma

The Book Thief is mostly a humane story written with amazing simplicity and originality (imagine Death as the narrator). There is only one Jew character sheltered and loved by a stranger German family. I consider that family as the definition of ‘humanity’. However, you need to read it to understand why I say that. Book Thief is the only book by Zusak that I have read, and if it is representative of his brand of literature, I am simply in awe.

Cat and Mouse turned out to be my introduction to Gunter Grass. I had his Crabwalk lying with me for a long time, but I ended up buying and reading this one straight away. These are the kind of coincidences that make me feel that I have been the mouse in this strange game. I found Grass’s style endearing and personal. For some reason, in all the time that I had been anticipating his literature, I had assumed he will be dry, serious, and effective. Effective and powerful he is, but without the baggage. Through a strange teen-friendship, Grass has plotted the regular life of the youth in Hitler’s Germany during the war – without any bias, without any excess. I am definitely picking up the Tin Drum soon.

Imre Kertsze is different. I think he is in the category of Kafka and Beckett, only with lesser use of metaphors. I hear Liquidation is not one of his best books, but that was the one I stumbled upon, read and loved. He has attempted to characterize ‘holocaust survivor mentality’ as a whole and has tried to negate it. Being a survivor himself, I guess he was aware that it was necessary for the Jews to move on. However, I find myself incompetent to judge whether it is desirable, if at all possible.

And then came the Pianist. All the literature I had read, had never described the Hitler brand of torture. I also know that the three books I have mentioned do not intend in any way to achieve that. However, the Pianist does. I just cannot watch it! I have stopped my DVD thrice by now, and I do not know whether I will end up watching it completely. My head is occupied with a single question – WHY?

Why does holocaust trouble me? I do not live in Europe, not in the US, not even in a country where a single individual might have been directly affected. No Jews live around me. Then, why? Why so much so that I conciously avoid literature and movies related to it? I do not have answers. Probalities, yes. But no answers.

There are another set of Whys, deeper and more troublesome kind. Why did Hitler do it? I can understand a politician in a democracy trying genocide for votes, but why a dictator? It is not even that he gained power through the holocaust, he started it all at his peak – WHY? And why did he not order a shoot-at-sight? Why the methodical execution? Why the gas chambers when one absurd bullet could have done the job? Why? Why?

I have decided that I am done with running from this Cat of the holocaust. I want to read good literature, fiction or non-fiction which gives me a some idea of the those times; and I need suggestions from you. In this Cat and Mouse game, the mouse surrenders. Why? I have too many others to answer.

Albert Camus – The Absurd Hero

I have found Camus’s philosophy to be the most easy to live with, without trying to escape anything. It also allows me ‘intellectual honesty’ in Dostoevskian terms. Anyone who allows himself the luxury to think about the basic questions of life, comes to a point where he asks himself – “What the hell am I doing in life? What is the meaning of all this and what is my purpose? I am a XYZ, is that what I should be? Maybe I am meant to be a writer? Or maybe a philosopher, professor, blah, blah…” I have, like many, faced a similar crisis at one point in my life and (probably) salvaged myself from it. It took some time and the understanding of existentialism to recover from that crisis. And Albert Camus happened to be one of the most important of all authors that I read. His The Myth of Sisyphus gave me the essential understanding to view this world as it is and let go all inhibitions, speculation, and illusions.

In the last one year, I have read too often that Camus was a good author but not much of a philosopher. I have also at times read the comparison where more people agree than differ that Sartre was a better philosopher than Camus. I do not intend to counter that as I think it is naive and irrelevant to compare thinkers like this. All a thinker deserves is a little contemplation from our side on ideas propounded by them. I write this post, therefore, to charter out as an introduction, my understanding of Camus’s thoughts which I have found to be a rare clan as it requires no leaps to understand.

Camus is known as the propounder of the theory of absurd. Absurdism is a often repeated theme in existentialism, however, Camus’s proposition is distinct from all of them. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus undertakes an inquiry into whether this life is worth the trouble if we accept our experiences as the limit of reality for our purposes. He says that man knows two things as certain – first, the fact that man desires order, logic, and happiness; second, the fact that this world is random, illogical, and indifferent. This constant tension or divorce between the actor (man) and his setting (the world) is the absurd. What is essential to know is that irrationality of the world is not the absurd. Absurdity contains man’s rationality in itself. It is precisely the constant co-existence of these two irrefutable realities that create the absurd.

Camus concludes that it is essential for man to maintain the absurd. To attain that man needs to keep intact his contribution to the absurd, i.e. his desire for rationality, order, and happiness. This is the only choice, as changing the given world, man’s setting, is quixotically impossible. Only in light of this can we understand the true import of Camus’s words the end of his famous novel, The Stranger

It was as if the great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

The indifference of this world is indeed benign for that is what makes man free. For, what freedom lies in living out a fate that is pre-determined by some unknowable force? It is a mere consciousness of our reality, of the absurd, that gives man all the understanding needed to scorn fate.

Links to some interesting discussion on Camus I entered elsewhere:

The Magic of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence-even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!‘”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

This is the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ or ‘eternal return’ as introduced by Nietzsche. Though the idea is not an innovation of Nietzsche and was probably first introduced in Greek philosophy by one of the Pythagoreans, its history is irrelevant for the purpose of this post. Also, its scientific validity or its validity as a plausible philosophy is not intended to be debated. Let’s presume for this purpose that it is only a plausible concept with no scientific validity or proof. (Like all mythology or the very concept of God, if I might say so.)

The most obvious and disturbing import of this concept is the weight that it adds to every moment of life. As most succinctly summarized by Milan Kundera in his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being – “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.

In existential terms, the idea raises the responsibility of every choice that man makes by infinity. In Sartre’s philosophy, Man is condemned to be free. In Nietzsche’s, I guess, he is condemned for eternity.

Man’s greatest limitation, in my opinion, is time. Therefore, the birth of the idea of eternity – of god, afterlife, heaven, hell, devil and what not. Our race has had a history of building its self-image in illusions. If death limits – immortality. If time limits – eternity. We have had infinite resources.

If Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is read in context, it is clear that his idea of eternal recurrence was never offered by him to be believed as a factual truth. Neither does he deny the possibility of its factual validity. He introduces it as if from thin air and dwells on it never in detail. No arguments, no explanations – not even an attempt. Probably, this is the reason why the idea has perplexed one and all for ages (I was almost tempted to say ‘eternity’).

On deliberating on it for sometime now, I have concluded that probably Nietzsche left the idea vague only to give it more strength. Paradoxical as it may sound, I am convinced that any attempt to dwell into the truism of an idea as fictitious as this would only serve as suicidal.

It is my opinion that Nietzsche, very cunningly, used eternal return as a tool to serve the rest of his system of ideas. It has been suggested, by none other that Dostoevsky, that if God was dead, everything would be permissible. There would be chaos and confusion and human society would be orderless. Probably as a solution to this, Nietzsche proposed this idea. I guess its true import should be that man must live his life as a first in a cycle of eternal recurrence so that man is compelled to be responsible and careful about every action, each moment. That the failure to act now would be a failure to be faced eternally. In one stroke of the pen, Nietzsche not only made man responsible beyond time but also turned its own illusion of eternity to weigh him down to the ground. He, probably, understood too well the unbearable lightness of being.